Since there are different views and theories about why things are the way they are, it is important to be argumentative in your essays. This has nothing to do with losing your temper, but everything to do with addressing the range of differing opinion on a topic. If you only include one theory, you will produce a one-sided essay which simply ignores any contradictory evidence or argument. Think of an essay as a debate between competing explanations (or theories) on a topic. This doesn’t mean you should simply present the different sides of an argument and ‘sit on the fence’—you should take a stand on a topic and argue your preferred case.
I’m right/you’re wrong. Convince me!
To get good essay marks, it is important to develop a clear argument. The argument is your approach to answering the question or discussing an essay topic. An argument is a set of propositions which are supported by evidence and allow logical conclusions to be made. For example, if you were to write an essay on whether social class exists, your argument, after doing your research and evaluating the various theories and evidence, might be that:
You live in a classless society for the reasons you outline in your essay;
You live in class-based society; or
There is evidence of class inequality, but other forms of inequality may be equally or more important than class, such as inequality based on gender or race.
Whatever your argument, you would have to canvass the other views and show why your view is the more credible one.
Where does my opinion come into it?
Essays are meant to be an objective analysis of a particular topic. Your opinion plays a part in your interpretation of the topic, in deciding what material is relevant and how it is analysed, and in the construction of the argument. The conclusion you come to—the stance you take—is your opinion. However, you do this by using supporting evidence that you gather in the research stage. All well-argued essays are able to support their argument with evidence; this is the difference between biased opinion and informed opinion.
Supporting evidence: The good, the bad and the ugly
An essay is an act of persuasion. The job of an academic detective is to convince others of what you have to say. You do this by using supporting evidence from an independent source, since this gives your argument credibility. There are three forms of supporting evidence:
The good: That which is relevant to your topic, provides enough detail to support what you are saying and is properly referenced from a credible source.
The bad: Where the evidence is overly vague, not related to your argument and not referenced to a credible source.
The ugly: A biased representation of the evidence, due to presenting one side of the argument and ignoring alternative sources of information.
My opinion: It’s in my head, I know it’s true—why can’t I use it?
You cannot use an opinion or fact from your memory or experience unless you can find evidence to support it. If you use unsupported evidence, your essay becomes unconvincing. For example, if you argue:
I know my opinion is right.
Anyone could simply say:
I disagree. I think you’re wrong. Prove it.
We now have a stalemate! One opinion versus another.
If you have an opinion, you must support it with a credible and reliable source of evidence that can easily be checked. Otherwise, arguments or disagreements will never get any further than the above example. Academic study requires you to find supporting evidence. It is one thing to be opinionated, another to support your informed opinion with evidence.
The lecture said it all—why can’t I just use that?
By all means use your lecture notes to help you understand a topic or as a starting point to guide your research, but, in general, don’t reference your lecture notes. Always try to find the information you have been given in a lecture from a written source, such as a book or article. Your lecture notes are not a reliable or credible source of information, as it is impossible to prove that you correctly understood and copied down information delivered in a lecture.
If you need to find the source of what was said in a lecture, most lecturers provide a reference list to the material they have used in preparing a lecture, or will do so upon request. However, in some cases a lecturer may provide original material in a lecture that cannot be obtained from another source. If this applies to the information you want to use, it is permissible to reference the lecture.
Jostein Gaarder, in the novel Sophie’s World, coinedthe saying, ‘Wisest is she who knows she does not know’ to highlight that wisdom isn’t about how much you know. It is about accepting that you cannot know everything and that there may be things which contradict and challenge what you believe. In forming an argument and analysing an essay topic, it is important to keep an open mind and maintain constructive doubt.There are very few simple answers to the various essay topics you are likely to encounter. Always strive to find the evidence for your argument and evaluate the opposing theories so that you avoid being biased. Bias refers to prejudices and preconceptions which distort your ability to assess information in an impartial manner. Bias can arise when you believe a certain thing irrespective of whether there is evidence to support it. To avoid bias, ensure you do not:
- present a one-sided argument by relying on one author, theory or text
- suppress or ignore conflicting information and alternative views.
Analysis as art
While this guide has shown you the dos and don’ts of being analytical in your essays, it is only possible to learn analysis by actually attempting to do it. Analysis is partly an art form. The art of analysis can be likened to that of the painter who studies the subject to be painted and does many sketches before committing the paint to canvas. The academic detective needs a magnifying glass to sift through the clues that arise from his or her reading, just as the painter adds another layer to the canvas to alter the perspective of the subject being portrayed. Throughout your reading for an essay topic, you will come across conflicting perspectives or theories which attempt to explain the evidence. How well you analyse these different theories, and how effectively you use supporting evidence, is truly a form of art. Happy painting, but remember, the Mona Lisa wasn’t painted in a day!