Rhetoric of Social Science Writing

As explained by Emily Donnelli, Assistant Professor of English at Park University:

Broadly defined, rhetoric is the art of communicating persuasively.  What defines persuasive, of course, is defined by the writer/speaker's audience.  Thus, if we want to create messages that are persuasive (whether that means changing someone's view, or merely getting that someone to read on further), we must have a solid sense of our audience and what will reach them.

Audience is perhaps the most primary difference between the writing we do as part of our academic curriculum and the writing that is expected of us in our professional communities.  After years of writing research papers and the like, we often grow lazy in our audience analysis--we are so used to writing for a generalized portrait of a writing teacher or group of classroom readers that it's easy to, at best, run out of ideas or, at worst, to simply view writing as a static, mundane activity.

When we capture a glimpse of where our writing, even when it's school-based, fits into a larger conversation, things become a bit more interesting.

The importance of audience is echoed in the rhetorical considerations highlighted by the OWL at Purdue:

Knowing who you are writing for, why you are writing, and in what context is key to writing successfully within your psychology courses.

Audience: Your audience is person or group of people you are writing for. In psychology courses, this is often your professor or teaching assistant, although you might also be asked to write for a "general audience of psychologists" or to your classmates. Your instructor may or may not indicate who your audience is for your paper, so it is always good to ask. In articles, it is more complex-a combination of reviewers, journal editors, and readers in your area of interest.

Your audience's expectations about your writing determine:

  • Formatting and style
  • Tone of the piece
  • The amount of technical language or jargon used
  • The amount of information you assume the audience already knows

Audience expectations aren't always straightforward. For example, if you are taking a course psycholinguistics and you are writing a critical review of research on semantic priming, your primary audience for the course is your instructor. While your instructor knows what semantic priming is, you may still be required to define it in your paper so that your instructor knows that you know what it is. Part of the instructor's expectation in this case is that you can clearly define key vocabulary concepts discussed in class in your term paper.

Purpose: While the overall purpose of your term paper or experimental report may be clear (to pass the course, to convey the results of your research) more specific purposes for writing your report are not always so. When you are prewriting and drafting, as yourself not only what your larger purpose is, but also what additional purposes you may have and want to achieve.

Context: The context is the larger writing situation in which you find yourself. Are you writing for a class? Are you writing an internal report to your advisor? Are you writing an article in preparation for submission to a journal? The context in which you are writing is another important factor that helps you determine style, format, and content of your piece.

For more information on audience, purpose, and context see the Rhetorical Situation powerpoint resource.


For a closer look at the role of audience, view the video "Voice." You will need to scroll down to the selected video and click on the VoD icon.

Opinion, Evidence and Argumentation

 As discussed by Dale Carrico at the University of California at Berkeley, there are four habits of argumentative writing:

1) An argumentative paper will have a thesis.

A thesis is a claim. It is a statement of the thing your paper is trying to show. Very often, the claim will be straightforward enough to express in a single sentence or so, and it will usually appear early on in the paper to give your readers a clear sense of the project of the paper. A thesis is a claim that is strong. A strong claim is a claim for which you can imagine an intelligent opposition. It is a claim that you feel a need to argue for. Your thesis is your paper's spine, your paper's task. As you write your papers, it is a good idea to ask yourself the question, from time to time, Does this quotation, does this argument, does this paragraph support my thesis in some way? If it doesn't, delete it. If you are drawn repeatedly away from what you have chosen as your thesis, ask yourself whether or not this signals that you really want to argue for some different thesis.

2) You should define your central terms, especially the ones you may be using in an idiosyncratic way.

Your definitions can be casual ones, they don't have to sound like dictionary definitions. But it is crucial that once you have defined a term you will stick to the meaning you have assigned it yourself. Never simply assume that your readers know what you mean or what you are talking about. Never hesitate to explain yourself for fear of belaboring the obvious. Clarity never appears unintelligent.

3) You should support your claims about the text with actual quotations from the text itself.

You will always be analyzing texts (broadly defined) and whatever text you are working on should probably be a major presence on nearly every page of your papers. A page without quotations is often a page that has lost track of its point, or one that is stuck in abstract generalizations. This doesn't mean that your paper should consist of mostly huge block quotes. On the contrary, a block quote is usually a quote that needs to be broken up and read more closely and carefully. If you see fit to include a lengthy quotation filled with provocative details, I will expect you to contextualize and discuss all of those details. If you are unprepared to do this, or fear that doing so will introduce digressions from your argument, this signals that you should be more selective about the quotations to which you are calling attention.

4) You should anticipate objections to your thesis.

In some ways this is the most difficult habit to master. Remember that even the most solid case for a viewpoint is vulnerable to dismissal by the suggestion of an apparently powerful counterexample. That is why you should anticipate problems, criticisms, counterexamples, and deal with them before they arise, and deal with them on your own terms. If you cannot imagine a sensible and relevant objection to your line of argument it means either that you are not looking hard enough or that your claim is not strong enough.

Watch the videos "Persuasion" and "Argument" for a closer look at persuasive and argumentative writing. Scroll down to the title of the selected videos and click on the VoD icon to view.

For detailed information on establishing arguments in social sciences, see:

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