What does argument mean

'Argument' is quite a difficult term when applied to student writing because it is used in many different ways, which we explore below. Sometimes a 'good argument' and a 'good structure' mean the same thing. On the other hand, you can have a good structure in a piece of writing without it strictly being an argument. For example, a large part of a report is exactly that, essentially reporting on something that has been done, or has been found out. Often you may be required to explain rather than argue, although your tutors might not make such a distinction.

The requirement to make an argument can also be rather constraining or daunting - as one student said, 'I'm not an argumentative type'. Students who enjoy writing learning journals find that they are often more interested in raising questions, or playing with a range of different ideas, than committing themselves to a particular point of view. And much of a student's work involves analysing different points of view or interpretations before they can think about making their argument.

On the other hand, if you think of making an argument as sorting out what you really want to say, after a good deal of thought and preliminary exploratory writing, then it can become very interesting. In the end, you reach a point where you have something of your own to say, and this is a point at which you find your own 'voice' and a sense of authorship, as we explore in the next two chapters.

We have seen in Chapter 3 that different subjects and even individual tutors have different ideas and expectations about student writing, including their views about argument. It would be a good idea to look back now at what they had to say. The Politics tutor wants students to 'tease out the logic of an argument'. According to the Social Anthropology tutor, social scientists 'use data to support an argument', and the Psychology tutor stresses the need for students to 'pick up on the central issues' and not to put in too much 'description'. The Biology tutor simply asks for the essay to be 'well laid out and well argued'. Most university tutors, then, stress the need to 'get a good argument' and tutors often criticize a student's assignment on the grounds that it does not have an 'argument'. However, as you can tell from what these tutors say, it isn't always easy to know what exactly they mean or what they expect you to do. The idea of what counts as an argument is very different according to the subject of study or discipline. In Chapter 3 we talked about how different subjects view the world though a different 'lens' and how they embody different ideas about what counts as knowledge in a subject. The idea of argument will therefore obviously be different in different subjects.

Sometimes 'getting a good argument', as tutors see it, can be more or less equated with 'thinking critically': taking a questioning approach and thinking about 'Why' or 'So what?' and going beyond the surface of what is described. The sections on analytical reading and the different exercises on reading your own and each other's work in this book are pointers to a critical approach. Throughout the book we always encourage you to think about your own writing in a critical way.

Given these differences then, to begin to find out what getting a good argument in a particular subject might mean in your study, have a look at some guidelines from your department and listen to what your tutors have to say. Reading texts in your subject should also help you to see how the ideas are put together. Reading analytically and critically, as we explained it in Chapter 5, will also help you to build up a sense of how authors develop their ideas.

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