As a reader, a developing writer, and an informed student and citizen, it is extremely important for you to be able to locate, understand, and critically analyze others’ purposes in communicating information. Being able to identify and articulate the meaning of other writers’ arguments and theses enables you to engage in intelligent, meaningful, and critical knowledge exchanges. Ultimately, regardless of the discipline you choose to participate in, textual analysis—the summary, contextualization, and interpretation of a writer’s effective or ineffective delivery of his or her perspective on a topic, statement of thesis, and development of an argument—will be an invaluable skill. Your ability to critically engage in knowledge exchanges—through the analysis of others’ communication—is integral to your success as a student and as a citizen.

Textual Analysis: The Thesis

In order to learn how to better recognize a thesis in a written text, let’s consider the following argument:

So far, [Google+] does seem better than Facebook, though I’m still a rookie and don’t know how to do even some basic things.
It’s better in design terms, and also much better with its “circles” allowing you to target posts to various groups.
Example: following that high school reunion, the overwhelming majority of my Facebook friends list (which I’m barely rebuilding after my rejoin) are people from my own hometown. None of these people are going to care too much when my new book comes out from Edinburgh. Likewise, not too many of you would care to hear inside jokes about our old high school teachers, or whatever it is we banter about.
Another example: people I know only from exchanging a couple of professional emails with them ask to be Facebook friends. I’ve never met these people and have no idea what they’re really like, even if they seem nice enough on email. Do I really want to add them to my friends list on the same level as my closest friends, brothers, valued colleagues, etc.? Not yet. But then there’s the risk of offending people if you don’t add them. On Google+ you can just drop them in the “acquaintances” circle, and they’ll never know how they’re classified.
But they won’t be getting any highly treasured personal information there, which is exactly the restriction you probably want for someone you’ve never met before.
I also don’t like too many family members on my Facebook friends list, because frankly they don’t need to know everything I’m doing or chatting about with people. But on Google+ this problem will be easily manageable. (Harman)

The first sentence, “[Google+] does seem better than Facebook” (Harman), doesn’t communicate the writer’s position on the topic; it is merely an observation. A position, also called a “claim,” often includes the conjunction “because,” providing a reason why the writer’s observation is unique, meaningful, and critical.

Therefore, if the writer’s sentence, “[Google+] does seem better than Facebook” (Harman), is simply an observation, then in order to identify the writer’s position, we must find the answer to “because, why?” One such answer can be found in the author’s rhetorical question/answer, “Do I really want to add them to my friends list on the same level as my closest friends, brothers, valued colleagues, etc.? Not yet” (Harman). The writer’s “because, why?” could be “because Google+ allows me to manage old, new, and potential friends and acquaintances using separate circles, so that I’m targeting posts to various, separate groups.” Therefore, the writer’s thesis—his position—could be something like, “Google+ is better than Facebook because its design enables me to manage my friends using separate circles, so that I’m targeting posts to various, separate groups instead of posting the same information for everyone I’ve added to my network.”

In addition to communicating a position on a particular topic, a writer’s thesis outlines what aspects of the topic he or she will address. Outlining intentions within a thesis is not only acceptable, but also one of a writer’s primary obligations, since the thesis relates his or her general argument. In a sense, you could think of the thesis as a responsibility to answer the question, “What will you/won’t you be claiming and why?”

To explain this further, let’s consider another example. If someone were to ask you what change you want to see in the world, you probably wouldn’t readily answer “world peace,” even though you (and many others) may want that. Why wouldn’t you answer that way? Because such an answer is far too broad and ambiguous to be logically argued. Although world peace may be your goal, for logic’s sake, you would be better off articulating your answer as “a peaceful solution to the violence currently occurring on the border of southern Texas and Mexico,” or something similarly specific. The distinction between the two answers should be clear: the first answer, “world peace,” is broad, ambiguous, and not a fully developed claim (there wouldn’t be many, if any, people who would disagree with this statement); the second answer is narrower, more specific, and a fully developed claim. It confines the argument to a particular example of violence, but still allows you to address what you want, “world peace,” on a smaller, more manageable, and more logical scale.

Since a writer’s thesis functions as an outline of what he or she will address in an argument, it is often organized in the same manner as the argument itself. Let’s return to the argument about Google+ for an example. If the author stated his position as suggested—“Google+ is better than Facebook because its design enables me to manage my friends using separate circles, so that I’m targeting posts to various, separate groups instead of posting the same information I’ve added to my network”—we would expect him to first address the similarities and differences between the designs of Google+ and Facebook, and then the reasons why he believes Google+ is a more effective way of sharing information. The organization of his thesis should reflect the overall order of his argument. Such a well-organized thesis builds the foundation for a cohesive and persuasive argument.

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Textual Analysis: The Argument

“Textual analysis” is the term writers use to describe a reader’s written explanation of a text. The reader’s textual analysis ought to include a summary of the author’s topic, an analysis or explanation of how the author’s perspective relates to the ongoing conversation about that particular topic, an interpretation of the effectiveness of the author’s argument and thesis, and references to specific components of the text that support his or her analysis or explanation.

An effective argument generally consists of the following components:

  • A thesis. Communicates the writer’s position on a particular topic.
  • Acknowledgement of opposition. Explains existing objections to the writer’s position.
  • Clearly defined premises outlining reasoning. Details the logic of the writer’s position.
  • Evidence of validating premises. Proves the writer’s thorough research of the topic.
  • A conclusion convincing the audience of the argument’s soundness/persuasiveness. Argues the writer’s position is relevant, logical, and thoroughly researched and communicated.

An effective argument also is specifically concerned with the components involved in researching, framing, and communicating evidence:

  • The credibility and breadth of the writer’s research
  • The techniques (like rhetorical appeals) used to communicate the evidence (see “The Rhetorical Appeals”)
  • The relevance of the evidence as it reflects the concerns and interests of the author’s targeted audience

To identify and analyze a writer’s argument, you must critically read and understand the text in question. Focus and take notes as you read, highlighting what you believe are key words or important phrases. Once you are confident in your general understanding of the text, you’ll need to explain the author’s argument in a condensed summary. One way of accomplishing this is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What topic has the author written about? (Explain in as few words as possible.)
  • What is the author’s point of view concerning his or her topic?
  • What has the author written about the opposing point of view? (Where does it appear as though the author is “giving credit” to the opposition?)
  • Does the author offer proof (either in reference to another published source or from personal experience) supporting his or her stance on the topic?
  • As a reader, would you say that the argument is persuasive? Can you think of ways to strengthen the argument? Using which evidence or techniques?

Your articulation of the author’s argument will most likely derive from your answers to these questions. Let’s reconsider the argument about Google+ and answer the reflection questions listed above:

  • What topic has the author written about? (Explain in as few words as possible.)

The author’s topic is two social networks—Google+ and Facebook.

  • What is the author’s point of view concerning his or her topic?

The author is “for” the new social network Google+.

  • What has the author written about the opposing point of view? (Where does it appear as though the author is “giving credit” to the opposition?)

The author makes a loose allusion to the opposing point of view in the explanation, “I’m still a rookie and don’t know how to do even some basic things” (Harman). (The author alludes to his inexperience and, therefore, the potential for the opposing argument to have more merit.)

  • Does the author offer proof (either in reference to another published source or from personal experience) supporting his or her stance on the topic?

Yes, the author offers proof from personal experience, particularly through his first example: “following that high school reunion, the overwhelming majority of my Facebook friends list (which I’m barely rebuilding after my rejoin) are people from my hometown” (Harman). In his second example, he cites that “[o]n Google+ you can just drop [individuals] in the ‘acquaintances’ circle, and they’ll never even know how they’re classified” (Harman) in order to offer even more credible proof, based on the way Google+ operates instead of personal experience.

  • As a reader, would you say that the argument is persuasive? Can you think of ways to strengthen the argument? Using which evidence or techniques?

Yes, I would say that this argument is persuasive, although if I wanted to make it even stronger, I would include more detailed information about the opposing point of view. A balanced argument—one that fairly and thoroughly articulates both sides—is often more respected and better received because it proves to the audience that the writer has thoroughly researched the topic prior to making a judgment in favor of one perspective or another.

 

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See also:

Distinguishing between Main Points and Sub-claims

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Work Cited


Harman, Graham. Object-Oriented Philosophy. WordPress, n.d. Web. 15 May 2012. See <http://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/author/doctorzamalek>