Understanding How to Write Academic Arguments
Understanding How to Write Academic Arguments
Definition of Academic Arguments
What is an academic argument?
An academic argument is your stance, your claim, or your take on your topic.
This stance, claim, or take is your contribution to the current conversation on your topic and provides your readers with a position, perspective, and/or point of view on your topic.
An academic argument is also based on the research, what we often call “evidence-based.” This means you must support your argument with findings from sources you read.
An academic argument is not…
An academic argument is not a fight, a battle, or a negative confrontation. An academic argument is also not emotional nor focused on one person’s opinion.
Academic Arguments Overview
Although reflection and summary play a role in academic writing, your papers need to be founded in analysis and critique. Learning to spot a strong argument in what you read can help you become better at constructing your own arguments when you write. The following subpages will help you learn how to understand and develop a strong argument in a paper and move beyond basic summary.
Writing a Paper: Understanding Arguments
Facione (2010) defined analysis as the ability “to identify the intended and actual inferential relationships among statements, questions, concepts, descriptions, or other forms of representation intended to express belief, judgment, experiences, reasons, information, or opinions” (p. 6). The process of analyzing involves breaking a piece of work apart, examining what the elements mean separately, and figuring out how they are related to each other, with the goal of understanding the meaning of the work as a whole.
Written material is composed of words that make up sentences, which in turn make up paragraphs, which in turn make up chapters, and so forth (Kurland, 2002). The elements in a well written text will be logically organized and a reader’s approach to analyzing them will generally depend on the reader’s goals and the primary themes that interest them. For example, a psychologist’s analysis of a work on mental health will differ from that of a psychiatrist or theologian. The first may focus on the behavioral aspects, the second on the clinical or biological aspects, and the third on spiritual aspects. Because scholarly literature is generally written by researchers or experts who wish to contribute to the knowledge of a particular subject, it is to be analyzed as an argument or communication within that particular social context.
Check out another post by our paper writing experts aimed at assisting students on Walden Center for Academic Excellence (CAEX) Courses and Workshops
The reader’s analysis can focus on three aspects: content, language, and structure (Kurland, 2002). When analyzing the content one may ask the following questions:
- Whom is the author addressing?
- What is the author’s purpose?
- What evidence is used to support the author’s argument?
- What is the context of the work?
When analyzing the structure of the argument, one would ask questions such as:
- How is the argument built? What comes first?
- Do the points follow a logical sequence or timeline?
- How did the author divide the sections?
- Did the author present a problem and its solution?
- Did the author use a compare and contrast analysis?
When analyzing the language, one would ask questions such as:
- What is the tone?
- Does the word selection reveal any biases?
- Is the language clear and vigorous?
As you analyze the text, it is also important to make connections between what you are reading and what you already know. Are any of the points made in conflict with your worldview or perhaps in conflict with the views of other respected scholars in the field? Is the text significant? If so, what makes it significant? Does it make a worthwhile contribution to the field?
The act of inferring is an important component of the critical reading process as it involves making judgments and drawing conclusions. A report published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (2008) found that a reader’s ability to make correct inferences resulted in (a) better reading comprehension, (b) an appreciation of their relationship to the writer and the text, (c) and reading and thinking critically. An inference (Merriam-Webster, n.d.) is defined as “the act of passing from one proposition, statement, or judgment considered as true to another whose truth is believed to follow from that of the former.” Facione (2010) provided a more comprehensive definition; he defined it as being able to
identify and secure elements needed to draw reasonable conclusions; to form conjectures and hypotheses; to consider relevant information and to deduce the consequences flowing from data, statements, principles, evidence, judgments, beliefs, opinions, concepts, descriptions, questions, or other forms of representation. (p. 6)
When inferring, the central question is: “What is the author really saying?” Inferences are made in everyday communication often without much thought. For instance, a husband may tell his wife “do not forget the girls.” From this simple statement the wife may infer several things that are not explicitly stated. She may infer that (a) he is referring to their two daughters, and/or (b) he is reminding her to pick them up from some place. Inference involves reading between the lines. To help her decide what her husband means, she relies primarily on the context, that is, what she already knows and what is most logical: he is her husband, and they have two teenage daughters who are out with friends. One could infer that by girls he is referring to random women; however, in this particular context, that inference though logical is unreasonable. Thus, for inferences to be accurate they must be sensitive to the context.
Making inferences, particularly when one does not have the benefit of a close personal relationship with the author or intimate knowledge of the author’s views, can be tricky and it requires a great deal of care. Like the husband in the example above, writers are trying to communicate a point and the reader combines the words, assesses how they are related to each other, and tries to understand the ideas or meaning behind the words. Readers will generally rely on indicators or clues within the text and prior knowledge and assumptions to make inferences. This process is thus both intuitive and deliberate, and care must be taken when using prior knowledge. Making inferences based primarily on the text will yield the most useful benefits for a reader of academic literature.
Readers must also note that there is a difference between a reasonable inference and a correct one. One may make reasonable inferences based on a text and prior knowledge; however, these may not be correct. One way of ensuring that one’s inferences are correct is to review the evidence and try to determine whether specific reasons can be given to justify the conclusions that have been drawn. Inferences are, after all, speculations that are based on evidence. They are not quite the product of deductive reasoning, so it is not unusual for two people to read the same material and make different inferences. The following example demonstrates this point: two people may see a man in tattered clothing lying in a gutter and from this one may infer that the man is homeless and the other that the man needs help; the first assumes only homeless people lie in gutters while the second assumes that a person lying in a gutter needs help (Paul, 1995). Note that Paul’s (1995) example also illustrates the intimate relationship between inferences and assumptions. The key to making valid inferences is thus a careful evaluation of the evidence. Kurland’s (2000) principle “the more evidence we have before us, and the more carefully we reason, the more valid our inferences” is apt. As you read and think through written material, it is important to also pay attention to the assumptions that underlie the inferences you make.
An assumption is a statement or fact that is taken for granted. It has also been defined as an element that “bridges the gap between an argument’s stated evidence and conclusion … a piece of support that isn’t explicitly stated but that is required for the conclusion to be valid” (Kaplan, 2008, p. 30). Although inferences and assumptions are not identical, they are related in that inferences often find a basis in what is assumed. Understanding assumptions is thus a crucial component of the critical reading process because it enables the reader to:
- Identify what is holding an argument together.
- Identify strengths and weaknesses of an argument.
- Find possible points of critique.
Finding hidden assumptions can be tricky, especially when one is reading dense academic literature. However, identifying them is important because most logical flaws are rooted problematic assumptions. Here are a few strategies one can employ to identify assumptions:
- Evaluate the argument and determine whether it is valid. If it is not, what additional premises should be provided to make it so?
- Look for the gap in the argument. Is there a piece of information missing that may explain how the author concluded X from Y?
- Find a significant counterexample to the point made. This will enable one to identify what the author ignored.
- Assess the terms and categories. What meanings are ascribed to key terms? Are the meanings reasonable and justified? Do they reveal any biases?
Ultimately, the goal of the reading process is to understand the overall meaning of the text. A writer may paint a picture for the reader, but it is ultimately the reader who ascribes meaning to what is read. The meaning ascribed to the text will be influenced by the reader’s biases, knowledge of other literature, inferences, and so forth. Interpretation has to do with making sense of or assigning meaning to something. Facione (2010) defined it as the ability “to comprehend and express the meaning or significance of a wide variety of experiences, situations, data, events, judgments, conventions, beliefs, rules, procedures, or criteria” (p. 5). It involves the ability to determine what is significant, recognize and describe a problem without bias, making distinctions between main ideas and subideas, and so forth (Facione, 2010). This skill is particularly important for graduate school students because of the sheer volume of reading that is expected of them and because much of academic writing involves synthesizing the ideas of multiple authors. To be able to perform these tasks effectively, one must be able to interpret texts. A key skill involved in interpretation is the ability to summarize. When one can summarize each paragraph or each key point, one is on the way to effectively interpreting the overall meaning of the text. However, this is only the beginning as one must also be able to draw out the implications of the author’s arguments.
An implication is a conclusion drawn from some facts. In making connections between the text and the world, it is important to think about the possible consequences that might result if the author’s views are accurate. This, however, must be done carefully in order to avoid falling into the slippery-slope problem, in which one assumes without warrant that a given action will result in a series of increasingly undesirable consequences. For instance, an instructor may argue that he/she cannot make an exception for a particular student because he/she will have to make an exception for all students. This, however, need not be the case as the conclusion/consequence does not logically follow from the premise/action.
Implications provide useful material for critiquing or undermining arguments, so recognizing and drawing them out is an important component of the critical reading process. Drawing implications must begin with an understanding of the facts that are explicitly stated and the conclusions drawn by the author.
Facione, P. (2010). Critical thinking: What it is and why it counts. http://www.insightassessment.com/pdf_files/what&why2006.pdf
Kaplan. (2007). LSAT comprehensive program (2008 ed.).
Kispal, A. (2008). Effective teaching of inference skills for reading (Report No. DCSF-RR031). National Foundation for Educational Research. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED501868.pdf
Kurland, D. (2010). The fundamentals of critical reading and effective writing. http://www.criticalreading.com/critical_reading.htm
Paul, R. (1995). Why students and teachers do not reason well. In J. Wilson & A. J. A. Binker (Eds.), Critical thinking: What every person needs to survive in a rapidly changing world (3rd ed., pp. 151-178). Foundation for Critical Thinking.
Writing a Paper: Developing Arguments
Structure of an Argument
Understanding the structure of arguments is important because it enables a reader to critique various works effectively. Arguments consist of two main parts: conclusion and evidence.
Socrates is human (premise) → Socrates is mortal (conclusion)
In this common argument, one concludes that Socrates is mortal because he is human (as humans are, in fact, mortal). In this example a single conclusion/claim is drawn from a single premise. However, most of the arguments readers of academic literature encounter are a lot more complicated with numerous reasons given in support of an assertion, and the assumptions that may hold them together may be difficult to uncover.
A slightly more complex example might look like this:
- The United States should close Guantanamo (GITMO).
- Keeping GITMO open hurts the United States’s reputation in international affairs.
- By keeping GITMO open, the United States would be violating important principles of international law.
- Violating important principles of international law would hurt the United States’s reputation in international affairs. Undermining the United States’s reputation would make it difficult for the United States to be a leader in international affairs.
- The United States should not do anything that will undermine its reputation in international affairs.
- The United States should not do anything that would make it difficult for the country to lead in international affairs.
- The United States’s diminished reputation would make it difficult for the country to influence human rights policy
- The United States should not do anything that would make it difficult for the country to influence international human rights policy.
The most important part of the analysis for the critical reader is to determine whether the reasons given really support the main point. For instance, one may ask whether violating important principles of international law by keeping GITMO open would really undermine the United States’s reputation.
Difference Between an Argument and an Explanation
Readers of social science literature sometimes have a difficult time distinguishing between an argument and an explanation. The former is, as noted earlier, a combination of assertions supporting a central claim; the latter is a description of the circumstances or an interpretation of given information. Thus, one cannot use an explanation to support a claim. For instance, one might say that the increase in teen pregnancy in the United States can be explained by the permissive media culture, willingness to take risks in sexual relations, or moral decline. Although these explanations are certainly interesting and may even be true, they are not evidence. One would need to go further and try to provide some sort of empirical evidence to support the claim.
Types of Arguments
Inductive and Deductive Arguments
There are generally two types of arguments: inductive and deductive. A deductive argument is one in which the premises guarantee that the conclusion is true. These occur when, perhaps by mathematical or definitional necessity, the truth of the premise will definitely determine the truth of the conclusion. An inductive argument, on the other hand, is one in which the premises provide a sufficient reason for a reader to believe that a conclusion is likely to be true. The difference between the two is the level of certainty that can be ascribed to each one. One can be certain that the conclusion of a deductive argument is correct while one can bet that the conclusion of an inductive argument is probably correct. Most of the arguments encountered in social science literature will be inductive as scientists (a) seek to find possible explanations for varying phenomena, (b) use statistical data to make inferences regarding large groups based on what is found to be true of smaller ones, or (c) try to find a causal relationship between two or more variables.
Validity and Soundness
A deductive argument is considered valid or invalid. It is valid when it has the right form regardless of whether or not its premises are true. For instance:
All fish can run.
Anything that can run can fly.
Therefore, all fish can fly.
Although the two premises in this argument are false, the argument is logically valid. This means it is possible to have a valid argument that has false premises and a false conclusion. Validity simply means that if the premises are true the conclusion must also be true; it does not mean that the premises are true. Thus a deductive argument with false premises and a true conclusion can be valid. For instance:
All fish have smooth skin.
Anything with smooth skin can swim.
Therefore, all fish can swim.
In an invalid argument, the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises. It may look like this:
All U.S. presidents live in Washington, DC.
John lives in Washington, DC.
Therefore, John is a U.S. president.
In this example, the premises may be true, but the conclusion is false. A key point to note is that invalid arguments are unsound. When one combines true premises with a valid argument, the argument is said to be sound.
Inductive arguments, on the other hand, are described as either strong or weak, depending on the strength of the premises/information provided to support the conclusion. Therefore, by definition, valid arguments cannot be strong and vice versa. One can, however, speak of any argument as being valid or invalid. If an argument is valid, one may ask whether it is sound or unsound. If you understand the structure of a writer’s argument, the easier it will be to critique. See our section on logical fallacies.
Critical reading has a lot to do with evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of arguments. Because graduate students are generally expected to critically assess what they read, simply having a sense of what might be wrong with an argument is not enough, they must be able to identify precisely why an argument may be weak. As a general rule, the stronger the claim, the stronger the evidence provided in support of it must be. It is one thing to say poverty contributes to war and entirely another to say poverty causes war. One would require stronger evidence to support the latter claim than to support the former. Both critical readers and writers must learn how to strengthen and weaken arguments. Writers who master these skills are able to write authoritative and convincing material and readers who master these skills are able to critique such material. By learning how to effectively identify assumptions, one is well on the way to evaluating arguments effectively.
Writing a Paper: Comparing & Contrasting
A compare and contrast paper discusses the similarities and differences between two or more topics. The paper should contain an introduction with a thesis statement, a body where the comparisons and contrasts are discussed, and a conclusion.
Address Both Similarities and Differences
Because this is a compare and contrast paper, both the similarities and differences should be discussed. This will require analysis on your part, as some topics will appear to be quite similar, and you will have to work to find the differing elements.
Make Sure You Have a Clear Thesis Statement
Just like any other essay, a compare and contrast essay needs a thesis statement. The thesis statement should not only tell your reader what you will do, but it should also address the purpose and importance of comparing and contrasting the material.
Use Clear Transitions
Transitions are important in compare and contrast essays, where you will be moving frequently between different topics or perspectives.
- Examples of transitions and phrases for comparisons: as well, similar to, consistent with, likewise, too
- Examples of transitions and phrases for contrasts: on the other hand, however, although, differs, conversely, rather than.
For more information, check out our transitions page.
Structure Your Paper
Consider how you will present the information. You could present all of the similarities first and then present all of the differences. Or you could go point by point and show the similarity and difference of one point, then the similarity and difference for another point, and so on.
It is tempting to just provide summary for this type of paper, but analysis will show the importance of the comparisons and contrasts. For instance, if you are comparing two articles on the topic of the nursing shortage, help us understand what this will achieve. Did you find consensus between the articles that will support a certain action step for people in the field? Did you find discrepancies between the two that point to the need for further investigation?
Make Analogous Comparisons
When drawing comparisons or making contrasts, be sure you are dealing with similar aspects of each item. To use an old cliché, are you comparing apples to apples?
- Example of poor comparisons: Kubista studied the effects of a later start time on high school students, but Cook used a mixed methods approach. (This example does not compare similar items. It is not a clear contrast because the sentence does not discuss the same element of the articles. It is like comparing apples to oranges.)
- Example of analogous comparisons: Cook used a mixed methods approach, whereas Kubista used only quantitative methods. (Here, methods are clearly being compared, allowing the reader to understand the distinction.
Writing a Paper: Avoiding Logical Fallacies
Logical fallacies are errors of reasoning—specific ways in which arguments fall apart due to faulty connection making. While logical fallacies may be used intentionally in certain forms of persuasive writing (e.g., in political speeches aimed at misleading an audience), fallacies tend to undermine the credibility of objective scholarly writing. Knowledge of how successful arguments are structured, then—as well as of the different ways they may fall apart—is a useful tool for both academic reading and writing. If you are writing an annotated bibliography or literature review, for instance, being able to recognize logical flaws in others‘ arguments may enable you to critique the validity of claims, research results, or even theories in a particular text. Along the same lines, if you are putting together your own argumentative paper (KAM, dissertation proposal, prospectus, etc.), understanding argument structure and fallacies will help you avoid errors of reasoning in your own work.
The basic structure of all arguments involves three interdependent elements:
- Claim (also known as the conclusion)—What you are trying to prove. This is usually presented as your essay‘s thesis statement.
- Support (also known as the minor premise)—The evidence (facts, expert testimony, quotes, and statistics) you present to back up your claims.
- Warrant (also known as major premise)—Any assumption that is taken for granted and underlies your claim.
Consider the claim, support, and warrant for the following examples:
Claim: The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2001) has led to an increase in high school student drop-out rates.
Support: Drop-out rates in the US have climbed by 20% since 2001.
Warrant: (The claim presupposes that) it‘s a “bad” thing for students to drop out.
Claim: ADHD has grown by epidemic proportions in the last 10 years
Support: In 1999, the number of children diagnosed with ADHD was 2.1 million; in 2009, the number was 3.5 million.
Warrant: (The claim presupposes that) a diagnosis of ADHD is the same thing as the actual existence of ADHD; it also presupposes that ADHD is a disease.
Claims fall into three categories: claims of fact, claims of value, and claims of policy. All three types of claims occur in scholarly writing although claims of fact are probably the most common type you will encounter in research writing. Claims of fact are assertions about the existence (past, present, or future) of a particular condition or phenomenon:
Example: Japanese business owners are more inclined to use sustainable business practices than they were 20 years ago.
The above statement about Japan is one of fact; either the sustainable practices are getting more popular (fact) or they are not (fact). In contrast to claims of fact, those of value make a moral judgment about a phenomenon or condition:
Example: Unsustainable business practices are unethical.
Notice how the claim is now making a judgment call, asserting that there is greater value in the sustainable than in the unsustainable practices. Lastly, claims of policy are recommendations for actions—for things that should be done:
Example: Japanese carmakers should sign an agreement to reduce carbon emissions in manufacturing facilities by 50% by the year 2025.
The claim in this last example is that Japanese carmakers‘ current policy regarding carbon emissions needs to be changed.
For the most part, the claims you will be making in academic writing will be claims of fact. Therefore, examples presented below will highlight fallacies in this type of claim. For an argument to be effective, all three elements—claim, support, and warrant—must be logically connected.
Although there are more than two dozen types and subtypes of logical fallacies, many of these are likelier to occur in persuasive, rather than expository or research, writing. Below are the most common forms of fallacy that you may encounter in the type of expository/research writing you are apt to do at Walden:
- Begging the question, also known as circular reasoning, is a common fallacy that occurs when part of a claim—phrased in just slightly different words—is used in support of that same claim.
Example: Special education students should not be required to take standardized tests because such tests are meant for nonspecial education students.
Notice how the author‘s claim (x should not take the exams) merely presupposes what it is supposed to be proving: that x should not take the exams. This type of fallacy shows up in dissertation prospectus problem statements in which the problem and its cause are defined to be the same.
- Hasty generalization is an error of induction that occurs when a writer jumps to an inference based on limited or inadequate data. Something to pay attention to when reviewing research design (for instance, when doing a literature review or an article critique) is whether the authors of the research paper have based their conclusions on unreliable data or too small a sample size.
Example: Two out of three patients who were given green tea before bedtime reported sleeping more soundly. Therefore, green tea may be used to treat insomnia.
In this example, a sample size of three is way too small to generalize about the effectiveness of green tea—not to mention that patients’ self-reports do not always make the most reliable data!
- Sweeping generalizations are related to the problem of hasty generalizations. In the former, though, the error consists in assuming that a particular conclusion drawn from a particular situation and context applies to all situations and contexts. For example, if I research a particular problem at a private performing arts high school in a rural community, I need to be careful not to assume that my findings will be generalizable to all high schools, including public high schools in an inner city setting.
- Non sequitur is a Latin term that means “does not follow,” and the fallacy occurs when no true logical (especially cause-effect) relationship exists between two notions.
Example: Professor Berger has published numerous articles in immunology. Therefore, she is an expert in complementary medicine.
Notice, in this example, that there is no necessary relationship between knowledge of immunology on the one hand and expertise in complementary medicine on the other. It does not follow that Dr. Berger will be an expert in both areas.
- Post hoc ergo propter hoc, another Latin term, means “after this; therefore, because of this.” This fallacy results from assuming that because something chronologically follows something else, then the two things must be related by a cause-effect connection. Just because x follows y in time, though, does not mean that y caused x. If we look back to the very first example about the NCLB Act, we can see the claim is founded on this false assumption:
Example: Drop-out rates increased the year after NCLB was passed. Therefore, NCLB is causing kids to drop out.
Although it may be true NCLB is contributing to drop outs, this cannot be concluded by the chronology of events alone. Correlation is not causation, so the cause-effect connection would have to be proven. For all we know, some third variable may have caused both the passage of the Act and the change in drop-out rate.
- False dilemma, also known as black and white fallacy, results when a writer falsely constructs an either-or situation. Claims of policy are especially prone to false dilemma errors as the following example shows:
Example: Japanese carmakers must implement green production practices, or Japan‘s carbon footprint will hit crisis proportions by 2025.
The writer of this claim of policy assumes that there are only two options—green car production on the one hand or a catastrophic carbon footprint on the other. However, it is likely that car production is only one of many, many factors contributing to Japan‘s carbon emissions problem. It is unreasonable to focus so absolutely on this one factor.
In addition to claims of policy, false dilemma seems to be common in claims of value. For example, claims about abortion‘s morality (or immorality) presuppose an either-or about when “life” begins. Our earlier example about sustainability (“Unsustainable business practices are unethical.”) similarly presupposes an either/or: business practices are either ethical or they are not, it claims, whereas a moral continuum is likelier to exist.
As you can see from the examples above, there are many ways arguments can fall apart due to faulty connection making. When trying to induce inferences from data, for instance, it‘s important not to draw conclusions too quickly or too globally; otherwise, you may end up with errors of hasty or sweeping generalization that will weaken your overall thesis. Similarly, it‘s important not to construct an either-or argument when dealing with a complex, multi-faceted issue or to assume a causal relationship when dealing with a merely temporal one; the ensuing errors—false dilemma and post hoc ergo procter hoc, respectively—may weaken argument as well. Being attentive to logical fallacies in others‘ writings will make you a more effective “critic” and writer of literature review assignments, annotated bibliographies and article critiques. Being attentive to fallacies in your own writing will help you build more compelling arguments, whether putting together a dissertation prospectus or simply writing a short discussion post on the applications of a particular theory.
Writing a Paper: Addressing Assumptions
One of the first decisions writers have to make is to decide on the reader’s knowledge base. Will the reader know what I mean by X, or do I need to define it? Will the reader have a different definition of X than I do? Will the reader agree that X is important, or do I need to justify my study of X?
These kinds of decisions will vary by case, but there are some general guidelines. When deciding what you can assume about the knowledge you might share with your reader, ask yourself these questions:
- Do the journals in my field share a common definition of this concept? For instance, if you plan to discuss a certain trend in your field, can you assume that your colleagues will be familiar with that trend and the language you are using to describe it? A quick review of current journals in your field should help you determine the common practice.
- Could this term or topic be understood differently by different readers? For instance, buzzwords like at-risk and burnout appear in many Walden papers, often with very different implications and contexts. If you plan to use a term that may have different interpretations, be sure to define it clearly for the purposes of your paper.
- Is this an idea that is particularly present in my own environment? Sometimes, writers assume that a reader will be familiar with an idea because it is so prevalent in their own setting. The problem, of course, is that every workplace or region is different, and what may be a pressing issue in one place isn’t even on the radar somewhere else.
- Am I assuming that the reader already believes in the importance of this issue? When writers have a passion for solving a certain problem, they often forget to clarify why it is a problem. Remember that while your reader may share some of your knowledge base, he or she might not share your perspective. Any time you find yourself beginning a sentence with “We all know that ___ is a problem,” you’ll want to stop and examine that assumption.
- Is the term or idea part of current debate and practice? A notion can occupy many people’s minds for a while and then fall out of fashion in favor of a newer idea. When writing, make sure that your vocabulary is current, reflecting changes in thinking that may have occurred very recently.
Writing a Paper: Responding to Counterarguments
Basics of Counterarguments
When constructing an argument, it is important to consider any counterarguments a reader might make. Acknowledging the opposition shows that you are knowledgeable about the issue and are not simply ignoring other viewpoints. Addressing counterarguments also gives you an opportunity to clarify and strengthen your argument, helping to show how your argument is stronger than other arguments.
Incorporating counterarguments into your writing can seem counterintuitive at first, and some writers may be unsure how to do so. To help you incorporate counterarguments into your argument, we recommend following the steps: (a) identify, (b) investigate, (c) address, and (d) refine.
Identify the Counterarguments
First you need to identify counterarguments to your own argument. Ask yourself, based on your argument, what might someone who disagrees counter in response? You might also discover counterarguments while doing your research, as you find authors who may disagree with your argument.
For example, if you are researching the current opioid crisis in the United States, your argument might be: State governments should allocate part of the budget for addiction recovery centers in communities heavily impacted by the opioid crisis. A few counterarguments might be:
- Recovery centers are not proven to significantly help people with addiction.
- The state’s money should go to more pressing concerns such as…
- Establishing and maintaining a recovery center is too costly.
- Addicts are unworthy of assistance from the state.
Investigate the Counterarguments
Analyze the counterarguments so that you can determine whether they are valid. This may require assessing the counterarguments with the research you already have or by identifying logical fallacies. You may also need to do additional research.
In the above list, the first three counterarguments can be researched. The fourth is a moral argument and therefore can only be addressed in a discussion of moral values, which is usually outside the realm of social science research. To investigate the first, you could do a search for research that studies the effectiveness of recovery centers. For the second, you could look at the top social issues in states around the country. Is the opioid crisis the main concern or are there others? For the third, you could look for public financial data from a recovery center or interview someone who works at one to get a sense of the costs involved.
Address the Counterarguments
Address one or two counterarguments in a rebuttal. Now that you have researched the counterarguments, consider your response. In your essay, you will need to state and refute these opposing views to give more credence to your argument. No matter how you decide to incorporate the counterargument into your essay, be sure you do so with objectivity, maintaining a formal and scholarly tone.
Considerations when writing:
- Type of Response.
- Will you discredit the counteragument by bringing in contradictory research?
- Will you concede that the point is valid but that your argument still stands as the better view? (For example, perhaps it is very costly to run a recovery center, but the societal benefits offset that financial cost.)
- Placement. You can choose to place the counterargument toward the beginning of the essay, as a way to anticipate opposition, or you can place it toward the end of the essay, after you have solidly made the main points of your argument. You can also weave a counterargument into a body paragraph, as a way to quickly acknowledge opposition to a main point. Which placement is best depends on your argument, how you’ve organized your argument, and what placement you think is most effective.
- Weight. After you have addressed the counterarguments, scan your essay as a whole. Are you spending too much time on them in comparison to your main points? Keep in mind that if you linger too long on the counterarguments, your reader might learn less about your argument and more about opposing viewpoints instead.
Refine Your Argument
Considering counterarguments should help you refine your own argument, clarifying the relevant issues and your perspective. Furthermore, if you find yourself agreeing with the counterargument, you will need to revise your thesis statement and main points to reflect your new thinking.
Templates for Responding to Counterarguments
There are many ways you can incorporate counterarguments, but remember that you shouldn’t just mention the counterargument—you need to respond to it as well. You can use these templates (adapted from Graff & Birkenstein, 2009) as a starting point for responding to counterarguments in your own writing.
- The claim that _____ rests upon the questionable assumption that _____.
- X may have been true in the past, but recent research has shown that ________.
- By focusing on _____, X has overlooked the more significant problem of _____.
- Although I agree with X up to a point, I cannot accept the overall conclusion that _____.
- Though I concede that _____, I still insist that _____.
- Whereas X has provided ample evidence that ____, Y and Z’s research on ____ and ____ convinces me that _____ instead.
- Although I grant that _____, I still maintain that _____.
- While it is true that ____, it does not necessarily follow that _____.
Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2009). They say/I say: The moves that matter in academic writing (2nd ed.). Norton.
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