4.2 Understanding and Composing Researched Arguments

[1]Features of Academic Argument

A clear and arguable position: You must present a reasonable argument for which both evidence and opposing or alternate views (counterarguments) exist. If few would disagree with you or you cannot find any evidence of a credible opposing view, you should consider rethinking and revising your position. A common error occurs when students try to present a statement of fact as an argumentative position. See the example below to learn how an idea or statement of fact can be developed and revised to become an effective thesis statement.

Example:  Can a statement of fact evolve into a strong argumentative thesis statement?

When presenting your stance in an argumentative thesis statement, make sure you have stated an argument and not a simple statement of fact or an expository thesis statement like you would write for a report.

Statement of Fact: Some social media users develop unhealthy attitudes about their body image because of the constant portrayal of “ideal” body types they encounter online.

Expository Thesis Statement: Excessive social media use can cause unhealthy physical and mental conditions, particularly for girls and young women.

Overarching Point Argumentative Thesis Statement: Social media users should restrict themselves from exposure to unrealistic photos and from the portrayal of the “ideal” body type in order to prevent the development of significant health issues.

Argument Thesis Statement with Broadcasting of Discussion Points (Reasons/Minor Premises): Social media users should restrict themselves from the exposure to unrealistic photos and from the portrayal of the “ideal” body type in order to prevent harmful physical and mental health conditions linked with excessive social media use.

Proposal Solution Argument Thesis Statement: To help users moderate their exposure to unrealistic photos and “ideal” body types associated with harmful physical and mental health conditions,  social media companies should provide users with informative public service announcements focused on healthy body image, display advertising promoting healthy body images and attitudes, and develop filters and messaging preferences to help end-users control their media stream content.

THESIS TIPS: When you compare the statements above, it is clear that a solid expository or argumentative thesis statement can contain factual information, but it must be a more complex idea that requires more development and evidence. The simple statement of fact above does not pass the “so what?” or “why?” test. When a thesis makes a claim about what a person or organization should do, think, or say, you are in the realm of argument.  A useful strategy for developing a strong argumentative thesis statement is to answer this question: Who should do what and why?

An obvious organizational structure: A solid argument takes planning. If your argument is disorganized or the thesis and/or the key reasons are unclear or placed in a confusing order, your argument and supporting content may not be taken seriously. Taking the time to plan the essay with a rough phrase-form outline including your citations will save you hours of time when you start writing.
Although many teachers begin to teach some version of argument with the writing of a thesis statement, in reality, a good argument begins with looking at the data that are likely to become the evidence in an argument and that give rise to a thesis statement or major claim. A thesis statement arises from a question, which in turn rises from the examination of information or data of sort. — George Hillocks, former professor emeritus at the University of Chicago in the Departments of Education and English Language
and Literature[2]

Necessary background information: You must present the issues, history, or larger contexts that provide the foundation for understanding your argument so that your readers (and you) can comprehend and see the urgency in the specific argument you are making. That is, you must acknowledge the current rhetorical context and provide a sense of the argument’s importance or exigence.

Viable reasons for your position: Your argument offers valid reasons for your position for which you provide relevant evidence. These reasons usually become the key points expressed in the topic sentences of your body paragraphs.

Convincing evidence: You present convincing, credible, relevant researched evidence including facts, statistics, surveys, expert testimony, anecdotes, and textual (i.e. such as history, reports, analyses) evidence. Think about the appeals you learned about in Composition 1: logos, ethos, pathos, Kairos, and Stasis when selecting your evidence. Varying evidence types will help you vary the rhetorical appeals and create a more balanced argument and greater audience appeal.

Appeals to readers’ values: Effective arguments appeal to readers’ emotions, values, wants, and needs. You might appeal to your readers’ sense of compassion or justice through a compelling narrative/anecdote. However, you will want to make sure that you have a balance between appeals to your reader’s values and presenting sound evidence to support those appeals and keep your argument from being driven solely by appeals to pathos.

A trustworthy tone: Through a confident tone, clear focus, knowledgeable voice, and well-researched, credible evidence, you can develop readers’ confidence in your credibility conveying to them that you possess internal ethos. This means that vague or shallow evidence and writing that is unedited and/or too informal in tone will reduce your audience’s trust in your argument resulting in a smaller chance that your readers will seriously consider the ideas you are presenting as valid.

Careful consideration of counterarguments: You present your awareness of opposing views about your argument to address the audience’s needs or expectations and to reinforce your internal ethos. If you do not address the “yeah, but” or “what about” in your readers’ or listeners’ minds,  your argument may not be taken seriously and, even worse, your audience will think you have not researched your topic well enough or that you underestimate their existing knowledge. You should concede some points the opposition makes and refute others through evidence when you can.

Appropriate use of patterns of development to present your argument: Your argument reflects the application of the most effective patterns of development or rhetorical modes which you learned about in Composition 1 (i.e. exemplification, explanation, analysis, classification, comparison/contrast, definition, description, narration), with which to develop the content supporting your reasons.

Activating an Inquiry-based Mindset for Creating Arguments

Using a questioning heuristic[3] can help you generate an academic argument. Just as you pre-research a possible argument topic to see what others are saying about it or just bubble map or list to generate some ideas or list some research questions, you also need to “interrogate” the argument you are forming before you go too far with your research. In fact, working through these questions about the argument will help you identify holes in the argument you can address with specific research questions for your next round of rhetorical research.

QUESTIONING HEURISTIC FOR INVENTING AN ARGUMENT[4]

Questions are at the core of arguments. What matters is not just that you believe that what you have to say is true, but that you give others viable reasons to believe it as well—and also show them that you have considered the issue from multiple angles. To do that, build your argument out of the answers to the five questions a rational reader will expect answers to.  In academic and professional writing, we tend to build arguments from the answers to these main questions:

  1. What do you want me to do or think?
  2. Why should I do or think that?
  3. How do I know that what you say is true?
  4. Why should I accept the reasons that support your claim?
  5. What about this other idea, fact, or consideration?
  6. How should you present your argument?

When you ask people to do or think something they otherwise would not, they quite naturally want to know why they should do so. In fact, people tend to ask the same questions. As you make a reasonable argument, you anticipate and respond to readers’ questions with a particular part of the argument:

  1. The answer to What do you want me to do or think? is your conclusion: “I conclude that you should do or think X.”
  2. The answer to Why should I do or think that? states your premise: “You should do or think X because . . .”
  3. The answer to How do I know that what you say is true? presents your support: “You can believe my reasons because they are supported by a thorough review of the available information and this carefully selected, credible evidence . . .”
  4. The answer to Why should I accept that your reasons support your claim? states your general principle of reasoning, called a warrant: which is/are assumptions and/or values the author holds and possibly the audience holds as well: “My specific reason supports my specific claim because whenever this general condition is true, we can generally draw a conclusion like mine.” OR “I know people in my audience value the importance of X, just as I do.”
  5. The answer to What about this other idea, fact, or conclusion? acknowledges that your readers might see things differently and then responds to their counterarguments.
  6. The answer to How should you present your argument? leads to the point of vieworganization, and tone that you should use when making your arguments.

As you have noticed, the answers to these questions involve knowing the particular vocabulary argumentation because these terms refer to specific parts of an argument. The remainder of this section will cover the terms referred to in the questions listed above as well as others that will help you better understand the building blocks of the argument.

Types of Arguments

Aristotelian Argument

Most likely sometime during your time in high school or your first semester of composition, you composed a simplified Aristotelian argument essay in which you researched a controversial issue and formed an argumentative position on the issue. You wrote an introduction leading into your thesis statement (major premise), provided two to three reasons as discussion points (minor premises) which became the focus of the essay’s body paragraphs. You also provided a counterargument presenting an opposing view and offered both a concession and refutation of that view.

Rogerian Argument

The Rogerian approach to argument is based on the work of Carl Rogers, one of the founders of Humanistic Psychology. Humanists are “concerned with the fullest growth of the individual in the areas of love, fulfillment, self-worth, and autonomy”[5]. In the field of learning and rhetoric, the “Rogerian” approach is focused on personal growth, developing a sense of personal fulfillment, and  finding common ground with others. This concept of finding common ground with others who hold opposing views or perspectives is a contrast to the traditional Aristotelian argument as discussed above or the Toulmin argument which we will look at later.

A Rogerian argument presents the opposing view without bias or negative tone and finds subclaims or points within the opposition’s argument that have merit or align with your own position on the issue. If you understand the issue well enough and can authentically present two or more stances on the issue, you are demonstrating that you have brought an open mind to the issue and are trustworthy in presenting your own argument and the opposing view. That is, you will have validated your internal ethos to your audience. As you present the opposing argument and consider the supporting evidence, your goal is to work your way toward a common ground; that is, the reasons and/or evidence both sides can agree upon, at least to some degree. Even if you do not actually write or present a formal Rogerian Argument, working through an outline of the opposition’s case with an open mind for the purpose of finding common ground and determining where your arguments diverge will help you more effectively develop your own argument and present a counterargument that accurately represents the opposition’s views.

The Rogerian argument analysis expands your knowledge and understanding of an issue far beyond a simple pro/con understanding of the issue and can help you develop a more sophisticated, complex argument. Processing your argument through the filter of a Rogerian perspective could also help you avoid some argumentative pitfalls. For example, fully understanding and trying to find common ground with opposing views may help you prevent:

  • Taking too hostile a position against an opposing argument, thus alienating your audience.
  • Not acknowledging the values, wants, or needs the opposing argument fulfills for the members of your audience will result in you never addressing them yourself.
  • Writing a weak, uniformed counterargument to your own argument leading to audience mistrust of your internal ethos.

Toulmin Argument

The Toulmin Argument, which you studied in Composition 1, was developed by philosopher, Stephen Toulmin. Toulmin is best known for his work on argumentation which moved argument out of classical logical reasoning based on syllogisms to what he termed “practical arguments” based on justification rather than abstract proofs.  Key elements of the Toulmin Model are claims, grounds or evidence, rebuttals, warrants, backing, and qualifiers. Below is a recap of the main components of the Toulmin Model.

TOULMIN MODEL[6]

THE CLAIM: The claim or thesis must be very clear and concise because it sets up the entire paper. Questions that a good claim might answer are:

THE EVIDENCE: The next part of our argument and the most in-depth is the evidence that supports our claim. We are basically saying in our argument that the reader should agree with us because of XYZ where XYZ is the evidence. It is often said that the heart of any argument is the evidence. The key is to use evidence that is accurate, current, fair, or unbiased which makes it credible to support the claim.  Also, the evidence has to be presented accurately because the reader is simply not going to believe you unless you are some form of subject matter expert, which you probably are not, so we need to have the experts speak for you.

THE REBUTTAL: This section usually contains two parts: (1) addresses the main opposing point of view to the writer’s position. This demonstrates that you understand what that position is and helps develop your own credibility as the writer. (2) After you discuss the opposing view, next you provide evidence that casts doubt on that view suggesting that the other position might not be correct. The evidence does not have to prove that the other side is completely wrong; it only needs to suggest that there may be some doubt with the point of view based upon the evidence you are offering.

THE WARRANT: This is the basic/common or underlying principle that links your claim, reason, and evidence. For example, let’s say that your claim was about the dangers of social media use by young adults; however, everyone may not care about social media use. Therefore, you want to connect the reason “why” to the claim by expressing a common or underlying principle that will help your audience understand how the reason and claim link. So, while some people may not care about social media use, most people would care about keeping young adults safe and away from danger because that is a natural instinct embedded in the human psyche. Warrants can come from principles that are shared at the societal level or within the field itself. 

 

THE BACKING:  This is evidence that supports the warrant and only the warrant. Using the example above, your backing would need to support the idea that we should do everything in our power to keep young adults safe, but not address the social media issue. Remember to support your warrant and not the claim as that is what the evidence does.

THE QUALIFIERS: This term refers to language and its use in making your claim. They are words used to acknowledge the limits of your position and keep you from creating a claim that overreaches. Including words that accomplish a sufficiently narrow claim suggests that you know that there are other possibilities or contingencies. One of the best ways to get your readers to walk away from your argument is blind arrogance. 

The diagram below reflects the elements of Toulmin’s practical argument. The diagram illustrates how warrants and the back of warrants provide the connection between evidence and a conclusion. Warrants help contextualize a fact or link a fact to a conclusion. Creating a diagram such as this will help you create a solid basis on which to justify your argument. Probably the most important elements of the Toulmin model are the warrant and the backing. If you are not sure what warrant/s (shared audience knowledge, values, or assumption/s) link your evidence (grounds for the argument) to the conclusion, you may not be supporting your conclusion with the most effective evidence.

Image by Chaswick Chap, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Other Types of Academic Arguments

ARGUMENT GENRES[7]

Sometimes writing instructors assign specific types of arguments. These genre arguments have different purposes and will require different writing strategies. These purposes and strategies require writers to assume different roles. If assigned one of these arguments, you may find yourself investigating a cause, defining a term, evaluating a product, or solving a problem. You’ll still be arguing and using rhetorical principles to make these arguments, but you’ll need to consider your role as you compose your argument.

Causal Arguments

In a causal argument, a writer must argue about a problem or controversy’s cause. Causal arguments are difficult because most controversial issues have complicated causes. Many people also tend to believe in causes that correspond to their political beliefs. Consider the various explanations for school shootings. Some will insist the problem is the easy availability of firearms while others will insist that shooters are inspired by violent video games and entertainment. When making a causal argument, a writer should consider their biases and rely on evidence to support their claims.

In a causal argument, writers may be tempted by logical fallacies. For example, it’s important to remember that correlation is not equal to causation. If two events happen at the same time, that doesn’t necessarily mean that one event caused the other.

Definition Arguments

This type of argument may seem puzzling. How do we argue about a word’s definition? Isn’t that what dictionaries are for? For most definition arguments, the real argument isn’t the precise meaning of the word. Instead, the argument is about the implications of that definition and how the definition may be applied to specific situations. Consider the word “obscene.” One dictionary defines “obscene” as “offensive or disgusting by accepted standards of morality and decency.” A writer may want to argue that Playboy is obscene. Or that a recent controversial film is obscene. By making this kind of argument, the writer would suggest some course of action: the obscene material should be age-limited, should be condemned, or should be banned. In this kind of paper, the author would make claims about “accepted standards” and “offensive or disgusting” as they apply to the potentially obscene item.

Many popular arguments rely on definitions. Determining whether something is obscene or offensive is just one popular item. As part of the War on Terror, we’ve argued about the meaning of “torture” and its justification. Many death penalty arguments rely upon the terms “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Iraq war inspired many arguments about “just” and “unjust” wars, as did the Vietnam war did decades earlier.

Evaluation Arguments

You may be more familiar with evaluation arguments than you realize. If you’ve ever read a movie, restaurant, or other product review, you’ve read an evaluation argument. As online shopping and social media have expanded, you may have even written your own evaluation argument on Amazon, Google, or Yelp.  A good evaluation argument will rely upon clear criteria. “Criteria” (singular “criterion”) are the conditions by which you make your evaluation; these conditions could be used to evaluate any thing that is in the same category. A restaurant review may be based upon the food quality, price, service, and ambiance of the restaurant. An evaluation should also consider the specific category of what’s being evaluated: one shouldn’t evaluate a local pub with the same criteria as a fine dining establishment. By establishing a narrow category, the writer can write a more accurate evaluation. While reviews are the most popular form of evaluation arguments, that is not the only place they are used. Evaluation arguments are useful for supporting or opposing public policies or proposed laws. A community may propose several solutions to deal with a school district’s budget woes. A teacher from that district may write a guest editorial arguing for the best policy, or write an article criticizing a poor choice.

Proposal Argument (Problem/Solution)

Proposal arguments require the writer to perform two tasks: argue that there is a problem, and then propose a solution to that problem. Usually, the problem will be a local problem. It is good to focus on a smaller community because national or global problems or much more complex; therefore, making them harder to successfully argue in the limited space of a college essay.

Proposals have two separate arguments. The first is the problem: it’s not enough to label an issue a problem; a writer must prove that the problem is severe to an audience. Take, for instance, the opioid crisis. A writer may need to convince community members who aren’t addicts why the crisis is a problem for their community; therefore, it is not enough to discuss how addiction hurts addicts. Showing how the community is harmed by the crime associated with addiction would be a better way to motivate a community to solve the problem.

The second argument is the solution. Explain what the solution is and how it solves the problem. A writer should establish that their solution is the best solution. The best solution is the cheapest solution that best addresses the problem. “Cheapest” here refers to more than monetary costs. While monetary costs are oftentimes a considerable factor, there are other costs like labor and change that may affect people physically, mentally, or emotionally. “Addressing the problem” is an acknowledgment that most proposals won’t completely solve a problem. The goal is a reasonable solution that eliminates most of the harm, or the most serious harm, caused by the problem. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of proposals is considering the unintended consequences of a solution. These can be positive or negative. Writers should ask “What happens next?” of their solutions.

[8]Structuring Argument in Your Paper

Now that we have looked at the different terms and styles of arguments, we need to start thinking about how these things come together in a paper because writing academic research papers is (more than likely) going to be a lot messier than this chapter, or any textbook, makes it seem.

In a traditional argument-based paper, the claim is generally stated in the thesis (often at the end of the introduction), with the reasons appearing as the topic sentences of body paragraphs. The content of the body paragraphs is then focused on providing the evidence that supports the topic sentences, ultimately supporting the claim. Such organization helps to ensure that the argument is always at the forefront of the writing, since it provides guideposts in key places to direct the reader’s attention to what the author wants to persuade him/her of. There may be occasions, though, when it is preferable to delay stating the claim until later.

Sometimes, particularly if the audience is likely to be so opposed to your position that you are concerned they may not read further if your claim appears at the start of the paper, it is preferable to postpone stating the claim until after the reasons and evidence have been provided. Doing so allows you to demonstrate the merits of your case, hopefully persuading your reader in the process, before explicitly stating the claim that the reader may have been hesitant to accept initially. Note that this approach is more of an exception than the rule, so you likely will not format your argument-based papers in this way.

In addition, regardless of what the reasons are that you plan to use to support your claim, they will not be equal in their strength/ability to do so. Realistically, the reasons will fall along a spectrum from strongest to weakest (note that “weakest” does not carry the traditional connotation of the word “weak”), so, when writing an argument-based paper, you will need to determine the best order in which to place your reasons. The most common suggestion for ordering is to place your weakest reasons in the middle of the paper, with your strongest appearing at the beginning and end. This approach makes sense in terms of wanting to show the reader early in the writing that your claim is backed by sound reasoning and to leave him/her with a final impression that your argument is solid. You also should consider the complexity of the reasons; if some of your ideas are more complicated to understand than others, you will need to strike a balance between strength and complexity in the structure to ensure that your reader is not only persuaded throughout the paper but also that he/she can fully understand the logical progression from one point to the next.

organizing reasons effectively

Imagine that you are assigned an argument paper that must focus on an education-related issue, with the audience consisting of your peers. You select as your claim the idea that all undergraduate writing courses that fulfill a general education requirement should include a tutor, who would attend all class meetings and assist students as needed. As you plan your paper, you decide to use the following reasons to support your claim:

  1. Students may be more comfortable seeking individualized help with their writing from a peer (advanced undergraduate student or graduate student) than their instructor.
  2. The tutor could provide valuable feedback to the instructor to assist him/her with teaching that students may be uncomfortable  sharing or otherwise unable to do so.
  3. Student grades and retention would improve.

To support the first reason, your evidence consists of anecdotes from fellow students. To support the second and third reasons, your evidence consists of published research that suggests these benefits. In what order would you place the reasons in your paper, and why?

 


  1. 4.2 (except where otherwise noted) is borrowed with minor edits and additions from Claim Your Voice in First Year Composition, Vol. 2 by Cynthia Kiefer and Serene Rock which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
  2. Hillocks, G.,Jr. (2010). Teaching argument for critical thinking and writing: An introduction. English Journal, 99(6), 24-32. https://www.proquest.com/docview/577286527/fulltextPDF/8F9B51E2B09B440EPQ/1?accountid=30550
  3. Definition: of or constituting an educational method in which learning takes place through discoveries that result from investigations made by the student
  4. Borrowed with minor edits and additions from "Argument" by Kirsten DeVries which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License and published as part of Critical Reading, Critical Writing: A Handbook to Understanding College Composition, SP22 edition
  5. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Humanistic psychology. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/humanistic-psychology
  6. Borrowed with minor edits and additions from Writing and Rhetoric by Heather Hopkins Bowers, Anthony Ruggiero, and Jason Saphara which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
  7. Borrowed with minor edits and additions from "Argument Genres" by Heather Hopkins Bowers, Anthony Ruggiero, and Jason Saphara which was published in Writing and Rhetoric, Colorado State University, Pueblo and is licensed under CC-BY 4.0.
  8. The following section (except where otherwise noted) was borrowed with minor edits and additions from "Structure of Argument" by Karla Lyles and Jeanine Rauch provided by the University of Mississippi which is licensed under a CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

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