What’s a Thesis Statement?

Posted by Aaron G on 12/28/18 11:36 AM

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Every paper you write in college should have it. Sometimes professors call this a “thesis statement,” sometimes a “claim,” and sometimes they don’t really specify what it is. But it’s essential — and sometime elusive. But it shouldn’t be! 

Let's define claim

Don’t let the language of the assignment confuse you. Think about this way: a claim or thesis statement is what a smart reader would say your paper is about. A claim answers any of the following questions: What do you think? (And why?) What’s the point? (And why?) Who do you agree or disagree with? (And why?)

A claim is debatable. A reasonable person should be able to disagree with it and have good reasons to do so. That means you’ll need to work to persuade your audience (yes, you have an audience). You need to make an argument, draw on evidence, and defend your position.

A claim isn’t: a statement of fact, restating the topic of your paper, a statement that basically anyone would agree with or a statement of pure opinion. (I could go on.)

Let’s get a little more specific. I’ll draw an example from my own discipline — political theory — but could you could one from any of the humanities or “soft” social science fields, from English to Religious Studies, Sociology to History. The standards for good evidence changes by field. So do the kinds of questions people think are worth asking. But a good argument is a good argument, and a strong claim is a strong claim. 

Let’s say the essay asks: “Why did Alexis de Tocqueville think that democratic equality posed a threat to freedom?”

The first thing to realize when you see a question like this is that there’s likely to be more than one right answer. This isn’t a geometry proof or a physics problem set. A question like this calls on you to do interpretive work — to make sense of some difficult ideas in a text that people have been reading for a long time. You aren’t going to have the last word on Democracy in America and that’s okay! Your job is to come up with a plausible claim that you back up with textual evidence.

Now let's define a strong claim

What might a strong claim look like? It’s going to have to be relevant to what Tocqueville actually says about “democracy,” “equality,” and “freedom.” So go back to the book and go back to your notes. It’s also going to have to be something that a reasonable person could disagree with. 

Here’s a weak claim: “Because Tocqueville was an aristocrat living in 18th century France he thought that democracy in America was dangerous and equality was bad.” Now, there’s some truth in that statement. Tocqueville was a French aristocrat and he did say things suggesting democracy was “dangerous.” But it’s not an argumentative claim. It’s a statement of fact that doesn’t really respond to the question and doesn’t advance a claim that’s going to take all that much work to defend or shoot down.

A strong claim will sound pretty different. “Tocqueville worried that in democratic societies tyrannical majorities had a leveling effect on natural freedom and human excellence. In his analysis of democracy in America, however, he identified institutions and habits that could counteract these tendencies, though as I will argue, he was ultimately pessimistic about the ability of democracies to preserve freedom as he conceived of it.”

There’s a lot more going on in the second claim. It’s longer, more detailed, and — most importantly — builds to a debatable position about Tocqueville’s pessimism. It’s also a more interesting paper to read and to write. It doesn’t merely “answer the question” but opens up room to ask and explore more questions. That’s not just the hallmark of a strong claim but strong academic writing as well. 

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Want to read more on the subject of expository writing?

Tips for Writing an Exam Essay in 80 minutes

Taking Essays To The Next Level: How To Write In Your Own Voice

Tags: expository writing