Rhetorical Situation

Accomplish your communicative goals by shaping messages in response to your Rhetorical Situation: Audience, Medium, Mass Media, Social Media; Occasion, Exigency & Kairos; Purpose; Rhetor; Topic, Genre.

The Rhetorical Situation refers to the constraints and affordances that shape when, how, and what people communicate:

  1. Audience
    1. Genre
  2. Medium, Media, Social Media
  3. Occasion, Exigency & Kairos
  4. Purpose
  5. Rhetor

Synonyms: Communication Situation, Writing Context, The Situation Room, The Spin Room, The No Spin Room

Rhetorical situation may be defined as a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the
situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence.

Loyd Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation“, p. 6.

In contemporary Writing Studies and Rhetoric, The Rhetorical Situation is

  • a subjective, psychosocial space. It is composed of people and people’s relationships with one another.
  • a complex web of interrelationships, including setting, timing, people, objects, facts, laws, ethics
  • the messy details of life and how those details impinge on interpretation, reasoning, and interpretation.

Gender, socioeconomics, age, political party, religion, hobbies, sports, country, state or province–these factors and more influence how we perceive the world, how we are perceived, and how we present ourselves to the world. Naturally, we all tend to have blind spots about how our identities, reasoning, and sense of what’s possible are filtered through these sorts of factors. And, it’s certainly possible that we never think about such matters–at least deeply.

Yet, regardless of whether or not we consciously reflect on how our experiences, competencies, ethnicity, gender, sexual preferences, education, family, country, language–and so on–these sorts of factors do play a major role in who we are, what we think exists, and what we think is possible. And, more to the point of Writing Commons, these perceptions shape whether we write, how we compose, and whether our audiences understand our message.

From the perspective of rhetorical theory, these acts of perception are moments of rhetorical engagement. In other words, rhetoric involves considering how one’s rhetorical stance impinges on communication and interpretation. Rhetoric is the process of critical engagement. It’s the moment when someone goes, Hum, I wonder why they are saying this in that way. Who benefits from that argument?

To be less abstract, consider the differences between CNN and Fox News. Note how situations, exigencies in the world, are covered differently by these media outlets. These differences exhibit how one’s rhetorical stance influences communication practices.

The rhetorical situation for a discourse act (e.g., a speech or a text) invariably has affordances and constraints. For instance, if you are driving your car down a busy road at 50 miles per hour, that context, or situation, will constrain whether or not you open the text, read it, really understand it, and respond to it. Perhaps there are no other cars on the road or perhaps you have a passenger who can help you negotiate reviewing and responding to the text message. Or, perhaps prevailing laws–such as laws that prohibit texting while driving–might inform your decision. Or perhaps your newsfeed just alerted you to a 50 car pile up. Or maybe your car has affordances such as hands-free technologies that include playing the text message.

As this simple illustration shows, the situation for a discourse act can play a substantive role in defining how people communicate and interpret communication. Thus, rhetoricians believe that rhetors should give some conscious thought to analyzing their rhetorical situation and considering how they should best respond.

Little is more important to a rhetor than an Audience. If your text doesn’t appeal to your audience, then all is lost.

Medium refer(s) to the materials and tools Rhetors use to compose, archive, and convey messages. For 21st Century Writers, messages often have to be remediated in multiple media.

Occasion, Exigency & Kairos
Occasion, Exigency & Kairos are three interrelated rhetorical elements that are associated with time, place, and setting. These elements may define for rhetors (rather than the rhetor’s desires) what is considered to be an appropriate response to an Audience.

Purpose, for rhetoricians, is a way of categorizing the major aims of discourse. Purpose is a broader concept that thesis or research question.

Works Cited

Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation .” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968): 1-14.

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