Argumentation Model for Planning a Research Article

By Tatiana Martseva, Ph.D. in Germanic languages, a guest lecturer at Higher School of Economics and the Academic Writing Center.

Oxford dictionary defines argumentation as a series of logical arguments to support a theory, an action, or an idea. Despite such seemingly clear definitions people have been debating about the approaches to argumentation for centuries. We can observe the separation between western and eastern traditions to building argumentation models.

The eastern approach follows G.W.F. Hegel’s dialectics which is based on the idea that there are always two contradictory opinions on the subject. In order to describe it comprehensively, a researcher should present both views in detail and then draw a conclusion uniting the elements of both opinions. This pattern is also known as thesis-antithesis-synthesis, where thesis represents the positive aspects of the concept, antithesis looks into its negative sides, and synthesis unifies both of them. Russian scholars, in the majority, are in favour of this approach.

The western approach is based on Aristotle’s principles of deductive and inductive reasoning, which became a foundation block for the Pyramid principle of argumentation suggested by a Harvard graduate Barbara Minto. Describing the principle, Minto also mentions the research of an American psychologist and Harvard professor George Miller who studied the specifics of information transmission. Back in the 1950s he found substantial limitations to human immediate memory span. His research had shown that on average, people can receive, process and remember 7+/-2 items of information. Miller called this phenomenon an informational bottleneck.

Argumentation model

To overcome memory limitations Minto suggests clustering ideas and presenting them in the form of a pyramid, starting from the main idea and moving down to supporting ideas and examples which will ease the process of information perception. This structure is workable not only on the level of a text but also in paragraphs, when we start each of them with a topic sentence, continue with supporting ideas, and move on to the examples.

Such a model is the most popular way of building argumentation among people from English-speaking countries as it is stated in the book The Culture Map by an INSEAD professor Erin Meyer. According to Meyer’s research Russian style of persuading is polar opposite of the one described above which causes a lot of cross-cultural misunderstanding. Russian scholars tend to present their ideas starting from theories and complex concepts before presenting the main idea. When they wish to publish the results of their research in international scientific journals, they face quite a high rate of refusals. One of the reasons is that their reasoning does not fit the expected argumentation framework of a pyramid.

This framework is also known as top-down approach or deductive reasoning. It reflects the way people perceive information when they read or listen to something. However, there is a pitfall. The problem is that our cognitive process while creating a text goes in a different direction. We start from collecting information from different sources. These pieces of information can be of different nature, e.g. ideas, pieces of data, observations, documented facts, drawings, quotes from the articles that we have read. At the second stage, we sort out the information, cluster it and finally, formulate the main idea. This process is called bottom-up approach or inductive reasoning, and it can be visualized as a pyramid turned upside down.

We frequently follow the same logic when we write our papers, which can make them a challenging read. However, if we reverse the “pyramid” while writing a text and start from the main idea moving further to supporting arguments and examples, we will make it clear and reader-friendly.

Strategies that work well for me

When I learned about this argumentation model, I was a postgraduate student struggling with my thesis. I tried the model out and found it a very helpful way of organizing my ideas into a reader-friendly text. And I still use it to plan my lectures and workshops and to write scientific papers. I often use small colored post-it notes at the point of collecting information. The rule is — one piece of information on one note. Their small size makes me formulate the ideas very briefly, which leads to deeper understanding of the material. Next stage is sorting out and clustering the ideas. There is a clear algorithm of doing it:

  1. stick post-it notes with information on the desk or wall
  2. take one post-it to make it the first in the first group
  3. take another one and decide if it goes to the first group or forms a separate one
  4. repeat step 3 with each post-it note
  5. apply MECE principle (ideas should be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive)
  6. give names to your clusters
  7. rank clusters and / or identify connections between them
  8. formulate the main idea.

Post-it notes are indispensable for this process as they can be easily relocated from one group to another and if you see similar ideas or decide to refuse from some of them, you can simply take them away. In the end, you will get a well-organized carcass of your future paper or lecture that can be transferred to the paper in a much more efficient way and be sure that you get your message across to your readers.

References:

  1. Meyer, E. (2015). The Culture Map: Decoding how people think, lead and get things done across cultures. Public Affaires.
  2. Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81–97. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0043158
  3. Minto, B. (2010). The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking. Prentice Hall.

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HSE Academic Writing Center

HSE Academic Writing Center

The Academic Writing Center at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, provides writing support to everyone involved in research.