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Exploring Critical Sociological Thinking

Author(s): Liz Grauerholz and Sharon Bouma-Holtrop

Source: Teaching Sociology, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 485-496
Published by: American Sociological Association
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Teaching Sociology.

Much has been written about enhancing students' critical thinking abilities,
but very little empirical research on this important learning outcome exists
within the sociological literature. Indeed, there is little consensus among sociologists (and non-sociologists) about what critical thinkingis. In this paper we
review ways in which sociologists have conceptualized and measured critical
thinkingand introduce a new concept--critical sociological thinking--that embodies the type of higher-level thinking many sociologists want to help students attain. Criticalsociological thinkingrefers to the ability to logicaly and
reasonably evaluate an argument or problem while maintainingan awareness
of and sensitivity to social forces and contexts. Further, we develop a scale
that can be used to measure critical sociological thinkingand demonstrate its
usefulness in the empiricalanalysis of student writing. Implicationsfor future
research and teaching are discussed.



Purdue University

Purdue University

and common

sen (2003a), and discipline-specific critical

thinking, as discussed by McPeck (1985),
we introduce the concept of critical sociological thinking to describe the type of critical thinking of particularinterest to sociologists-critical thinking with a sensitivity to
and awareness of social and cultural contexts. Data from a study of student writing
are presented to demonstrateways in which
critical sociological thinking can be measured empirically and used to assess student

learning goals in sociology is enhancing

students' critical thinking abilities
(Goldsmid and Wilson 1980), yet empirical
research and theoretical clarity on this important learning outcome is sorely lacking
(Baker 1981; Geertsen 2003a). Without
such research, we remain at a loss to determine whether certain teaching techniques
effectively enhance such learning, whether
some are more effective than others, or if
their effectiveness varies by student, group,
or institution.
In this paper, we explore ways in which
critical thinking has been used theoretically
and empirically primarily within the sociological literature and attempt to clarify its
meanings. Building upon the concepts of
referentialthinking, as introducedby Geert-


Critical thinking seems to be much like

good art: we know it when we see it, we
have some sense of how we might encourage or even teach it, but we are not sure
authorswouldlike to thankReedGeert- how to assess or measure it. Certainly, the
sen, JanetWilmoth,JohnBean and the anony- concept has been overused and imprecisely
mousreviewersfor theirinsightfulcommentson defined. Baker's (1981:359) claim more
earlierdraftsof this paper. Please addressall than 20
years ago that "critical thinking is
to Liz Grauerholz,Department one of those buzz words which seems to
of SociologyandAnthropology,
PurdueUnivermean just about anything to anybody" still
rings true today. Among those who do ate-mail:grauer@sri.
Editor's note: The reviewers were, in tempt definitions, there is considerable variability (Geertsen 2003a). For instance, critialphabetical order, Reed Geertsen, Priscilla
cal thinkinghas been defined as:
Reinertsen,and Norma Shepelak.
Teaching Sociology, Vol. 31, 2003 (October:485-496)




learningnames for the world's objects and evidenceor to be creative;and macro-level

skills. (Goldsmid values, such as a commitmentto fairness.
Geertsen (2003a) reviews various ways in
which critical thinking has been conceptual...theabilityto createlogicalargumentsbased ized
dating back to John Dewey. Similar to
on the "sociologicalimagination."
Dewey, he distinguishes between critical
thinking, which involves more confirmatory
...the processof reasonablydecidingwhatto processes such as corroborating evidence
do and/orbelieve. (Dorn, cited in Greenand and narrowing perspectives, and reflective
Klug 1990:465)

thinking,which involves a broadeningof

perspectives. Geertsen (2003a) suggests that

of "deepprofessionalcompe- critical
thinking and reflective thinking, in
tence and sophisticatedethical judgment." their
many forms, represent higher-level
thinking: "I believe the appropriate um...identificationof ambiguityand its role in brella term for all types of extraordinary
reasoning,...discoveryof assumptions and thinkingis higher-levelthinking"(p. 8).
Geertsen (2003a) further identifies six
value conflicts,... evaluation of eviof logic,...examination
of dimensions of higher-level thinking, each of
of sig- which involves both critical and reflective
...generatingal- thinking. For example, one dimension of
of a
higher-levelthinking is strategicthinking
reasoned judgment. (Browne and Litwin
(thinking that is oriented toward applica1987:384)
tion), which includes decision-making critical and creative inquiry". (critical thinking) and problem solving
(Shepelak, Curry-Jackson, and Moore (reflectivethinking).
Although educators are likely to welcome
all forms of higher-level thinking in their

Otherssimplybypassthe questionof defin- students, Geertsen (2003a) suggests that

ing critical thinking altogether while claiming to have found ways to enhance "it"
(e.g. Zeller 1988).
Several scholars have attemptedto synthesize the literature on critical thinking. Ruminski and Hanks (1995:5) suggest that
despite disagreement over how critical
thinking should be defined, most experts
agree that "critical thinking includes skills
in applying, analyzing, and evaluating information." In his review of the literature
on critical thinking, Baker (1981:328) suggests that critical thinking is usually conceptualized in two ways: as a "problem-solving
process" and as a process of "deductive
logic and argument analysis." Similarly,
Dorn (cited in Green and Klug 1990) suggests that critical thinking involves microlevel intellectualabilities and skills, such as
the ability to clarify issues and identify
value assumptions; macro-level dispositions, such as a predisposition to ask for

certain types of higher-level thinking are

more importantto different disciplines.

Medicalprofessionals,for example,need to
be proficientin strategicthinking;that is,
decision making and problem solving:
Doctors are expectedto understandand use
establishedproceduresfor diagnosing and
diseases;if theydo not,
a malpracticesuit is likely to follow. In other
words, they must make correct decisions
withinthe parametersof establishedmedical
into play when doctorsencountersymptoms
thatdo notrespondwell to existingtreatments.
This ambiguitycalls for a consideration
of a
broaderrangeof possibilities(Geertsen2003a:
Although many scholars argue that critical
thinking involves abilities and skills that can
be applied to any problem or subject matter
(e.g., Paul 1993; Wade and Tavris 1993),



Geertsen (2003a) recognizes that certain are particularlyinterestedin teaching. Intypes of thinkingabilitiesare requiredfor deed, some sociologistshave addressedthe
different disciplines. Similarly, McPeck connection between critical thinking and
(1990; 1985) argues that critical thinking sociological imagination. For instance,
cannotbe taughtoutsideof a specific sub- Bidwell (1995:401)connectsthe sociologiject area. For McPeck, critical thinking cal imaginationto criticalthinking,suggestinvolvesa knowledgecomponent(a collec- ing that "sociologistsmust design assigntion of discipline-basedskills and informa- mentsthatallow studentsto thinkcritically
tion)anda criticalcomponent(the abilityto in writing about personalexperiencesand
reflect on and question that knowledge). social events."Greenand Klug (1990:462)
Thus,criticalthinkingin sociologydoes not suggestthatcriticalthinkinginvolves "such
necessarilytranslateinto critical thinking things as the abilityto createlogical arguwithinanotherdiscipline.
ments based on the 'sociologicalimaginaGeertsen(2003a)suggeststhatthe type of tion' andto supportthoseargumentsempirithinkingof particularrelevanceto sociology cally." In exploringthe connectionbetween
is referentialthinking.One partof referen- multicultural
educationand the sociological
tial thinkingconsists of conceptualizing,a imagination, Thompson and Tyagi
process of critical thinking that involves (1993:195-6)proposethat "[u]ltimatelythe
identifying multiple examples, analyzing sociologicalimaginationwill be fully develexamplesfor commonalities,distinguishing oped through the ability of multicultural
examplesfromnon-examplesand determin- educationto train studentswho can critiing the underlying conceptual structure. cally examine the relationsbetween indiuses analyticalthinkingto viduals and their society and can question
considerhow multipleexamplesof a con- powerrelations...."Othershave referredto
cept can be brokendown into theircompo- "sociologicalthinking"or "criticalpedanentpartsto identifykey commonattributes gogy" which contain aspects of critical
of the concept(Geertsen2003b). The sec- thinking and social critique (Stoecker,
ond type of referentialthinkingis contextu- Mullin,Schmidbauer,
andYoung 1993).
We suggestthat sociologists'interestsin
alizing, a reflective thinkingprocess that
involves identifying linkages between an differenttypes of critical thinkingcan be
immediateproblemand larger social con- broadly encompassed under the term
texts. Contextualizinginvolves using vari- "criticalsociologicalthinking."We prefer
ous examplesof how a particularconcept this term to Geersten'sreferentialthinking
takeson multiplelayers of meaningin lar- because it explicitlyhighlightsthe imporger contextswhile still retainingits essential tance of sociological knowledge and the
definingattributes(Geertsen2003b). Geert- sociological imaginationin making judgsen's notion of contextualizingembodies ments about the social world. In other
Mills' conceptof the sociologicalimagina- words,criticalsociologicalthinkingis not a
tion. Accordingto Geertsen(2003a:13):
broadthinkingprocessapplicableto different disciplines. It requires sociological
thereflective knowledgeand skills and the abilityto use
thinkerto see thatmanyprivatetroublesare this knowledgeto reflect upon, question,
of unresolved
publicissuesand and judge informationwhile also demontherebyembracespart of what C. Wright stratinga sensitivityto and awarenessof
Millscallsthe sociological
social and cultural contexts. While it involves a combination of the types of thinking described by Geersten (2003a) as critical
judging and referentialthinking in that it
Geertsen's (2003a) notion of referential
both conceptual judging (narrowed
thinking speaks to the type of disciplineand contextual judging
specific, higher-level thinking sociologists
(expanded perspectives), critical sociologiis, it directsthe thinker'sattentionto the bigger picture....



cal thinking is discipline-specific critical


Despite the ambiguity and overuse of the
term critical thinking (as seen in the previous section), there has been much more
theoreticalwork on this topic than empirical
investigation. In Paul Baker's (1981:326)
insightful article on critical thinking, he
asks: "If critical thinking is so important,
why have so few sociologists designed testing methods which can demonstrate the
achievement of such educational aims?"
Nearly two decades later, sociologists continue to recognize the value of teaching
critical thinking and many have proposed
teaching strategies to encourage students'
growth in this area, but very few have empirically tested critical thinking. Obviously,
developing reliable and valid measures presents a daunting task, in part because there
is so little empirical research from which to
draw and also because such highly complex
learning is not easily tapped by standard
measurement techniques. As Browne and
Litwin (1987:390) argue: "Critical thinking
is a process, not a body of knowledge like
vocabularythat can be mastered."
Baker (1981) and Norris and Ennis (1989)
provide extensive reviews of the literature
on critical thinking, including information
about standardizedexams to assess critical
thinking. For instance, Norris and Ennis
(1989) offer a useful overview of commercially available tests as well as guidelines
for constructing and using both multiplechoice and open-ended tests of critical
thinking that could be adapted to course
material. However, most assessment tools
have been developed by non-sociologists
and do not relate specifically to sociological
content. Also, Baker (1981) and Norris and
Ennis (1989) do not offer any results of
empirical studies using these assessment
A few sociologists have attempted to
measure critical thinking. Logan (1976)
developed a test using 20 items, each of

which was an example of uncriticalthinking

(e.g., "Americans should not allow their
foreign policy to continue to be dictated by
an egomaniac who would yell 'Yahoo' in
the Taj Mahal just to hear the sound of his
own voice"). He first asked students to respond to statements in any way (to determine students' inclinationto think critically,
even when not prompted) and next to identify problems inherent in the statements (to
test students' ability to think critically when
asked to do so).
Shepelak et al. (1992) developed a questionnaire that taps students' use of and appreciation for critical thinking, relying upon
students' perceptions of change in their own
level of critical thinking ability. In addition,
instructorsassessed the level of change they
perceived in students' level of critical thinking through "subjectiveimpressions of their
achievements in class (e.g., papers and
presentations)" (Shepelak, et al. 1992:25).
Similarly, Stoecker et al. (1993:336) used
"in-depth quantitative and qualitative
evaluations" to assess critical thinking as
well as students' own assessment of their
"ability to critically analyze an argument"
(Stoecker et al. 1993:337).
Such measures, however, often lack empirical clarity and sensitivity to the sociological imagination. There have been a few
exceptions. For instance, Green and Klug's
(1990) research on the effects of student
debate on critical thinking incorporates a
distinctly sociological approach. Faculty
graderswho evaluatedstudents' essays were
given the following guidelines for evaluating the essays:
Are sociologicalconceptsused to illuminate
andanalyzethe issue?Does the writerindicate
an awarenessof historical,cultural,andsocial
structural(e.g., class, gender,age, race)contexts?
Howadequateis the logicof theargument?
Somecommonlogicalgoalsto lookfor:
* uses evidenceselectively,or uses out of
dateevidence,or uses examplesof dubious pertinence.
* generalizesfrom personalexperienceor



usesad hominemarguments.
four sections of a Sociology of Marriage
"*fails to definekey termsor uses circular and Family course that were taught over

three semesters. The sections were taught

"*insensitiveto weaknessesand contradic- by the same instructor, used identical outtionsin own logic and/orevidence.

lines and readings, had similar structures(a

"*appealsto numbersor prevailingopinion combination of lecture and discussion), and

(e.g., "we all knowthat...";"sincemost
peoplethinkthat...itfollows that..."-the
"*not sensitive to questionsof reliability
andvalidityof evidence.
"*oversimplifiesor misrepresentsopponents' arguments-thestraw person fallacy.
"*value assumptionsleft unstatedand unrecognized.
"*cites the opinionsof personswhose expertise is dubious or undocumented.
(GreenandKlug 1990:470)

the same number and type of exams. Only

the type and amountof writing differed.
All students across the four sections were
given the same final exam question. The
data used for this study come from these
final exams. The exam was designed to assess students' ability to think sociologically
and to demonstrate critical thinking. The
essay question was as follows:
Oneof the majorprinciplesof socialpsychology is that social forces impact individual
behavior,emotions,values and attitudesand
thatindividualscananddo impactsocialinstitutions. Throughoutthis course, we've exploredvariouswaysin whichthishasoccurred
with respectto marriageand family relationshipsin Americansociety.

These criteriawere provided as guidelines

rather than indicators. In Green and Klug's
study, graders simply applied a letter grade
to the essay (e.g., "B").
Another empirical study that attemptedto
measure students' sociological perspective
Choose a relationship/family
dynamic diswas that by Bengston and Hazzard (1990).
cussedin class (e.g., power,divisionof labor,
Studentswere asked to answer 20 questions
intimacy, mate selection, communication,
about crime, family, stratificationand religparenting,divorce)and discuss how this dynamiccanbe understood
froma socialpsychoion that reflected general sociological conIn
cepts and perspectives (e.g., "The idea of
by varioussocial
social class involves more than income and
forces (broadlydefined)and also how indiwealth. It also involves more subjective
viduals (or groups) have reshapedthis dynotions of power and prestige") (Bengston
namicto producesocialchange.For example,
and Hazzard 1990:44).
if you explore the dynamicof power, you
In the current study, we developed emwouldwantto discusssocial factorsthatcontributeto power dynamicsin contemporary
pirical measures of critical sociological
marriages(e.g., race, class, gender norms,
thinking, relying heavily upon Green and
resources)and also how some couples have
Klug's (1990) criteria as well as Geertsen's
(2003a) concept of referential thinking. We
develop and present a scale that may be
useful to researchers who are interested in
measuring students' critical sociological
thinking. We also suggest ways the scale
1. A clear statementand descriptionof what
can be used by instructors to assess studynamicyou areinvestigating.
dents' learning and improve their teaching.
2. A clearand concisediscussionof how this
dynamic is shaped by social forces.
Throughoutthis discussion,be certainto
pointsfromlectureand reading
to substantiate
your claims, be clear about
The Study
whatsocialforcesyou areanalyzing,andbe
The data used in this study were obtained
thoroughin discussingrelevantforces.
from undergraduate students enrolled in

3. A clearandconcisediscussionof the extent
to which and how individualsor groups
have managedto alterthis relationshipdynamic.You shouldprovideevidencefrom
readingsor lecture to substantiateyour
The explicit instructionsgiven to students
encourage them to demonstratetheir ability
to think critically rather than their inclination to do so (Logan 1976). In other words,
we are testing whether students are able to
produce evidence of critical sociological
thinking in their writing when asked to do
so. It should also be noted that students received this exam both during the first week
of the semester and at the end of the term.
Throughout the semester, the instructor
repeatedly urged students to consider these
questions in relationship to specific topics
All 207 students enrolled in the four
classes took the final exam. Of these, 81
percent agreed to have their exams used in
this study. In all, there were a total of 167
cases analyzed, about 40 from each section.
Eighty percent of the respondents were
women, and 79 percent were Liberal Arts
Building upon the work of Green and Klug
(1990) and Geertsen (2003a), we developed
eleven items that tapped aspects of critical
sociological thinking. Five items reflect
conceptualized thinking (Geertsen 2003a)
and involve the ability to narrow down and
analyze an issue by using examples, analyze
two sides of an issue, and so on (see items
1-5 below). Four items concern contextualized thinking and tap into thinking generally
associated with the sociological imagination
(see items 6-9 below). In addition to specific indicators, we used holistic measures
of critical thinking (iteml0 below) and sociological imagination (item 11). Each item
was rated on a 1-5 scale, with 5 indicating
stronger skills. The scale items are as follows:

1. Uses examples(5= sufficientnumber,used
1= noneand/orusedinapproappropriately;
2. Examplesarepertinent/relevant
to argument
(5 =meaningful/pertinent;
1= unnecessary/meaningless)
3. Reasoning(5=clear, complete;1= vague,
4. Bias(5= neverappealsto prejudice,prevailing opinion, feelings; 1l=oftenappealsto
5. Mentionstwo sides of an issue (5= often;
presentsalternativeperspectivesor arguments;1l=never;presentsonly one side of
the issue)
6. Indicatesan awarenessof social structural
contexts (e.g., class, gender, age, race,
religion, sex orientation)(5=clear, meancontexts;
ingfulmentionof social structural
1=no mention)
7. Indicatesan awarenessof historicalcontexts
mentionof historicalcon(5= appropriate
texts;1= ignoreshistoricalcontexts)
8. Indicates an awarenessof cross-cultural
men(5 =appropriate
tion/descriptionof cross-culturalcontexts;
1= ignorescross-cultural
9. Uses sociologicalconceptsto illuminateand
analyze the issue (5= several appropriate
10.Demonstratescritical thinking (5=high
level; 1l=verylittle)
11.Demonstrates sociological imagination
(5=clear awarenessof private/publicconnection;1=completelyunaware)
The exams were coded by two advanced
graduate students who were familiar with
the study and who had taught the course in
the past. About 20 percent of the exams
were coded by both individuals in order to
test inter-coder reliability. The findings
suggested that exact matches in codes averaged only about 46 percent. However, 85
percent of the time, coders were only one
point off from each other (e.g., 4 versus 5
on a five-point scale).
We begin by presenting means, standard
deviations, and bivariate correlations for


each of the items tested. Next, we performed factor analysis of all items to determine whether the items loaded separately or
on two or more factors. This analysis can
help us determine empirically whether these
items are part of the same construct or different ones. We utilized a principal component analysis using varimax with Kaiser
normalizationfor rotation. We also present
results of reliability analysis to illustrate
additionalpropertiesof the scale.
Table 1 presents the means and standard
deviations for each of the items used to
measure critical sociological thinking. The
scores ranged from a high of 4.2 (examples
used are pertinent/relevantto argument)to a
low of 1.8 (indicates awareness of crossculturalcontexts). The high mean scores for
most items suggest that students tended to
perform fairly well (a mean of 4.0 would be
comparableto a "B").
The bivariate correlations, shown in Table 2, illustrate that many items are closely
related to each other. Indeed, when the factor analysis was conducted, we found that
most of the indicators loaded on a single
factor (see Table 3). Further, the factor
analysis suggests that these measures were
not factorially pure. Two items--"indicates
an awareness of historical contexts" and
"indicates an awareness of cross-cultural
contexts"-loaded on a separate factor. A
third item, "appeals to prejudices, prevailing opinion, feelings or personal experience" (bias), produced weak loadings on
both factors.
In the final analysis, we omitted the three
items that did not load on the first factor.
The result was an eight-item scale consisting of: 1) uses examples, 2) examples are
pertinent/relevantto argument, 3) reasoning, 4) considers two sides of an issue, 5)
indicates an awareness of social structural
(e.g., class, gender, age, race, religion, sex
orientation) contexts, 6) uses sociological
concepts to illuminate and analyze the issue,
7) demonstrates critical thinking, and 8)


Table 1. Means and standard deviationsfor

Mean Deviation
Uses examples























Use sociologicalconcepts









demonstrates sociological imagination. As

seen in Table 4, these items are highly correlated and the alpha coefficient for this
scale was very high (.95). Thus, the items
were summed and divided by 8, so that the
theoretical range was 1-5. The mean score
for the scale was 3.94 with a standarddeviation of .873.

Development of students' critical thinking
abilities is considered to be a core learning
goal in sociology. For decades scholars
have explored creative strategies to help
students achieve this goal. Unfortunately,
despite this attention, the concept of critical
thinking has remainedunclear. Further, few
sociologists have attempted to test empirically whether such strategies are effective in
enhancing critical thinking. In fact, few
measures of critical thinking in sociology
have been developed to facilitate this type
of discovery.
In this study, we considered some of the
various ways sociologists have defined critical thinking. We propose the concept of
"critical sociological thinking" to refer to
the ability to evaluate, reason, and question



















































?0I I







" .0

















.- *



~O 1.





*: I











0 Ir


Table 3. Results of factor analyses using all
critical sociological thinking items.
Component 1

Component 2

Uses examples















Aware social structure



Aware historicalcontexts



Aware cross-cultural



Use sociological concepts






Sociological imagination



Table 4. Reliability analyses for combined

"critical sociologicai thinking" scale.
CorrectedItemTotal Correlation
Uses examples








Aware social structure


Use sociological concepts




Sociological imagination


Scale mean = 3.94

Standarddeviation= .873
Alpha coefficient = .9502


McPeck's (1990) understandingof critical

thinking as discipline-specific and is
groundedin Geertsen's(2003a) notion of
criticaljudging and his two-sidedconception of referentialthinking,which encompasses both criticaland reflectivethinking.
Thus, we argue that while there may be
some basic criticalthinkingskills and abilities thatare applicableto any subjectmatter
or problem(e.g., avoid emotionalreasoning), critical thinkingwithin sociology is
likely to reflectdifferentskills thancritical
thinking in another discipline. Critical
thinkingwithinsociology, or criticalsociological thinking, requires sociological
knowledgeand awareness.This knowledge
consistsnot only of conceptsbut, more importantly,employsthe sociologicalimagination. In this type of thinking,studentsperceive and understandthat their individual
life choices,circumstances,
shapedby largersocial forcessuch as race,
gender,socialclass andsocialinstitutions.
We also developedempiricalmeasuresof
critical sociologicalthinkingthat we hope
will promotegreaterexplorationinto how
and under what conditionsstudentslearn.
Most of the measuresdeveloped for this
study demonstratehigh constructand convergentvalidity.Thatis, eightof the eleven
items tested were highly correlatedand
loadedon a singlefactor.Thus,we propose
an eight-item Likert scale, consisting of
items generallyassociatedwith referential
thinking (Geertsen2003a). Several items
tap the students'abilityto bringreasonable
evidenceto bearon an argument(e.g., uses
examplesthat are meaningfuland pertinent
to the argument)while otherstap students'
abilityto engagetheirsociologicalimaginations (e.g., indicatesawarenessof social
The three items tested in this study that
did not performwell in the factoranalysis

included "awarenessof historical contexts,"

"awarenessof cross-culturalcontexts," and
"bias" (appeals to prejudice, prevailing
ideas and informationwhile demonstrating opinion, feelings). We suspect that the very
awarenessof broader social and cultural weak correlations between cross-cultural
contexts. This concept is consistentwith awareness and other items results from the



confidentthatwe have a valid and reliable

measure of critical sociological thinking.
For one, althoughthe responserate in this
studywas quite high, most of the students
studiedwere liberal arts majors, women,
and tended to be academicallysuccessful
(most were juniors or seniors, and those
who had the most difficultywith the class
had droppedthe course prior to the final
exam). Can the scale discriminatepoor
critical thinkers from more skilled ones
when a more diversesampleis used? Secondly, we discoveredthattherewas considerable variabilityin coders' ratings(there
were about 50% exact matches; 85%
matchedwithinone point).The codersused
in this study were very familiarwith the
materialandthatmayhavehad an effect on
theirratings.Futurestudiesneed to explore
whetherless knowledgeablecodersare better able to see the "bigpicture"ratherthan
focusing on specific subject matter, and
theirratings.Thirdly,it is currentlyunclear
under what conditionscritical sociological
thinkingcan best be assessed;final essay
examsmay not be the ideal datasourcefor
testing critical sociological thinking.John
Bean(1996; 2003), for instance,arguesthat
criticalthinkingis bettermeasuredby preprobsentinga studentwithan ill-structured
lem ratherthanan essay examthatrequires
themto tacklean old problemthathas been
addressedthroughoutthe course.Finally,is
are not requiredor instructedto thinkcritically? In the currentstudy, studentswere
given explicit instructionsto apply sociologicalconceptsto a particularsituationand
to explorehow socialforcesshapeindividuals' lives (in otherwords,to use theirsociological imaginations).Thus we were attemptingto test theirabilityto think critically. Is students'inclinationto thinkcritimeasure?
a moreappropriate
measure critical sociological thinking in cally
we believe the

fact thatnot as muchattentionwas paid to

cross-culturalissues in class lectures and
readingsas to issuesof race, class, andgender (the mean score for this item was far
lower thanany other). It could also be the
resultof the type of essay questionstudents
were given that did not explicitly call for
cross-culturalor historical evidence (the
exam did explicitlyask studentsto discuss
social factorssuch as race, class and gender). However,the mean score for historical awarenesswas relativelyhigh, suggesting that studentsengaged in this type of
thinkingbut thattheirdoing so did not necessarilycontributeto the overallmeasureof
criticalsociologicalthinking.Because students were not requiredor asked to give
historicalor cross-culturalevidence, it was
possibleto avoid these types of discussions
but still producea strongessay repletewith
The findingconcerningthe bias itemwas
also unexpected("bias"loaded reasonably
well in the factoranalysisbut not nearlyas
stronglyas otheritemsdid). This may be a
functionof the type of course from which
thesedataweregathered,as well as the type
of instructorused. For instance,one objective of the Marriageand Familycoursewas
for studentsto see the relevanceof course
materialsto their personallives. Also, the
instructor(and coders used in this study)
incorporatefeminist pedagogy in their
teaching, giving legitimacy to individual
experiences.It is possible, therefore,that
not expressingsome personalfeelings and
opinionsin such a course is judged to reflect weakerabilities.Would "appealingto
prejudice,prevailingopinion, and feeling"
in a course on social problems,for example, be a clearerindicationof poor critical
sociologicalthinkingthanwe foundit to be
in our study?We encourageresearchersto
retesttheseitemsto determinewhetherthey
different courses and for different types of
More generally, this study raises several
methodological questions that need to be
addressedin future studies before we can be

scale developed here has importantuses for
researchers and instructors. For research
purposes, the scale could easily be used to
measure performanceon other types of student writing, in debates, on essay exams,

and in class participation. As an instructional tool, the scale could be used as a
scoring rubric for essay exams, debates, or
other student work. Secondly, because the
scale presented here reflects some of the
key components of critical sociological
thinking, it can be used to guide curriculum
design by identifying key learning goals that
should be addresssed. Third, when using
this scale to assess students' work, we can
identify gaps in our teaching. For instance,
it became clear to the instructor of the
courses used in this study that greater attention needed to be paid to cross-cultural factors after realizing so few students offered
such evidence in their final exams. We believe students must be taught how to think
critically and sociologically in order to demonstrate such skills on an outcome measure
(Logan 1976); thus, when students perform
poorly on one or more of the items discussed here, it may be an indication of areas
that need to be more carefully addressed in
our teaching.
In conclusion, this study represents an
initial attemptto clarify what critical thinking in sociology involves and to create empirical measures of critical sociological
thinking. Our efforts discussed here represent a concerted effort but hardly a definitive one. More research is needed to help
improve our understanding and measurement of this importantlearning outcome.
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is currentlyconducting
researchon the effectsof studentwritingon learningandproblemsfacingfirst-year

Sharon Bouma-Holtropis a graduatestudentin

sociologyat PurdueUniversityand adjunctprofessor
Liz Grauerholzis an associateprofessorof sociol- of sociology of HuntingtonCollege. Her research
ogy at PurdueUniversity.Her researchand teaching focuseson teaching,gender,children,andpower.