Almost any academic writing assignment involves making an argument, but for graduate students, building an argument comes with a particular set of challenges. This is because at the graduate level, making an argument is not simply a matter of expressing what we think, but of making an original contribution to a field of study. This involves convincing other academics, who often have considerable experience and expertise, of the value and significance of our views. Even if we know what we think about a given subject, building an argument that accomplishes these goals can be a daunting and difficult task.
The first thing to remember is that an argument is not something already in the world, waiting to be discovered, but must be built by you. This involves articulating the argument itself, identifying relevant and convincing evidence, and developing connections between your argument and existing literature, events, or problems. This can be done in a variety of ways, and it is important to remember that arguments can be constructed differently depending on the discipline they are speaking to, the kind of supporting evidence employed, or the particular style of the author. Sound, compelling arguments can be built with materials and techniques as different as empirical research and analysis and close reading of texts, or synthesis and analysis.
Despite this diversity of methods, I find that the best arguments tend to have the same qualities: thorough, clear, logical, relevant, and critical. This last quality—critical—is particularly important, as it implies that the author has incorporated a consideration of the limits of their own argument into their analysis. This strengthens the argument itself, as it shows the author has thought about the particular beliefs, assumptions, and rationales that inform their own perspective.
A key element of building an effective argument is identifying your audience. Figuring out exactly what your argument is can be challenging, not least because of the need to make an argument that is original. Finding out what others have said about a particular topic can help you identify what is unique about your own position. By identifying similarities and differences between your own position and those of others who study the same subject, you can create what is sometimes called an “argument space,” a set of texts, concepts, and concerns the contours of which can help determine your guiding questions, central concepts, and main interlocutors. When trying to identify your audience, ask, “Which scholars or disciplines might be able to learn from what I am saying? To whom might my argument be most relevant and interesting?”
Once you have constructed a strong, clear argument supported by ample evidence, your task is still not complete. Don’t forget, an argument on its own is insufficient. It is crucial that you have some idea of why and to whom your argument matters. In other words, making a strong argument requires thinking about its implications. This means thinking about your argument as one element in a much broader context, whether that context is a policy arena, a particular set of literatures, or a problem that needs solving. This understanding will inform how you make your argument, what evidence you will gather, and the weight and inflection you will give to both.
By Regan Burles, May 2018