Position Paper Guidelines
To be effective and persuasive, a position paper must take into
account the most important information and ideas available. The
amount that one needs to know is defined by what is known and
published, not by the amount of work one feels like doing.
political candidates nor scholars can defend a mistaken position by
claiming they did know about available research or ideas. Ignorance
a failure, not a defense.
The following outline suggests how to approach a position paper. Again,
part of your problem is to judge what is most important to an issue.
- You must recommend what position the
candidate should take on the issue, but this recommendation should be result of your
research, not the starting point. Your
goal is to discover what policy recommendation best fits what
is known about this issue. This cannot be overstated. Avoid
temptation to take a position before doing the research, then
trying to gather evidence to support that position.
- Define the key issue and analyze clearly
the competing positions that exist.
- What is the issue? Often, people taking different
positions about an issue define it differently. From an analytic
point of view, two distinct conceptions of an issue are important.
- How do people define the issue, taking into account their
varied ways of understanding it?
- What are the social, historical, and cultural conditions that
have caused this disagreement?
- What are the basic positions that are at odds, as represented
politicians, by advocacy groups, and in
the media? (You want to put aside your preconceptions about these
positions, starting with the perspective that it will be the evidence
you accumulate rather than your preferences or expectations that decide
which to recommend.)
- For each important competing position,
- clarify the principal empirical
assumptions and claims (what it
true and factual in
the world), and
- clarify the principal moral
assumptions and claims (what it
good or fair or
- It may prove useful to construct a table listing all the
relevant empirical and moral claims (down the left hand side) and all
the positions on the issue (along the top), showing which positions
accept, reject, or ignore each claim (in the cells).
- Offer the candidate arguments and
evidence to defend her position
- What evidence supports the primary empirical
informing her position?
- What evidence and theory support the principal predictions
associated with her
- Can you offer evidence and arguments that suggest her position
will ultimately either
benefit the interests or the fulfill the moral commitments of more
people than other options?
- Offer the candidate arguments and
challenges to use against alternative positions
- Can you indicate evidence contradicting the
assumptions or claims of other positions?
- Can you offer evidence that their moral claims poorly fit the
actual moral actions of
their supporters (e.g., if you showed that "pro-life" advocates
actually have little
general concern for human life or that "pro-choice" advocates were
generally supportive of freedom of choice). Or can you show that
interests are really
the driving force?
- Can you use evidence or well-defended theories to challenge the
- Analyze the distribution of opinions
- Which relevant moral claims are accepted by near universal
which have majority
support, and which are strongly contested?
- Why do voters seem likely to support each of
positions that exist on this issue and
how many hold each important opinion?
- To what degree do people's social positions appear to
influence their position on
this issue? By social position, we mean factors such as age, sex, race,
political party membership, church membership, or income.
- To what degree do people's positions on this issue appear to
attitudes about other social issues or their general ideology (e.g.,
how liberal or
conservative they are)?
- To what degree do people's allegiances to a position seem due
interests, moral views, church membership, ignorance, or some other
- How committed do people seem to be to their preferred
position on this issue? How deep are their feelings?
- Who will find sympathy with the position recommended for the
- This is obvious if the candidate simply takes one of the main
it may be much more complicated if the candidate takes a subtle or
- Make sure that your presentation clearly
informs the candidate what is known about the
underlying causal processes influencing this issue.
- What causes the "problem" to exist?
- What decides which people (or other entities such as
organizations) suffer the ill
effects of the "problem?"
- What causes the issue to be so divisive?
- What causes the issue to be so difficult to resolve.
- What determines which side people support?
- What determines the success or failure of alternative
- Can we learn anything valuable from the history of the issue in
- What do historical and international comparisons show us about
the roots of this issue
and the possibilities for resolving it?
- Highlight any important facts or important arguments about
causality that contradict
what most people believe, expect, or want to be true. These are often
the starting point
of innovative policy strategies.
- For example, do people misunderstand the history of the
issue, do they confuse the actual population involved in the problem,
do they mistake the motives behind people's actions, or do they display
ignorance about solutions in other countries?
- Be clear why these facts are important and why people
probably have the wrong idea about them.
- State clearly why the candidate
should take the position you recommend and defend your
- Recall that the candidate really wants to resolve divisive
public issues. How does the
position you advocate fit this goal? (Don't just offer your opinions,
make a clear
argument, supported by evidence.)
- Remember, one basic goal is to avoid antagonizing any
significant groups. If a strategy
can be devised that would satisfy both sides of a controversy, it is a
- Recall that the candidate really wants to win the election.
Again, how does your
recommended position fit this goal? How can you support that contention?
- Build a strong, cohesive argument that
shows your understanding of the issue and what the
work of social scientists can tell us about it.
- The position paper should have a clear, strong organization.
The candidate should be able to find the different parts of your
analysis quickly and easily. She should also find
that the presentation builds in smooth and consistent manner if read
from beginning to end. Facts should be clearly associated with ideas,
and ideas with arguments or questions.
- The position paper should serve as a background preparation
course for the candidate,
not offer a speech exalting the recommended position.
- All important empirical assertions should have appropriate
- Research findings are much stronger support than anyone's
opinions unsubstantiated by