3.9: Comparing and Contrasting Arguments
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So far we’ve learned how to summarize a single argument, but there are, of course, many arguments on any given topic, and in college and beyond we are often asked to compare and contrast more than one source. In this case we need to provide summaries of two (or more) related but distinct arguments; let’s call them A and B here. We might find common ground between two unlike authors, tease out the subtle differences between two seemingly similar authors, or point out the opposing assumptions underlying competing claims. Ultimately, we'll be asked to go beyond summarizing the two to explore the implications of their similarity and/or difference. What can the comparison teach us? What insight do we gain by juxtaposing A and B?
Establishing a topic in common
To frame the compare-and-contrast essay, it helps to describe a common context, something happening in the world, that both texts respond to. What unites these arguments: A theme, a current or historical event, a theoretical lens? Let's say we want to compare and contrast the essay we have already discussed in Chapters 2 and 3, Anna Mills’ “Wouldn’t We All Cross the Border?” with a new argument about borders, “The Weight of the World” by Saramanda Swigart:
"The Weight of the World" by Saramanda Swigart
While illegal immigrants crossing the border to the United States may come from desperate circumstances, it is unjust, impractical, and unrealistic for one nation to solve the problems of so many non-citizens.
Illegal immigration challenges the rule of law. If laws can be broken simply because lawbreakers had good intentions, this suggests that obeying the law is merely optional—that the law is something to be obeyed only when it is convenient to do so. It is understandable that plenty of people who break the law do so with good intentions, but enforcement of the law cannot be reduced to investigations of intentions—it must ultimately spring from concrete actions.
The truth is that illegal immigration presents a security risk. Because illegal immigrants are not tracked by any immigration agency and thus remain largely anonymous, it is impossible to verify which immigrants come in search of a new life and plan to abide by the laws of their host country and which do not. A porous border may allow for waves of well-meaning immigrants and their families to seek new lives in a new country, but no country should be blamed for wanting to secure its borders or its territory.
An influx of immigration also strains a nation's resources. Understandably, in many cases, immigrants seeking shelter in the United States have left desperate circumstances and arrive seeking support. In a perfect world, this would not be a problem; however, because a nation's resources are finite, this means that the financial and material burden of taking care of incoming immigrants falls on their host county. In small, manageable numbers this isn’t a problem (this is what legal immigration is for) but one can see how a nation tasked with taking care of immigrants from around the world would be burdened beyond its resources if it must solve the whole world's humanitarian problems.
Ultimately, we shouldn’t increase our tolerance of illegal border crossings. In order to address the plight of immigrants, maintain national security, and manage internal resources, all policy changes should involve balancing the needs of non-citizens with the needs of citizens before carefully and thoughtfully expanding legal immigration.
In a paper comparing Mills’ and Swigart’s theses, we need to frame the problem central to both arguments; the implications of illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a controversial issue of some urgency today. Consider the following sentences, which place both articles in the cultural context within which they are written:
“In recent years illegal immigration into the United States at the U.S.-Mexico border has become a divisive political topic, resulting in a widening partisan divide as to whose priorities we should privilege: the immigrants’ or the nation’s. Are we global citizens or American citizens first?”
Identifying areas of agreement and disagreement
Now, what points do the two articles make? Are there any overlapping claims? Are these two authors in complete disagreement or do you see areas in which they share values and/or concede points to one another? We can start by brainstorming the ways A is similar to B and the ways they differ. As you’ll recall, Mills’ essay appeals to empathy, suggesting that we would become border-crossers ourselves in the right circumstances. She argues for a reevaluation of immigration policies and practices with an increased emphasis on compassion for immigrant families. Swigart’s essay, on the other hand, asks us to make pragmatic assessments about national security and resource allocation, placing national interests before concern for immigrants’ wellbeing. Swigart emphasizes the necessity for a nation to secure its borders and enforce its laws.
How to organize a compare-and-contrast essay
In the introduction, we will want to identify what topic the two arguments have in common and offer a thesis statement that explains the relationship between A and B. The strategies below may help. In the next section, we will look at a complete sample essay that compares Mills’ and Swigart’s arguments.
Forming the thesis
In the case of compare-and-contrast essays, the thesis can summarize the essential differences or surprising similarities between the texts.
Thesis: Though Mills and Swigart agree on the urgency as well as the root causes of our border crisis, they disagree on whether the solution should prioritize American citizens' or refugees' needs.
Then we’ll need to select a way to organize the compare and contrast essay. Here are two basic ways to organize the body of a compare and contrast essay: text by text and point by point. If we think that B extends A, or if A is a lens through which to see B, we might decide to use a text-by-text scheme. That means we'll summarize the claims, reasons, and warrants of A followed by the claims, reasons, warrants of B. For instance, if Mills’ essay were outlining the need for immigration reform, and essay B were outlining policy to create such immigration reform, we could quickly summarize Mills’ ideas in a body paragraph before moving on to B’s proposals in their own body paragraph.
If A and B approach a series of similar issues from different standpoints, a point-by-point scheme can highlight their different approaches. That means we’ll break the argument into the different topics that both essays address. In the immigration example, we might include a paragraph about the two “sides” of the debate; a paragraph devoted to whether it is ethical to break the law in desperate circumstances; a paragraph devoted to issues of national security; and a paragraph that compares the proposed solutions.
In all essays, each new point needs to refer back to some part of the thesis. Each topic sentence should refer to one of the points of comparison that was already mentioned in the thesis. The sample phrases below may be useful as we emphasize particular similarities or differences.
Phrases for compare and contrast essays
Common phrases that indicate similarity and difference can help to clarify how each point about A relates to another point about B. See Section 12.3: Showing How a New Idea Fits in for more on this.
Phrases that highlight a similarity
Just as A does, B believes that______________.
Both A and B see ______________ as an important issue.
We have seen how A maintains that ______________. Similarly, B ______________.
A argues that______________. Likewise, B ______________.
A and B agree on the idea that ______________.
Phrases that highlight a difference
A focuses on______________; however B is more interested in______________.
A’s claim is that______________. Conversely, B maintains that ______________.
Whereas A argues that______________, B______________.
While A emphasizes______________, B______________.
Unlike A, B believes that______________.
Rather than ______________ like A, B______________,
Whereas A argues that ______________, B maintains ______________.
Juxtaposing a similarity with a difference
We can also describe a similarity and a difference in close proximity. Here are some sample sentences that do that:
Both A and B assert that ______________, but they differ in their approach to ______________.
While A condemns the weaknesses of ______________, B praises its strengths.
A outlines the problem of ______________ in the abstract while B proposes solutions to the problem.
Though A and B agree on the root cause of ______________, they differ on its solution.