Burke’s Pentad

Use Burke’s Pentad to interpret human events, stories, and movies.

InĀ A Grammar of Motives, philosopher and critic Kenneth Burke presents a model for analyzing written and spoken language to better understand and even predict human behavior. His model, the pentad, can be used to understand or interpret human behavior and to develop ideas for stories. The pentad assumes people can have ambiguous, conflicting, and complex reasons for acting. It attempts to avoid simplistic explanations.

[A]ny complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answer to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose).” –Kenneth Burke

The Fundamental Components of the Pentad

Like the journalistic questions or the common topoi and tagmemic questions, the pentad can be presented as a series of questions. By asking these fundamental questions, Burke proposes that we can generate insights about the factors that led us to the action. In particular, these questions will offer us insights into the following five components of a situation:

  1. The act
  2. The scene
  3. The agent
  4. The agency or method or means
  5. The purpose or motive

Relationships Among Terms

While analyzing specific acts or scenes can obviously lead us to some understanding about what motivated someone to do something, what really makes Burke’s pentad useful is his emphasis on the relationships among the terms. Burke is especially interested in the relationships, or ratios, that occur when the following terms are compared:

  • Actor to act
  • Actor to scene
  • Actor to agency
  • Actor to purpose
  • Act to scene
  • Act to agency
  • Act to purpose
  • Scene to agency
  • Scene to purpose
  • Agency to purpose

For example, by analyzing the “act-to-scene ratio,” we can gain information about how a scene, or social context, influenced the act. Thus, you might try to understand how criminal behavior is expressed in the inner city. If violence is an everyday part of the scene in a housing project in the inner city, then we can understand why residents might express a lot of fear about being a victim of violence. If we interviewed people in the community who acted violently (i.e., agents), then we might have a better sense of how they commit the violence (scene to agency) or why they believe they commit the violence (act to scene).