Although sometimes supporting a claim with reasons and evidence is sufficient to persuade a reader, in other situations you will need to strengthen the argument with what is known as a counterargument or what some refer to as a rebuttal.
What is a counterargument? A counterargument is an opposing belief that refutes the claim.
As long as sufficient reasons and evidence are offered to support this claim, some readers will be persuaded to accept it. For other readers, though, the claim will not persuade them because of its emphasis on responding to bullying rather than preventing it from occurring in the first place. Those readers may dispute the initial claim by stating that educators, parents, and students who are bullied should turn their attention instead to developing anti-bullying techniques or programs that would discourage bullying from taking place. Their position may be strengthened by the idea that such techniques and programs, by preventing bullying, would also prevent the consequences that result from being bullied, including substance abuse and psychological and behavioral problems.
Most beginning students hear the word counterargument or rebuttal and think that their professor is asking them to find a source that claims the exact opposite of what they are trying to argue. Well, if you are arguing a stance that is logical and can be debated by reasonable people finding a logical, reasonable person claiming the exact opposite is likely to be impossible. Your instructors are actually asking you to find a stance that differs from your claim in subtle ways. Using the example above, the counterargument isn’t that the original claim is dead wrong but that the solution to the problem is off in some way. When presenting a counterargument, therefore, the intent is not just to take an opposing position for the sake of doing so; rather, it is to highlight an alternative opinion that reflects a credible, well-informed perspective that you can then discuss and build off.
Keep in mind that counterarguments or rebuttals at this level typically come in two parts as discussed in 4.2.
- 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.
- 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 offered.
Acknowledgment and Response
When building your argument, it is necessary to determine whether your position will be stronger by only focusing on the reasons and evidence that support that position or by also integrating and responding to (whether by wholly refuting and creating a counterargument section or recognizing the merits of) other positions that differ from your own. This decision is one that should be made carefully and only after you have familiarized yourself thoroughly with the topic and the differing opinions on it. If you prematurely decide not to integrate others’ opinions before you sufficiently understand what they are, then you may miss an opportunity to strengthen your own claim by showing the weaknesses of those opinions and to further build your ethos in the process. On the other hand, if you opt to integrate those opinions before you fully understand them, then you may weaken your own position and cause the audience to question your credibility as you muddle through explaining the opposition.
If, once you are knowledgeable about the differing opinions on the topic, you decide to integrate any of them into your own argument, you will need to make sure that you not only acknowledge those opinions but also effectively respond to them. Simply acknowledging them will not help to advance your own argument and can instead stall it; the audience will likely question why the opposition appears in your argument if you do not use it to your advantage, or, worse, may start to question whether the opposition actually presents a better claim than your own.
A common tendency among beginning researchers and writers is to tack their acknowledgment of a differing opinion to the end of their body paragraphs. However, doing so, only leaves your readers focused on an idea other than yours before they move into your next reason. This can not only undermine your entire argument but also create serious clarity concerns.
When the opposing position you want to include in your argument is one for which you cannot see any merits, then your task will be to expose the weaknesses of that position so that you can refute it, maintaining a balanced, appropriate tone while doing so. Be careful that your tone and diction do not project to the reader that you are insulting those who hold the opposing view (e.g., “Any reasonable person could see that X is wrong because…”) or that you are perhaps inaccurately portraying that view. You need your audience to trust that you are honestly representing the opposition to highlight its weaknesses, rather than you setting it up to fail through a misleading interpretation.
In addition, you must also be careful that in the process of refuting the opposition you do not actually demonstrate that it is stronger than your own claim; this can occur if the reasons and evidence you use in your refutation are weak or if the opposition you have chosen to highlight is a minor point that does not greatly influence your own stance (suggesting that you lack enough reasons and evidence of your own to support your claim but are unwilling and/or unable to successfully refute the stronger opposing views).
Although when making your argument it may be impossible to find any merit in the opposition, in many cases you can find sound reasoning that warrants your recognition. When this occurs, it is worthwhile to consider acknowledging and responding to the opposition alongside presenting your claim since doing so enhances your credibility, showing that you are not so focused on supporting your own position that you are unwilling to recognize the merits of others’ ideas.
Using the example from earlier, the two positions on school bullying are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to agree that educators, parents, and students who are bullied should collaborate both to push for appropriate punishment of those who bully and to develop anti-bullying initiatives to stop bullying from happening in the first place. Thus, a stronger approach to advancing the counterargument may be to acknowledge that although these groups working together to ensure bullying is properly responded to is important, it simply is not enough; only focusing on response after the fact, despite its value to perhaps deterring bullying, obtaining “justice” for those who are bullied, etc., is not sufficient if we are serious about combating the bullying problem.
Sometimes an argument needs further reinforcement beyond the claim, reason, and evidence. Academic writers provide this through the use of what is known as a warrant, which is an underlying belief that connects a reason and the claim. Sometimes, especially for professional writters, it is unnecessary to include warrants in an argument since the specific audience they are writing to generally also hold the same core principles and beliefs, but there are occasions when they are critical to use.
- If the audience is outside of the discourse community, so it is not (as) familiar with the topic and needs additional information;
- If the reason is a new way of thinking or is heavily debated; and
- If the audience is likely to be (highly) resistant to the reason.
Including a warrant when any of these apply can make the difference between whether the argument is successful or unsuccessful.
Take, for example, the following paragraph, written to support the claim that bullying should be collaboratively addressed by educators, parents, and those who experience bullying:
When an adolescent is bullied, he/she often undergoes behavioral and emotional changes, changes that can pose significant harm to him/her as well as others. For example, sometimes the young person who is bullied will abuse substances in order to cope with what he/she is going through, as Litwiller and Brausch (2013) explain: “Several painful and provocative behaviors have been identified consistently as behaviors that relate to both bullying and adolescent suicidal behavior. Of all such risk behaviors, alcohol and/or illicit drug use has most frequently been shown to relate” (p. 676.). If these behaviors go unnoticed, then the person being bullied is likely to continue engaging in the alcohol and/or drug use, which can lead to further consequences for him/her as well as others. Hinduja and Patchin (2013) explain that “bullying (offline and online) has been tied to a host of other negative psychosocial and behavioral outcomes such as suicidal ideation, dropping out of school, aggression and fighting…and carrying a weapon to school” (p. 712). All of these outcomes affect not only the individual being bullied, but also those around him/her, with the potential for violence to occur in the school setting. Ignoring the effects of bullying is not an option, then, and bullying must be addressed by all parties involved.
In the paragraph, the first sentence is the topic sentence, which establishes a reason to support the claim and prepares the reader for the content that will appear in the paragraph. The next sentence then offers an example of the changes the topic sentence refers to, leading into the third sentence that integrates source material to show (i.e. provide evidence) that substance abuse is indeed one of the behavioral changes that occur. At this point in the paragraph, we (as readers) have been provided a reason to support the claim as well as evidence that supports the reason, and as the paragraph continues we are given additional examples and source material to demonstrate why the reason is a sound reason to support the claim (i.e. the warrant). The paragraph then concludes by reinforcing the claim, asserting that the harm these changes present to the person who is bullied as well as others makes it critical for all relevant parties to address bullying. Presumably, for most readers, the paragraph represents a clear chain of reasoning, because if bullying presents a threat to the person who is bullied as well as those around him/her, then it is sensible to claim that the bullying should be stopped. Further, since in many cases the bullied will be unable to end the abuse himself/herself, it is necessary for others in positions of power to step in.
However, some readers may not think that just because there are potential consequences of bullying for the bullied as well as those around him/her that educators, parents, and the bullied should work together to end the bullying. Instead, some readers may think that stopping bullying is the responsibility of educators and/or parents alone since adolescents are not in the same position of power as these other parties, and the bullying may only escalate if the bullied try to end it. Others may think that, depending on how the bullying is occurring (such as if it is limited to online bullying outside of school grounds) that it is beyond the scope and power of educators to step in, leaving the burden for parents and/or their children who are experiencing the bullying. For these readers then, a warrant would be necessary to demonstrate why the reason clearly supports the claim; otherwise, they would be unpersuaded by this part of the argument—and possibly the argument overall, depending on how central the reason was to supporting the claim.
Thus, when developing your argument you must keep in mind that its structure is sort of like the structure of a building. There are certain parts that are essential (i.e., the claim, reasons, and evidence, just like the foundation, walls, and entry/exit routes); whereas, other parts may be useful, but are not always needed (i.e., counterarguments, acknowledgment and response, and warrants, just like upgrades such as heated flooring).
However you want to imagine these terms and how they interact is up to you, but (building on the house example) ask yourself these questions:
- How much would you be willing to invest in a house with the upgrades versus the one with only a foundation?
- Would you buy a house with all the upgrades but no foundation?
Your answers to these hypothetical questions should help you determine what your argument needs and what you can/should expect your sources to provide to you as you determine if you want to use them in your foundation.
- 4.6 was borrowed with minor edits and additions from "Counterarguments, Acknowledgement and Response, and Warrants" by Karla Lyles and Jeanine Rauch which is provided by the University of Mississippi and licensed under a CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike ↵
- Borrowed 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, except where otherwise noted. ↵
- This is almost never the case. ↵
- If this happens, you may also want to seriously consider if your claim needs to be rethought. ↵