19 Analysis of a Complex Issue

Kirsten DeVries and Christina Frasier

Learning Objectives:

  • Developing critical thinking skills by analyzing a complex issue
  • Identifying stakeholders and their assumptions in an issue
  • Identifying stakes and the facts of the stakes in an issue

The popular news media tend to present every issue as an either/or argument: Democrat vs. Republican; right vs. wrong; Mac vs. PC. Such divisions do make information easy to digest and categorize. In academia and in the professional world, however, people acknowledge complexities in every argument. Every issue you will encounter in these settings is multifaceted—many-sided—and will prompt more questions than answers. A primary way in which academics and professionals make sense of this complexity is through writing. As John C. Bean (2011) has argued, writing helps us to develop our critical thinking skills and communicate our ideas effectively (p. 4). These two skills are essential in every discipline and profession, so it is important that you begin to develop them early on in your college career. The following sections will provide you with some principles for engaging complex subjects in writing by answering the following questions:

  1. Why is it important to be able to analyze an issue?
  2. What kinds of things should you consider when analyzing an issue?
  3. How do you identify the different people involved in an issue?
  4. How do you identify a stakeholder’s assumptions?
  5. How do you identify the facts of an issue?
  6. How do you identify what is at stake in an issue?

Why Is It Important to Be Able to Analyze an Issue?

Strong critical thinking skills help you to make better decisions personally and professionally. Your critical thinking skills will be put to the test every day of your life, whether you are preparing a proposal at work, deciding which candidate to vote for, or choosing which type of car to buy. It is in your best interest, then, to develop your critical thinking skills as much as possible.

In addition to the personal and professional benefits, thinking critically also has social benefits. Frequently, you will find yourself in positions where you may wish to convince people that your ideas are worth considering. You may speak or write to encourage a transformation in your community or to help others better understand an issue you find significant. Regardless of whether you want to find alternative sources of energy, explain the role of gender in popular culture, or improve parking on campus, you will need to communicate effectively, showing that you understand the topic at hand and illustrating how your ideas contribute to the conversation.

What Kinds of Things Should You Consider when Analyzing an Issue? 

In order to understand an issue thoroughly, you will need to analyze the different facets of the issue: namely, the facts of the issue and what is at stake and the people involved in the conversation,. You will need to identify their various opinions, the reasons given for those opinions, and the attitudes and beliefs that underlie those opinions.

Questions to consider include these:

  • What reasons do people give in support of their opinions? To what extent are those reasons backed up by reliable facts?
  • What kinds of philosophies or belief systems underlie particular opinions on an issue? To what extent is there room for compromise between different perspectives?
  • What are the consequences or implications of different perspectives or opinions on an issue?
  • Which opinions (if any) do you agree with?  What is convincing about the opinions that you agree with? What is unconvincing about the opinions that you disagree with?
  • What new and unique perspective, opinion, or approach can you add to the conversation?
  • How does your own opinion or your own perspective impact the way you respond to viewpoints on an issue?

How Do You Identify the Different People Involved in an Issue?

Usually, any complex topic features multiple stakeholders: people who have an interest in or are affected by the outcome of decisions revolving around the issue. One of your goals as a student or a professional will be to identify the main parties involved. As you read a text, ask yourself:

  • Who are the different individuals or groups involved?
  • What are the interests of these individuals or groups?
  • What opinions have been stated or arguments made by the individuals or groups?
  • Who are the different individuals or groups affected by decisions about this issue?
  • What are the interests of each affected individual or group?
  • What opinions have been stated or arguments made by affected individuals or groups?
  • Does the bias or agenda of any of the above stakeholders weaken the credibility of their arguments?
  • Are the authors of any of the sources you are using associated with any individuals or groups that could be considered stakeholders? Does that association weaken the credibility of those sources?

When trying to identify the different people involved in an issue, it can be very helpful to take notes on the people or groups cited by the author. Write down what each person or group says about the topic and compare their positions.

The following example from CNN.com illustrates an issue with numerous stakeholders:

Since news first broke about the shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, people began wondering how something so horrible could happen. Within a few hours, before the magnitude of the tragedy was fully known, reports began to surface that the shooter, Adam Lanza, was autistic or had Asperger’s syndrome in addition to a possible personality or anxiety disorder such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. …  However, national autism organizations cautioned against speculation about a link between violence and autism or Asperger’s. (Falco, 2012)

It is relatively easy to determine the stakeholders in the above quotation. While the most obvious are the alleged shooter, the victims, their families, and of course, anyone concerned with preventing violence in schools, Falco’s article provides insight into two other groups of people who have interest in the shootings: mental health professionals and those with mental conditions. The rest of the article lists the opinions of experts, who argue against a link between those with Autism Spectrum Disorder and violence.

How Do You Identify a Stakeholder’s Assumptions?

Often a writer or speaker expects her audience to share a particular belief or attitude. Such an assumption might not be an outright part of an argument. In fact, assumptions frequently are implied instead of being directly stated. However, an assumption may be part of an argument’s foundation because the writer or speaker is constructing that argument in the belief that the audience shares her attitudes or beliefs. The assumption is often a byproduct of a person’s standpoint, social position, and/or political leanings.

An example of an assumption might be the following opening to a piece on tanning beds:

“We all want that perfect summer tan.”

What is the author assuming here? Are there people who might not want “that perfect summer tan”? Who might they be? How can you point out a person’s assumptions without attacking her personally?

How Do You Identify the Facts of an Issue?

When identifying the facts of an issue, a good place to start is with recently-published sources that strive to be as objective as possible.

After you find several sources that meet proper standards for reliability and accuracy, look for aspects of the issue on which all or most of your sources agree, or try to find those aspects that nobody contests. The information that you gather as a result of this process will help you construct a baseline that you can use as you examine and evaluate the arguments of people with various positions on the issue.

How Do You Identify What Is at Stake in an Issue?

Good writers always ask themselves the questions “so what?” or “why should people care about my ideas?”  It’s the writer’s job to articulate what’s at stake in his writing, and it’s the reader’s job to understand what’s at stake. Sometimes, writers can be very straightforward, leaving little room for mistaking or overlooking what is at stake. Writing about how a scandal involving the British banking system can affect her audience, Denver Business Journal writer Heather Draper declares,

A global scandal involving London-based Barclays bank and the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) may seem like a distant problem, but it could affect Denver taxpayers. (Draper, 2012)

While Draper clearly states that a problem in one part of the world can affect a community thousands of miles away, other writers are less explicit. Take, for example, the following editorial from The Roanoke Times, which talks in general about the significance of a relatively minor compromise in the U.S. House of Representatives:

The level of comfort most Americans are feeling over the budget deal approved by the House of Representatives last week speaks more to the national hunger for boring but stable governance than to the brilliance of the compromise itself. Compromises, of course, are not designed to tickle anyone’s fancy. Their beauty lies in the aversion of more sorrowful consequences. Those consequences are well-known, lurking not in the imagination but in our collective short-term memory. October’s government shutdown and near miss with the menace of a credit default visited harm on the nation’s economy and its good name. (“A small but significant deal”, 2013)

Though not as explicit as Draper’s article, the editorial from The Roanoke Times argues that Americans’ happiness with the budget deal is an indication of how much they have come to expect partisan fighting and a shutdown of the United States government in October 2013.


Works Cited

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom.  2nd ed. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.


Adapted from Let’s Get Writing! by Elizabeth Browning; Kirsten DeVries; Kathy Boylan; Jenifer Kurtz; and Katelyn Burton, CC BY-SA 4.0 


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From College to Career: A Handbook for Student Writers Copyright © by Kirsten DeVries and Christina Frasier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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