International Studies Quarterly, vol 33, no. 4 (December 1989) pp. 389-410
by Thomas Homer-Dixon and Roger S. Karapin

Arguments and debates about politics are activities central to a democracy. Understanding arguments according to common frames of reference is not a straightforward task but demands much critical intelligence and skill. To aid in evaluating and criticizing arguments, we present in this paper a quasi-formal analytical methodology that uses a graphical scheme synthesized from the work of Toulmin and others. Arguments are analyzed into sets of propositions structurally linked by support, attack, and “warranting” relations. This method had advantages over others, since it is well-adapted to informal reasoning and since it helps identify implicit principles of argumentation (warrants), unsupported claims, circularities in reasoning, lines of possible attack, and structural relations between sub-arguments. Anyone can use the graphical template of argument elements and relations as a guide in analyzing political (or other) arguments for a variety of critical purposes. In this paper, we apply the method to a debate about the strategic window of vulnerability, a debate chosen for its continuing political relevance and the richness of its argument structure. We present graphs and their verbal interpretations, and we hope to encourage others to use this method in their own critical research.


Language and society are closely related because the members of society use language to perceive their world, to think and talk about it, and to reproduce and change it. An argument is different from other uses of language in that it responds to or anticipates an opposing point of view. Argument and debate occur when people try to gain acceptance for their interpretations of the world. In the U.S., politics requires arguments in order to make reasonable the pursuit of important goals of public policy like democracy and effective national defense. By evaluating and criticizing arguments it becomes possible to improve them as well as to develop the common perspectives needed for communication. Although free argumentation is the best way to achieve these ends, it is always an imperfect process that depends on carrying out sometimes difficult critical tasks.

In this paper we offer a basic introduction to a new, graphical method of argument analysis derived from the work of the philosopher Stephen Toulmin and others. With this method, an argument or debate is analyzed into sets of propositions structurally linked by specific kinds of relations. We believe this method will be useful to both the layperson and the academic, and we emphasize its simplicity and day-to-day utility for understanding, criticizing, and improving the arguments that shape our lives. We are not promoting it as a specialized technique for use by other specialists for presentation to a specialist audience. Rather, we hope it will be used by the broad range of people who make and are themselves affected by arguments.

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