Finding an Answer
Once you’ve established your question at issue, it’s time to find an answer. To do this, you’ll conduct research (a process discussed later), synthesize others’ ideas, and reach a point where you have a clear side for your argument. When you have a one-sentence answer to your question at issue, you’ve found your claim.
The claim, which is also part of our argumentative thesis, can take several different forms, as both professors Jennifer Fletcher and John Gage point out in their books on argumentative writing. These forms are:
- Claim of fact
- Claim of definition
- Claim of value
- Claim of rule/policy/action
A claim of fact may ask about consequences or reasons, or it may try to establish whether something can be true. For example, I might claim Providing free textbooks would enable more students to stay enrolled in college. That’s a claim of fact: I can prove (or fail to prove) that free books will mean more enrolled students by looking at numbers. Likewise, I can make claims of fact about existing policies or procedures (Most students do not understand our college plagiarism policies) or about reasons or consequences (Netflix users are less likely to go to the movies than those without Netflix).
A claim of definition tries to explain something or a part of something in a new or potentially controversial way. Let’s take a break to talk about controversy: Usually, the word “controversy” is now attached to the idea of scandal or impropriety. For our use, controversy reverts to its original meaning: “disagreement.” So defining something in a new way, or in a way about which there could be disagreement, is making a claim of definition.
Why would we want to argue over words, though? Well, for some of us, it’s because that’s what we love to do (think of your instructor). For the rest of us, claims of definition are interesting because they offer the chance to redefine how people think and talk about a topic you’re interested in. Think of the dozens of words you use each day that have a meaning that’s specific to you, or just to you and your friends. When you use the word “leader” or “leadership,” for instance, what do you mean by it? When you picture “success,” what are you picturing? What about words like “accessible,” or “free,” or “entitled”? Do you think you define them the same way as everyone else, or do you think your own experiences have led you to a different understanding of what being free or being successful really means? If so, perhaps you want to make a claim of definition about those words.
Other kinds of claims of definitions may work to narrow or broaden well-known terms. For example, if you want to argue that cheerleading should be considered an Olympic sport, you may have a claim of definition about what sports are (or what the Olympics should be).
Claims of value might sound like the kind of claims that get you into arguments over Thanksgiving dinner — and that’s not untrue. However, in academic argument, remember, we’re not trying to get into any fights. We don’t want anyone to stop speaking to anyone else. We’re trying to find reasonable ways to disagree, and sometimes, our disagreements are based on shared values or ethics, not on facts. Shared values might be personally held beliefs, such as religious/spiritual beliefs, but they might also be ethical codes that professional groups adhere to. As a student, you are likely subject to a student Code of Conduct, which is a statement about the shared values or standards upheld by students at your institution. A claim of value, also called a “claim of quality” (Fletcher), makes an argument based on these shared values that something is good or bad.
That might sound pretty heavy, but you’ve likely seen more claims of value in your life than anything else — particularly if you’ve ever looked at reviews online. Restaurant and product reviews are often based on claims of value: This restaurant has the best burger in the history of ever is a claim of value. Can we factually prove that any restaurant has the best burger in history? No. Can we define what “the best burger” is? Perhaps. Can we appeal to other burger lovers and claim that this restaurant is great? Sure. That’s a claim of value.
Likewise, most reviews of art, music, movies, and dance rely on claims of value or quality. The reviewer may establish shared values with the audience by explaining what they’ll be evaluating the performance on, but the audience must share those values in order to believe the claim. Put another way: If I love explosions and spaceships, and a reviewer says “This new movie is great” and supports that claim by talking about all of the fireworks and space adventures, I’m going to realize we share some values and be more likely to agree with the reviewer’s claim.
Claims of value often deal with gray-area issues, as well. Consider the earlier question about whether drugs should be decriminalized. Questions about what behavior should be seen as criminal come down to questions of value and may require require claims of value as their answers. Comparing two different issues may also be a claim of value: Drinking while under the influence of alcohol is more irresponsible than drinking while stoned is a claim of value, because the argument hinges on what the writer (and reader) consider “irresponsible” behavior to be.
Finally, Claims of rule/policy/action (which I’ll abbreviate to Claims of Rule) call for changes to be made to existing ways of doing things. These types of claims nearly always begin with a “should” statement: The college should make all first-year textbooks free is a Claim of Rule because it argues for changing an existing policy.
Claims of rule are perhaps the easiest to establish — just find a law you disagree with, and get going — but they are sometimes the hardest to narrow down. Arguing against a national policy, particularly one that’s been around for years, would likely take a book. Many students often decide they want to engage in debate around the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. While there’s always plenty of debate to be had over what these policies mean, there’s never enough time to thoroughly cover even a less popular amendment (say, the 17th) in a short paper. Trying to argue for or against changes to something like the First or Second Amendment would require giving up the next few years of your life to read nothing but federal court case law. Again, find narrow topics whenever possible: You may not be able to argue broadly about free speech restrictions across the United States, but there may be local issues or campus issues about which research and argument would be doable.
How do you know what type of claim to make? The type of claim you have may depend on the type of question you’ve asked. Look at how these questions and claims match up:
Question of fact:
- Are more accidents caused by drivers under the influence of alcohol or marijuana?
- Claim: More accidents are caused by…
Question of definition:
- What does it mean to be “intoxicated” or “under the influence”?
- Claim: Intoxication means…
Question of value:
- Which is worse, drinking and driving or driving while stoned?
- Claim: It is worse to….
Question of rules:
- Should we change the local policy regarding sales of recreational marijuana?
- Claim: We should change/not change local policy to state that…
Once you have your claim established, it’s time to find the fun stuff: Evidence!
Fletcher, J. (2015). Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Gage, J. (2006). The Shape of Reason. New York, NY: Pearson.