One of the first places to start when developing a rhetorical analysis is context. Rhetorical messages always occur in a specific situation or context. The president’s speech might respond to a specific global event, like an economic summit; that’s part of the context. You choose your clothing depending on where you are going or what you are doing; that’s context. A television commercial comes on during specific programs and at specific points of the day; that’s context. A billboard is placed in a specific part of the community; that’s context, too.
Identify the Rhetorical Situation: Exigence, Audience, Constraints
In an article called “The Rhetorical Situation,” Lloyd Bitzer argues that there are three parts to understanding the context of a rhetorical moment: exigence, audience and constraints.
Exigence is the circumstance or condition that invites a response; or, in other words, rhetorical discourse is usually responding to some kind of problem. You can begin to understand a piece’s exigence by asking, “What is this rhetoric responding to?” “What might have happened to make the rhetor (the person who creates the rhetoric) respond in this way?” The exigence can be extremely complex, like the need for a new Supreme Court justice, or it can be much simpler, like receiving an email that asks you where you and your friends should go for your road trip this weekend. Understanding the exigence is important because it helps you begin to discover the purpose of the rhetoric. It helps you understand what the discourse is trying to accomplish.
Another part of the rhetorical context is audience, those who are the (intended or unintended) recipients of the rhetorical message. The audience should be able to respond to the exigence. In other words, the audience should be able to help address the problem. You might be very frustrated with your campus’s requirement that all first-year students purchase a meal plan for on-campus dining. You might even send an email to a good friend back home voicing that frustration. However, if you want to address the exigence of the meal plans, the most appropriate audience would be the person/office on campus that oversees meal plans. Your friend back home cannot solve the problem (though she may be able to offer sympathy or give you some good suggestions), but the person who can change the meal plan requirements is probably on campus. Rhetors make all sorts of choices based on their audience. Audience can determine the type of language used, the formality of the discourse, the medium or delivery of the rhetoric, and even the types of reasons used the make the rhetor’s argument. Understanding the audience helps you begin to see and understand the rhetorical moves that the rhetor makes.
The last piece of the rhetorical situation is the constraints. The constraints of the rhetorical situation are those things that limit the way the discourse is delivered or communicated. Constraints may be something as simple as your instructor limiting your proposal to one thousand words, or they may be far more complex like the kinds of language you need to use to persuade a certain community.
Identify the Argument: Logos, Pathos, Ethos
The rhetorical situation is just the beginning of your analysis, though. What you really want to understand is the argument—what the rhetor wants you to believe or do and how he or she goes about that persuasion. Effective argumentation has been talked about for centuries. In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle was teaching the men of Athens how to persuade different kinds of audiences in different kinds of rhetorical situations. Aristotle articulated three “artistic appeals” that a rhetor could draw on to make a case—logos, pathos, and ethos.
Logos is commonly defined as argument from reason, and it usually appeals to an audience’s intellectual side. As audiences we want to know the “facts of the matter,” and logos helps present these—statistics, data, and logical statements.
Few of us are persuaded only with our mind, though. Even if we intellectually agree with something, it is difficult to get us to act unless we are also persuaded in our heart. This kind of appeal to emotion is called pathos. Pathetic appeals (as rhetoric that draws on pathos is called) used alone without logos and ethos can come across as emotionally manipulative or overly sentimental, but are very powerful when used in conjunction with the other two appeals. Pathos can also be a very effective appeal if the rhetor has to persuade the audience in a very short amount of time, which is why it is used heavily in print advertisements, billboards, or television commercials.
The appeal that makes things seem real and approachable contributes to the ethos. Ethos refers to the credibility of the rhetor—which can be a person or an organization. A rhetor can develop credibility in many ways. The tone of the writing and whether that tone is appropriate for the context helps build a writer’s ethos, as does the accuracy of the information or the visual presentation of the rhetoric.
Claims and Assumptions
Aristotle’s artistic appeals are not the only way to understand the argument of rhetoric. You might choose to look at the claim or the unstated assumptions of a piece; someone else might consider the visual appeal of the rhetoric, like the font, page layout, types of paper, or images; another person might focus on the language use and the specific word choice and sentence structure of a piece. Logos, pathos, and ethos can provide a nice framework for analysis, but there are numerous ways to understand how a piece of rhetoric persuades (or fails to persuade).
Looking at the context and components of a piece of rhetoric often isn’t enough, though, because it is important to draw conclusions about the rhetoric—does it successfully respond to the exigence? Is it an ethical approach? Is it persuasive? These kinds of questions let you begin to create your own claims, your own rhetoric, as you take a stand on what other people say, do, or write.
Use these questions to guide you along as you begin to conduct a rhetorical analysis.
What is the rhetorical situation?
- What occasion gives rise to the need or opportunity for persuasion?
- What is the historical occasion that would give rise to the composition of this text?
Who is the author/speaker?
- How does he or she establish ethos (personal credibility)?
- Does he/she come across as knowledgeable? fair?
- Does the speaker’s reputation convey a certain authority?
What is his/her intention in speaking?
- To attack or defend?
- To exhort or dissuade from certain action?
- To praise or blame?
- To teach, to delight, or to persuade?
Who make up the audience?
- Who is the intended audience?
- What values does the audience hold that the author or speaker appeals to?
- Who have been or might be secondary audiences?
- If this is a work of fiction, what is the nature of the audience within the fiction?
What is the content of the message?
- Can you summarize the main idea?
- What are the principal lines of reasoning or kinds of arguments used?
- What topics of invention are employed?
- How does the author or speaker appeal to reason? to emotion?
What is the form in which it is conveyed?
- What is the structure of the communication; how is it arranged?
- What oral or literary genre is it following?
- What figures of speech (schemes and tropes) are used?
- What kind of style and tone is used and for what purpose?
How do form and content correspond?
- Does the form complement the content?
- What effect could the form have, and does this aid or hinder the author’s intention?
Does the message/speech/text succeed in fulfilling the author’s or speaker’s intentions?
- For whom?
- Does the author/speaker effectively fit his/her message to the circumstances, times, and audience?
- Can you identify the responses of historical or contemporary audiences?
What does the nature of the communication reveal about the culture that produced it?
- What kinds of values or customs would the people have that would produce this?
- How do the allusions, historical references, or kinds of words used place this in a certain time and location?
Attribution: “Backpacks vs Briefcases: Steps Toward Rhetorical Analysis,” by Laura Bolin Carroll, in Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Volume 1, Writing Spaces (2010). License: CC BY-NC-SA.