3 Terms: Question at Issue

The Question at Issue

Good research begins by finding a Question at Issue. A good Question at Issue is one that:

  1. Is current
  2. Reasonable/concerned people can disagree upon
  3. Can be answered within a narrow frame of time

Finding a current question means looking for something that is still in debate, not a question that was settled years ago. Plenty of issues that were once at the forefront of academic discourse have now faded into the background. No one is really arguing about whether blackboards are a good idea, for instance, and the argument about whether the motorcar will ever replace the horse-drawn carriage is over. While it may be interesting to go back and study settled questions, or to speculate on what would have happened if they had been decided differently, Questions at Issue engage with current topics.

Finding issues about which there is disagreement may seem easy enough, but it can be more challenging than you would think. Remember, we have to look at what the concerned and reasonable people in the argumentative community would consider an actual at-issue question, not whether reports or other parties would like the debate to be renewed. Take, for instance, the issue of Climate Change. Broad scientific consensus points toward humans being the cause. This means that the concerned and knowledgeable parties — our reasonable people — have spoken on this issue. Yet debate still remains in broadcast and online media over whether climate change is real, which might inspire someone to consider “Is climate change real?” or “Do humans cause climate change?” as Questions at Issue. Because the answer to that question — a resounding “yes!” — has been settled by the expert community, someone wanting to research questions about climate change would have to look for other, unsettled, current questions surrounding the topic. They might study, instead, the degree to which the climate is changing, or how news and opinion media have had an impact on public knowledge about the topic.

Finally, a Question at Issue should be narrow enough that the person asking the question can find an answer within their defined time frame. Should specific drugs be decriminalized/legalized? That’s certainly a question that’s at issue in many communities. However, trying to answer that gigantic question would take years of study. Unless you’re ready to sign up for law and medical school right now, consider narrower questions instead: Should my town decriminalize possession of ___ drug? might be a better question to start with.

Figuring out a question that’s at issue isn’t always easy. It’s rarely going to be the first question that comes up about a topic. You may need to conduct some preliminary research just to figure out a good question at issue — and that’s good! Early research and reading can help narrow your topic before you even start writing, and a focused question at issue will guide the rest of your process and project.

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The (In)Credible Argument by Jenn Kepka is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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