Carnegie Mellon University

Argument as Construction: A Framework and Method

Author: Lorraine Higgins
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1992

This dissertation offers a synthesis of classical rhetoric, contemporary field theory, and cognitive theory and research on writing in order to understand the process by which written arguments are constructed. Although rhetorical theorists have acknowledged the situational nature of argument--that the standards of reasoning may vary from one context to the next--current argument theory has done little to specify the means by which situational and personal resources are used to shape the development of claims and reasons within a given act of argument.

This dissertation presents a three-part framework which can be used to conduct descriptive research into this problem and to build a theory of argument construction. The framework entails several related claims. First, argument situations (events in which participants use communication to build consensus) can entail a range of purposes, information (content and procedural knowledge), and material and social constraints that may be used as potential resources for arguing. Second, writers represent the situations in which they argue, transforming and interpreting personal and situational resources into goals and strategies for selecting and connecting knowledge for an argument. And third, in their interaction with the argument situation, arguers negotiate conflicts and problems in the goals they construct and the strategies they employ.

Based on this framework, a number of research questions and methods were developed for studying argument construction in the context of a college classroom. This descriptive study observed nine women as they developed an argument for a reentry college writing course, and it offers an in-depth case study of two of these writers. The study creates a picture of school-based argument drawn not from ideal models of argument as envisioned by educators, but from the experiences of students themselves. Through a series of discourse-based interviews and classroom field notes, it yields a snapshot of the goals these students constructed for a school argument task, the way they perceived the standards and strategies for using evidence in school, and the problems and alternatives they recognized and negotiated as they wrote their arguments.

Facing the "same" task, to evaluate several assigned theories on the causes of racism, these women constructed a number of unique goals based on their own experiences with racism, their image of the instructors who would assess their writing, and their perceptions about their own abilities. The way in which they valued and negotiated these goals helped account for the patterns of reasoning that appeared in their written texts, suggesting that the framework and method may be useful in accounting for individual differences in the construction of arguments.