Ways of Arguing With Sources

You can use sources for a variety of purposes. That means it’s important to cast a wide net and include as many perspectives on your topic as possible when doing searches. Many beginning writers make a common mistake of only searching for articles and books that support their ideas. Instead, you should find sources that may contradict what you previously thought, or open your eyes to new possibilities.

Writers don’t always agree or disagree with their sources 100 percent. They often side with specific claims, and against others. Furthermore, they can partially agree with a claim but still find exceptions to it, situations in which a commonly held view doesn’t make sense. For example, Alisa C. Roost practices partial agreement in her article, “Losing It: The Construction and Stigmatization of Obesity on Reality Television in the United States.”

In April 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama appeared on the popular reality television show The Biggest Loser(TBL) and praised it for motivating viewers: “I am a big fan of The Biggest Loser because the contestants inspire so many of us” (season 13: ep.15). The contestants do indeed inspire many people. The United States, like much of the world, focuses considerable attention on obesity, and there is indeed value to bringing consciousness to healthy choices. However, an extremely destructive perversion of this movement has emerged: a shaming judgment of the overweight or obese as morally inferior that is repeated in countless articles, headlines, and stories.

Here, Roost agrees with views like those expressed by Michelle Obama that people who try to improve their diet may inspire others to do the same, stating that “there is indeed value to bringing consciousness to healthy choices.” However, she disagrees with many premises behind reality shows and takes issue with the ways the present health and body image. This partial agreement drives her larger argument about these shows.

When we point out exceptions and complications to opinions we agree with, we qualify our claims. Writing specialists describe this act as qualification, and it helps to strengthen our claims by clarifying when they’re relevant and when not. You can qualify your own arguments, but you can also do it with your sources.

Specific words can help with qualification, called hedging words. They’re meant to give readers a heads up that an argument doesn’t always apply to every circumstance. Using these helps give your writing a tone of self-awareness and thoughtfulness. You may have been taught not to use these words, but they’re appropriate when you truly need to qualify a claim.

In some cases,
Most of the time
In certain circumstances,
in large part
might, could, possibly, largely
not necessarily
almost certainly

We see such qualification often in academic and other forms of writing. Roost uses them frequently in her article on reality TV shows. She writes that “these shows reflect and reinforce a narrative that, for the vast majority, is unattainable and creates a cycle of shame, isolation, and failure.” By qualifying her claim with the phrase “for the vast majority,” she maintains that the shows may not have the same negative effect on absolutely everyone.

Your sources can also do much more than simply provide information and viewpoints. Some important works provide an entirely different lens or framework to think about a problem. An author might create a new theory to explain a concept or event in their own discipline. They might not be writing about your issue directly. Nonetheless, you find their new way of thinking potentially helpful to a topic you’re researching.

Angela Tenga and Jonathan Basset practice forwarding in their article, “‘You kill or you die, or you die and you kill’: Meaning and Violence in AMC’s The Walking Dead.” The authors explore the popular thriller through the lens of Terror Management Theory (TMT), building on the work of Pyszczynski, Greenerg, and Solomon. In short, TMT refers to a range of social and psychological strategies used by individuals and collectives to survive when faced with dangerous, life-threatening situations that are prolonged or inescapable. As Tenga and Basset write, “Terror Management Theory seems particularly applicable to the behavior of the characters in The Walking Dead, who live with the relentless threat of impending death” while also serving as a “useful critical lens for studying the cultural role of zombie fiction” (2016). By drawing on this set of theories, the authors offer a new way of understanding the show and its intense popularity.

Tenga, Angela and Jonathan Bassett. “‘You kill or you die, or you die and you kill’: Meaning and Violence in AMC’s The Walking Dead.” The Journal of Popular Culture 49.6 (2016): 1280–1300. Print.

Roost, Alisa. “Losing It: The construction and Stigmatization of Obesity on Reality Television in the United States.” The Journal of Popular Culture 49.1 (2016): 174–195. Print.

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