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7.1: Deciding the Purpose of a Research-Based Argument

  • Page ID
    122942
  • Every argument sets out to convince readers or listeners to believe it, no?  In that sense, every argument has the same purpose.  However, there are different kinds of beliefs we might want to encourage and different attitudes we might take toward those beliefs. Besides, we may want an argument not just to convince but to lead to action. Sometimes the purpose goes beyond just “Believe me!” For example, when the argument is part of an advertisement, the goal is clear: "Buy me!"  The goal of a stump speech is to get listeners to cast their votes in support of a candidate. Sometimes, the purpose is simply to struggle with a topic in order to begin to come up with an informed opinion. Many times, the purpose of a piece of writing is to encourage critical thinking on a subject, and maybe change something wrong in our world in response.

    For example, we could set out to write about global warming for different purposes. We might simply aim to make people believe that global warming is real.  Alternately, we might try to convince readers to make drastic changes in their lives to combat climate change, or to protest a particular company responsible for climate change. Our purpose will shape the ideas we express, but it will also shape the emotional appeals we make.

    Identifying our purpose can help us decide what we need to include to achieve that purpose.  Often arguments with a particular kind of purpose will share common features. Below we will describe four kinds of research-based essays, each of which we will explore in more depth in a later section of this chapter.

    Purposes for research papers

    We can ask ourselves which of the following best describes our purpose:

    • We want to describe the nature of something.
    • We want to assess how good or bad something is.
    • We want to demonstrate that one thing causes or caused another.
    • We want to propose some action.

    An argument may contain multiple elements from this list, but if we can decide which is ultimately the most important, we can shape the introduction and conclusion with that goal in mind. Each type of argument has particular questions that may be worth addressing, as we will explore in the later sections.

    In the following sections, we suggest strategies and components of four different types of arguments, matched to the four purposes mentioned above.

    • Definition arguments describe the nature of something or identify a pattern or trend. Generally speaking, they answer the question, “What is it?”
    • Evaluation arguments assess something according to particular criteria. They answer the question, “How good or bad is it?”
    • Causal arguments attempt to show that one thing leads to or has led to another. They answer the question, “What caused it?”
    • Proposal arguments present a case for action. They answer the question, “What should we do about it?”

    Let’s look at some examples of argument purposes divided into these categories.

    Definition argument examples

    • We want readers to know what kinds of communication dolphins are capable of.
    • We want to clarify which groups of people the term “Latinx” refers to.
    • We want to show how Kurdish communities differ in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

    Evaluation argument examples

    • We want to recommend a gaming device.
    • We want to convince readers that the Supreme Court decision to give corporations First Amendment rights to free speech was misguided.
    • We want to show that a new Alzheimer’s drug meets the criteria for emergency use authorization.

    Causal argument examples

    • We want to argue that the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 actually made Americans value American democracy more and want to protect it.
    • We want to show that parents can’t change a child’s feeling of being male, female, or nonbinary.
    • We want to suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic led to an increase in internet addiction.

    Proposal argument examples

    • We want readers to take the online Harvard Implicit Association Tests and reflect on what the results suggest about their unconscious biases.
    • We want legislators to double the gas tax in order to speed up the transition to clean energy.
    • We want to make community college free for all Americans. 

    Comparing and contrasting for different purposes

    It's worth noting that we may want to discuss more than one thing for any of the purposes above.  If we are comparing and contrasting two or more things in our essay, we will want to think about essay structure for compare and contrast essays as well as thinking about the elements of the argument according to the overall purpose. See Section 3.9: Comparing and Contrasting Arguments for more on this. 

    Practice exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    For each argument below, select the category that best describes the argument’s purpose. Explain how it fits the category.

    1. Muslim women should be allowed to wear full face and body coverings such as burkas in public if they choose.
    2. Minecraft play offers many opportunities for creativity and learning.
    3. The explosion of mental health content on TikTok has reduced the shame many people feel about their mental health issues.
    4. Only apartments where the rent is less than 30% of a minimum wage worker’s income can truly be considered “affordable housing.”
    5. Composting food waste can generate energy with a minimum of greenhouse gas emissions.

    Attributions

    By Dylan Altman and Anna Mills, licensed CC BY-NC 4.0.