At times, writers fashion claims that describe problems with another writer’s findings and go on to describe the limits or dangers of those findings. A common way to gain critical traction is to contradict settled ideas. You may recognize the standard opening to an academic argument in these two examples:
Though Aristotle’s Rhetoric is typically talked about as a treatise on argument, it is better understood as a treatise on persuasion, which Aristotle considered a quite different event from argument, marked by different requirements and goals. Recall that Aristotle finds argument to be coterminus with dialectic, the search for what is most truthful. Persuasion, he claims, is the “counterpart to dialectic,” a practice that depends on practical reasoning, anchored in the social world of everyday proofs.
European Americans tend to believe that racism is most often manifested in violent actions, vituperative insults, and vicious slurs. But researchers have located quotidian racism in acts of microaggression that tend to go unnoticed by their perpetrators, but accumulate in the psyches of their targets (Feagin et al., 2001). Misunderstanding the nature and effects of microaggressions leads some European Americans to claim that racism has ended in our culture, when, in fact, it is very much alive and well, however different its shapes and sizes.
You can build either a portion of your argument or your entire argument around a contradiction—a discrepancy between what someone has said (or what folks typically believe) and your better way of understanding the phenomenon. The following descriptions are found in Booth, Wayne C. et al. The Craft of Research. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1995:
It was commonly assumed that Jacob Riis photographed New York City tenement-dwellers in their lodging places, but recent evidence has come to light that he, in fact, took very few images; the bulk of the photographs were taken by his coworkers.
If you can show that a previous researcher has gotten something wrong, you can easily signal the significance of your argument. The more authoritative the mistake, the greater the significance. Three cases are most common:
- You find an error in fact or computation.
- You have new facts that either qualify old facts or replace them.
- You find a mistake in reasoning and from the same facts come to a different conclusion.
It has often been claimed that certain religious groups are “cults” because of how they differ from mainstream churches, but if we look at those organizations from a historical perspective, it is not clear when a so-called “cult” become a “sect” or even a “religion.
In this pattern, you claim that your argument contradicts the categories that others readily accept. Generally, you promise to show either than while others place something in a category, they should not; that while others do not place something in a category, they should. (In these examples, substitute for X and Y terms of your own.)
- Though X seems to be an example of Y, it is not.
- Though X seems to include Y as an example, it does not.
- Though X and Y seem to be similar, they are different.
- Though X seems to be characteristic of Y, it is not.
In recent years, some have argued that athletics is only entertainment and therefore should have no place in higher education, but in fact it can be shown that without athletics education would suffer.
This pattern is like the category contradiction, except that you show that others have mistaken the relationship among the parts of something.
- Though X seems to be an integral part of Y, it is not.
- Though X seems to have Y as an integral part, it does not.
- Though the parts of X seem to be systematic, they are not.
- Though X seems to be general, it is only local.
Internal Developmental Contradictions
Recently, the media have been headlining rising crime, but in fact the overall crime rate has been falling for the last few years.
In this pattern, you claim that others have mistaken the origin, development, or history of your object of study.
- Though X seems to be stable/rising/falling, it is not.
- Though X may seem to have originated in Y, it didn’t.
- Though both X and Y may seem to have come from Z, X didn’t.
- Though the sequence of development of X seems to be 1, 2, and 3, it is not.
External Cause-Effect Contradictions
A new way to stop juveniles from becoming criminals is the “boot camp” concept. But evidence suggest that it does little good.
In this pattern, you claim that others have either failed to see causal relationships or seen them where they do not exist.
- Though X seems not be causally related to Y, it is.
- Though X seems to cause Y, both X and Y are caused by Z.
- Though X and Y seem to correlate, they do not.
- Though X seems to be sufficient to cause Y, it is not.
- Though X seems to cause only Y, it also causes A, B, and C.
In the past, alcoholism was considered a lapse in judgment, a weakness, or even a sin. But a contemporary view is more likely to describe it as a disease.
In this pattern, you simply contradict received value judgments.
- Though X seems to be good, it is not.
- Though X seems to be useful for Y, it is not.
It has generally been assumed that advertising is best understood as a purely economic function, but in fact it has served as a laboratory for new art forms and styles.
Some contradictions run deeper. In the standard pattern of contradicting features, you reverse a widely held supposition, but you do not change the terms of the discussion. In perspectival contradictions, you step outside of the standard discussion to suggest that we must look at things in an entirely new way.
- We have generally discussed X in Y context, but there is a new context of understanding that we should consider—social, political, economic, intellectual, biological, academic, gender specific, etc.
- We have generally seen X as explained by theory Y, but there is a new foundational theoryor a theory from another field that can be applied to X that makes us see it differently.
- There is a new value system by which to evaluate the X.
- We long ago used to analyze X using theory/value system Y, then we rejected X as inapplicable to Y, but Y is relevant to X in a new way.