Problematizing Via Method

dr. bonnie lenore kyburz

So, you’ve been asked to “problematize” a particular concern. What does this mean? First, it means to think carefully about the assumptions, opinions, and beliefs you bring to thinking about a problem. Some useful questions include: 1.) Do I have a very strong bias (a one-sided position) about this problem? Might this bias foreclose the possibility of thinking expansively about it? 2.) Do I have strong, emotional responses to thinking about this problem that might occlude my ability to think openly about it? 3.) Do I use very strong or absolute terms to frame up my sense of this problem? (i.e., “always,” “never,” “terrible,” “right,” “wrong,” . . . words that shut down inquiry)? 4.) Can I actually imagine another position than the one that seems to be informing my emotional thoughts about this problem? 5.) Can I rethink my position in ways that are in opposition to my original instincts? Will it be possible for me to “change sides”? 6.) Can I explore this problem beyond a “pro” and “con” (dualistic) way of thinking?

7.) Can I both “believe” and “doubt” my original thoughts on this
problem? (ala Peter Elbow’s “Believing and Doubting Game”? Below are a few more general methods for problematizing. These first two are especially useful for “beginning problematizers.” Let’s say that you’ve worked through some personal concern to discover that your focused research question is, say, “Is physical pain valuable?”

1.) Maybe you want to look at possible CAUSES of a problem. Ask
questions about its origins, history, the events and contexts that generated it. Ask why it still exists?

2.) Or you will look at potential CONSEQUENCES of the problem. What
will it mean if it continues? If we don’t do anything to change/stop/alter it? Other useful methods (for later, not this assignment) include:

3.) EXAMPLES of how pain is valuable (you have recurring headaches, so
you go to the doctor, get a scan, and discover a tumor that needs serious medical attention; you burn your hand on the stove, so you know to remove it in order to avoid further damage to your skin). Or,

examples of how physical pain is seemingly without value; this question seems difficult to speak to, but here is where . . .

4.) . . . you might try to divide pain up into CATEGORIES (classifying),

like mild, chronic, or severe, and then explore what these various kinds of pain mean in terms of “value,” looking for positive (surprising) new views on pain. For example: you have chronic back pain that keeps you from doing certain dangerous activities you may have enjoyed in the past—could this keep you from further harm? Conversely, we know that some people suffer severe and chronic pain that seems without value; they simply suffer, seemingly without reason.

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