The Toulmin Model of Argumentation and the Literature Review

Literature Review

Arrangement is one of the five canons of classical Athenian rhetoric presented by Aristotle. Structure is often taught as a series of building blocks connected to form a coherent argument. However, structure is, in itself, the chosen structure is an essential part of the argument. We will focus on using the Toulmin model as an underlying structure for the macro level of one’s Literature Review.

The Toulmin Model of Argumentation

In his book The Uses of Argument, philosopher Stephen Toulmin (1958) argued that making arguments about universality and absolutism lacked practical value. Therefore, he called for different type of argument, a practical argument that focuses on the justificatory function of argumentation. He believed that reasoning is less about making inferences and discovering new ideas. It’s a process of testing and sifting through existing ideas to find the best solution. For an argument to succeed, it must provide a good justification that holds up to scrutiny and criticism.

At its core, the Toulmin model contains three essential elements: the Claim, the Grounds, and the Warrant.

Claim: Conclusions are whose merit must be established. A claim is an assertion made about an experienced reality, often where agreement is not already established. Examples of claims may be “Starting school at 9 am instead of at 8 am will improve student performance.”

Grounds: A fact or a piece of credible evidence one appeals to as a foundation upon which the claim rests. An author might provide the following evidence as grounds upon which to support their argument. “I hear howling outside,” and “Evidence suggests people function better when more rested.”

Warrant: A statement either made or inferred that authorizes the movement from the Grounds to the Claim. Toulmin described different types of warrants, such as: Generalization, Analogy, Causal, Sign, Authority, and Principle. Examples of warrants using the claims we made previously could be: “There is a wolf outside. I hear howling outside, and wolves are animals who howl.” “Starting school at 9 am instead of 8 am will improve student performance. Evidence suggests people function better when more rested; therefore, students who are more rested should function better in class.”

At its simplest form, an argument following the Toulmin model requires these three components. An argument must assert a claim about the world as experienced by the author. Claims must be supported by credible evidence. The author must explain the reasoning that led them to believe that the evidence presented warrants the conclusion made within the claim. Toulmin’s model also includes three additional components (Qualifier, Backing, and Rebuttal), and a future blog post will cover them. Now, let’s move on to discussing how this model functions in the Literature Review section.

Toulmin and the Literature Review

The Literature Review is the section of any academic work where the author demonstrates four things: (1) the historical knowledge in the field; (2) knowledge of similar research; (3) knowledge pertaining to unsolved problems surrounding the topic; and (4) any knowledge of gaps in the published research on said topic. While it is easy to consider the literature review as being a simple transmission of information, its primary function is to establish the ethos, or credibility, of the author as a knowledgeable authority whose findings should be given weight and attention. As such, it makes both an overall claim and a series of claims.

The Overall Claim: The Author is an Authority Whose Findings Should be Granted Consideration

The author’s authority as someone whose words should be granted consideration on the topic is the overall claim. While unstated within the text of the work, this is the implied Claim the full section or chapter makes.

In the discussion of said literature, the author provides the Grounds upon which they stand to assert that claim. “I am an authority whose findings should be granted consideration because” I have demonstrated that I (a) know the history of how this topic has been studied; (b) am aware of current trends in the research on this topic; and (c) have identified gaps in the literature. In general, this offers a good-faith demonstration that the author possesses values the academic community holds in high regard: (a) learning; (b) diligence of study; and (c) intellectual dexterity.

Furthermore, in presenting this review of literature, the author asserts they (1) have made a reasonable attempt to avoid plagiarism and thus present original scholarship and (2) recognized authorities (those whose work I am citing) can be seen as backing the claims of my knowledge and understanding (“See, I have read these authorities, both historical and contemporary, so I am someone whose findings should be granted consideration”).

And while those familiar with the Toulmin model might be tempted to assert that the citing of authorities is in itself an Authority warrant (“We should/not do X, because an authority figure told us so”), the Literature Review makes use of the Analogy Warrant.

Analogy Warrant: Reasons that “If Object X (an unknown) possesses a meaningful similarity to Object Y (something known and familiar), then we should treat Object X as if it were like Object Y.” This reasoning functions on the basis of meaningful similarity in an effort to help explain how to understand and respond to something that is unfamiliar by demonstrating a meaningful comparison to something known and familiar.

Explanation for Literature Review: The authorities and sources you cite are presumably known to the scholarly community. Since they are considered individuals whose findings are worthy of consideration (the known and familiar), then by referencing them and showing connection to them, the author of the Literature Review (an unknown) should also be seen as one whose findings are worthy of consideration. Because of the similarity demonstrated between the known and the unknown, the author of the Literature Review (you) argues that your words should be given the same consideration as those of the experts whose work preceded yours.

At the macro level of the Literature Review, the author makes the argument that their findings are worthy of consideration because they share similarities with the findings of those scholars who preceded them. The Toulmin model forms a structure for the Literature Review on a more nuanced and micro level. Future blog posts will explore that and the rhetorical purposes of other dissertation sections.

Other Blogs on this Topic

Section 5: Literature Review

Tips for the Literature Review: Synthesis and Analysis

Synthesizing Research in a Literature Review

request a consultation
Get Your Dissertation Approved

We work with graduate students every day and know what it takes to get your research approved.

  • Address committee feedback
  • Roadmap to completion
  • Understand your needs and timeframe