Contemporary: something that is ongoing and happening right now.
Contentious: an issue that has multiple groups (or stakeholders) offering differing perspectives.
Stakeholders (a.k.a. constituents): people or groups that have a reason to care about a particular issue.
In the previous chapter, we discussed why it’s necessary to seek out diverse perspectives, specifically in the section titled “Expanding the Publications and Venues You Consult.” In this chapter, we’ll be focusing further on how, exactly, to do that.
Contemporary + Contentious + Stakeholders
When we combine the terms listed above (in the “Key Concepts” section) as we begin the research process, we see that contemporary contentious issues with multiple stakeholders involve ongoing conversations that are currently happening in various venues of public discourse. Indeed, something can be contemporary without being overtly contentious. For instance, the day’s weather in a given region is an example of a contemporary topic, but not one that is overtly contentious. (However, of course, there are certainly robust debates about Climate Change in public discourse, but these are separate from the temperature and level of precipitation on an individual day.) Equally, an issue can be contentious without necessarily tapping into something that is contemporary. For example, the issue of Freedom of Speech in America is something that many different stakeholders have differing and even powerful opinions about, but it’s not something that is often discussed abstractly, totally separate from things that are happening in the world. Instead, events that are ongoing in the world afford stakeholders the opportunity to tap into conversations about Freedom of Speech as they relate to those events. For example, when a social media company changes its policies to restrict users from posting certain kinds of content (however objectionable that content might be deemed), it opens up the space for folks to offer their informed perspectives on why that might be a good thing or a bad thing (or, more likely, why it might be both a good and bad thing simultaneously). In rhetoric, we refer to this kind of situation as a kairos—that is, a current event that, through discussion, offers us a portal into a larger, ongoing and potentially irresolvable debate.
Equally, as noted in the previous chapter, when we’re beginning to think about contemporary contentious issues, it’s necessary to seek out a variety of perspectives—ones from diverse stakeholders—so that we can get a clear sense of the discussions that are happening about the issue we’re researching and writing about. Indeed, if we’re only looking at our issue through one lens—without fully seeking out and understanding what a diverse collection of voices are saying about our subject—we would have information that exists in a bubble. Imagine, for example, if we only ever conceptualized abortion through the lens of opponents to Planned Parenthood (or proponents of Planned Parenthood). And to pan back a little further, imagine if we only conceptualized the discussion of abortion within the context of Planned Parenthood. Or imagine if we only ever researched discussions about gun laws from the perspectives of those who are staunch supporters of the NRA (or staunch opponents of the NRA). Or to think about a more innocuous research context, it would be like trying to figure out what kind of takeout we want for dinner by only reading through the menus of pizza shops; we’d be totally overlooking the rich world of possibilities—sushi, tacos, empanadas, dandan noodles, pho, falafel, curry, etc.—that’s right in front of us!
Indeed, if we approached research in this way, we’d only have a very small piece of puzzle with regard to the issue we’re researching, because we’d only be listening to one small part of the discussion that’s happening. What’s more, as outlined earlier (in “Introduction to Argument“) arguments are complex and rarely, if ever, clearcut “pro-con” debates. Instead they involve multiple stakeholders who all have very different angles of vision, disciplinary backgrounds, and world views on the issues they’re discussing.
Finding A Conversation
For all the reasons outlined above, it’s, therefore, necessary to begin the research process by finding out what conversations are actually happening in public discourse, so that we can understand who’s saying what before we begin to formulate what we have to say, amidst the other diverse voices in various venues of public discourse.
What this means, then, is that it’s necessary to do some research before you even beginning formulating your opinions about your issue. In order to get a sense of the conversations that are happening about contemporary contentious issues out in the world, we have to seek out those conversations.
To that effect, here are some ways to begin exploring the open web to get a sense of who’s saying what, and in what context, regarding your issue:
Start by browsing online publications. Reputable newspapers and public affairs magazines are a great source of ideas. Often, the major stories in magazines address complex issues. Note that many publications have an “angle of vision” (a political stance or lens through which is examines issues), but the reporting generally is reliable and more balanced. At this point, you are looking for inspiration, so anything provocative can help you find a topic/issue. You can add balance with other points of view as you research. While Wikipedia can sometimes be a helpful source to consult to determine the angle of vision/bias of an article or the credibility of a publication you’ve found on the open web, (more on this in the section titled “Lateral Reading” in the next chapter) it is not a reliable source in and of itself. Here are some leading newspapers and magazines that you can read or listen online:
- The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/
- Harper’s http://harpers.org/
- Mother Jones http://www.motherjones.com/
- The National Review http://www.nationalreview.com/
- The Nation http://www.thenation.com/
- The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/
- National Public Radio (NPR) http://www.npr.org/
- The Utne Reader http://www.utne.com/
- The Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/
Equally, try searching in ways that are related to your major. Many news outlets and publications like those above also have sections that can provide topics related to your major, such as Science, Business, The Arts, Technology, Women/Gender, Sports, etc. You also can try to perform key word that relates to your major. An interesting source is the following:
- TED Talks web site: https://www.ted.com/talks
Finally, try to deliberately provoke yourself! Visit blogs or web sites that have a clear political bias. You might be more likely to recognize an “issue” when an article leads you to raise objections or feel outrage. Here are a few starting points: