The Toulmin Model of Argumentation: Claims, Data, and Warrants, Oh My!

The Problem

Imagine you’re at an animal shelter, planning to adopt a cat. Another patron denounces your choice in pets, insisting that dogs are better. You do like both, but are more of a cat person. However, this individual is adamant in convincing you to change your adoption plans.

“Cats suck, so you shouldn’t adopt one!” they exclaim. Curious about their intense dislike, you try to ask them why exactly they think “Cats suck”. All they say is, “They just do!” Unconvinced, you prod a bit more until they finally state, “Cats are antisocial jerks and can’t love you the way dogs can.” 

You quickly bring up the fact that not all cats are aloof; some are very affectionate.

They splutter at your rebuttal, “Well, I’ve never met a nice cat in my life, so you’re lying!”

Unmoved by their argument, you ignore them and adopt a cat.

Explanation

The cat hater wanted to change your mind by presenting an argument for why cats make terrible companions. However, they failed to convince you because their argument was weak. 

How do we know that the argument was weak? A philosopher named Stephen Toulmin provided guidelines for judging arguments, and this argument did not hold up. 

First, the cat hater made wide generalizations that do not apply to every cat. Next, they barely provided any evidence for their claims and refused to elaborate on their reasonings. Finally, they failed to properly acknowledge your rebuttal. 

The Toulmin Model of Argumentation can be used to analyze any argument: your opponents’ and even your own.

The Toulmin Model of Argumentation

In 1958, Stephen Toulmin published the first edition of his book, The Uses of Argumentation. In it, he proposed his Toulmin Model, a method for breaking an argument down to its parts for analysis. Toulmin identified six elements of an effective argument: claims, data, warrants, backing, rebuttals, and qualifiers.

How It Works

The six components work together to make a strong and complete argument. 

The claim is the point you’re trying to make, AKA your main argument/opinion. A claim should be debatable, meaning that people can agree or disagree with it, and not an indisputable fact. Let’s use “To foster better communities, city budgets need to be redrawn” as an example claim.

Next is the data, sometimes referred to as the grounds. Data is the evidence used to support your claim. For our example claim, the data could be “Police departments often receive a disproportionate amount of funding, leaving little for community services”.

Finally, there is a warrant, or assumption that connects the data to the claim. Warrants can be stated explicitly, but more often are unspoken assumptions. If no warrant can be made between the data and claim, then you are presenting unrelated ideas and cannot make an argument out of them. The warrant for our example would be “An unequal distribution of funds between equally important services shows that rebudgeting is needed”.

These three components—claims, data, and warrants—are fundamental to an argument. Omitting any one of them will result in an incomplete argument. The other three components—backing, rebuttals, and qualifiers—are supplementary, but add value to an argument when included.

Because warrants are often only implied and not everyone shares the same assumptions, a warrant may need further explanation to really cement your point. Thus, it is often accompanied by a backing, or specific examples that justify the warrant, demonstrating how it is a rational assumption. For our example, the backing could be “Community services benefit the public and help at-risk individuals get the support they need, reducing crime for a safer community. Thus, community services are equally important to policing, but receive much less funding. Therefore, rebudgeting is needed”. 

Rebuttals, or counterarguments to your opinion, are needed to demonstrate how you’ve considered other perspectives. A rebuttal to the call for rebudgeting could be "Not all city budgets disproportionately favor the police force”.

Thus, a qualifier can be added to convey the extent of the claim’s universality, or how often the claim is applicable. Our previous claim, “To foster better communities, city budgets need to be redrawn” has an implied “all”, making it seem as if we’re arguing that all city budgets need to be redrawn. To avoid making this generalization, we can add “most” to our claim, so it becomes ”To foster better communities, most city budgets need to be redrawn”. A few other qualifiers are “always”, “certainly”, “probably”, “sometimes”, and “never”.

By splitting an argument into its components, one can judge how well the parts work together and consequently, the strength of the argument.

Applying It

Toulmin’s Model of Argumentation can be applied to any situation involving arguments. Essays are likely what first comes to mind. While Toulmin's Model was originally developed to dissect arguments, it can also be used to form them. By using the components as a checklist, you can draft stronger arguments and improve your writing. 

Toulmin’s Model can also be used in verbal discourse, from formal debates to arguments with your parents. Toulmin’s Model facilitates a logical presentation of ideas, which helps you make a compelling point and avoid emotional outbursts. Both add credibility to you and your argument, making it more likely for you to convince the opposing side.

While a lack of components often does signal a weak argument, remember that the inclusion of all components does not necessarily signal a strong one. Most important is how the components interact and build upon each other.

Think Further

  1. How do you think application of the Toulmin Model would differ between written and verbal argumentation?
  2. How does the Toulmin Model of Argumentation compare to the essay structure taught at your school? What are the similarities and differences?
  3. What are the weaknesses of the Toulmin Model?

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Learn More

  1. Toulmin, S. E. (2003). The Uses of Argument. Cambridge University Press.
  2. Purdue University. (n.d.) Toulmin Argument. Purdue Online Writing Lab. https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/historical_perspectives_on_argumentation/toulmin_argument.html#:~:text=Toulmin%2C%20the%20Toulmin%20method%20is,the%20grounds%2C%20and%20the%20warrant
  3. Wright, D. [David Wright]. (2012, February 21). The Toulmin Model of Argumentation [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-YPPQztuOY&ab_channel=DavidWrightDavidWright