Argument in Research Papers and Other Essays
When we speak of arguments in research papers, we aren't talking about emotional arguments, as when people get angry and disagree with each other. We are talking about a reason or set of reasons presented to support an assertion. Emotion and ideology should have no place in a research paper.
Arguments, in the scholarly, academic sense of the word, allow you to debate ideas. An argumentative research paper or essay needs to support your stand (thesis = claim/conclusion) on an issue. Your stand should be something that reasonable people can agree or disagree with. An argumentative research paper is analytical, and it uses information as evidence to support its point, much as a lawyer uses evidence to make his or her case and anticipates what opposing council will do to try to make his or her case. You need to imagine opposing viewpoints, anticipate them, and produce enough good evidence to persuade people who may initially have disagreed with you.
Another aspect of understanding arguments is to examine the parts. An argument can be broken down into three major components: premises, inferences, and a conclusion. Premises are statements of (assumed) fact that are supposed to set forth the reasons and evidence for believing a claim. The claim, in turn, is the conclusion: what you are trying to prove with the rest of your argument. Inferences are the reasoning parts of an argument. Conclusions are a type of inference, but always the final inference. Usually an argument will be complicated enough to require inferences linking the premises with the final conclusion.
An argument paper must contain four basic elements:
- The conclusion of your argument, also called the claim, or the position that you put forth.
- The evidence that supports your claim.
- Definitions of the important terms that you use, so that you and your audience share an understanding of the terms that you use when you present your claim and your evidence.
- Consideration of counter-arguments, or opposing claims, to show your reader why these are weak and your claim is strong, or even to show that they may be strong, but yours are stronger.
Here is some advice to consider when dealing with opposing arguments:
- What are the most important opposing arguments? What concessions can I make and still support my own argument?
- What evidence do I have to support my own argument? How does that evidence compare with that used by people with opposing viewpoints?
- What are possible misunderstandings of my own argument that I need to anticipate in order to clarify my argument?
- Are the opposing arguments good enough to make me reconsider some or all of my own claims? Have I learned something unexpected, and am I intellectually honest and brave enough to reconsider my original position and revise my own thesis?
Genre and the Research Paper
This handout provides detailed information about how to write research papers including discussing research papers as a genre, choosing topics, and finding sources.
Contributors: Jack Raymond Baker, Allen Brizee, Ashley Velázquez
Last Edited: 2011-03-30 09:06:38
Research: What it is.
A research paper is the culmination and final product of an involved process of research, critical thinking, source evaluation, organization, and composition. It is, perhaps, helpful to think of the research paper as a living thing, which grows and changes as the student explores, interprets, and evaluates sources related to a specific topic. Primary and secondary sources are the heart of a research paper, and provide its nourishment; without the support of and interaction with these sources, the research paper would morph into a different genre of writing (e.g., an encyclopedic article). The research paper serves not only to further the field in which it is written, but also to provide the student with an exceptional opportunity to increase her knowledge in that field. It is also possible to identify a research paper by what it is not.
Research: What it is not.
A research paper is not simply an informed summary of a topic by means of primary and secondary sources. It is neither a book report nor an opinion piece nor an expository essay consisting solely of one's interpretation of a text nor an overview of a particular topic. Instead, it is a genre that requires one to spend time investigating and evaluating sources with the intent to offer interpretations of the texts, and not unconscious regurgitations of those sources. The goal of a research paper is not to inform the reader what others have to say about a topic, but to draw on what others have to say about a topic and engage the sources in order to thoughtfully offer a unique perspective on the issue at hand. This is accomplished through two major types of research papers.
Two major types of research papers.
Argumentative research paper:
The argumentative research paper consists of an introduction in which the writer clearly introduces the topic and informs his audience exactly which stance he intends to take; this stance is often identified as the thesis statement. An important goal of the argumentative research paper is persuasion, which means the topic chosen should be debatable or controversial. For example, it would be difficult for a student to successfully argue in favor of the following stance.
Cigarette smoking poses medical dangers and may lead to cancer for both the smoker and those who experience secondhand smoke.
Perhaps 25 years ago this topic would have been debatable; however, today, it is assumed that smoking cigarettes is, indeed, harmful to one's health. A better thesis would be the following.
Although it has been proven that cigarette smoking may lead to sundry health problems in the smoker, the social acceptance of smoking in public places demonstrates that many still do not consider secondhand smoke as dangerous to one's health as firsthand smoke.
In this sentence, the writer is not challenging the current accepted stance that both firsthand and secondhand cigarette smoke is dangerous; rather, she is positing that the social acceptance of the latter over the former is indicative of a cultural double-standard of sorts. The student would support this thesis throughout her paper by means of both primary and secondary sources, with the intent to persuade her audience that her particular interpretation of the situation is viable.
Analytical research paper:
The analytical research paper often begins with the student asking a question (a.k.a. a research question) on which he has taken no stance. Such a paper is often an exercise in exploration and evaluation. For example, perhaps one is interested in the Old English poem Beowulf. He has read the poem intently and desires to offer a fresh reading of the poem to the academic community. His question may be as follows.
How should one interpret the poem Beowulf?
His research may lead him to the following conclusion.
Beowulf is a poem whose purpose it was to serve as an exemplum of heterodoxy for tenth- and eleventh-century monastic communities.
Though his topic may be debatable and controversial, it is not the student's intent to persuade the audience that his ideas are right while those of others are wrong. Instead, his goal is to offer a critical interpretation of primary and secondary sources throughout the paper--sources that should, ultimately, buttress his particular analysis of the topic. The following is an example of what his thesis statement may look like once he has completed his research.
Though Beowulf is often read as a poem that recounts the heroism and supernatural exploits of the protagonist Beowulf, it may also be read as a poem that served as an exemplum of heterodoxy for tenth- and eleventh-century monastic communities found in the Danelaw.
This statement does not negate the traditional readings of Beowulf; instead, it offers a fresh and detailed reading of the poem that will be supported by the student's research.
It is typically not until the student has begun the writing process that his thesis statement begins to take solid form. In fact, the thesis statement in an analytical paper is often more fluid than the thesis in an argumentative paper. Such is one of the benefits of approaching the topic without a predetermined stance.