- Examine an argument from different angles and perspectives in order to create counterarguments
A different perspective means reevaluating your argument from another point of view and operating under the assumption that your argument might not be correct. In order to do this, you must consider other evidence and other possibilities.
Evaluating different perspectives can help lead you to counterarguments which challenge your own argument. When you are able to anticipate and refute counterarguments, it strengthens your own analysis. If you encounter a challenge to your argument and are unable to refute it with legitimate evidence, it may be prudent to reconsider your position.
Think about your own argument from the Part One Historical Hack. Can you immediately think of a different perspective on the issue? If not, you may need to do some research. Sometimes, a different perspective may have existed at one time, but there may not be any extant primary sources because the people who held that perspective did not know how to read or write, or they did not keep written records, or all their records were destroyed. You may need to use your imagination, plus some critical thinking, to come up with a perspective that is opposite to the one you used in your Part One argument.
To recap: the example argument from the previous page was that Alexis de Tocqueville purposefully made an incorrect assertion about American women’s labor in order to create a propaganda piece for his French audience.
These perspectives will be put to use generating a counterargument for our example in a moment.
A different perspective is not necessarily the same as a counterargument. A different perspective is a question, such as “why did he write this?” or “why did she do this instead of that?” You then examine possible answers to those questions. A different perspective looks for the reasoning behind an argument, rather than the argument itself. A perspective can help lead to the development of an argument. In this case, evaluating different perspectives can help develop counterarguments. A perspective offers an idea or opinion, a counterargument is backed up by facts.
In order to anticipate counterarguments, you need to be able to analyze the evidence which supports them. If you can anticipate and analyze a counterargument and incorporate that analysis into your paper, it will actually become supporting evidence for your own argument, provided you do it correctly and avoid confirmation bias. You may even encounter enough evidence or different perspectives that you have to adjust – or even change! – your own argument based on the counterarguments you have analyzed.
If your argument is well-supported and the counterarguments are not, then your argument is strengthened. If both are equally well-supported, you can “call it a draw” and leave the question open to further interpretation, which is perfectly acceptable and common within the discipline of history.
Worked Example: Counterarguments
Previously, we used our example to generate different perspectives on de Tocqueville’s argument about American women’s labor. For this part, we will select one of those perspectives and use it to generate a counterargument:
- It could be that de Tocqueville fell victim to the bias of his own aristocratic background and did not feel it important to actually observe the working conditions of American women before writing about them. He may have intended his writing to be an academic study of American social and political life, but his flawed research methods render the entire work unsound.
Here is a possible counterargument, generated using the above perspective, which challenges our original one from Part One:
- Alexis de Tocqueville’s work Democracy in America was meant as an academic study of American political and social life. He was particularly focused on American gender roles and the idea of “separate spheres,” which he praised by stating that American women never have to do any physical labor, no matter how poor they are. However, de Tocqueville’s research methods were flawed and his attempt at observational study fell victim to his own aristocratic biases when he failed to actually observe the working-class American women he was writing about. This failure turned Democracy in America from an academic study to an unintentional work of propaganda that promoted De Tocqueville’s limited idea of American gender roles.
For the sake of clarity, let’s place our original argument beside this counterargument and compare the two:
Notice how the debate between the two arguments is not about the fact that American women worked physical jobs. The debate is about De Tocqueville’s intentions for the work and the reasons why he may have omitted factual information which directly contradicted his assertions.
Why Does it Matter?
The reasons and intentions behind primary sources are a common debate in the field of history because authors so rarely left notes on their manuscripts that plainly stated their intentions for writing, their own personal biases, or who was paying them to write, or who was threatening them if they didn’t write.
This is one of the objectives of a Primary Source Interpretation Argument: to try and parse why an author wrote what they did and why they wrote it the specific way they did. This is important because when historians use primary sources to do other kinds of research (like Historical Event/Person research) it is vital to know the context and perspective of the sources you are using to support your argument.
Using your argument from the last activity (like the Michael Scott example introduced previously: “Many people find comic relief in Michael Scott’s character from The Office, but a closer look at Michael’s inflexible and narcissistic personality traits reveal that his character is far from funny, especially for those who can relate to unpleasant relationships with their bosses at work.”), create a counterargument that could be used by those who disagree.
One more practice question to make sure you’ve really got the hang of it:
Recap and Conclusion
When beginning work on a research paper or a project, remember to follow the steps outlined in this Historical Hack to get started:
- First, choose your general topic and time period, narrow it down slightly by choosing a type of history (military history or women’s history), a specific primary source (Common Sense by Thomas Paine), a specific historical figure or two (Thomas Jefferson, or the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton), or a specific event (the Siege of Yorktown)
- Then, decide what type of argument you want to make:
- Historical Event/Person
- Primary Source Interpretation
- A Combination of Historical Event & Primary Source
- Or a Historiography/Methodology Argument
- Next, make sure your argument is valid with some basic research.
- Do you have primary sources and established facts to support your argument?
- Do you have secondary sources to back up your interpretations?
- Then, consider all possible counterarguments. How and why might someone refute your argument?
While researching, it is extremely important to anticipate and evaluate counterarguments and to address them in your research. This helps your argument stand on its own because you can show that challenges to your position can be refuted using evidence.
Creating valid historical arguments can be tedious. There are many different angles, perspectives, and details that must be examined before landing on an argument that is not only valid, but also supportable, defendable, and coherent.
- Anthony Brundage. 2008.Going to the sources: a guide to historical research and writing. Wheeling, Ill: Harlan Davidson, 131-132. ↵