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Succeeding in postgraduate study
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5 How to evaluate an argument

Understanding what is meant by the term ‘argument’ is not always clear to students. In academic work an argument is not simply disagreeing with someone, entering into a dispute or quarrel. Argumentation is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as an ‘action or process of reasoning systematically in support of an idea, action, or theory…’.

When you evaluate academic material, such as a journal article, you are aiming to form a judgement on the validity of the argument presented. So it is important that you understand the components of the argument(s) being presented.

In this context, an argument can be said to have four basic components:

  • an arguable premise or claim
  • use of facts and evidence
  • a warrant
  • any qualifications to the argument that might be necessary.

The claim: this is the point that is being made; what is being argued for. When reading the literature, ask yourself if the claims being made are relevant to your current needs (i.e. can you use them in your course assignment? Are they an important addition to the knowledge of the subject?).

The evidence: this is the grounds upon which the claim is made. An academic argument explores an arguable premise or claim using facts, evidence and different points of view. These would typically derive from outside sources. Sometimes it might be data from a study, other times it might be a quote or reference to someone else’s published work. You will hear it referred to as ‘supporting evidence’. The evidence needs to fully support the claim being made or, if it doesn’t, its weaknesses need to be acknowledged and dealt with in some way (for example, by ‘qualifications’).

The warrant: this is the general principle that forms the bridge between the claim and the evidence it is based on. It is logical reasoning that connects the evidence to the claim. It moves from step to step in a clear, developmental manner.

Qualifications: these are concessions that may have to be made within an argument that limit what someone might be able to claim (see ‘evidence’ above).