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Econ 337: Economics of the Public Sector: Making Academic Arguments

This is a guide to sources on the research assignment for Econ 337, Economics of the Public Sector

Academic Arguments

Writing a research paper is a form of academic argument. Rather than simply putting forth an opinion, an informed academic argument builds the case for a proposition on a foundation of background information, explores the relevant issues, and supports the proposition with evidence.

The Key Questions

Every written argument is built out of the answers to five questions:

1. What do you claim (thesis statement)?

2. What reasons support that claim?

3. What evidence supports those reasons?

4. Do you acknowledge potential alternatives/complications/objections, and how do you respond?

5. What principle (warrant) justifies connecting your reasons to your claim?

Topic vs. Thesis/Claim

Topic = What is being discussed or written about. It is often a question to answer.

Claim = The answer to the question of the topic

Thesis statement = A statement of intention and purpose, expressing the central idea of an essay.  More on thesis statements and arguments

A thesis statement will be a broad statement, worth defending, that defines the scope and limits of the essay.

  1. The thesis will be a substantial generalization that can stand by itself. It should answer, not ask, a question.
  2. The thesis will be broad enough and arguable enough to be worth defending. It will not be an obvious truth.
  3. The thesis will define the scope and limits of the essay. The author should stay within the boundaries of the thesis and not digress into other topics.

-- Adapted from Writing from Sources (8th edition) by Brenda Spatt

Reasons

reason  is a sentence (or detail) supporting a claim, whether the main claim or a minor one.

Example: TV violence can have harmful psychological effects on children (claim) because those exposed to lots of it tend to adopt the values of what they see (reason).

Core of a Research Argument

Basing Reasons on Evidence

In casual conversation, we usually support a claim with just a reason.

Example: We should leave (claim) because it looks like rain (reason).

We don't ask, "What evidence do you have that it looks like rain?" When you address serious issues in writing, though, you can't expect readers to accept all your reasons at face value. Careful readers ask for the evidence, the data, the facts on which you base those reasons.

Example: TV violence can have harmful psychological effects on children (claim 1) because those exposed to large amounts of it tend to adopt the values of what they see (reason 1 supporting claim 1 / claim 2 supported by reason 2). Their constant exposure to violent images makes them unable to distinguish fantasy from reality (reason 2 supporting reason 1 / claim 2). Smith (1997) found that children ages 5-9 who watched more than three hours of violent television a day were 25 percent more likely to say that most of what they saw on television was "really happening" (evidence supporting reason 2). 

Distinguishing Reasons and Evidence

At least in principle, evidence is something you and your readers can see, touch, taste, smell, or hear (or is accepted by everyone as just plain fact). It makes no sense to ask, "Where could I go to see your reasons?" It does make sense to ask, "Where could I go to see your evidence?"

  • Reasons state why readers should accept a claim. Researchers can think up reasons; they don't think up evidence.
  • Evidence is what readers can verify as fact, at least for the moment. They think of evidence as "hard" reality, evident to anyone able to observe it, usually backed up by data, statistics, empirical observations & measurements, etc.
  • The academic literature in a discipline like Economics or Public Finance is the best place to find reasons and evidence to support your thesis. Be cautious about using blog posts, opinion pieces, or other materials on the free Web unless you can substantiate the credibility of the evidence.

Strengthening your Argument

Acknowledging and Responding to Alternatives

A responsible researcher supports a claim with reasons based on evidence. But thoughtful readers don't accept a claim just because you back it up with your reasons and your evidence. Unless they think exactly as you do, they will probably think of evidence you haven't, interpret your evidence differently, or, from the same evidence, draw a different conclusion. They may reject the truth of your reasons, or accept them as true but deny that they are relevant to your claim and so cannot support it. They may think of alternative claims (and counterarguments) you did not consider. 

If you think that readers might question your argument in a certain way, you should acknowledge and respond to that question. This process of acknowledgment and response strengthens your argument by making it more realistic.

Example: TV violence can have harmful psychological effects on children (claim 1) because those exposed to large amounts of it tend to adopt the values of what they see (reason 1 supporting claim 1 / claim 2 supported by reason 2). Their constant exposure to violent images makes them unable to distinguish fantasy from reality (reason 2 supporting reason 1 / claim 2). Smith (1997) found that children ages 5-9 who watched more than three hours of violent television a day were 25 percent more likely to say that most of what they saw on television was "really happening" (evidence supporting reason 2). It is conceivable, of course, that children who tend to watch greater amounts of violent entertainment already have violent values (acknowledgment), but Jones (1989) found that children with no predisposition to violence were just as attracted to violent entertainment as those with a history of violence (response). 

Intellectual Property Note

Content in this guide has been quoted or adapted from The Craft of Research, 3rd edition, by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, as well as the Academic Arguments guide produced by the Jessie Ball duPont Library at the University of the South.

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