research as an argument

One of the things that doctoral researchers sometimes find difficult to ‘get’ is that the thesis is not a report of a set of findings with a discussion and a conclusion tacked onto the end.

 It is an ARGUMENT.

An academic argument is not bickering. It is rather is more like the kind of conversation you might have if you are trying to settle something with another person, or the kind of document you might write if you are trying to convince somebody to provide you with funding, do something particular or indeed stop doing something. Another term for this kind of rhetorical and textual work could be called making a case…

I’m always looking around for materials that help people to learn about arguments and keep coming back to an oldish book called The Craft Of Research by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb and Joseph Wlliams. This went into its third edition in 2008. These authors devote five chapters to writing arguments. What I particularly like is the way that they define their terms and then show how they are used. While they are primarily talking about social science that is empirical not theoretical , much of what they have to say is still useful for library or thinking work. Because the book was first written in 1995, I imagine it is available in most university libraries.

Booth, Colomb and Williams suggest that an argument consists of five elements, namely:

1. A Claim  – a statement that something is ‘true’ – This is sometimes called the thesis.


Claim: some boys are leaving school at a disadvantage .

2. Reasons   – statements that support the claim. It is helpful to think of this as the  ‘because statement’ that follows the claim


Claim: Some boys are leaving school at a disadvantage

Reason: because they have fallen behind their female peers.

3. The warrant – the principle which establishes that the reason is relevant to the claim


Claim: Some boys are leaving school at a disadvantage

Reason: because they have fallen behind their female peers.

Warrant: Success at school is strongly correlated with life opportunities (work, further education)

4. Evidence – empirical data from your own or other studies which substantiate the reasons

In this example: . Exam results, post school destintations of students sorted by class and gender

5. Responses to complications/objections/alternative reasoning and/or evidence

In this example: Dealing with the evidence of the gender segregated labour market which reverses the pattern of school outcomes

Most research leads to a claim, supported by reasons for the claim, substantiated with evidence. Field work and the associated literature work usually provides the evidence from which a claim with reasons can be constructed.   It is important to note here that evidence does not speak for itself. It is always subject to interpretation and reasoned argument.  Booth et al’s formulation makes that pretty clear.

Booth, Colomb and Williams suggest that researchers ask themselves the following questions about each of these elements as an aide to constructing their argument/case. These are questions that it is useful to ask as a means of putting together a  thesis text or a journal article:

(1)    What is my claim?

(2)    What reasons support my claim?

(3)    What principle makes my reasons relevant to my claim?

(4)    What evidence supports my reasons?

(5)    How do I acknowledge and respond to alternatives/complications/objections?

They go on to discuss how each of these elements might be approached and also how arguments can be made more complex – or thickened. It’s a book that’s worth a look.

Adapted from p. 108-110, Booth, W; Colomb, G and Williams, J (2008) The Craft Of Research (third ed) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, argument. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to research as an argument

  1. Pravinjeya says:

    Thanx. Really helpful and it certainly 2k me a whiie 2 figure this out. Its a bit like dialectical thinking.


  2. Donna Franklin says:

    Hi Pat, can you tell me is there a big difference between the first edition 2003 and the current 2008?…… will i get the essentials from the earlier version, as Ive seen it in a 2nd hand shop! ;0)


    • pat thomson says:

      Hi Donna. The blurb says that the third edition has had some revisions – in terms of the five chapters on argument it seems like one chapter on warrants, the term they use for the principle that connects claim and reasons, has been substantially revised. The one author who is still alive (Colomb) did this set of revisions which includes more on planning a research project and something on WWW research ( quaintly called electronic sources).


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  6. zy31415 says:

    Reblogged this on Yang.


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  8. Lynn Quinn says:

    Dear Pat
    What would you say is the difference between thesis as an argument and using argument in your thesis?


    • pat thomson says:

      As I understand it.. Using argument in a thesis might be partial and sporadic. It might be small arguments within an overall report genre. Saying the thesis is an argument is saying the whole text makes a case – and its a case not only that a problem needs to be investigated, but also that what the researcher has produced as results constitutes a useful contribution to knowledge – one worthy of the award of doctor.


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  11. Pingback: Staking a Claim: Writing and Defending an Argument in Academic Writing – MargaretEdits

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