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Entry to appear in H. Pashler (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Mind.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.  Volume expected to appear in 2011.

Argument Mapping

Argument mapping is diagramming the structure of argument, construed broadly to include any kind of argumentative activity such as reasoning, inferences, debates, and cases. This entry briefly surveys the nature, benefits, and historical context of this activity.

Nature of Argument Mapping

Typically an argument map is a “box and arrow” diagram with boxes corresponding to propositions and arrows corresponding to relationships such as evidential support.  Argument mapping is similar to other mapping activities such as mind mapping and concept mapping, but focuses on the logical, evidential or inferential relationships among propositions.  Argument mapping is concerned with informal reasoning and “real world” argumentation and thus contrasts with the use of diagrammatic techniques in formal logic such as Venn diagrams.

Argument mapping is done in many different ways.  Any such approach is usefully seen as making commitments at three different levels – theory, visual conventions, and technology.

First, argumentation theory and related fields such as informal logic, critical thinking, and rhetoric provide the theoretical framework for any style of argument mapping.  The theory specifies the entities, relationships and values to be represented and provides rules or guidelines governing map construction.   Conversely, developing an argument mapping scheme can force theoretical issues into the open and stimulate further research.

Second, an approach must adopt visual conventions for displaying arguments in accordance with the theory.  From the range of dimensions such as shape, color, and line, the scheme designer must choose how to show, for example, that one proposition supports another.   The conventions should yield maps that not only are theoretically adequate but also: communicative effectively, properly conveying to the reader the argument structure and associated issues; support interaction (construction and modification); and please the eye.  It is challenging to satisfy all these constraints at once, and a good scheme will draw on fields such as information visualization and cognitive science.

Third, creating argument maps requires resources and technology of some kind.  The most obvious and accessible technologies are pen and paper or whiteboards, but these quickly reveal their limitations: poor support for complex diagrams and modification of diagrams, and failure to constrain, scaffold or guide the user in any way.  Serious argument mapping is now done using specially designed computer tools which have emerged over the past decade, such as Araucaria, Compendium, bCisive, and SEAS. Such tools largely overcome the disadvantages of manual technologies and offer a number of other advantages. An important recent development is the growing array of collaborative online argumentation tools such as Debategraph, though good user interfaces for online argument mapping remain an important challenge.


Figure 1: An example argument map. The map diagrams a portion of the argumentation found in an opinion piece by Paul Krugman. The map uses colors, lines, position in space, labels and icons to convey the structure of the argumentation. Note how the visual conventions display one distinctive feature of argumentation, “linked” premises (or “co-premises”), where multiple claims together constitute a single reason supporting another claim. Diagram created using the bCisive software.

Benefits of Argument Mapping

Argument mapping enthusiasts believe that argument mapping has numerous potential benefits.  For the suitably skilled person, mapping a complex argument promotes clarity and insight, more rigorous and complete articulation, and more judicious evaluation.  Teachers use argument mapping to help students acquire basic concepts, better understand how arguments are constructed, and enhance their reasoning skills.  Argument mapping can be an effective way to improve general critical thinking skills.  In the workplace, argument mapping can promote rational resolution in complex, fractious debates; improved communication of important arguments; and better decision making.

There is a simple, plausible case as to why argument mapping should have these benefits.  Arguments can be complicated, sometimes extremely so.  We know that well-designed visualizations help our minds cope with complexity.  Hence, argument maps should help us deal with arguments.  This can be easily demonstrated with simple exercises, but there is scope and need for rigorous empirical investigation.

History and Future of Argument Mapping

It appears that argument mapping did not emerge until the nineteenth century, with the first reference to the practice in a logic textbook by Richard Whately in 1836.  The most notable early exponent was the legal theorist John Henry Wigmore, who developed detailed schemes for displaying legal evidence in the early twentieth century.  In mid-century philosopher Stephen Toulmin developed a simple but influential argument diagramming scheme.  With the rise of the informal logic and critical thinking movements, argument mapping began to make regular appearances in textbooks.  Interest in argument mapping grew rapidly in the 1990s, due in large part to the increasing availability of computers and specially designed software.  A substantial series of maps released by Robert Horn stimulated widespread interest in the technique. Recent years have been seeing argument mapping crossing over from academic or educational applications into the workplace (e.g. in intelligence analysis, and policy development) and popular use, particularly with the recent emergence of systems for online collaborative mapping.

The recent surge in argument mapping signposts an exciting development in humankind’s cognitive history.  Computer-supported argument mapping offers a major change in the way we handle informal reasoning and argumentation.  It is an instance of Douglas Engelbart’s vision of the augmentation of human intellect, whereby we develop technologies which can boost our individual and collective intelligence, by complementing our own cognitive machinery.  Contemporary argument mapping approaches and tools are still relatively rudimentary.  We can look forward to more sophisticated frameworks integrating more seamlessly with our biologically-endowed cognitive equipment, enhancing our capacity to deal with future intellectual challenges.

See also

Thinking, Rationality, Extended Mind, Graphical Organizers

Further Reading

Horn, R. et al. (1999) Can Computers Think? Macrovu.

Kirschner, P. J., Buckingham Shum, S. J., & Carr, C. S. (Eds.). (2003). Visualizing Argumentation: Software Tools for Collaborative and Educational Sense-Making. London: Springer-Verlag.

Krugman, P. (2009) Health Care Now.  The New York Times, Jan 30 2009, p.A29.

Okada, A., Buckingham Shum, S. and Sherborne, T. (Eds.) (2008). Knowledge Cartography: Software Tools and Mapping Techniques. Springer: London.


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