Cornell College Department
About Cornell Academics Admissions Alumni Athletics Offices Library
Home > Politics

Department of Politics

Getting from Topic & Bibliography to
Recommendation & Contentions

Your policy recommendation:

The policy recommendation is the paper's thesis, and it differs fundamentally from the topic I asked you to submit in Stage I. Selecting a topic requires only that you identify an area appropriate for inquiry and susceptible to a policy recommendation. Stating a policy recommendation takes you an important step further: you must determine, with some considerable degree of specificity, what policy ought to be adopted with respect to your topic. For example, "the Equal Rights Amendment" is a topic. "The Equal Rights Amendment, originally passed by Congress in 1972, should be repassed and ratified by the states" is a thesis. Please notice the grammatical difference between the example topic and the example thesis above. A topic is essentially a name; grammatically it is a noun, possibly with some modifying adjectives or phrases. A thesis is necessarily a complete thought; grammatically it is a sentence.

A public policy recommendation is one kind of thesis. It involves prescription or advocacy with regard to some aspect of public policy. Logically every policy recommendation must be a complete sentence communicating that something ought to be done by some agent of government. Read your policy recommendation carefully. Is it a complete sentence? Does the sentence state that something ought to be done? Is the individual or institution that must act a governmental actor or body? If you can answer all three questions "yes," you have a public policy recommendation. If the answer to any question is "no," then you need to write a public policy recommendation before going on to the next step.

Having a policy recommendation is not the same thing as having a good policy recommendation. Good policy recommendations are distinguished primarily by specificity. Read your policy recommendation again. Make sure that what you are proposing is not something vague to the point of meaninglessness, like "reform." If what you are proposing is specific and unambiguous, then you probably have a good policy proposal.

Your outline of contentions:

The key terms here are "outline" and "contention." An outline is a series of items written or printed together and arranged in a hierarchy. Your outline will be composed of contentions. In the sense it is used here, contention means a statement of fact for or against a proposal. Here the proposal in question is your policy proposal. Each contention, therefore, is a statement of fact for (on behalf of) your policy proposal. Since a sentence is the smallest grammatical unit that is capable of making a statement, it follows that your contentions must be sentences.

Read the first of your contentions. Is it a complete sentence? Is it a statement of fact? Does it assert that something is true? Does the truth asserted strengthen the case for your policy recommendation? You should be able to answer "yes" to each of these questions. All statements of fact have approximately the same form. They don't ask questions. They don't merely identify topics to be covered. They assert a truth. E.g.: "The plan (the policy / the proposal / it) would reduce the rate of illegitimate births." "The policy would be easily enforced." "The benefits would outweigh the costs." "My policy recommendation is consistent with the First Amendment to the Constitution." "The spotted owls will all die anyway." "There is no record of wolves eating children in the United States." "Those already rich will receive 85 percent of the benefits." "Opponents are wrong to argue that the benefits of Head Start can't be measured past second grade."

Repeat this analysis for each contention on your list. Edit your contentions until each of them meets the test. Give this your best shot, then come see me if you're having difficulty.

Once you have a complete list of contentions on behalf of your policy proposal, you need to organize them hierarchically. Please consult A Good Argument Is a Hierarchy of Contentions.

Maintained by: Last Update: July 15, 2008 8:44 am
600 First Street West, Mt. Vernon, Iowa, 52314 ©2003 Cornell College; All Rights Reserved