Making an argument

In a subject like geology or physical geography  there is no absolute answer, you can’t simply look up the solution in the back of the book.  You have to find and balance the evidence and make an argument from it.  Just as a barrister makes an argument in a court room geographers have to do the same.  They need to evaluate the evidence, marshal their ideas and present them coherently so that they win the day.  That is what a scientist does when writing an academic paper.  They  collect some data or conduct an experiment,  propose an explanation or hypothesis on the back of this and the marshal their own and others’ evidence (from the literature) to make the case.  Science can be quite gladiatorial with one scientist proposing an idea that another may oppose and attack.  This critical debate lies at the heart of our discipline and helps us winnow good ideas from bad.  In other areas debate is also essential.  For example if you are advising a decision-maker you need to articulate the evidence fairly and appropriately separating areas of fact from interpretation.  In doing so you need to make a balanced argument that is fair to all the evidence and stakeholders.  A geographer brings their unique spatial-analytical skills to bear in this way and makes an argument with words, diagrams and maps.  Whether expressed orally or in writing learning to make an argument is a critical skill and has to be learnt the hard way through practice. 

Words are how people think. When you misuse words, you diminish your ability to think clearly and truthfully.

When you use words loosely, without care and consideration, you erode trust in yourself and in what you’re saying. When you squander words, you diminish your power.

For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.
Margaret Heffernan

Geographers make critical arguments using a range of different types of spatial data.  In the real-world this may be to influence a decision- or policy-maker, justify a position taken or a proposed course of action in the face of a problem.  Ensuring that your interpretation is valid and prevails is a vital skill for all geographers to learn.  It is important to note that there are often no absolute answers, no one perfect position or solution, simply a well-argued and convincing solution.

The Physical Geography Coursework 2018/19 is designed to make you think about geographical data and to then advance an argument using that data and concisely.

So what is an argument?

An argument is a clearly expressed, balanced, point of view supported by evidence.  Essentially it consists of a ‘claim’ that is evidenced with due consideration of possible ‘counter-claims’ or alternative interpretations and points of view.

Most geographical ideas are debated by someone, somewhere, at some time. Even when the material you read, hear or watch is presented as ‘fact’ it is in truth more likely to be one person’s interpretation of that information.  In the context of your course work it provides: (1) proof that you understand the material; and (2) demonstrates your ability to use or apply that material or understanding.  The latter point is important and can be done in several ways: you can critique the information, apply it to something else, or explain it well.  It helps however to have a particular point or position on the material; this constitutes a ‘claim’.

Clarity and structure is the key to success in writing.  The human form is supported by a skeleton (its structure), remove that skeleton and we are in the words of Spock ‘just bags of water’.  The structure you adopt depends on the aim of the piece, but the following are worth bearing in mind:

  • Your argument needs to be well-structured. You should start with a strong opening statement, an introduction if you like, in which the aim and ‘claim’ are clearly stated with some basic ‘signpost’ statements as to what is to follow.  This should be followed with the three/four key supporting reasons each with evidence or examples.  You should then introduce alternative or ‘counter-claims’ before returning in the conclusion to you ‘claim’.
  • You need to stay focused to the stated aim and to the structure. There is no scope to wander off and you should always keep the point.  No bonus points are given for digressions however erudite they may be.  If you stray you will weaken your argument and end up with a ramble or simply a dump of information.
  • In a coherent argument, all the parts relate to one another clearly flow one after the next in a logical order.
  • In terms of writing, development means stating a point of view (claim) and then supporting it with well-chosen reasons and evidence or examples. A good argument takes the reader by the hand along the path of the argument without allowing the reader to digress or get lost.

Different types of argument will require slightly different approaches or tacks.  It is often good to shake things up and to vary the approach.  However as a guide the following can be used for a 500-1000 word argument:

  • One or two sentences that state the problem, its importance and your perspective or point.
  • Before you start to write list the points in support of your claim.  Now rank them in order of importance.  Ask yourself how you can evidence each one; note this evidence under each one.  You are now ready to write.  Take the first three or four points.  Write about each providing the supporting evidence.
  • Counter-points. Be balanced are there alternative perspectives on the data?  List the counter-points and associated evidence and rank them in order of strength.  You are now ready to write.  Take the first two or three alternatives and present them fairly, then point out in a polite and moderate way how they fail to explain the evidence.
  • Return to you claim or central point restating briefly why it is the most valid perspective in your view.  Explore any implications that follow from your conclusion.

A good argument should contain references that are pertinent to the points being made and to evidence the contribution of other people’s work to your argument.  It should also be illustrated as appropriate.



Useful web-links include:

Details on the BU referencing guide can be found at:

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