How to Present Dissertation Arguments
Many different ways exist to argue in a dissertation and what you choose to do depends on your research question, your field, and the available literature, amongst other things. However, some elements are to be expected in all fields regardless of the research question or the literature, and these include logic, coherence, careful use of evidence and clarity.
In a non-empirical dissertation you use desk research and argument to answer your research question. You can approach this task in a variety of ways, for example:
Reject someone's idea using reason and logic
Corroborate a particular viewpoint providing new or additional evidence
Compare two contradictory views and decide which is the most compelling
Re-evaluate an existing idea, improving it somehow
Present a new way of understanding something
Dissertation argument: Deductive vs. inductive reasoning
One issue to take into account concerns different types of reasoning. Commonly, you may find guides and support for dissertation writing that discuss deductive and inductive reasoning and so it’s worth getting to grips with what these words mean.
Deductive arguments tend to verify theories and hypotheses. They’re more associated with quantitative research and a kind of positivist framework. Often, but not always, deductive thinking moves from the general to the particular, and results in clear statements. A good deductive argument is described as ‘valid’.
Deductive arguments can play out in numerous ways and some of those most useful for undergraduate dissertations involve syllogism, which is a form of logic. Here’s an example of an argument that is trying to show a cause-effect relationship:
Start with a main idea, or premiss, for your work, in this case improved funding for your work. This leads to a connected idea – more facilities can be provided for young people. The effect of better facilities is that less young people hang around the street in the evenings, getting into trouble. With these premisses and through examining the cause and effect, the next logical move is to the conclusion that increased funding will result in less trouble caused by young people.
Inductive reasoning usually (not always) involves deriving theory from specific examples and because of this, results in statements that are more or less likely to be true, rather than a fixed absolute response. A good inductive argument is strong or ‘cogent’. As with deductive reasoning, different ways of arguing are possible. Here are examples of the ones most likely to be used by undergraduates:
Deriving evidence from an expert: In this case you need to be completely certain that the source of your evidence is authoritative, accurate and valid. ‘Professor Brown construes that children in care are less likely than children in families to achieve a university place in the UK. This conclusion is based on several major longitudinal research projects . . .’. (Here’s where you cite dates and other details and really get down to the nitty gritty.)
Using relevant examples: Rather than the single key source noted in the previous example, this form of inductive reasoning relies on building a conclusion from a selection of relevant, valid examples from reliable literature. ‘Various studies have clearly demonstrated that university places are more commonly won by students whose parents have degrees.’ (Green and Black, 2003; Lilac, 1999; Gray, 2000).
Cause and effect: You need to be very careful with cause and effect and be absolutely sure how the connections are made. Has x caused y or has y caused x? Are the connections any more than coincidence?
Dissertation argument: Face your protagonists head on
There’s no point pretending that no disagreements exist. It won’t be a strong case if you assert that you agree with someone but provide no evidence that you’ve thought through potential criticisms and discovered ways they can be rebuffed. The most convincing arguments take into account all aspects of an issue and concede points when necessary.
Each argument should get the same treatment – interrogate the premiss, evidence and problems of all the arguments, as this allows the strongest arguments to emerge.
Some arguments will be more central than others, but all need to be treated reasonably. By this, don't over-criticise the arguments that you dislike and give an easy ride to those you feel you'd like to support. You need to dispense even-handed analysis, but don't shy away from pointing out fallacies.
Criticise, don’t denigrate, otherwise you'll weaken your own argument. Garner support genuinely, don’t twist people’s words to suit your purposes.
Dissertation argument: Follow threads of logic
In building a strong argument, there’s no one single absolute correct structure. Whichever route you choose, you must ensure logical links through your argument. Following are some alternative structures for building argument in non-empirical dissertations. These structures include all aspects of the thesis (such as literature review, methodologies and conclusion).
Visit the virtues of alternative arguments
Present the context of your argument; discuss the academic literature; discuss any relevant professional literature; explain the underpinning assumptions of the main argument; corroborate with relevant academic and professional evidence; present alternative arguments, highlight their deficits and fallacies with reference to relevant academic and professional evidence; show how the conclusion is inevitable as the main thesis has superior supporting evidence.
Evaluate an existing study
Present context; give rationale for why the study is being evaluated, including the impact of this study on policy and/or practice; present an overview of the literature; explain the evaluative methods to be used, taking into account issues such as validity, reliability, quality of evidence; evaluate the study providing support for any criticisms of the study's research design, conclusions and implications
Next make an overall judgement on the quality of the study including implications and recommendations for improving policy and practice; conclude by summarising the key themes (without repeating everything).
Critique a particular theory
Contextualise this theory within the current field; provide a rationale for evaluating the theory; explain (briefly) any methodologies you may utilise; show the importance of the theory through a review of the literature; describe the origins, nature and impact of the theory; critique the theory by referencing evidence, examining its validity, consistency and suppositions.
Next compare the inferences made from the theory with those you can now make having identified fallacies in the theory; suggest improvements; and conclude by summarising the key themes (without repeating everything).