Critical thinking is more than just fault-finding—it involves a range of thinking processes, including interpreting, analyzing, evaluating, inferencing, explaining, and self-regulating. The concept of critical thinking emerged from the field of education; however, it can, and should, be applied to other areas, particularly to research. Like most skills, critical thinking can be developed. However, critical thinking is also a mindset or a disposition that enables the consistent use and application of critical thought.
Critical thinking is vital in business research, because researchers are expected to demonstrate a systematic approach and cogency in the way they undertake and present their studies, especially if they are to be taken seriously and for prospective research users to be persuaded by their findings. Critical thinking can be used in the key stages of many typical business research projects, specifically: the literature review; the use of inductive, deductive, and abductive reasoning and the relevant research design and methodology that follows; and contribution to knowledge.
Research is about understanding and explaining phenomena, which is usually the starting point to solve a problem or to take advantage of an opportunity. However, to gain new insights (or to claim to), one needs to know what is already known, which is why many research projects start with a literature review. A literature review is a systematic way of searching and categorizing literature that helps to build the researchers’ confidence that they have identified and recognized prevailing (explicit) knowledge relevant to the development of their research questions. In a literature review, it is the job of the researcher to examine ideas presented through critical thinking and to scrutinize the arguments of the authors.
Critical thinking is also clearly crucial for effective reasoning. Reasoning is the way people rationalize and explain. However, in the context of research, the three generally accepted distinct forms of reasoning (inductive, deductive, and abductive) are more analogous to specific approaches to shape how the literature, research questions, methods, and findings all come together. Inductive reasoning is making an inference based on evidence that researchers have in possession and extrapolating what may happen based on the evidence, and why. Deductive reasoning is a form of syllogism, which is an argument based on accepted premises and involves choosing the most appropriate alternative hypotheses. Finally, abductive reasoning is starting with an outcome and working backward to understand how and why, and by collecting data that can subsequently be decoded for significance (i.e., Is the identified factor directly related to the outcome?) and clarified for meaning (i.e., How did it contribute to the outcome?). Also, critical thinking is crucial in the design of the research method, because it justifies the researchers’ plan and action in collecting data that are credible, valid, and reliable. Finally, critical thinking also plays a role when researchers make arguments based on their research findings to ensure that claims are grounded in the evidence and the procedures.