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Making It Interesting

In “That’s Interesting: Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology” (1971), Murray S. Davis proposes the art and science of making  interesting arguments.

What is an interesting argument?

Davis says it is an act of  “[moving] the audience’s mind from one accepted theory to another.”  The “interesting thesis” is  the art of  “engaging attention” of the audience and shifting it to “the interesting from the routine”.

How does the “interesting thesis” apply in practice?

Davis suggests that writing should start with asking the question, where is my audience’s attention before I engage it in “ the interesting”? Usually, the audience’s attention is already preoccupied somewhere in the routine.  And what is the routine? Routine “is the-taken-for-granted-world of their everyday life,” what is known or accepted. Questioning this routine or “denying the old truth” is the shift and “the interesting” is the new.

Theoretically, a “worth saying” and worth attention preposition should deny some part of a routinely held assumption. If it just confirms routinely held assumptions, you get the “of course”, “that’s obvious”, “everybody knows that”, or “it goes without saying” reactions.

Practically, “the interesting” argument should have a follow-through that addresses the “So what?”, “Who cares?”, “Why bother?” “What good is it?” questions. The rhetorical structure of an interesting argument must have a theoretical and a practical effect.

Murray identifies a predictable standard form to all interesting books and articles, namely; (1) articulating the taken-for-granted assumptions of an imagined audience by reviewing relevant literature. Practically, you would say, “it has been long thought…”, (2) offering  one or more prepositions to deny traditional assumptions. Here you may say; “But this is false…”, (3) uses various methods to prove that the old routinely assumed prepositions are wrong while new asserted ones are right by perhaps saying, “We have seen instead that..”, (4) and finally, conclude by suggesting practical consequences for these new prepositions, including how they should deflect it onto a new paths. For example, “Further research is needed to …”.

Put simply, an interesting preposition is always a negation of the existing one.

How do you identify the interesting arguments?

Murray identifies twelve indices of the interesting and separates them into two groups based on the number of phenomena they characterize: either a single phenomenon, or multiple.

Single Phenomenon: Organization, Composition, Abstraction, Generalization, StabilizationFunction, and Evaluation

Multiple Phenomena: Co-relation, Co-existence, Co-variation, Opposition, and Causation

Characterization of A Single Phenomenon:

  1. In Organization, he says that either you argue that “a seemingly unorganized composition could actually be organized, or a “seemingly organized composition could actually be unorganized”. Also, you could argue that a “seemingly unstructured phenomena such as crowds or social institutions could be “integrated into a coherent social system”, while, “a seemingly structured phenomenon could be part of a disorganized and incoherent social system”. For example, Karl Marx’s assertion in Capital that the economic model processes of bourgeois society, which were considered at the time he wrote to be organized in one way, are in fact not organized.
  2. Composition talks about a seemingly heterogeneous phenomena that may actually be only composed of a single phenomenon, while a seemingly single phenomenon might actually be heterogeneous. For example, theorists may have found a unifying principle that could address many ideas previously thought to have been unique from one another. On the other hand, they might take a phenomenon once thought to have been unitary and distinguish it into several factors.
  3. Abstraction is when you argue that “a seemingly individual phenomenon is actually a holistic phenomenon”, or that a “seemingly holistic phenomenon might be an individual phenomenon”. For example, the property of an individual might just be the property of a whole society that an individual is simply a part of. Some social behaviors like ‘suicide’, ‘embarrassment’, or ‘sleep’, which “are seemingly individual might belong to a whole society. This technique is  often called ‘sociologizing’ or ‘sociological imperialism’. You could also reverse things and say “the property of a whole might also be the property of individuals”; this proposition of capturing the attention of an audience would be called ‘psychologizing’ or ‘psychological reductionism’. There is also a third category in which there is an intermediate between the individual and the whole, a sort of intermediate ‘Social-Psychological’ level.
  4. In Generalization, a seemingly local phenomena is actually general, while seemingly general phenomena is actually local. An interesting generalization by a theorist would consist of an assertion that some idea that is thought to be local is applied effectively to a general group [add examples]. An interesting localization would consist of an assertion that an idea thought to be general is applied specifically to a local group.
  5. In Stabilization, it is about arguing that a stable and unchanging phenomenon is actually unstable and changing, and vice versa. For example, in the passage, American society, a seemingly stable and unchanging institution, is actually shown to have “had a long history of disruption, conflict, violence, and incipient disintegration”. The seemingly unstable and changing phenomena could also be interpreted to be stable and unchanging; for example, student riots or group revolts, seemingly unstable, could also be perceived as “the most recent repetition and manifestation of an original and ongoing paradigmatic pattern of human behavior”.
  6. In Function, Davis argues that what seems to function ineffectively actually functions well, and vice versa. Though something might be obviously defective, it might be safe and conservative to keep it the same, if that particular method has certain benefits. For example, one might make the proposition that “folk remedies”, though not backed by Western medicine and science, might actually be somewhat effective. In other words, a practice that an audience might disapprove of would have consequences that the audience would approve of. The other side of the proposition would be that a seemingly well-functioning institution is need of radical change. The audience might approve of a social institution but disapprove of some of its consequences. An example of this sort of argument might be one that asserts that ‘Schools make children stupid”.
  7. The use of Evaluation to capture and foster audience interest in a topic by comparing a commonly held belief to one contrary. Davis warns that for this method to function effectively the audience must be at least partially sympathetic to your argumentative point.  This is necessary because the abrupt nature of this method can easily backfire if it is perceived by the audience as either unsubstantiated or a personal slight against the held beliefs in question. Evaluative propositions are common in sociological research because they are seen as a neutral method of evaluation.

Characterization of Multiple Phenomena:

  1. Co-relation is used to show to argue that “what seems to be unrelated phenomena are in reality co-related.”  The essentially element of this approach is that it links previously disassociated concepts to alter one’s view or opinion of the subject in question. The tactic of co-relation is usually done when evaluating the morals of a popularly held belief. A classic example of this is the comparing Marriage and Prostitution. The two are commonly viewed to be antitheses, but one could use this method to challenge the audience’s perception of their divergent nature.
  2. Co-existence is used to interest the audience in what seems “to be phenomena that can exist together are in reality they cannot” or vice versa. The author concedes that it is a relatively rare style of argument because it necessitates such a toxic relationship between two phenomena that they simply cannot coexist. Such relationships are believed to be fairly rare. Co-existence is process of either associating or dissociating two topics that are not seen as incompatible or compatible respectively. This rare tactic requires the presence of an exceedingly toxic relationship between two topics. For this reason, the media commonly used it to “shock” audiences by making associations. However outside of this niche it is only sparsely employed in discourse due to its tendency to intrinsically “other” segments of the population.
  3. Co-variation is when you argue that “What seems to be a positive co-variation between phenomena is in reality a negative co-variation between phenomena.” Or when you argue that “What seems to be a negative co-variation between phenomena is in reality a positive co-variation between phenomena.”  This type of proposition occurs whenever “extremes” are said to “come together”. Davis locates this pattern in: Stratification Correlates – When an upper and lower class are asserted to be similar through some trait that either is to the middle class, Hierarchical Organization Correlates – When the top management and the workers are asserted to be more similar on some trait than either is to the middle management, and in Historical – Demographic Correlates – When primitive society and modern society are asserted to be more similar on some trait than either is to historically intervening societies. Like co-existence, co-variation is used to challenge commonly held beliefs of association. However, in asserting that two subjects are actually more alike or unalike than previously believed, co-variance is seen as less “toxic” than co-existence.
  4. Opposition challenges commonly held beliefs regarding association by saying that subjects seen as compatible and associated are in fact incompatible or different.  Opposition could take two types; arguing that what seems to be similar (almost identical) phenomena are in fact opposites or urging and proving that what seems to be an opposite phenomena is actually similar. The author cautions that groundwork must be done in terms of evidence to back opposition.
  5. Causation is used to argue that “a seemingly independent is actually a causal relationship between two factors, or what seems to be a dependent phenomenon in a causal relation is in reality an independent phenomenon.” These propositions are extremely common in sociology. They are used to create interest through the reversal of relationships between phenomena. Causation is focused on the mechanics of their interaction. It works to establish whether one category or element directly leads to another or the two topics are truly independent.  This tactic can be extremely useful when developing a sophisticated argument, particularly in the sciences where formulaic argumentative style is critical. Due to this factor, Causation is possibly one of the most common argumentative styles employed in academia.

 

Davis, Murray S. “That’s Interesting: Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 1:4 (Dec. 1971): 309-344.