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Criticism is the practice of judging the merits and faults of something or someone in a sometimes negative, sometimes intelligible, (or articulate) way.
This article provides only general information about criticism. For subject-specific information, see the Varieties of criticism page.
Criticism can be:
To criticize does not necessarily imply "to find fault", but the word is often taken to mean the simple expression of an objection against prejudice, or a disapproval. Often criticism involves active disagreement, but it may only mean "taking sides". It could just be an exploration of the different sides of an issue. Fighting is not necessarily involved.
Criticism is often presented as something unpleasant, but it need not be. It could be friendly criticism, amicably discussed, and some people find great pleasure in criticism ("keeping people sharp", "providing the critical edge"). The Pulitzer Prize for Criticism has been presented since 1970 to a newspaper writer who has demonstrated 'distinguished criticism'.
Another meaning of criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature, artwork, film, and social trends (see the article links below). The goal of this type of criticism is to understand the possible meanings of cultural phenomena, and the context in which they take shape. In so doing, the attempt is often made to evaluate how cultural productions relate to other cultural productions, and what their place is within a particular genre, or a particular cultural tradition.
Criticism as an evaluative or corrective exercise can occur in any area of human life. Criticism can therefore take many different forms. How exactly people go about criticizing, can vary a great deal. In specific areas of human endeavour, the form of criticism can be highly specialized and technical; it often requires professional knowledge to understand the criticism.
This section is about the origin and evolution of the meanings of the expression "criticism".
The early English meaning of criticism was primarily literary criticism, that of judging and interpreting literature. Samuel Johnson is often held as the prime example of criticism in the English language, and his contemporary Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism is a significant landmark. In the course of the 17th century, it acquired the more general sense of censure, as well as the more specialized meaning of the "discernment of taste", i.e. the art of estimating the qualities and character of literary or artistic works, implicitly from the point of view of a consumer.
To be critical meant, positively, to have good, informed judgement about matters of culture (to be cultivated, to be a man or woman of distinction), but negatively it could also refer to the (unreasonable) rejection or (unfair) treatment of some outside group ("to be critical of them"). Derivatively, "a criticism" also referred to a nice point or a distinction, a tiny detail, a pedantic nicety, a subtlety, or a quibble (the sense of what today is called a "minor criticism"). Often criticism was governed by very strict cultural rules of politeness, propriety and decency, and there could be immediate penalties if the wrong words were said or written down (in 17th century England, more than half of men and about three-quarters of women could not read or write).
In the 19th century, criticism also gained the philosophical meaning of "a critical examination of the faculty of knowledge", particularly in the sense used by Immanuel Kant. Such criticism was carried out mainly by academic authorities, businessmen and men of property with the leisure to devote themselves to the pursuit of knowledge.
In the 20th century, all these meanings continued, but criticism acquired the more general connotation of voicing an objection, or of appraising the pros and cons of something.
From the 1970s onward, under the influence of neo-Marxism, critical theory and Michel Foucault, it became fashionable in the English-speaking academic social sciences and humanities to use the French word "critique", instead of the ordinary "criticism". The suggestion is, that there is a difference between the two terms, but what exactly it is, is often not altogether clear. Often the connotation is, that if a deliberation is a "critique" and not just a "criticism", then there is "a lot of extra thought and profound meaning" behind what is being said. A "critique" in the modern sense is normally understood as a systematic criticism, a critical essay, or the critical appraisal of a discourse (or parts of a discourse). Thus, many academic papers came to be titled or subtitled "a critique". From the 1970s, English-speaking academics and journalists also began to use the word "critique" not only as a noun, but as a verb (e.g. "I have critiqued the idea", instead of "I have criticized the idea"). What is often implied is, that "critiqueing" goes deeper into the issue, or is more complete, than "criticizing", possibly because the specialist criteria of a particular discipline are being applied.
All critiques can be classified according to their origins, content, and purpose, as described below. For an overview of criticisms from particular political or philosophical perspectives, see Varieties of criticism. For subject-specific information, see the critical pages on art, film, literature, theatre, or architecture.
Any criticism can be classified and sorted with the following criteria:
- Origins: this criterion refers to the critic's identity, perspective on the subject of the criticism, and motivations for writing the critique.
- Content: this refers to the critique itself (i.e. the observations and arguments made by the critic) as well as the form of the criticism (i.e. the style in which the critique is written and via what medium it is sent to its target).
- Target: this includes the object of the criticism as well as the intended audience.
Although there may be other ways to classify a criticism, these criteria should allow one to distinguish one critique from another.
In general, the psychology of criticism studies the cognitive and emotional effects of criticism, the behavioural characteristics of criticism, and its influence on how people are reacting.
The psychology of criticism is primarily concerned with:
- the motivation, purpose or intent which people have for making criticisms - healthy or unhealthy.
- the meaning of criticism for the self, and for others - positive or negative.
- the effect which criticism has on other people - good or bad.
- how people respond to criticisms, or cope with them - negatively or positively.
- the quantity and quality of criticism required to achieve the desired effect or outcome.
- the form in which criticisms are delivered - effective or ineffective.
- how people learn to give and receive criticism successfully.
- the sublimation, repression or denial of criticism.
Parents, teachers, lawyers, managers and politicians are often concerned with these issues, because it can make a great deal of difference to how problems are tackled and resolved.
The motivation as well as the effect of criticism may be rational, or it may be non-rational or arbitrary; it may be healthy or unhealthy.
When psychologists study criticism as a type of human behaviour, they do not usually study it "in general" - such a general study is often considered to be more a philosophical concern. Psychologists usually study it in specific contexts and situations. The reason is partly technical (it is difficult to construct and prove universal generalizations about criticism as a human behaviour) and partly practical (it is more useful to understand particular behaviours which are of direct practical concern).
The most basic "rule-of-thumb" of criticism which psychologists usually recommend is:
"Respect the individual, focus the criticism on the behaviour that needs changing - on what people actually do or actually say."
The thought behind this basic norm for criticism is very simple:
Of course, the critics may just want to provoke or vent a bit of hostility, but it might backfire, because the people criticized may make a nasty response. The nasty response may "prove" to the critics, that the criticism was justified, but the critics have brought this on themselves, they have produced their own nastiness. It is easy to do, but may be difficult to live with. In the process, the whole point of the criticism may be lost - all that happens is, that there is a quarrel between people who just vent their hostility. This is very unlikely to produce any solution that all concerned can live with.
The basic psychological rule of criticism assumes that people want to use criticism to achieve an improvement, usually "in good faith" (bona fide). It assumes the critic has a positive intention in making the criticism. The rule may not make much sense, if there is an all-out war going on, where the opposition is just trying to destroy and discredit you as much as possible, using absolutely any means they can find. Nevertheless, it is still possible to respond by attacking what the opponents actually do, not who they are. That way, the critic cannot be accused of unfair or prejudiced treatment of others.
The basic rule is not always easy to apply.
Consequently, psychologists often recommend that before a criticism is being stated to a person, the critic should try to get into rapport with the person being criticized ("get in sync" with the other person, "on the same wavelength"). If that is not possible (because they are enemies), the best thing may be, not to express the criticism at all, or get a mediator. It may take considerable strategizing in order to find a way of making a criticism, so that it "really hits home". Rather than "shooting their mouth off", it may be wise if people say nothing, until the right time and place arrives to make the criticism.
One problem at the receiving end is, that a criticism may be taken more seriously than it really merits, or that it is taken "too personally", even although that was not the intention of the critic. Criticisms are often voiced without knowing exactly what the response will be. It may be, that this problem cannot be entirely removed; the best one can do, is to judge, on the basis of experience, what would be the most likely effect of the criticism, and communicate the criticism as well as one can.
Another sort of problem is the limited attention span of individuals. To express a criticism may require detailed explanation or clarification; it presupposes that the knowledge exists to understand what it is about, and that people are willing to listen. That takes time, and the time may not be available, or people are reluctant to take the time. This can get in the way of the mutual respect required. It may be possible to overcome this problem, only by formulating the criticism as briefly as possible, and communicate it in a form which takes the least time to understand it. Failing that, people must "make time" to discuss the criticism. It can take considerable effort to create the situation in which the criticism will be "heard".
The exception to the basic psychological rule consists of cases where, it is argued, the individuals and their behaviours cannot be distinguished. This would be the case, for example, if the criticism itself consisted of "being there" (intruding or tresspassing), or "not being there" (non-response). It can become a police matter. For example, when people voice their criticisms in a public demonstration, the police may decide to intervene, if the protest involves actions which violate the laws of the land.
In certain circumstances, the normal treatment of fellow human beings obviously does not apply, or no longer applies.
An example would be a criminal who treats rules with contempt, somebody who is insane, or a terrorist plotting arbitrary violence. Normally, once people are convicted of a crime, or for terrorism, they are no longer regarded as being entitled to ordinary consideration, at least not until their punishment is completed. They lose respect. In a war situation, people may be shot on sight, regardless of how they are behaving.
One "trick" in criticism, which many liberal people regard as dishonest and unfair, consists of the criminalization of criticism. Here, people try to make out, that particular criticism is not allowed, even although there exists no rule or law which actually says that the criticism is not allowed. Often this criminalization approach implies, that people believe, that individuals and their behaviours should not be separated - i.e. they should stick to a role, and not step out of it.
For example, a parent, a teacher or a person in authority believes that the young persons they are dealing with "ought to behave themselves" and "hold their tongue", because they are children. "Behaving themselves" means, that the young persons should not criticize, even if they could do so. At issue here is, who should respect whom, and why, as well as how the right to criticize can be earned. People normally distinguish between what can be expected or required of a child, and what can be expected or required from an adult.
Inversely, there are always people who deliberately seek for "loopholes" in the ordinary rules and channels for criticism, in order to make a criticism which, although strictly not illegal, has a malicious intention, or offends the target of the criticism. That can cause the ordinary consideration which people have for others to be abandoned. What is legitimate and illegitimate criticism is not always easy to establish, and there are usually "grey areas" in the law of the land. It is rarely possible to makes rules for every detail of what people may or may not do. The law itself can also be contested with criticism, if it is perceived as unfair. Nevertheless the courts usually draw the line somewhere.
When Theodor W. Adorno, a founder of Critical Theory, published a study with his colleagues on The Authoritarian Personality in 1954, it had at first an enormous intellectual impact. Later, however, academics rejected the approach as unscientific and subjective.
The ability to criticize is something which rarely occurs naturally; it must be learnt. Good critics exhibit several kinds of qualities:
- Insight: critics must understand the meaning of criticism (it is not simply about "being negative"), and they have to know clearly why they are criticizing.
- Attitude: critics must be emotionally confident and morally comfortable, both about making a criticism, and about dealing with the response to criticism.
- Inquiry: critics must question authority, popular opinion, and assumptions.
- Knowledge: critics must research the subject of their criticism to maintain the factual integrity of their criticism.
- Skills: critics must choose and apply the correct kind of criticism to an issue so that the criticism will be balanced, complete and persuasive. Critics must have adequate skills in reasoning, research, and communication.
- Integrity: critics must remain consistent and honest before, during, and after a criticism is written.
These qualities are most easily learned through practical experience in which people have a dialogue or debate and give each other feedback. Often, teachers can design assignments specifically to stimulate students to acquire these qualities. But the facility for critical thought usually requires some personal initiative, the willingness "to do what it takes." There are plenty of "lazy critics", but one must work hard to be a good critic. The lazy critic is soon forgotten, but a good critic is remembered for years.
With criticism it is always important to keep things in proportion, neither overdoing things, nor being too timid. These requires an ability to relativize things, and a level-headed approach.
An important reason why balanced criticism is desirable is, that if things get totally out of proportion, the critics or their targets can lose their balance themselves. Criticism can wreak havoc, and therefore people have to know how to handle it from both ends. If the criticism is balanced, it is more likely to be successful.
When psychologists analyze the effect of criticism on others, they are concerned with how people respond to criticism (cognitively and emotionally), and how criticism can influence the way people are relating.
When people criticize, it can have a fruitful, enriching and constructive effect, because new ideas and viewpoints are generated in trying to solve a problem. Suddenly, people have the benefit of ideas which they did not think of before, themselves.
People can also be very hurt by criticisms, when they experience the criticism as a personal attack. Psychologists concerned with human communication, such as therapists, therefore often recommend that people should choose the right words to express their criticism. The same criticism can be raised in different ways, some more successful than others.
If people formulate their criticism in the right way, it is more likely that other people will accept it. If the criticism is badly expressed, people might reject it, not because it is wrong in itself, but because they do not like being talked to in that way. Even if the content of a criticism is quite valid, the form in which it is expressed may be so bad, that the valid point being made is never accepted. The content may be something that people can work out on their own, but the form concerns the social relationship between people.
The terms "criticism" and "feedback" are often confused, where people think that criticism is a "negative response" and feedback is a "positive response". But such an interpretation is a fallacy. Feedback can be positive or negative, and so can criticism. What is true is that they can be mistaken for each other.
For example, an inexperienced person, who handles a machine with lethal danger to himself and others, can be criticized by another person who tells him "you are doing it wrong, and you should stop what you are doing immediately". This looks like an example of negative feedback. In reality, if the criticism was not made in time, people might die. If the same criticism was said "in a nice way" ("could you please consider withdrawing from your activity, and use your energies more productively elsewhere?"), it might not prompt the inexperienced person to stop.
The term "feedback" is often used instead of criticism, because "feedback" sounds more neutral, polite or positive, while criticism seems to be about "finding fault". A certain language may be used, because there are issues of authority and obedience ("who has to follow whom"), as well as the need for cooperative teamwork to get a job done ("constructive collegial attitude"). The question is often "who controls the feedback", "who is allowed to criticize", "who owns the problem" and "who is to do something about the problem". It may be that managers educate employees in a certain language, in order to get them to see things in a way that is productive for the enterprise.
Criticism is not necessarily feedback, because it can be both the initiative of a "feed" and the response of a "feed-back". Inversely, feedback is not necessarily criticism, because the feedback response could just consist e.g. of a compliment or a "yes" or "no" ("is that all the feedback I get?"). Feedback is not intrinsically positive; and telling somebody how they are doing need not involve any criticism. Criticism and feedback are really two different things, with some overlap ("critical feedback" or "critical response"). If feedback comments (positive or negative) and criticism are treated as if they are exactly the same thing, usually something is being hidden, suppressed or denied.
Especially educators, but also e.g. lawyers, managers and politicians are very concerned with the quality of criticisms. People might raise all kinds of objections and criticisms, but how good are they? Criticisms can be just "noise". They can also be a nuisance if they are misdirected, they get in the way of getting things done.
Ideally, a criticism should be:
- brief and succinct, with a start and a finish, not endless.
- relevant and to the point, not misplaced.
- clear and precise, not vague.
- well-researched, not based on hear-say or speculative thought only.
- sincere and positively intended, not malicious.
- articulate and persuasive, so that the recipient both understands and is willing to act on the message.
Not all criticisms have all these features, but if one or more of them is missing, the criticism is less likely to achieve its goal. Almost all guidelines for criticism mention these seven points, although in particular contexts their meaning may be more exactly specified (for example, what it means to be "articulate and persuasive" can vary according to the circumstances).
Logically, there are just as many ways to get a criticism wrong as to get the criticism right.
- Criticism is too long: people get confused over what it is all about, they get lost in it, and become disoriented.
- Criticism is vague: people are likely to say, "so what"?
- Criticism is inappropriate, or the critic is not really in a position to make it: people will say "you're way out of line".
- Criticism has no clear target: people are likely just to conclude that "so-and-so is in a bad mood right now" or "he's had too much of it."
- Criticism states problems without suggesting solutions: others are likely to get impatient, or say that they cannot do anything with this information.
- Critic did no research before making the criticism: people will say, "very interesting, but this cuts no ice."
- Criticism has no clear motivation: "why are you telling me this, and why are you telling me about it now?".
- Critic makes bad criticisms regularly: it discredits the critic.
The main effect of lousy criticism is usually that, rather than clarifying things, it becomes disorienting or confusing to people. Therefore, lousy criticism is usually regarded as unhelpful, or as an unwanted distraction getting in the way of things. The only thing a lousy criticism achieves is to make it clear that somebody has an objection (although the objection is not well-taken).
Techniques of constructive criticism aim to improve the behavior or the behavioral results of a person, while consciously avoiding personal attacks and blaming. This kind of criticism is carefully framed in language acceptable to the target person, often acknowledging that the critics themselves could be wrong. Insulting language and hostile language are avoided, and phrases are used like like "I feel..." and "It's my understanding that..." and so on. Constructive critics try to stand in the shoes of the person being criticized, and consider what things would look like from their perspective.
Some people are not open to any criticism at all, even constructive criticism. Also, there is an art to truly constructive criticism: being well-intentioned is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for constructively criticizing, since one can have good intentions but poor delivery ("I don't know why my girlfriend keeps getting mad when I tell her to stop with the fries already; I'm just concerned about her weight"), or egocentric intentions but appropriate delivery ("I'm sick of my subordinate coming in late for work, so I took her aside and we had a long, compassionate talk about her work-life balance. I think she bought it."). As the name suggests, the consistent and central notion is that the criticism must have the aim of constructing, scaffolding, or improving a situation, something which is generally obstructed by hostile language or personal attacks.
People can sometimes be afraid to express a criticism, or afraid to be criticized. Criticism can "press all the wrong buttons." The threat of criticism can be sufficient to silence people, or cause them to stay away. So self-confidence can play a big role in criticism - the confidence to criticize, and the confidence to face criticism. If people's emotions are not properly considered, criticism can fail to succeed, even although it is well-intentioned, or perfectly sensible. Hence criticism is often considered an "art", because it involves human insight into "what one can say and cannot say" in the given situation.
One style of constructive criticism employs the "hamburger method", in which each potentially harsh criticism (the "meat") is surrounded by compliments (the "buns"). The idea is to help the person being criticized feel more comfortable, and assure the person that the critic's perspective is not entirely negative. This is a specific application of the more general principle that criticism should be focused on maintaining healthy relationships, and be mindful of the positive as well as the negative.
The psychopathology of criticism refers to the study of unhealthy forms of criticism, and of unhealthy kinds of response to criticism. Psychologists often associate these with particular categories of mental disorders, especially personality disorders, as classified in the U.S. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (this manual is also used in other countries, although the forms of personality disorders can be somewhat different in different countries, reflecting ethnic differences and differences in social systems).
- Low self-esteem: emotionally vulnerable individuals that are often excessively sensitive to criticism, or to being defeated, they can't handle it.
- Narcissistic personality disorder: although they may not show it outwardly, criticism may "haunt" and/or leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow, and empty. They may react with disdain, narcissistic rage, or defiant narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissists are extremely sensitive to personal criticism and extremely critical of other people. They think they must be seen as perfect or superior or infallible or else they are worthless. There's no middle ground.
- Paranoid personality disorder: these people are often rigidly critical of others, but have great difficulty accepting criticism themselves.
- Avoidant personality disorder: these people are hypersensitive to criticism or rejection. They build up a defensive shell. If the criticism seems to imply something bad about them, a defensive shell immediately snaps into place.
- Dependent personality disorder: individuals that will often apologize and "self-correct" in response to criticism at the drop of a hat.
- Hypercriticism: these people are often regarded as anal retentive or nitpickers (see nagging). Nitpickers engage in minute, trivial, and unjustified faultfinding to excess. Nagging means endless scolding, complaints, and faultfinding.
- Hypocriticism: these individuals are hypocrites who criticize and accuse others about the vice that they are guilty of themselves. Hypocrisy contains some kind of deception, and therefore involves a kind of lying.
To understand pathological criticism and pathological responses to criticism, it is often not sufficient to see the individuals concerned in isolation - they should be placed in the total context in which the criticism or the response to it occurs. Particular situations can "bring out" the "bad side" of people, which in the normal run of events would not occur. Pathological criticism occurs especially in situations of intense conflict or competition, where the normal internal and external controls on people's behaviour begin to break down. Not just personal change but also a "change of scene" may be required to get rid of the disorder.
In the anti-psychiatry movement, the issue is raised of whether it solves anything if criticism is called a "disease" (or "abuse" or "addiction").
- The medicalization of criticism rejects the criticism as a disease. The critics are silenced, and their viewpoint is denied. They are regarded as incapable of sensible criticism, but their disease often cannot be proved - other than saying that voicing a criticism in a certain way is proof of a disease.
- Why exactly a criticism is "unhealthy" can be difficult to prove, nevermind its rights or wrongs - it could be subjective interpretation, a matter of personal likes and dislikes, or a matter of point of view. What is "healthy" or "unhealthy" might depend on the context, or on how it is understood.
- People labelled as "ill" cannot be held morally responsible for their critical utterances, but people can often choose their own behaviour with regard to criticism, and they should take responsibility for their own behaviour, if they can practically do so.
- Even if it is possible to kill the criticism with a pill, the cause or the target of the criticism may not go away. A bad situation may remain; the only difference is that somebody is doped sufficiently, so that no overt criticism is made or received.
Confronted with unhealthy criticism or unhealthy responses to criticism, it may be unwise to get scared, and it may be unnecessary to run to the doctor straightaway. It may be sufficient to talk it out, even if it is not the most pleasant discussion. If people are simply labelled "ill", they get away with behaviour that, arguably, they ought to be taking responsibility for, themselves. It should not be too easily assumed that people are incapable of making conscious choices about their own behaviour, unless they are deranged (crazy), in great pain, extraordinarily confused, heavily intoxicated, or in some way trapped or locked down (see also political abuse of psychiatry).
Criticism can cause harm as well as good things. Criticism can hurt or offend people. It can “upset the apple cart”, cause chaos, or do real damage. For these reason, people often try to keep the flow of criticism under control with rules. Such rules often state:
These rules can be successful if people accept them, and work with them. But it can also happen that a criticism can only be made “against the rules.” In that case, a conflict can develop between the critics and the people in charge, where the authorities try to enforce the rules, and the critics try to make their criticism regardless. The conflict could be ended in many different ways; but usually it is difficult to suppress a valid criticism altogether, permanently. A lot of critical activity may consist simply of a battle to get one’s ideas taken seriously.
Here the purpose of criticism and its relative merits in particular situations are discussed.
Criticism may not be a positive response to an individual, action, or belief in all circumstances. There are two reasons that this might be the case:
However, there are also significant reasons why a critique may be necessary or desirable in particular situations.
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