Monday, 7 December 2020

Argument - find the gap

In academic writing, and particularly in the literature review, we are "seeing fault, error or other possibilities in the work of another and making suggestions for improvement or change" (Hart, 1998, p. 79). While I would like to focus on the more positive area of possibility, part of our job as researchers is to critique the existing literature, and to clearly show that there is still more for us to learn. Yep, to focus on the negative, and to "[f]ind the gap".

Stephen Toulmin wrote a seminal work in 1958, called "The uses of argument". It outlines a series of essays about how we develop clear argument - argumentation - from probability to epistemology. He identifies a number of criteria which good argument requires. Helpfully, Hart (1998) summarises and applies Toulmin's criteria, which aid us in evaluating and in constructing an 'adequate' argument. 

Following Hart, "we can work our way systematically through the different elements of an argument [using] Toulmin's structure [...] as our guide and at the same time [it] provide[s] us with a structure for our writing (1998):

  • "Claim - clarity, plausibility, cogency, consequences, practicality" (p. 178). This is the thrust of what we are saying, our 'claim'
  • "Evidence - amount, relevance, reliability, reproducibility, credibility" (p. 178). This is the data we have to offer in support of our claim
  • "Information - details, sources, contacts, time periods" (p. 178). How we have clustered our data into information to support our claim
  • "Warrant - robustness, degrees of connection, assumptions, rhetoric" (p. 178). An "expectation that provides the link between the evidence and claim" (p. 88). This is a 'since' statement. 
  • "Backing - problem awareness, admissibility, strength, validity" (p. 178). This is the "context and assumptions used to support the validity of the warrant and evidence" (p. 88). This is a 'because' statement. 
  • "Conclusion - logic, substantiation, consequences, plausibility" (p. 178). What this elements our argument means in the overall scheme of things.

This list is very useful as a checklist for arguments we are developing. As an example, consider the claim that "car owners should restrict washing their cars in areas of the country where there is a water shortage". The evidence is that "Car washes can use up to 250,000 gallons of water [... depleting] reservoirs by 20%". The warrant is that "since water is essential and people should not waste it in times of shortage", and the backing is "because water shortages [...] are a danger to people and can be costly" (Hart, 1998, p. 89). Although the conclusion is not spelled out, it is implied that we would be reckless to waste water when that might endanger others.

Ensuring that all six elements are present in each paragraph will help us to ensure that when we write, we have prepared sound argument. 



  • Hart, C. (1998). Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the social science research imagination. SAGE Publications Ltd.
  • Toulmin, S. E. (1958). The Uses of Argument (Reprint 1969). Cambridge University Press.

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