Argument: Introduction

In the context of academic writing, it is a common misunderstanding to think that “having an argument” and “having a thesis” mean the same thing. Put simply, a thesis is an overarching statement about your knowledge contribution. An argument, by contrast, only happens when a writer argues with other scholars and even with the the skeptical thoughts and objections of the presumed readers a writer is trying to convince. Consider the Oxford English Dictionary’s fourth definition of “argument,” a meaning that has been in use since at least 1393: “A connected series of statements or reasons intended to establish a position (and, hence, to refute the opposite); a process of reasoning; argumentation.” There is a lot to unpack here. First, we might say that argument names the work of persuading readers that your thesis is valid, which means that it happens over time as a “connected series of statements or reasons intended to establish a position.” Here we see that Argument is closely linked to Structure. Other considerations factor into decisions about the overall Structure of a piece, but effective argumentation always involves thinking carefully about sequence, and so it is always involved in structural decisions. Second, the OED definition makes clear that an argument isn’t just the laying out of a positive account, or the proof of your own thesis, for it is also the work of refuting (1) opposing ideas and conclusions and (2) possible objections people might be raised against your own analysis.

You will find entries in this category that can help you think through the steps you take to substantiate your thesis, because those steps make up a key part of your overall argument. But you will also find entries that help you to introduce more argumentativeness into that argument. This is the aspect of academic writing that stages an ongoing conversation with various intrigued-but-skeptical readers who can’t help but scrutinize the choices you’ve made in advancing your thesis.

Imagine such a reader thinking the following thoughts as they work their way through an article: Why did they think it best to use X method instead of Y method? Is Z really the best example for the point they’re trying to make? Are they compounding variables here? Is their analysis mistaking a particular for a universal? Most likely, only some of the questions listed here will make sense to you, and that’s because academic disciplines differ in the kinds of questions a reader might ask when testing the validity of a published study. Whatever discipline you belong to, keep in mind that scholars who read your work will be asking themselves questions about the choices you make. They will be on the lookout for places where there is potential to disagree with your evidentiary choices, methodological choices, interpretive choices, and so on. You can add more argumentativeness into the structure of your argument by acknowledging and responding to readers’ possible concerns and objections, sometimes in the body of your text, and sometimes in the footnotes. Many entries in this category offer you strategies for identifying moments in your draft that would benefit from debate-oriented argumentation.