Any arguer who wants to enter an ongoing public or academic debate needs first to identify what points have been agreed upon, what points have been in contention, and which of them to address. The standard but often bewildering advice to ‘narrow the topic’ reflects this need to specify an issue. (From Fahnestock, Jeanne and Marie Secor. “Classical Rhetoric: The Art of Argumentation.” Argument Revisited; Argument Redefined: Negotiating Meaning in the Composition Classroom. Eds. Barbara Emmel, Paula Resch, and Deborah Tenney. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1996. 97-123.)
The stases are a system devised by classical rhetoricians to help sort out any issue. “Stasis” means “standstill.” What we are doing when we use the stases is finding where an argument comes to a standstill. Following this method, we ask ourselves six distinct questions about a given issue.
This method can be used at every stage of the research process, from helping a writer find initial research questions, narrowing down and refining a research question, finding a methodology for sorting research, analyzing a conversation about a topic, and organizing the final paper. For now, we’ll focus on how the stases can be a useful tool as you help your students develop their research questions.
The stases are:
- Existence: Does a problem exist?
- Definition: How do we characterize the problem?
- Cause: What caused the problem?
- Value: Is it good or bad? Moral/immoral? Effective/ineffective?
- Action: What should we do about the problem?
- Jurisdiction: Who should decide what we do about the problem?
The stases are hierarchical. That is, we cannot address Definition unless we’ve established a problem exists, and similarly we cannot address Action unless we have resolved all four stases above it. The exception is the last stasis, Jurisdiction, which can go anywhere. Often, we might find the issue is who defines a problem, as we will see below. The others, though, need to be resolved before we can move on. If a writer enters in one of the later stases, it is because there is already agreement on the earlier stases. Many beginning arguers want to jump right to Value or Action without looking at the other issues that might be involved in the debate. Many might also have a broad conception of a topic. Others might see the debate strictly in pro/con terms. However, the stases show us how to narrow our focus, what other issues might be contentious in a debate, where the real contention lies in a debate, and that there are often more than just two sides to a debate. They can be a guide to start finding research on a topic.
For example, say we want to research childhood obesity in the US. We would ask:
- Are US children obese?
- What counts as “obese” versus “pudgy,” “overweight,” or “baby fat”?
- Why are US children obese? Is it video games? Fast food? Neglectful parents? Vending machines in schools? The cookie monster? Advertising aimed at children? Etc.
- Are methods to combat obesity effective, such as more exercise? Or is the real problem “fat shaming”?
- How should we solve childhood obesity? Ban vending machines in schools? Limit television? Ban sugary snacks in schools? Tax soda and cookies? Make the cookie monster change his song? Ban advertising towards children? Sue fast food companies?
- Should the government be mandating, should the schools be making rules, or should parents be responsible for helping children avoid obesity?
The multiple answers in some stases show we need to further narrow the topic. For example, one writer might decide that children are not obese because the Body Mass Index is an inaccurate way to judge obesity or say that we are shaming children who might otherwise be healthy for being somewhat overweight. As we can see, though, we are finding the most answers to the Cause question, so we might want to restart the questions from there by picking one cause and coming up with new questions about it. Say we wanted to focus on advertising aimed at children as a cause of childhood obesity. Our new questions would be:
- Are advertisers of junk food targeting children?
- What is “junk food”?
- Why are advertisers targeting children? Are they causing obesity?
- Is it moral for them to target children with these ads? Are these ads effective in making children want junk food?
- Should the government ban advertising of junk food towards children or make them take the toys out of Happy Meals?
- Is it the government’s responsibility to mandate companies to stop advertising towards children, the company’s responsibility to make a moral choice, or parents’ responsibility to say “no” and stop buying junk food?
As we can see, we now have a more narrow focus. Using these questions as a focus in the beginning stages of research can often help us find more interesting angles on a topic as well. For example, a writer who originally wanted to examine whether abstinence-only sex education was effective found some surprising answers to her second stasis question, What does abstinence-only sex education teach? From there, she changed her topic to research the effects of gender stereotyping in abstinence-only sex education. Another student examining why dodgeball should be banned in schools initially conceived of two camps: those supporting a ban and those against it. However, when answering his definition question, “What is dodgeball,” which he thought he would find complete agreement on, he found out that there are different ways of playing dodgeball, some of which don’t cause the same “bullying” problems people critique in the game. Using the stasis questions as a guide helps us see more of the subtle disagreements in a debate on a topic.
Writers going through this method might find that they have a sufficient research topic by the time they get to question #3. That is, they find so many different answers that they don’t need to address Value, Action, or Jurisdiction in their paper, and they might be effective in doing so. For example, a writer researching racial self-segregation in high school cafeterias has enough to write about with the first three questions: 1. Are students segregating themselves by race in high school cafeterias? 2. What is racial self-segregation? 3. Why are they doing so? How is our culture encouraging this behavior? How might schools be encouraging it?
Once a writer’s questions are finalized, they can be used as a reading tool in research. That is, when we find an answer to one of the questions in a source, we can highlight it in the source and even keep a document that collects data answering each of the questions. They could also lead to color-coding this research. Once we have our research, we can then use the questions to find agreements and disagreements or to find what the most contentious issues are in the conversation on the topic. We can then enter the conversation where it matters most. Finally, when writing our final papers, we can use the stases as an organizing tool, which helps us present a logical, coherent argument.
Student Activity: Student Stases Worksheet
For more on the research question, see What is my research question?
Research Toolkit by Wendy Hayden and Stephanie Margolin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.