Synopsis Five: arguments and proposals

By now we've heard many times that research is an argument based on data, and not a report or an essay. Common arguments communication researchers use based on their data fall into categories of inductive, causal, and deductive.

An inductive argument contends that what is true of a specific class or certain people is also true of others in similar circumstances. Or, in short, what's true of a small part is also true of a larger part--tentatively, of course. The inductive argument may take shape in three ways.

a. Argument from definition. Either a certain thing or class does, or does not, belong to a larger class. I could argue, for instance, that because World War I French newspapers emphasized the government's call to patriotism, they really were part of the state's public relations industry. Arguments about whether something belongs to a class of things are common, but can be misleading: sometimes the arguments are about definitions themselves, and not related to data at all. A communication researcher asserts that "Argumentative communication among people may be transacted non-verbally." A definition of communication is the use of non-verbal as well as verbal cues. So this argument is actually stating a definition. In your critical reading of research, ask yourself whether the argument really flows from the data, or is instead about the application of a definition.

b. Pure inductive argument. What pertains to a group pertains to a larger group. Some may question a researcher's ability to make such a "weak" argument, but these arguments are popular in communication research. In fact, any experimental or case study makes such an argument, asserting that we can apply results to a larger group. In critically evaluating research, ask yourself: Are the examples typical? Representative? Relevant? Sufficient?

c. Argument from analogy. People are fond of making analogies, that is, asserting that things which are alike in some ways are alike in other ways as well. They can make pithy little aphorisms, such as "a car is like a rock; both can be dead weight around your neck." (Or perhaps not so pithy....) However, many researcher rely on analogies for explanation, but avoid relying on them for a conclusion. Critical analysis of such an argument: Are the instances similar in many ways, and not only a few? Are there so many dissimilarities that the analogy is far-fetched?

A second kind of argument is popular with historians: causal arguments. We try to show through research that one event led to another. Causal arguments are misused most often in survey research. Survey researchers obtain descriptive data, but it is tempting to make causal arguments from it. For instance, if I survey students concerning their tastes in radio as freshmen and again as seniors, I can describe changes, but without an experiment controlled for variables, I can't say why the change took place, based on my data. (I can, however, make a guess, which may be okay, as long as you present it as such.) In critiquing causal arguments, think about whether other factors than the one argued for might be equally as likely to lead to the change indicated.

A third kind of argument is deductive, and we've been introduced to it before, in theory-building. In this case, researchers begin with a general rule, and then say it also applies in a specific case. You may have heard the old "deductive, general to specific," but that can be misleading, because sometimes in real life (well, as close as researchers get to such a thing) a deductive argument may seem rely on generalities all the way. Perhaps it's better to think of the old idea of deductive argument as premise/conclusion, such as:

Major Premise: All men are mortal.

Minor Premise: Socrates is a man.

Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.

To illustrate this in modern research, let's take an example. "The literature shores that when journalists are constrained by laws of censorship, they revert to underground methods of publishing. We hope in this study to look at the French press during World War II, particularly at clandestine journalism."

Major Premise: Censorship leads to clandestine publication.

Minor Premise: France had censorship during World War II.

Conclusion: We will find many clandestine newspapers.

You can check out deductive arguments in a variety of ways, most of which stress weaknesses in one of the premises.

Building a Prospectus
Researchers need to build their argument through a standard organization, based on a plan, or prospectus. Normally these contain the a number of required sub-topics:

1. Introduction. Here you give general background on the topic, indicate why it's important, and what need it fills.

2. Research question or hypothesis. Keep this to about a paragraph.

3. Definitions, conceptual and operational.

4. Limitations (potential weaknesses of study) and delimitations (scope of study).

5. Theoretical perspectives.

6. Significance of study.

7. Chapter organization.

8. Review of literature.

9. Research method chosen: design, database and variables.

10. Sample instruments (survey forms, questionnaires, etc.) if necessary: appendix.

Note that some researchers don't use the order indicated above, and in published material, much of this is condensed or even left out. But conscientious researchers consider all these requirements, and avoid taking shortcuts. Of course, after the research has been completed, the final work will include results, discussion, and conclusion.