Wayne Booth (1963) originally conceptualized the rhetorical stance as a proper balance among “the available arguments about the subject itself, the interests and peculiarities of the audience, and the voice, the implied character, of the speaker” (141).
The rhetor’s rhetorical stance plays a supersized role in whether and how people communicate.
Since antiquity, particularly since Aristotle outlined the rhetorical appeals, rhetors have understood that in order to communicate well, people must adjust their purpose so that it doesn’t alienate the audience and so it maximizes and meets the affordances and constraints of the media they are using to communicate.
Booth traces his origin story for the concept of Rhetorical Stance to a graduate student in one of his classes. That student could write well when it came to writing notes to Professor Booth. He was ell versed in editing, mechanics, grammar, and punctuation, and he didn’t make stylistic errors. And yet that student couldn’t write a graduate-level essay in an interesting or understandable way. These observations led Booth to suggest that that student–and aspiring writers in general–ignore their relationships to their audiences at the expense of clarity and interesting prose.
By analyzing a rhetor’s relationships to his topic, Booth characterized three common stances: the pedant’s stance, the advertiser’s stance, and the entertainer’s stance:
- The pedant’s stance overemphasizes the subject: “it consists of ignoring or underplaying the personal relationship of speaker and audience and depending entirely on statements about a subject-that is, the notion of a job to be done for a particular audience is left out” (p. 141). As an example of this stance, Booth points to students’ school writing, especially writing about literature. When there is no real audience for a paper, students may not even care about the subject nor think much about the audience. Rather, they only care about a grade.
- The advertiser’s stance overemphasizes the audience at the expense of the subject; it appeals to the emotions, the pathos, of the audience.
- The entertainer’s stance emphasizes the charm and character of the rhetor.
Booth’s argument that there is a proper balance a rhetor should assume among the topic, rhetor, and rhetor’s voice now seems bit quaint. Thanks to postmodernism, especially our increased awareness of the supersized role subjectivity plays in communicative acts, we understand audiences are likely to disagree about what the proper balance is.
That quibble aside, Booth’s observation that aspiring rhetors (and audiences) should reflect on the interrelationships between topic, audience, purpose, and occasion remains pivotal. Rhetors ignore the dispositions of audience at their peril.
In contemporary settings, the concept of Rhetorical Stance has been a robust topic of inquiry. Thus, it is now generally understood that our experiences as humans shape who we are, how we perceive the world, and what we believe is possible. Gender, socioeconomics, age, political party, religion, hobbies, sports, country, state or province, health–these sorts of material conditions and experience invariably influence how rhetors and audiences perceive the rhetorical stance of the rhetor. The absence or presence of material goods–eg., wealth, power, education–as well as access to communication technologies play a tectonic role in communication processes.