The concept of argument has a long history in communication. An argument is a concluding statement that claims legitimacy on the basis of reason. But argumentative discourse is a form of interaction in which the individuals maintain incompatible positions. More specifically, argumentative discourse directs attention to the arguments of naïve social actors engaged in intersubjective social interaction rather than the nature and structure of abstract arguments (Willard 1989).
The traditional notion of argument has the logical syllogism as its elemental structure. Thus, the concluding statement (A = C) is logically necessitated in: A = B, B = C, therefore A = C. A politician who states that “Democrats are liberals; my opponent is a democrat; therefore, my opponent is a liberal” is arguing from such syllogistic logic. Argument in this case is abstract and separate from the perspective of social actors. Aristotle first recognized that people did not actually argue formally and posed the enthymeme as a practical syllogism. That is, a speaker would leave a listener to fill in some part of the syllogism (Bitzer 1959). Expressed as an enthymeme the above statement might be, “My opponent is a democrat and therefore a liberal.” This leaves the audience to fill in the missing premise about the relationship between democrats and liberals. Although enthymemes recognize the role of people, they remain modeled on the syllogism.
Recent formulations by Brockriede (1975) and O’Keefe (1977) accept a distinction between two senses of argument. There is making an argument and having an argument. Making an argument is constructing a product and can be done alone. Having an argument is an interpersonal or conversational experience. Argumentative discourse is in the tradition of having an argument rather than making one. It is argument as a type of communication between two or more people who perceive themselves to have incompatible positions; that is, argument as dialogue rather than monologue such that the interaction involves extended polarization that is negotiated in conversation (Schiffrin 1985). Argumentative discourse is less concerned with traditional “rationality” than with the naïve actors’ understanding of the ongoing interplay of social processes (e.g., psychological, sociological, political, and emotional) that actually characterize the interactional context of arguing.
A study by Maoz and Ellis (2001) demonstrated argumentative discourse by analyzing arguments between Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli Jews typically espouse ideals of equality, fairness, and justice but nonetheless hold negative feelings and hostility toward the other group. This creates an ideological and interactional dilemma in that arguments must be worked out in the face of contradictory personal perceptions. One way the interactants work this out is by arguing from ground, or the point at which one can argue no further. Thus, both Israeli Jews and Palestinians import sacred issues into the argumentative discourse (“the land,” “the Bible,” “freedom”) that function to mitigate the possibility of personal association with a position that is antagonistic to the other side. By arguing that the land is “sacred” and decreed in the Bible the Israeli Jews avoid the impression that they are expressing personally held negative or distasteful attitudes. Because both sides reason from fixed personal and political positions they reproduce their longstanding disagreements and maintain their argumentative and political impasse.
- Bitzer, L. F. (1959). Aristotle’s enthymeme revisited. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 45, 399 – 408.
- Brockriede, W. (1975). Where is argument? Journal of American Forensic Association, 11, 179 –182.
- Maoz, I., & Ellis, D. G. (2001). Going to ground: Argument in Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian encounter groups. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 34, 399 – 419.
- O’Keefe, D. J. (1977). Two concepts of argument. Journal of American Forensic Association, 13, 121– 128.
- Schiffrin, D. (1985). Everyday argument: The organization of diversity in talk. In T. A. van Dijk (ed.), Handbook of discourse analysis: Discourse and dialogue. New York: Academic Press, pp. 35 – 46.
- Willard, C. A. (1989). A theory of argumentation. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.