Organizing an Argument

Learning Objectives

  • Examine methods for organizing an argument, such as Toulmin’s schema

Organizing the Argument

There are several effective ways to organize an argument so that you have room for rebuttal. Using the block method, you could present your ideas first, then refute the counterarguments towards the end of your essay, before the conclusion. You could also use incorporate the rebuttal throughout the entire essay, by introducing the possible counterargument to each of your claims and the rebuttal in each body paragraph.

No matter which method of organization you use, the important thing is to systematically address the counterarguments to your viewpoints and provide support for your claims. For example, you could follow the Aristotelian, or classical, argumentative essay framework, in which you present your side of the issue first, then address the opposition, then provide evidence supporting your side of the issue. It looks like this:

  1. Introduce your issue. At the end of your introduction, most professors will ask you to present your thesis. The idea is to present your readers with your main point and then dig into it.
  2. Present your case by explaining the issue in detail and why something must be done or a way of thinking is not working. This will take place over several paragraphs.
  3. Address the opposition. Use a few paragraphs to explain the other side. Refute the opposition one point at a time.
  4. Provide your proof. After you address the other side, you’ll want to provide clear evidence that your side is the best side.
  5. Present your conclusion. In your conclusion, you should remind your readers of your main point or thesis and summarize the key points of your argument. If you are arguing for some kind of change, this is a good place to give your audience a call to action. Tell them what they could do to make a change.

Toulmin’s Schema

The Toulmin method, developed by philosopher Stephen Toulmin, is another tool that’s helpful in analyzing an argument and identifying the rebuttal.

There are six elements for analyzing or presenting arguments that are important to the Toulmin method. When you’re analyzing arguments as a reader, you can look for these elements to help you understand the argument and evaluate its validity. When you’re writing an argument, you can include these same elements to ensure your audience will see the validity of your claims. You can also use these elements to help outline your argument in the early stages of your writing.

These are the six parts of an argument in Toulmin’s Schema:

  1. Claim: conclusions whose merit must be established. For example, if a person tries to convince a listener that he is a British citizen, the claim would be “I am a British citizen.”
  2. Data: the facts appealed to as a foundation for the claim. For example, the person introduced in 1 can support his claim with the supporting data “I was born in Bermuda.”
    A pie chart and a line graph on a computer screen.

    Figure 1. Step 2 of Toulmin’s schema is using data to support the claim(s) that were made in Step 1.

  3. Warrant: the statement authorizing the movement from the data to the claim. In order to move from the data established in 2, “I was born in Bermuda,” to the claim in 1, “I am a British citizen,” the person must supply a warrant to bridge the gap between 1 & 2 with the statement “A man born in Bermuda will legally be a British citizen.” Toulmin stated that an argument is only as strong as its weakest warrant and if a warrant isn’t valid, then the whole argument collapses. Therefore, it is important to have strong, valid warrants.
  4. Backing: facts that give credibility to the statement expressed in the warrant; backing must be introduced when the warrant itself is not convincing enough to the readers or the listeners. For example, if the listener does not deem the warrant as credible, the speaker would supply legal documents as backing statement to show that it is true that “A man born in Bermuda will legally be a British citizen.”
  5. Rebuttal: statements recognizing the restrictions to which the claim may legitimately be applied. The rebuttal is exemplified as follows, “A man born in Bermuda will legally be a British citizen, unless he has betrayed Britain and become a spy of another country.”
  6. Qualifier: words or phrases expressing how certain the author/speaker is concerning the claim. Such words or phrases include “possible,” “probably,” “impossible,” “certainly,” “presumably,” “as far as the evidence goes,” or “necessarily.” The claim “I am definitely a British citizen” has a greater degree of force than the claim “I am a British citizen, presumably.”

The first three elements (claim, data, and warrant) are considered as the essential components of practical arguments, while the final three elements (backing, rebuttal, and qualifier) may not be needed in all arguments.

Watch It

The following video introduces the components of the Toulmin model.

You can view the transcript for “The Toulmin Model of Argumentation” here (download).

Flow Chart. Fact: Rick has fair skin, red hair and freckles, and he sunbathed all day yesterday. A blue line moves right, and drops down to two pieces. First, Warrant: People with fair skin, red hair and freckles usually get sunburnt easily. Second, Backing: Those people have little melanin in their skin. Melanin protects against sunburn. Continuing on the blue line to the right, we see another two sections. First, (probably) Conclusion: Rick will probably get seriously sunburnt. Second, Rebuttal: Rick's parents both have fair skin, red hair and freckles, and they never seem to get sunburnt however much they sit outside.

Figure 2. This image shows how conclusions are reached, using the Toulmin model of arguments.

Toulmin’s Method Examples

Example 1

Suppose you watch a commercial for a product that promises to give you whiter teeth. Here are the basic parts of the argument behind the commercial:

  1. Claim: You should buy our tooth-whitening product.
  2. Data: Studies show that teeth are 50% whiter after using the product for a specified time.
  3. Warrant: People want whiter teeth.
  4. Backing: Celebrities want whiter teeth.
  5. Rebuttal: Commercial says “unless you don’t want to show your real smile.”
  6. Qualifier: Fine print says “product must be used six weeks for results.”

Notice that those commercials don’t usually bother trying to convince you that you want whiter teeth; instead, they assume that you have bought into the value our culture places on whiter teeth. When an assumption—a warrant in Toulmin’s terms—is unstated, it’s called an implicit warrant. Sometimes, however, the warrant may need to be stated because it is a powerful part of the argument. When the warrant is stated, it’s called an explicit warrant.

Example 2

  1. Claim: People should probably own a gun.
  2. Data: Studies show that people who own a gun are less likely to be mugged.
  3. Warrant: People want to be safe.
  4. Backing: May not be necessary. In this case, it is common sense that people want to be safe.
  5. Rebuttal: Not everyone should own a gun. Children and those will mental disorders/problems should not own a gun.
  6. Qualifier: The word “probably” in the claim.

How would you assess the strength of the warrant in this argument?

Example 3

  1. Claim: Flag burning should be unconstitutional in most cases.
  2. Data: A national poll says that 60% of Americans want flag burning to be unconstitutional.
  3. Warrant: People want to respect the flag.
  4. Backing: Official government procedures for the disposal of flags.
  5. Rebuttal: Not everyone in the U.S. respects the flag.
  6. Qualifier: The phrase “in most cases.”

How would you assess the strength of the data in this argument?

Sample Essay

Now that you have had the chance to learn about Toulmin, it’s time to see what a Toulmin argument might look like. Here you’ll see a sample argumentative essay, written according to MLA formatting guidelines, with a particular emphasis on Toulmin elements.