Problem Statement Overview

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The simplest way to approach problem statements is to start by looking at where they fit into your document. Problem statements make up the core of the introduction to your document. Your introduction should set the stage for your readers and give them a clear idea of your argument. An effective document will motivate readers by articulating a problem that the document can help resolve. You can only be sure that your readers understand the problem the same way as you if you express not only the problem or the situation, but also the consequences that make the problem worth solving.

In the prototypical introduction, all the elements follow the same format and are therefore easily recognized. Each writer determines whether to follow this prototype or to move elements out of order or exclude some altogether. The order and length of each element depend on the particular purpose of the document.
An effective Problem statement has four parts: Status Quo, Destabilizing Moment, Consequences, and Response.
The status quo refers to the current state of affairs that gave rise to the destabilizing moment. Essentially, the status quo describes common assumptions about the topic that you think are incomplete or inaccurate. (And which you will expand or correct in your essay).
e.g. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is usually understood as a heartwarming fable with an anti-materialist message: the Grinch experiences a change of heart when he realizes that the burglarized Whos still intend to celebrate.

The destabilizing moment challenges the reader's initial commitment to the prevailing status quo theory. The destabilizing moment points out a flaw in the assumption (without simply stating the claim). The destabilizing moment leaves readers uncertain, confused, or at least curious enough to want to continue.

e.g. This theory fails to take into account the end of the story, when Whoville gets back its presents and feast."

The consequences are either the costs of leaving the situation unresolved or the benefits of resolving it. Consequences answer the question, "So what?" in a way that piques the reader's interest and makes him or her want to read on to solve the problem. The consequences can be stated as the potential loss from ignoring the problem or as the potential gain from addressing it (or both).

e.g. If we continue to see the story as simply anti-materialist, we miss Dr. Seuss' richer, more complicated message about the mix of consumerism and community.
The response includes either a resolution to the problem or a promise of a resolution to come.

e.g. The Grinch, in fact, celebrates the ways that family, community, and even religion can be supported by materialism.


This essay will re-examine Seuss' attitudes towards money and community.
This four-part model of the problem statement applies to two types of problems. The problems are either tangible or conceptual, depending on whether its solution involves doing something or just coming to some new level of understanding.

Tangible problems can be solved by action. We face tangible problems every day. These problems are situations that we want to eliminate such as discrimination, rising tuition, budget cuts, or whatever else makes us angry, sad, disgusted, frightened, pained, guilty, embarrassed, ashamed, discouraged, or even just annoyed, for ourselves or empathetically for others. We solve tangible problems only when someone does something that breaks the chain of causes and effects that makes us or, more importantly, our readers unhappy.

Conceptual problems can be solved by changing the way the reader thinks. A conceptual problem is usually thought of like a riddle, a puzzle, a mystery- something we can state as a question and solve with just an answer. For example, How old is the universe? Why don't apes cry? What did Thomas Jefferson really think about slavery? Left unsolved, a conceptual problem does not cause sadness, anger, or pain, but not knowing the answer frustrates our fundamental human need to know more about the world. This kind of problem does not immediately suggest taking any sort of action, but it does involve changing how people think.

But before the Introduction can delve into the problem and its consequences, it often begins by setting the stage for your argument. The stable context refers to information that will not change.

e.g. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas has become a holiday classic, whether in the form of the original book, the television cartoon, or the recent live action movie version.

Some writers choose to include an additional flourish called the Prelude before they establish the stable context in their introduction. The Prelude is usually an epigram or narrative that sets the stage for the problem. Preludes are rare in professional documents and even rarer in scientific and technical documents. But they do occur occasionally in academic texts in the humanities and in belletristic writing such as that you find in The Atlantic or The New Yorker. A Prelude can be a quotation, an anecdote, a memorable statistic, or anything loosely related to the Stable Context or the Problem.

e.g. "'Maybe Christmas,' he thought, 'doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!'"