Why It Matters: Argumentation and Persuasion

Argument is a part of everyday life. Whether it’s debating with a friend who the best professor is to take for a course or negotiating with your boss for a change to your work schedule, you make your own arguments and hear/read others’ arguments all the time. When you argue, you present your stance on the subject (known as a claim) and defend that stance with, at the minimum, reasons and evidence; for more complex arguments you may find you also need to account for opposing views (known as integrating and responding to counterarguments) and perhaps also demonstrate why your evidence supports your claim (known as using a warrant). Later in this chapter you will learn more about the components of argument as well as strategies both to use and to avoid when arguing, but, before we move on, let’s discuss why making sound arguments is important.

Depending on what the argument is about, consequences of an argument can range from fairly minor to significant. For example, let’s say, using the earlier workplace scenario, that you are scheduled to work on a Saturday afternoon and you find out on Friday morning that some of your friends are going on a weekend trip and would like for you to come along. You know before you speak with your boss that it is unlikely you will be able to rearrange your schedule on such short notice and that the reason you want to ask for the schedule change is not likely to sway him or her. As a result, you need to come up with the best reasons and evidence possible to increase the chance of persuading your boss.  These might include that you are one of the most dependable employees, as shown by the fact that you regularly arrive to work early and leave late when asked, as well as that you always switch with your coworkers when they need time off.

On the one hand, if you present sound reasons and evidence but are ultimately unsuccessful in your argument, then the only probable consequence to you is that you will still have to work on Saturday and miss the trip. On the other hand, if you say the wrong things (e.g., your boss changes his/her schedule last minute all the time so you should be able to as well, your coworkers all tell you that you work too hard and should have more time off, etc.) then the consequences could be more serious; you risk angering your boss and frustrating coworkers if they find out you shared comments that were intended to be private. Assuming that you are successful in your argument, there are still consequences, though; ultimately someone else will need to work your shift, and that person may or may not be happy about it. As this example shows, when planning and executing an argument you need to carefully think about not only what you need to say or write to be successful, but also what the risks and real consequences could be if you are (or are not).

Just as it is important to make sound arguments in our lives outside of the academy, it is also important to do so within the academy. Particularly for scholars publishing their theories and/or results from their research, the arguments they make can have serious implications not only for knowledge and practice within their fields, but also outside of them. Although the research academics do may seem (far) removed from us, the reality is that it is not.

To take a recent example, climate change—whether it is real, if it is real then how serious it is, who/what is responsible for it, etc.—has been a growing topic of discussion in recent years, with that discussion unfolding not just in scholarship but also in popular and political discourse. The majority of scientists claim that not only is climate change real, but also that humans play a significant role in it and that the consequences of climate change are/will be dire, particularly if we delay taking steps to curb emissions. However, not all scientists agree that climate change is real or that, if it is real, that it is caused by humans and/or that there is anything we can do to stop it. You need look no further than all of the discussion surrounding the Paris Agreement in early 2017 to see that research and the arguments researchers make based on their research play a significant role in all of our lives.

Even if your academic research may not have the same impact as the climate change example, you are still responsible for making sound arguments that are grounded in credible, well-developed reasons and evidence. Setting aside the potential consequences to your reader(s), at the very least, your reputation as a researcher and a writer can be affected when you present a questionable claim, or even when you present a legitimate claim but it is backed by faulty ideas.

Argument in a Digital Age

If you are a social media user then you probably have participated in, or at least observed, a number of online “wars with words.” Sometimes these arguments take place between family and friends, but in other cases we see people who are unknown to the original poster participate as well, depending on what platform the exchange occurs on as well as the privacy settings. Think back to the most recent social media debate you have either been a part of or witnessed between others. What was the argument about? What kinds of support did the participants use to back their positions? What do you think are the possible consequences that could have resulted from the exchange—or perhaps actually did? Particularly in our digital age, consider how easily something posted online goes viral, and what that can mean for the long term future.