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Rogerian Argument

The Rogerian argument (or Rogerian rhetoric) is a form of argumentative reasoning that aims to establish a middle ground between parties with opposing viewpoints or goals. Developed by psychotherapist Carl Rogers and adapted to rhetoric by writing scholars Young, Becker, and Pike, the speaker seeks compromise, acknowledging positive aspects of each party’s argument to arrive at a mutually-beneficial solution to an issue. 

You may already use Rogerian argument in your everyday life to negotiate with your friends, family, and/or romantic partners. For example, if you wanted to watch a comedy and your friend wanted to watch a romance, you might compromise by offering to watch a rom-com, as this offers each of you a bit of what you are looking for in that particular moment. Note, however, that this style of argument is decidedly less common in academic settings, where various empirical or theoretical notions of truth are often prized above the practical advantages of the Rogerian method.

While Aristotelian styles of argument are often seen as eristic (concerned primarily with winning), the Rogerian argument can be viewed as more dialectic in nature (a conversation between two or more parties with the goal of arriving at some mutually-satisfying solution). Thus, practicing the Rogerian argument will enhance your ability to understand the complex relations of opposing viewpoints and provide tools for addressing such discrepancies sympathetically. It’s also great for day-to-day conflict resolution at home or in the workplace.

However, Rogerian argument does come with disadvantages. For example, because Rogerian argument relies on compromise between opposing parties, it may not work well when your opponents are unwilling or unable to compromise, or if they are arguing in bad faith (e.g., they care only about winning). It may also lead to sub-optimal solutions if your opponent’s position is demonstrably wrong, since in this case you may nevertheless be forced to sacrifice some of your (ostensibly superior) goals order to accommodate your opponent’s (inferior) ones.

Objectives

In “Rhetoric: Discovery and Change” (1970), Young, Becker, and Pike describe the primary aims of the Rogerian argument as follows:

  1. to convey to the reader that he is understood,
  2. to delineate the area within which he believes the reader's position to be valid, and
  3. to induce him to believe that he and the writer share similar moral qualities (honesty, integrity, and good will) and aspirations (the desire to discover a mutually acceptable solution).

The first aim shows the reader that you understand the complexities of the argument and that you have listened sympathetically to what it is they have to say. This is important, because the success of the Rogerian arguments relies on cooperation and collaboration. The second aim puts this understanding into practice by seeking a symbiotic solution. The third aim builds ethos and rapport between the parties. If audiences believe they share a value system with a speaker or writer, they are more likely to agree to the terms of whatever solution is presented.

While each of these aims is important, Young, Becker, and Pike stress that they are just that: aims, not steps. You should not necessarily view these aims as occurring in a linear, step-by-step process. The authors present a synthesized discussion of what a successful Rogerian argument should contain, but they eschew any formalized structure. The structure of the argument should instead be determined by the speaker, and it should be modified and adapted according to the rhetorical situation at hand.

Contents

Again, there is no formalized structure for the Rogerian argument, though the following example provides a foundation  for considering how you might structure your own argument.

A successful Rogerian argument will likely include the following:

  1. Introduction (addressing the topic to be discussed and/or the problem to be solved)
  2. Opposing position (showing that you understand your opposition’s viewpoints/goals)
  3. Context for opposing position (showing that you understand the situations in which their viewpoint is valid)
  4. Your position (introducing/addressing your viewpoint as it differs from the reader’s)
  5. Context for your position (objectively showing the reader the context(s) under which your position is valid)
  6. Benefits (appeal to the opposition by showing how they would benefit by adopting elements of your position)

Example

Below, we’ve provided an example Rogerian argument that follows the formula above. In this example, we will take the position that technology (e.g., laptops and tablets) should be allowed in writing classes while also considering the opinion of the opposition, who argue that such technology is more of a distraction than  a helpful tool. In so doing, we should be able to arrive at a solution that considers both arguments and develops a solution that benefits both parties while still achieving our goal of allowing technology in the classroom.

Introduction

Here, we would introduce the topic and briefly discuss why it is a matter of contention. We would lay out the differing perspectives, briefly mention the merits of each argument, and discuss the implications closely considering all perspectives to arrive at a solution that works for everyone.

Opposing position

Here, we would introduce the opposing position that digital technology should not be allowed in the writing classroom. We would also list and discuss their objections to the proposition of technology in the classroom. These might include the notions that it’s distracting for the individual, the class, and the instructor, and is often used to avoid the lesson and instead play games or go on social media.

Context for opposing position

Here we might provide specific details that lend merit to their argument. We want to show that we are fully considering their claims and not just giving lip service, in the hope that that they will give similar value to our opinions. We could include statistics, testimony from instructors and students, or even examples from media that support their theory that digital technology can indeed be a distraction during instruction.

Your Position

Here, we would introduce our claim that digital technology should be allowed in the writing classroom. We would still want to speak as objectively as possible in order to establish our ethos as concerned but unbiased speaker. We might even qualify our position by acknowledging that there are, of course, situations in which technology should be put away, but reiterate that, generally speaking, the presence of digital technology is a positive.

Context for your position

Here, we can provide examples that run contrary to the ones we used for the context of our opposition’s position. For example, we could gather testimony from students who claim that using these technologies in class has been beneficial. We could include research and scholarship that supports our position and even quote instructors who have developed pedagogy around these technologies. We might even subtly demonstrate that our opposition has failed to account for all possibilities by choosing our examples carefully. For instance, we could easily include accounts of students with learning disabilities who might otherwise have a difficult time succeeding in class without the help of assistive technologies.

Benefits

Here, we would use the points we’ve established throughout the argument to appeal to our opposition and find some productive middle ground that benefits both parties. We would acknowledge that some instructors do not want digital technologies present in the classroom, as they believe they distract from paying attention during lectures. We would maintain, however, that these technologies can indeed be productive tools for learning—in some cases, they can even be a virtual requirement for learning. We could then offer a solution: that these digital technologies should be kept aside during lecture portions of a lesson except in the case of students with documented disabilities. This way, students will likely be paying attention, taking notes by hand which they can transcribe later if they so wish. However, once a class moves from lecture to activity (whether group or individual), students should be allowed to access these technologies to more effectively engage with the activity, organize their thoughts, and access information. Now that the instructor is no longer lecturing, it should be easier to monitor student progress and engagement and the use of technology for these activities will lead to more developed and better organized results from the students.