The Art of the Argumentative Thesis

It’s one of the maxims of writing an effective academic paper: thou shalt have an argumentative thesis. But what does “argumentative” really mean?

First, your thesis shouldn’t be so obvious that virtually any reader would agree with it without even having to read your paper.

“The Civil War was a tragic, transformative period in American history.”

Well, of course it was. No one’s saying otherwise! It may be comforting to select a thesis that you are confident you can argue, but if you err too far on the side of caution you will likely wind up with a dull, aimless paper. You should be able to envision a logical counter-argument to your thesis. If you can’t, then you should rethink your strategy.

Still, take care not to swing too far in the opposite direction. Some take “argumentative” to be synonymous with “provocative”; while provocation can be effective, needless provocation is tiresome.

“The American Civil War had only minor effects on the trajectory of American history.”

Hmm. A stimulating statement to be sure, but can you prove it? Given that the vast majority of Civil War scholars would vehemently disagree with you (and, let’s face it, they probably know better than you do) it’s not worth taking on a topic that so brazenly cuts against the grain.

It might seem to you as though every topic worth discussing has already been written about and to some extent, this might be true; the challenge is to put your own spin on a frequently discussed topic, to add your voice to the broader conversation. Just because something has never been written about doesn’t mean it’s necessarily worth writing about now.

To make sure you are working with a balanced, yet still argumentative thesis, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can I envision a logical rebuttal to my thesis? On what grounds might someone disagree with the point I am trying to make?
  • How can I contribute to the academic dialogue surrounding this issue without repeating what other scholars have already said? How does my argument differ from other theses on this subject?

For instance:

“Although the American Civil War was a tumultuous, disruptive period in American history, the war itself did not affect the progression of American history as much as is often assumed. Rather, it was during the following years of reconstitution that the trajectory of American society truly shifted.”

This thesis, unlike the two above, is sufficiently argumentative because it:

A) Engages with scholarly work while putting its own spin on the issue (e.g. “did not affect the progression of American history as much as is often assumed); and

B) Can be logically argued against (e.g., one could contend that without the war, reconstitution never would have taken place and thus the war was more transformative).

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