Stasis Theory and the Headlines

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Stasis theory has become popular in recent years as a way of exploring controversial issues and arriving at claims about them.  In the age of classical Greek and Roman rhetoric, stasis theory provided citizens preparing a legal case a means of exploring the case and of achieving stasis, or arriving at agreement as to the point at issue.

Consider first how a series of questions could provide a structured way of thinking about an alleged crime:

  •         Questions of Fact or Conjecture: What happened? Did the accused do it?
  •         Questions of Definition: What crime was it?
  •         Questions of Quality: Was it right or wrong? Was it justified? What was the motivation?
  •         Questions of Procedure: What should be done about it? What is the proper court to hear the case?

These questions have been recast into more general questions that can be applied to any issue about which there is disagreement. It is important to achieve stasis in order to argue effectively because you have to know precisely what is at issue. For example, the term “gun control” is so broad that it is necessary to define the term before trying to argue for or against it. If one party is arguing in favor of taking all guns away from all American citizens, that party will not agree with someone who is arguing that “controlling” guns means enforcing stricter laws about the types of guns that can be sold or about the waiting period for buying a gun. There is a difference between which guns are controlled and how gun ownership is controlled that will make formal debate about the issue pointless until some definitions are clarified. A starting point could be to decide, for example, whether or not American citizens should be allowed to own semiautomatic weapons, but even then, the definition of “semiautomatic” would have to be agreed upon.

The stasis questions are frequently used in writing courses as a means of exploring a subject. Used as a means of invention, the stasis questions can generate a wealth of information. You will most likely use only a portion of the ideas generated by the invention exercise, but you may also discover ideas that you might not have thought about otherwise.


The American Electoral College is a critical part of the election process and may receive increased scrutiny in light of the upcoming election.  See what ideas might come to mind in applying four typical stasis questions to the Electoral College:

Questions of Fact: What are the facts about the Electoral College?

How did the Electoral College come into being? On September 6, 1878, the Constitutional Convention approved a proposal to create a group of Electors to select the President and Vice-President of the new United States. Each of the fifty states has a number of Electors equal to its number of members of Congress, and the District of Columbia has the same number of Electors as the least populous state. There are now 538 Electors. Since the 1880s, all states except Maine and Nebraska pledge all of their Electors to the presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes in that state. A majority of 270 electoral votes is needed to elect the President. When Americans cast their votes every four years, they are actually voting not for a candidate but for Electors representing that candidate.

Questions of Definition: What is the meaning or nature of the Electoral College?

What is the Electoral College? It is not a place but a process—the process by which the President and Vice-President of the United State are chosen. The Constitution refers to Electors, but not to a college of Electors. The concept was written into federal law in 1845 as a “college of Electors.” The Electoral College was originally a compromise between the election of a President by a vote in Congress and election by a popular vote of qualified citizens. The question of what constituted qualified citizens was complicated in the eighteenth century by the existence of slavery in some states.

Questions of Quality: What is the seriousness or value of the Electoral College?

Some question whether in the twentieth century the Electoral College is preferable to popular vote as the method of choosing President and Vice-President. Is a procedure fair if it is possible for a candidate to win the popular vote but not win the election because of Electoral College votes? The writers of the Constitution felt that a small group of Electors would make a wiser political decision than the general public. Small states also feared the power of larger states. Would states with a small number of popular votes be largely ignored if popular vote were used? Are some states currently disadvantaged by the winner-take-all system in 48 states that can make almost fifty percent of voters feel that their votes are wasted because all of that state’s electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the majority of the popular vote?

Questions of Policy: What is the plan of action about the issue?

Should the Electoral College be abolished? Should it be replaced by popular vote? Should the Electoral College continue to exist, but the winner-take-all method of distributing electoral votes be abolished?

The stasis questions can help lead to decisions regarding what to say about a topic. Each of the four questions leads most directly to a certain type of claim, or thesis statement, and a certain type of argument.

Questions of Fact           lead to       Claims of Fact             and              Analysis.

Questions of Definition  lead to       Claims of Definition    or                Definition Arguments.

Questions of Quality      lead to       Claims of Value            or               Evaluation Arguments.

Questions of Policy        lead to       Claims of Policy         or               Proposal Arguments.


Keep in mind that many arguments are not a pure form of any of these types of argument. Establishing facts and definitions is often a part of building a sound evaluation or proposal argument. Evaluation is often a part of establishing the need for a proposed change.


About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.