Contingency: How We Situate Writing to Create Meaning
You’ve been given a writing assignment. You research. You read. You prepare to write. But how do you get the gazillion pieces of information organized in a way that makes sense to you and, ultimately, your audience? The answer involves understanding and being able to classify the types of arguments being made.
Let’s stop here and define argument. In rhetoric, an argument is a claim with reasons, not a fight or disagreement as we tend to use the word in everyday language.
A lot of information goes into the topics and discussions you will research. A lot of claims are being made all at once. If you were researching bees, for example, you might find the following claims in multiple sources as you did research:
Everyone should plant flowers to attract bees
Mold and viruses threaten bees
The bee population is declining due to colony collapse disorder
Almonds and apples are almost entirely pollinated by bees
‘Murder Hornets’ attack honey beesLocal honey helps seasonal allergies
Honey bees are displacing native bees
Bees are a keystone species
Planting native wildflowers helps native bees
Decreased bee populations hurt the economy
People can’t survive without bees
Monoculture is bad for the environment
Pesticides and toxins threaten bees
Bees are essential to one third of the food consumed in the United States
Notice these claims are all over the place? Sorting through the information is just as difficult as shopping the clearance rack at Kohls or Macy’s: it’s not an activity for the faint of heart. You’re looking for a great bargain—and it’s there to be found—but the women’s shirts are mixed in with teen graphic tees, career jackets, and pajamas. The different sizes are supposed to be organized on racks by size, but are usually more random than not.
When you write, it’s your job to organize and control the flow of information. Your audience will not have the patience to sort through a confusing collection of ideas. That’s your job as a writer. So, just like shopping a clearance rack and sorting through the sizes, colors, and types of clothes for that great deal, you will need to sort through the types of claims you find and settle on a clear claim (does the term thesis statement sound familiar?) and supporting reasons. Types of claims can be classified into 5 different levels or stases. Below, the five levels of argument are listed with example of possible research questions for each of the stases:
“How dangerous are murder hornets to bees?”
The ability to classify claims being made in an argument gives clarity to the situation and can lead to discussion and understanding of the issue.
Ancient Greeks and Romans used the stases to thoroughly discuss matters, especially legal matters. They wouldn’t move on to the next level if a previous level wasn’t resolved. How do these stases play out in everyday life and writing?
A student writing a paper proposing bee-friendly gardening tips (a policy-level argument) might first use the stases to help the audience understand the big picture of the issue:
This paragraph flows from the facts (bee populations are decreasing and are vital to food supply) to definition(most bees are ground dwellers) to cause and value (pesticides and colored mulches are a significant risk). The audience could then reasonably accept a thesis proposing suggestions or policy for keeping their gardens bee-friendly:
The rest of the document could focus on the policy of adopting bee-safe gardening practices.
Using stasis theory in the introduction can help move the audience through an orderly set of information in order to introduce the thesis. It can also serve as an outline to discuss each level of the issue.
The idea of stasis theory is audience-centered, meaning that in traditional argument or exploration, the writer (also called the rhetor) shouldn’t move past the point where the audience is.
The word stasis shares the same root as the word static (as in static electricity and static cling). So, when you don’t start where your audience is, it’s just as bad as getting halfway through a job interview and discovering a random sock clinging to the outside of your dress slacks.
Disagreement often happens when parties aren’t talking at the same level or stasis. When this disagreement happens, it can be a time for contentious name calling or it can be a time for open-minded discussion and discovery. Stasis theory gives a system for identifying when parties are giving claims at cross purposes:
Here, one party is discussing policy (which color should we choose for the new countertops?) while the other isn’t sure of the facts/definition (do we even need new countertops?)
Stasis Theory helps identify the point where discussion needs to occur (Do our countertops really need to be replaced?). Rhetorician Keith Grant Davie explains, “The word ‘stasis’ (plural ‘stases’) literally means a ‘slowing down’ or a stopping point. In rhetoric, a stasis is an issue that may be contested or a question that needs to be resolved before the argument can proceed.” As in our example of the bees or the countertops, an audience will be much more receptive to changes they can make if they understand why it’s important.
Even if you present information in a logical order according to the stases, your audience will not always “buy into” the flow of information you present. Not all information moves smoothly through the stases from fact to policy. Sometimes audiences get “stuck” on a stasis (think static cling again) and will take issue or outright reject a stasis level you take for granted. Notice how this mock Kickstarter campaign derails in its attempt to logically go through the stases levels to encourage the audience to adopt the policy to buy a Fabulous Waterproof Towel:
The remainder of the Kickstarter campaign would, we can only assume since it’s contrived, focus on why people should adopt the policy to buy into the Waterproof Towel technology.
But alas, this is one idea that’s probably not going to get much traction. Here’s an analysis of how an audience would likely react to the stases of this dubious Waterproof Towel proposal:
Here, the audience isn’t likely to disagree. They can quickly look up the population of the United States and because of the qualifier “many” will not disagree that a large number bathe or shower. There seems to be no fact or definition issue here.
The audience might still be on board. Bath towels are thick and do take a long time to dry. That a bath towel will get wet is an effect the audience will likely accept. No issue here, move along.
The audience might take issue at this point, the value stasis. Here is the stopping point: the audience probably doubts the claim that wet bath towels are the huge problem they are made out to be. After all, how many cases of death by bath towel mold have been reported? Yes, bath towels get wet, but they usually dry within a few hours to a day, even in humid climates. Of course, the audience probably knows a simple thing to do is to put the bath towel in the wash after use or simply hang it to dry. Not a big deal. The audience will likely not find the problem of wet bath towels a pressing issue. Here, at the value stasis is the “stopping point,” where the issue needs to be resolved. But how can it be resolved? It’s a waterproof towel, an undeniably useless invention.
Because the audience wasn’t convinced at the value stasis that wet bath towels are a widespread and difficult issue, the policy argument, “contribute to this Kickstarter campaign” isn’t likely to be successful. At least we should hope not.
Obviously, the waterproof bath towel example is fabricated, but think of situations in your own life and in the public sphere where people disagree. When this discord happens, it can be a time for shouting, contention, oversimplification, and caricatures or it can be a time for thoughtful listening, open-minded discussion, and respect for differing viewpoints.
Stasis Theory Helps Organize the Flow of Information.
You can organize your paper along the natural order of the stases to help your audience follow the information you present. Using stasis theory helps you organize information to help the audience understand the state of the issue.
When you understand the natural levels of argument—fact, definition, cause & effect, value, and policy—it makes it easier to think about your purpose (what you want to have happen as a result of your document) and how your audience will interact with the information presented.
Stasis Theory Helps Writers Find the Interesting Angles.
Understanding how claims are classified helps writers identify how individual claims fit into the overall debate. It’s this ability to sort through information for the audiences that helps us deliver a clear message.
But stasis theory can do more than just help us organize; it can help us identify interesting and surprising angles in a debate. Careful research can help you move beyond the obvious arguments to find new facets in the debate.
Trust me. Your instructor will appreciate a new take on your subject.
Stasis theory not only helps you organize your thoughts, it also helps you redefine the issue and show other ways to look at a problem. To find new ways to look at issues, look for clarification or re-interpretation of facts, new definitions, little-known causes, surprising effects, events and statistics showing overwhelming importance, and the innovative solutions of an issue.
Being able to carefully analyze an issue and classify the associated claims will help you find new ways to look at old subjects.
Stasis Theory Helps Narrow Your Topic.
When we encounter mountains of information about our topic, we often feel compelled to dump everything we know into one paper. (True story: my first draft of this paper was over 7000 words.) Understanding stasis theory helps pare down the issue to a manageable level and concentrate the bulk of the paper on the necessary stasis. That means you don’t have to cover every stasis or even most of them in detail. Hopefully, that helps you breathe easier. That’s not to say that after focusing your paper about the definition or causes of your issue, your instructor won’t ask you to add some background in the introduction or a conclusion briefly suggesting a solution, but it should be an immense relief to know it’s okay to focus on just a small part of the issue.
Ideally, issues of policy should be decided in public discourse only when all parties can agree on the earlier stases. After all, the intent of this ancient rhetorical strategy was to help audiences arrive at consensus at each level. As you know, however, in the case in our society, polite, respectful discourse aimed at consensus is nowhere near a reality. All sides seem too quick to try to pass laws and enact policy without coming to a proper understanding on the complexities of issues. Rhetoricians Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor explain the value of understanding the stasis of arguments and assert that policy arguments are often premature (5). Still, they insist that stasis theory is an essential tool for discussion and understanding, saying, “We argue about many issues that cannot be resolved well enough for action to follow, but that can be clarified to the extent that we come to know what we do not know” (5). Coming to “know what we do not know” is a powerful literacy skill to help us examine issues and understand their complexity and relevance in personal and public discourse.
Fahnestock, Jeanne R., and Marie J. Secor. “Grounds for Argument: Stasis Theory and the Topoi.” Conference Proceedings—National Communication Association/American Forensic Association (Alta Conference on Argumentation), Jan. 1983, pp. 135–142.
Grant-Davie, Keith “Stasis Theory.” White paper. www.coursehero.com/file/27255076/Stasis-Theory-KGDpdf/.