What Is Analysis?
Darrin McGraw, Sixth College Core Sequence
Analysis means to take something apart.
The modern world-view sees everything as being made up of smaller things. As you go
down the scale, each unit which seemed to have been solid begins to reveal itself as a
subassembly of units on a smaller scale: humans, organs, cells, molecules, atoms, quarks. As you
go up, units viewed collectively begin to make sense as larger units: humans, families, groups,
societies, nations, ethnic groups, humanity. And then Planet Earth, the solar system, the Milky
Way, the universe, all that. From above, things look atomic; from below, they appear composite.
In fact, the way we know we have moved from one scale to another is that something has
either ceased to be atomic, or begun to be. And this is not merely a matter of details dissolving
with distance; at a given scale, we see a difference in the way things actually interact. Electrons
do not behave like baseballs, despite the fact that your average figure-eight stitched horsehide
contains electrons in abundance. Red blood cells, considered as cells, behave differently than
blood considered as a fluid. Governments often do not behave like individual men and women. A
system is shaped not only by what it contains but by how those things interact. And when we see
“smaller things” interacting in specific, differentiated ways, we call them not only “parts” but
components. For instance, a wedge of cherry pie is not a component of the pie, because although
it is separate, its separateness has nothing to do with its function; we could have cut it bigger or
smaller or just eaten the pie with a spoon. However, we could say that the crust and the filling
are separate components, because the crust performs a different set of functions from the filling.
Furthermore, we can say that actions are composite, just as things are. If we counted all
of the behaviors involved in “walking to class”, even just the ones we are able to consciously
observe, we could list thousands. The simple action of lifting my hand involves a complicated
interaction of nervous circuits and muscle groups. “Treating” a patient is a complicated process
even for the simplest ailments.
Finally, when we look at a system, we often notice that something extra is happening,
something that isn’t part of what the system essentially does...or rather, what we thought it did.
Sometimes that “extra” accomplishes an essential function after all (predator-fooling eye spots
on butterflies); sometimes the “extra” seems to be a undesirable but minor drawback, or a cost
paid to reach the goal (the broken eggshell mess from making an omelet, to cite the cliché).
Sometimes the extra becomes a major benefit (the heat from electrical resistance used in
incandescent light bulbs) or a serious disadvantage (e.g. handguns bought for household
protection but increasing the risk of domestic homicide). We pay attention to extras because
sometimes they become far more important than what we had previously considered to be the
primary phenomenon. Often in hindsight we forget how “extra” something originally seemed,
particularly because often the historical narrative is told in a way that explains or naturalizes later
events (this is what historians might call “Whig history”).
So when we are asking for analysis, we are interested in hearing about the following, often (but
not inevitably) in this order:
1. What are the parts? Describe each one and how it physically or effectively connects to
2. What does each part do? Viewed from the point of view of the system as a whole, what is
3. For a given “what it does”, what are the component actions that make it up?
4. When the system actually operates, what are the results, including unintended ones?
In CAT sections, there are two general classes of things to analyze. The first includes the
culture, systems, processes, events, problems, etc. which are the topic of the course – the history,
science, philosophy, etc. We want to know what happened or is happening, what components
are involved, how they specifically interact with each other in what sets of actions, and what the
results are. We are interested in how things work, but we’re even more interested in the larger
consequences of them working. What happens because technology, or a world-view, or a group
dynamic, or an aesthetic system work in particular ways?
The second class of analyzable things comprises the texts and any messages in nontextual
media. We analyze both the materials provided to students and the materials they create
themselves. Words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, sections; elements, shots, camera angles,
dialogue; pitches, rhythms, harmonies, etc. We break down the message or argument into
components, each with one or more functions. We say that each part – each paragraph, sentence,
phrase, word -- does something. It welcomes, entertains, opposes, supports, elaborates, narrows
in, provides an example, builds a bridge to, turns upside down, satirizes, rescues/habilitates,
wards off attack, makes generous concessions. The two levels of analysis work together:
analyzing the messages tells you a lot about the culture the message came from. And analyzing
the messages we are sending to ourselves, within our own minds, helps us understand ourselves
and how we could change our own lives.