Rhetorical Situation: The Context
Robin Jeffrey, Emilie Zickel
During your time as a student of writing, you may hear instructors talk about “rhetorical situations.” This is a term used to talk about any set of circumstances in which one person is trying to change another person’s mind about something, most often via text (like a book, or blog post, or journal article). But any time anyone is trying to make an argument, one is doing so out of a particular context. And that context influences and shapes the argument that is made.
These rhetorical situations can be better understood by examining the rhetorical concepts that they are built from. The philosopher Aristotle organized these concepts as text, author, audience, purposes, and setting.
In what format or medium is the argument being made: image? written essay? speech? song? protest sign? meme? sculpture? All of those are texts.
- What is gained by having a text composed in a particular format/genre?
- What limitations does a particular type of text create?
- What opportunities for expression does one form of text offer that another does not?
Here the “author” of a text is the creator, the person utilizing communication to try to effect a change in their audience. An author doesn’t have to be a single person, or a person at all – an author could be an organization. To understand the rhetorical situation of a text, one must examine the identity of the author and his or her background.
- What kind of experience does the author have in the subject?
- What values does the author have, either in general or with regard to this particular subject?
- How invested is the author in the topic of the text? In other words, what affects the author’s perspective on the topic?
The audience is any person or group who is the intended recipient of the text, and also the person/people the text is trying to influence. To understand the rhetorical situation of a text, one must examine who the intended audience is by thinking about these things:
- what is the audience’s demographic information (age, gender, etc.)
- what is/are the background, values, interests of the intended audience?
- how open is this intended audience to the author?
- what assumptions might the audience make about the author?
- in what context is the audience receiving the text?
What is the author hoping to achieve with the communication of this text? What do they want from their audience? What does the audience want from the text and what may they do once the text is communicated? Both author and audience can have purpose and it’s important to understand what those might be in the rhetorical situation of the text you are examining. An author may be trying to inform, to convince, to define, to announce, or to activate, while an audience’s purpose may be to receive notice, to quantify, to feel a sense of unity, to disprove, to understand, or to criticize. Any and all of these purposes determine the ‘why’ behind the decisions both groups make.
Nothing happens in a vacuum, and that includes the text you are trying to understand. It was written in a specific time, context, and/or place, all of which can affect the way the text communicates its message. To understand the rhetorical situation of a text, examine the setting of both audience and author and ask yourself if there was a particular occasion or event that prompted the particular text at the particular time it was written.