Let’s establish some ground rules based on what we looked at so far. An academic argument:
i. begins with an arguable premise or claim. Undergraduate essays usually ask students to write about a subject that involves exploring different points of view or comparing and contrasting. For example: ‘Discuss the portrayal of the themes of love and power in two of the Shakespeare plays we have studied this term’.
ii. uses facts and evidence. An academic argument explores an arguable premise or claim using facts, evidence and different points of view.
iii. is logical and coherent. It moves from step to step in a clear, developmental manner.
iv. uses references and credits them. The facts, evidence and different points of view used to explore the premise or claim will come from outside sources; and these sources will be acknowledged in footnotes, a bibliography or a reference list.
However, although all academic arguments do these things, there are different ways of doing them.
Theory X and Theory Y – 1
Let’s imagine an essay title: ‘Discuss the decline and recovery of Marks & Spencer using Smith’s Theory of X and Jones’s Theory of Y; and say which is most applicable.’
Let’s also imagine that both Theory X and Theory Y are well known; and that both can be broken down into five main points.
This essay is asking you to take a case and examine it using tried and trusted ‘tools’ – in this case Theory X and Theory Y.
One way to construct your argument would be to start with a brief history of Marks & Spencer. You could then work through Theory X saying if and how its five main points are applicable. You could then work through Theory Y saying if and how its five main points are applicable. Your conclusion would depend on the number of X and Y features that you have found to be applicable. You might find that more X features were applicable; or that more Y features were applicable. Or you might find that equal numbers of points from both theories are applicable.
Theory X and Theory Y – 2
Another way to construct your argument would be to start with Theory X and Theory Y and give accounts of both. You could then work through the key points in the recent history of Marks & Spencer and look at each point in terms of Theory X and Theory Y. For example:
‘In 1993, Marks and Spencer sales fell by aa% against the previous year. Theory X states that companies in this position should do … Marks & Spencer did … This shows that…
On the other hand, Theory Y states that companies in this position should do… If Marks & Spencer had done… then… However, company statements at the time show that…’
Pros and cons – 1
Let’s imagine a different type of essay title: ‘The provision of public service broadcasting in the UK cannot be maintained in a digital pay-per-view or subscription environment. Discuss.’
This essay is asking to discuss a statement in terms of pros and cons – i.e. arguments for and against – and to come to a conclusion.
Let’s imagine that there are four main pro points and four main con points.
One way to structure your argument would be to start by exploring the claim. You would look at the background of public service broadcasting in the UK and see what had led this claim to be made. You would also need to say something about the rise and current state of what your essay title calls ‘a digital pay-per-view or subscription environment’.
You could then work through the four main pro points and then work through the four main con points. Your conclusion would then attempt to synthesise the major arguments against the existing state of public service broadcasting in the UK and any known government plans for the future.
Pros and cons – 2
Another way to structure your argument would also start by exploring the claim.
In contrast to method one, you would then work through the four main pro and con points in pairs: Pro 1, Con 1, Synthesis; Pro 2, Con 2, Synthesis; and so on. Your conclusion would bring together the main points in a similar way to method one.
The methods suggested in both ‘Theory X and Theory Y’ and ‘Pros and cons’ are what are termed mediative arguments. This means that you are taking a number of different points of view and mediating between them. That is, you are saying that none of the various points of view are 100% right or 100% wrong. It is quite likely that a lot of undergraduate essays will invite you to make a mediative argument. It is a good way of exploring different points of view. If you can see and say that these different viewpoints have good and bad aspects to them, you are well on the way to thinking critically.
Alternative arguments – categorical, chronological, perceived importance, sequential
Your essay question and the evidence and materials you gather to help you answer it may sometimes require different sorts of arguments. Here are four of the most common.
Categorical. An essay that asked you to look at examples of organisational structure in the USA, Europe and the Third World would be asking you to organise your material and make your argument in a categorical way i.e. by looking at different categories or classes of things.
Chronological. An essay asking you to look at the history of scientific paradigms in psychology from 1900 to 2000 would be asking you to make a chronological argument. So you would start with the early 20th Century, perhaps then look at the period 1950-1970 and then look at the closing decades.
Perceived importance. An essay title asking you to examine organisational functions and discuss their importance would be asking you to review which functions experts regard as most important. So you might well start such an essay by saying something like ‘Most management and organisational theorists agree that functions should be ranked as follows…’
Sequential. An essay asking you to examine organisational functions using the example of a successful product would be asking you to think about the processes behind that success. So you might start by looking at market research, then move on to product design and finish by looking at marketing and advertising.
An essay might even involve combining two or more of these approaches. An essay asking you to look at the history of organisational theories would be both chronological and organised in terms of how perceived importance of different functions had changed over time.