Helping students find and narrow down a topic
by Lisa Blankenship
Note to instructors: The following piece is one I wrote for our ENG 2100 Reader, Join the Conversation. “Stasis Theory: Finding and Developing a Thesis in Argument Genres” is an introduction to stasis theory, an ancient method of narrowing down a topic and research question in the context of a discourse community. I ask students to read this piece and complete the exercise at the end for the day we discuss the reading. Ideally this is done at the beginning of the research-based argument project to help students narrow down their topic and research question.
Writing about questions that involve research is a highly complex process, as you’ve probably experienced. An important part of writing in genres that require you to do research and take a position (a common genre in academic writing and beyond) is making sure your research question is not too broad. If your research question and your topic are too broad, then your thesis statement likely will be too broad as well. Once you’ve narrowed your research question, gathered sources, and done your research, you’ll need to figure out what it is exactly you’ve learned—what you’re adding to the conversation or body of knowledge on a subject. You could think of this process as your “findings” or your thesis, and the process of arriving at your thesis as discovering what has emerged from your writing and thinking. You’ll find that the more time you spend with your questions, your sources, and your writing on the topic—as unfocused as your writing may feel at first—the better your findings or thesis will be.
No research is done in a vacuum; the best is done for a reason that feels real and relevant to you (purpose) and is written for a particular audience (discourse community) because of a real problem or challenge (exigency). In order to find what it is you’re trying to say (thesis), the reason you’re saying it, and an audience for whom it would hold some meaning, one productive process you can use is an ancient method known as stasis theory. Even though it may seem like your audience for a paper is always your professors, I invite you to think beyond them for a bit to a broader audience (see “From Crowds to Books: A Brief History of Audience” in the Reader). Stasis theory, an ancient practice dating back to classical rhetoric and Aristotle (384–322 BCE), helps situate public issues as a conversation or deliberation among people who have a vested interest in a topic rather than as an isolated paper you write that only a professor will see. It offers a valuable set of tools to figure out how to approach a large topic and narrow it down into a thesis that’s directed to a particular audience (rather than, again, your professor or, worse yet, “the universe”).
Aristotle’s notion of topoi, or topics, refers to a place in your mind you can go to invent arguments, or ways of connecting with and persuading a particular audience. Examples include comparison, contrast, dividing a large issue into smaller parts, defining an issue or concept, determining which solution is better or worse, examining the cause of an issue or problem, and using examples to understand or explain something.
These ways of thinking are like the air we breathe in the West; they have been extremely influential in European-American civilization for thousands of years and continue to influence the way we see the world and make sense of information we learn from the writing of others and our own experience.
Other cultures have different ways of thinking based on their values and deep-seated philosophies (Hall). Cultures influenced by Greek and Roman philosophical traditions tend to value argument and directness, preferring a thesis to be up front in a paper. Cultures beyond the Western tradition prefer indirectness, stories, analogies, and making meaning through relationships and observations gleaned from everyday life. For example (example being an Aristotelian topoi), we’ve learned from thousands of years of Aristotle’s influence to introduce a topic by defining it: x means y. Other cultures, such as those influenced by Confucian philosophies, may try to explain a topic by putting it into the context of a reader or listener’s experience (the parables of the Christian New Testament also are a good example of this way of communicating and writing).
My point is this: there are many ways to think (and thus to write), and each culture—and even smaller groups within a larger culture—value different ways of communicating and being with others. In some ways, figuring out “how to write” means figuring out how you’ve been taught to see and to think, and how to both value your origins and see beyond them. It means knowing how the people who have power in a group you’re part of or are trying to be part of communicate with one another. So Aristotle’s topoi or common topics aren’t just your own thoughts; they’re “commonplaces” — the origin of common sense, or sense/ideas held in common and created by language and discourse communities. If this idea seems controversial—that your ideas are not your own—it’s just the beginning of the road the study of rhetoric will take you on. Scholars of rhetoric, linguistics, and literature study how language shapes how we think. Not only do we not know what we think until we write or speak it, but we also don’t think in isolation; we think with others, and we know what we know because of the discourse communities we’re in.
Stasis theory was adapted from Aristotle’s topoi in the second century BCE by philosopher and lawyer Cicero (106–43 BCE) and the rhetorician and educator Quintilian (35–100 AD). Staseis refer to questions you can ask to find where you agree and disagree with an audience on a topic, helping you know where you need to begin and what you need to focus on in your arguments. Stasis refers to the point where things stop, or where you disagree with someone. As rhetorical scholars Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee explain, “The most satisfactory modern equivalent for stasis seems to be the term issue, which we define as the point about which all parties to an argument can agree to disagree: this is what is at issue” (72).
Stasis theory includes the following ways of thinking about a topic:
- The facts (Conjecture: Is it real? Does it exist?)
- The meaning or nature of the issue (Definition: what should we call it?)
- The value of the issue (Quality: Is it good or bad?)
- The plan of action (Policy: What should we do about it?)
- A fifth area of stasis that has been added to ancient stasis theory relates to origin: What caused it?
For example, you’re researching and writing about climate change and your thesis is that we need to take steps on a national and local level to move toward renewable energy. If your audience doesn’t believe that climate change exists (stasis of fact) or that changes in weather patterns, catastrophic weather events, and melting polar ice caps cannot be included in or associated with the term “climate change” (stasis of definition) you’ll need to start there and focus your thesis and arguments around either a stasis of fact or definition (or both). If you’re addressing an audience who agrees with you that climate change is a thing (that it’s real or exists), and that characteristics of extreme weather and others I described above can be described by the term “climate change,” you can move on to addressing another area of stasis such as policy or even cause (possibly the hardest of the staseis).
Staseis of policy can help bring people together who may disagree on definitions, value, or cause. Abortion is a good example of this principle: even people who may disagree on the definition of terms (fetus, baby), and a stasis of value (is it good or bad) should be able to agree on at least some aspects of policy (how to reduce the need for abortions, for example, if that is in fact the goal).
Crowley, Sharon and Debra Hawhee. Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, 4th ed. New York: Pearson, 2009.
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. Anticipating China: Thinking Through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1995.
Five Categories of Claims
Claims in research-based arguments almost always fall into one of these five categories: claims of fact, definition, cause, value, or policy. Following are questions you can ask of your topic using stasis theory, as well as examples of thesis statements on various topics based on these types of claims. Each area of stasis also includes a thesis about gun control and ways of supporting it:
- Claims of Fact: Is it real? Is it a fact? Did it really happen? Is it true? Does it exist?
- Thesis: Racism is real; race is not.
- Thesis: Global warming is occurring.
- Thesis: There are serious restrictions on our Constitutional right to bear arms.
- This essay will give facts, examples, and statistics relating to laws and policies that restrict the sale and use of firearms.
- Claims of Definition: What is it? What is it like? How should it be classified? How can it be defined?
- Thesis: Non-consensual sex is rape.
- Thesis: Health care is a right.
- Thesis: Laws governing the sale of firearms such as assault weapons and handguns do not constitute an infringement on our right to bear arms.
- This essay will focus on the Bill of Rights and its clause about the right to bear arms. It will argue for a particular definition that excludes the writing of laws that relate to ownership of firearms.
- Claims of Cause: How did this happen? What caused it? What led up to this?
- Thesis: Racial profiling and excessive force by police caused the Black Lives Matter Movement.
- Thesis: Extreme weather events and changing weather patterns can be linked to global warming.
- Thesis: Tougher laws governing the sale of handguns would mean a decrease in the number of homicides each year.
- This essay will seek to establish a link between difficulty in obtaining a handgun and a drop in the homicide rate. It will use statistics, facts, and analogies from other places where similar policies have been enacted.
- Claims of Value: Is it good or bad? Beneficial or harmful? Moral or immoral?
- Thesis: Social media is bad for democracy.
- Thesis: The Black Lives Matter movement is important to all of us in the U.S.
- Thesis: The right to bear arms is still an important civil right in the United States.
- This essay will appeal to people’s sense of the value of gun ownership. It will probably appeal to authorities, such as the Constitution, to history, and to long-held customs.
- Claims of Policy: What should we do? What policy should we adopt?
- Thesis: The prison industrial complex should be abolished.
- Thesis: Every person in the United States should have access to affordable health care.
- Thesis: The sale of assault weapons in the United States should be banned.
- This essay will use a variety of motivational appeals and value proofs, analogies, facts and statistics, cause and effect arguments, and appeals to authorities to prove that this is a favorable course of action.
Examples with Your Topic
It may help you to think of a possible thesis statement (the idea you’re arguing for and trying to support in your paper) for each of the five kinds of claims. Often you will need to cover more than one kind of claim, but ultimately your paper and your arguments should focus primarily on one.
Using Stasis Theory to Find and Narrow Down a Topic
Examples with Your Topic
Think of a possible thesis statement (the idea you’re arguing for and trying to support in your paper) for each of the five kinds of claims.
- Claim of Fact:
- Claim of Definition:
- Claim of Cause:
- Claim of Value:
- Claim of Policy:
Using Toulmin to Organize Your Thinking
The philosopher Stephen Toulmin’s moral reasoning theory can be summarized as follows:
The point a writer or speaker or is trying to make
e.g. We should take steps to address climate change.
(Also known as reasons) The proof or evidence that leads a writer or speaker to draw a conclusion or make claim (thesis)
Grounds or reasons can consist of statistics, quotations, reports, findings, physical evidence, personal experience, or various forms of reasoning based on Aristotelian topoi or stasis theory.
e.g. Polar ice caps are melting. The scientific community has determined that global warming is escalating. Catastrophic weather events are increasing at an alarming rate. (Each one of these reasons could be a section or paragraph on which you elaborate.)
Using Toulmin to Create an Outline
Apply Toulmin concepts to create a preliminary outline for your project.
(For example “Minimum wage”)
(A sentence that is arguable—for example: The federal minimum wage should be increased to match increases in the cost of living.)
Grounds or reasons to support your claim/thesis (reminder that these can be section or paragraphs in your paper):
Dr. Lisa Blankenship has been teaching college writing for fifteen years but considers herself a continual student and learner, especially this year. She earned her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Miami University of Ohio in 2013 and joined the faculty at Baruch College in fall 2014, where she serves as Director of First-Year Writing.