Assertions, arguments and presenting your research

Over on kata ta biblia, Patrick McCullough talks about assertions vs arguments and quotes Marianne Meye Thompson from Fuller. Along with much with which I agree he says that ‘She points out that you should never say “I think that” or “in my opinion,” but should rather give reasonings and simply remove those phrases’.

This is a convention in academic writing that has always made me uncomfortable when I am presenting original research or critiquing another person’s work in a public forum rather than simply writing a review of the literature.

If Bloggs, whose scholarship I generally respect, has says something with which I disagree, I would much rather say “In my opinion (or it seems to me that) in presenting this argument, Bloggs has overlooked X, because…”, rather than simply “In presenting this argument, Bloggs has overlooked X, because…”. I think that the “in my opinion…” softens my critique enough to give Bloggs the opportunity to say “Redman presents an interesting perspective and one that I had not previously considered…” rather than feeling the need to “come out fighting” to justify what s/he has said. I like dialogue and I think that the occasional “in my opinion” facilitates dialogue.

It also strikes me as somewhat dishonest to present something that is my own tentative opinion without indicating in some way that I am not articulating mainstream consensus, and I know it. And on the other hand, if I think that what I am about to articulate is exciting and groundbreaking work, I don’t want to say just that this is true because… I want to be able to at least give the reader a hint that this is new and different.

Meye Thompson’s position is, of course, the convention in the field and I am still a student, so that’s the way I write, despite my personal inclinations. Of course, you don’t want to overdo the “it seems to me”s or you run the risk of being thought opinionated, which would never do. 🙂 YMMV, of course.

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6 thoughts on “Assertions, arguments and presenting your research

  1. I can relate to your reticence about the convention. It seems to me that if you would like to make a point that you only tentatively hold, it’s not inappropriate to use phrases like “it seems to me.” But I would think that would not happen for crucial or foundational arguments to your paper/essay. For crucial points in your paper, the hope would be to present such strong argumentation that you leave no room for equivocation.

    I rarely feel unequivocal about any argument, however, particularly when we are trying to get at either the “meaning” of a difficult text or historically reconstructing an unknowable situation. So I suppose I try to make as strong a case as I possibly can for a certain point of view, while personally realizing that I could easily go another way. I think it is good to get strong arguments one way or another, so that we can see a multiplicity of viable solutions for any given problem. So, when I read a good argument for something, I generally appreciate it, even if I don’t agree one hundred percent.

  2. Judy,

    There is no accepted convention. It is much better in terms of clarity to tell the reader when it is your opinion, your view, rather than the accepted view. I have much enjoyed reading authors who do this, and am troubled by those who don’t. One of the things that I have learned as a writer in the field is that all the “rules” one learns about only writing in third person, and keeping your voice formal, are there to be discarded. Don’t be confined by these rules. Speak your mind. And let your reader know it is your mind that is thinking and conveying whatever it is.

  3. Maybe blogging is different than presenting a formal paper. It is more like a conversation, more tentative and exploratory, also more of a friendly virtual community; so I think it is much more appropriate to say, “in my opinion,” or “I wonder if you have considered . . .”

    On the other hand, when you are ready to put something in print, you should have done enough research to be fairly confident in saying, “the evidence points to this conclusion” or something like that.

    I understand that in Europe academic work is much more confrontational–at least that’s the way it used to be. I had a visiting professor from Italy once who said to me, in reference to a conjecture I made in a paper, “If you go to a conference, and you say something like that, and you have an enemy, he will destroy you.”

    I think Bonhoeffer once made a remark that American graduate students were to polite and didn’t challenge each other vigorously enough.

    What’s it like in Australia?

  4. I think this is an interesting area. I agree with Mark that blogging is very different to writing an academic paper/book. I think that when I want to say “I” is when I am suggesting something that is significantly different to what has gone before and it’s not so much because I’m not sure as because I want to say “I worked this out – it’s new and exciting, not just something that everyone’s known for decades”.

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