If possible, try to engage with relevant theory in some way whilst writing assignments. If you can at least show your awareness of major theorists, concepts or arguments – even in passing – it will demonstrate that you have an understanding of the wider academic context of the subject that you are writing about.
It might be that you are only able to describe a particular theory and not say much else. If it is very complicated, and you’re not confident with doing any more than this, then it’s still better to acknowledge the theory or theorist than to leave this out completely. However, if you are able to raise any points that evaluate or critique the theory then this will always impress your marker.
It can feel very daunting to critique theory, but one way to do this is to think about how theory can reduce or constrict the ways we approach a topic, as well as helping us to see other points of view. Remember that theory works like a lens: when we use it to ‘look’ at a certain topic, it will bring particular elements of it into focus. However, by the same logic, individual theoretical perspectives can make us quite blinkered; it might be that we miss other perspectives that are important, or are forced to looks at things from a certain angle that prevents us from seeing the big picture.
This doesn’t mean that you can just straightforwardly complain that ‘Feminism is only interested in women’s perspectives’, for instance. But if you think that a Feminist theoretical perspective, when applied to your subject, is reductive or leads us to ignore other important points, then that might be a valid critique.
Another way to critically evaluate theoretical arguments or approaches is to put them side by side. It’s very difficult to critique ideas in isolation, but can sometimes be easier if you compare or contrast people’s perspectives on a subject. Thinking about the relative strengths or weaknesses of different arguments or explanations can also help your writing to be less descriptive. Consider the following two examples:
If you can acknowledge or describe a theory in your writing then that is better than nothing! But if you can, try to critique or evaluate it. Remember that no theoretical approach is perfect - it will give you one perspective on your topic. Therefore, there will likely be shortcomings with it. It might be easier for you to identify these if you compare different theories. Is one approach more rounded or complete than another? Does one provide a more suitable way in for you to consider your subject?