Constructing an Argument
When asked to give advice about writing political science papers, Professor Ellen Andersen explained that most papers written for political sciences classes are arguments. “However,” she said, “do not write a persuasive essay about your opinion on the subject. Instead, take evidence and use it to support an academic argument. Use this academic argument to show your learning. Do not decide on an argument you want to make and then make it, regardless of what the evidence says. Be sure to engage with the other side of the debate honestly. Rather than dismissing it, think about it. That is how real growth happens.” For most assignments, you can follow a very basic format for an academic argument. Begin the process by finding trustworthy information. Then explore your material and orgranize your thoughts in a manner that works best for you. You can then start to construct your thesis statement.
The basic format of a political science essay
- The Introduction should articulate a clear argument and outline the paper’s structure explicitly. It can be a couple of sentences or a couple of paragraphs, or even a couple of pages for a really long paper. Make sure that your thesis responds to all aspects of the assignment.
- To show how your argument builds on previous research on your topic, include a literature review. You can do this as part of your introduction, in a section immediately following your introduction, or within each of your body sections, whichever seems most appropriate for your paper.
- Body Sections
- You can have as many body sections as you need.
- Body sections just mean you’re making a point about one aspect of your topic. They can have just one paragraph or as many as you need to make your point. For example, if you’re talking about the process of a bill becoming a law, you’re going to have subtopics within those over-arching sections, like what happens in the House, what happens in the Senate, and then what happens when they both finally agree on a version of the bill-and that's okay. Just be aware of staying on-topic and transitioning smoothly from one to the next.
- How to set up your body paragraphs
- Small thesis: what is this paragraph about? It should be your starter sentence, and also tie neatly into the last sentence (flow is important)!
- Evidence and analysis. The important thing to remember here is that you're not going “Quote 1,” “Quote 2,” “Quote 3,” and then analysis of quote 2, analysis of quote 3. You should be giving your evidence and analyzing it as you go; tell us what it means that the House is mad about an amendment the Senate added to a bill before you assault us with a quote about how the President feels.
- Summarizing/transition sentence. Finish up what you're saying, and then in the same sentence or another sentence, explain the train of thought that leads to your next point/paragraph.
- Your conclusion should tie back to your thesis, but do not just restate your thesis.
- Before writing your conclusion, take this opportunity to review your essay. Does your essay follow your thesis statement? Have you created an argument and provided evidence that supports this thesis? If yes, then go on to write your conclusion. If no, consider changing your thesis (and revising as appropriate).
- Be careful that the restatement of the thesis doesn't seem like you're copying and pasting your thesis statement from the introduction. Your conclusion needs to be the summation of your entire essay; it’s your chance to state your point strongly and tie up any loose ends.
- Do not introduce new figures or statistics or evidence to prove your point. You should be done with introducing information. Now you're telling us what it means, why it's significant on a broader scale or in a bigger picture, and why we should care.
- Your conclusion should tie back to your thesis, but do not just restate your thesis.
Outlining, Grouping, Mind mapping, Free writing… Organize your thoughts!
Conceptual and factual knowledge is essential in a political science paper–interesting metaphors, grand generalizations, and a lot of “BS” will not lead to a smart paper (and will be quickly recognized by your professor). The key is to develop a solid argument with supportive evidence. It is also essential that you understand your argument in order to convincingly and eloquently present it to the reader–if you're not sure, the reader won’t be either!
There are many different ways to go about organizing a paper. To perfect that crucial organization element, consider using one of the four common approaches illustrated below. Each example is for an essay exploring connections between political power and power over the media.
- Make an outline! Outlines can tell you how organized your paper is, where there are holes in your argument that require more research, or where information may need to be cut.
See Detailed Outline.
- If you don't like the strict formatting of an outline, try organizing your thoughts through bulleted lists.
See Bulleted List
- If you like diagrams, consider drawing a mind map or web that shows the connections between your ideas.
See Mind Map/Web
- If you're more of a puzzler, try writing your information on separate note cards and then rearranging them to physically build a picture of your argument. This can also be done electronically by typing up all of your information and then rearranging it on a computer.
See Notecard Puzzle
- If you don't yet know what sections to break your paper into, try starting with a free write that focuses on the prompt. You can see what ideas you have and start to find some connections between them.
Write a Thesis Statement!
A thesis is…
- …an arguable statement that will serve as a condensed version of the argument that you make in the paper.
- …not a factual statement about your topic.
- …your opportunity to make an assertive claim that you will then back up using your collected evidence in your body paragraphs. In essence, it will provide a “roadmap” for the rest of the paper.
- …not necessarily just one sentence.
How do I construct my thesis statement?
There are three components of a thesis statement, though what it specifically looks like may determine on the assignment. I.e. A research paper vs analytical essay. This may be one sentence. For longer papers, however, more complex arguments might require many sentences to effectively convey the paper's main idea(s).
To show how this works, here is a process to make a thesis for an analytical essay comparing Karl Marx and J.S. Mill’s thoughts on freedom.
What is the empirical claim being made?
In any thesis, your argument must come from some truth or observation you have made within these two texts. This observation usually forms the first part of your thesis. For example: “Mill and Marx both make different claims around human freedom”.
What is the analytical claim you are making?
The next step is to analyze that difference to develop that observation further. For a compare and contrast essay, you will have to analyze what these differences in worldview suggest. What do their differences in viewing human freedom mean? For example:
"Mill thinks freedom is achieved when rights and freedoms are protected from being infringed upon by other people or the government. Conversely, Marx sees human freedom as hindered by the fundamental logic of labor and capitalism."
What is the normative claim you are making?
In a comparative essay, you will have to make a claim saying either one of the writers is more right or neither of them are. And why? In other types of essays, you will have to explore the implications of the analytical claim. Often this will mean asking the question of "So what?". For example:
"Mill's argument does not account for the damaging effects of labor on the worker's psyche, which demonstrates how his theory insufficiently accounts for the variety of ways people can be free".
This thesis is not perfect, but it does show what the nuts and bolts of a complex, developed argument look like:
"Mill and Marx both make different claims around human freedom. Mill thinks freedom is achieved when rights and freedoms are protected from being infringed upon by other people or the government. Conversely, Marx sees human freedom as hindered by the fundamental logic of labor and capitalism. Mill’s argument does not account for the damaging effects of labor on the worker’s psyche, which demonstrates how his theory insufficiently accounts for the variety of ways people can be free".
A last note: It is often very helpful to revisit your thesis at the end of the essay. Your ideas will develop as you write and may slightly change. It is okay if they do, but it is most important to make sure your ideas match your thesis so it can provide an accurate roadmap for your essay.
Finding Trustworthy Information
Evidence and information combine to form the backbone of a Political Science essay, as these crucial pieces support your thesis and all of the claims you make therein. When your paper uses accurate and carefully selected facts, your argument becomes harder to debunk and proves to your professor that you understand the material as well as the research process. Sadly, certain people stand to gain from pushing false information on the generally uninformed and careless public. The following suggestions should help you find objective and truthful evidence in your research process.
- Start looking for information early - when you have an idea of your topic
- Looking for evidence at the last minute can lead to decreased standards and pulling questionable facts from untrustworthy sources
- Use the library’s available resources - particularly the online databases - rather than Google
- These databases contain vast amounts of published information, usually written by experts in the field
- Be on the lookout for signs of deceit in a source, such as
- Making things sound scarier or worse than they actually are
- Presenting ideas/data that seem too good to be true
- Results that have not been replicated, or seem like standalone occurrences
- The group that publishes/conducts a study benefiting greatly from the results (potential bias/impartiality)
- For example, if the NRA funded a study showing how gun ownership is tied to economic prosperity, they would gain members and donations – thus, we should make sure they’re being impartial in their research methods
- Analyze evidence skeptically, but not cynically
- Look thoroughly at evidence from research sources and only use that piece of information if everything seems to check out and doesn’t leave you feeling unsure –- implement a healthy skepticism while looking at facts
- Avoid becoming a cynic who rejects every piece of information without considering it
- This makes you just as gullible as someone who accepts everything they read, as people can play upon your inclination to reject facts to spin your understanding of issues in their favor
- The key distinction is that a skeptic will realize a piece of information is trustworthy, while a cynic will never believe anything, regardless of its veracity