The Rhetorical Situation is

  • a theory, a conceptual model, a framework, that endeavors to identify and explain how variables (e.g., Audience, Occasion, Exigency & Kairos, Purpose, Text, Writer) in a setting interact with one another (as well as other rhetorical situations) to shape if, when, how, and what people communicate, interpret, and reason.
  • the study of how an occasion, a setting, in which communication takes place shapes interpretation, reasoning, and composing processes.

Key Words: Communication Situation, Writing Context, The Situation Room, The Spin Room, The No Spin Room

Being knowledgeable about what a rhetorical situation is and how to navigate such situations, especially when it’s a sticky wicket, is empowering. Seriously. Life presents some pretty zany behaviors and situations. Consider, e.g., President Trump’s advice in May of 2020 that people inject bleach into their bodies to kill the COVID-19. That’s clearly surprising given injecting bleach would kill a person. To understand such a peculiar recommendation or to respond to it, you need to engage in rhetorical analysis–i.e., to analyze the rhetorical situation.

Perhaps it’s fair to compare knowledge of how rhetorical situations shape communication with knowledge of how to use a computer’s operating system: it’s possible to use your computer, e.g., without knowing how to end a stalled process or delete a message or organize folders so you can find information later. Despite this lack of declarative knowledge you can still muddle through most circumstances and thereby enhance your procedural knowledge. Likewise, it’s possible not to be reflective about how rhetorical processes shape decision making, interpretation, and communications. You can muddle through life, taking what you get, going with the flow. But the worry here is you might drink the bleach.

Declarative knowledge about the concept of rhetorical situation and rhetorical analysis is a life skill, a workforce competency.

If you really want to understand other people, about why they do what to or say what they say, then you want to be conscious and reflective about rhetorical situations and rhetorical analysis. And by being realistic about the current situation, you can better predict the future.

As illustrated below, the rhetorical situation has been a robust topic of concern since antiquity. Over time, depictions of how the rhetorical situation informs composing and substantive discourse have grown increasingly more complicated. Rhetoricians have gone beyond Aristotle’s suggestion that the rhetor should think a lot about audience. The scholarly conversation on the rhetorical situation and rhetorical analysis has evolved in response to scholarship on postmodernism, constructivism, feminism, and mindset–and more.

Admittedly, the discussion below is a bit more theoretical than nearly all of the other pages at Writing Commons. We realize our historiographical approach below (tracing how definitions of the rhetorical situation have changed over time) is a bit sophisticated and challenging. However, we have gone to into the weeds because the rhetorical situation is one of the most important, if not the most important, concepts for writers.

That said, if you want to jump ship now but still develop your ability to analyze rhetorical situations (to see how to navigate rhetorial situations as opposed to understanding what it is), we encourage you to jump over to the rhetorical analysis.

A Contemporary Theory of the Rhetorical Situation

In contemporary Writing Studies, the rhetorical situation is conceptualized as

  • a complex, dynamic, subjective, psychosocial, interdependent ecology of variables that impinge on if, when, how, and what people communicate, interpret, and reason.

Below is a brief explanation of how this definition has evolved, beginning with Aristotle’s admonition that rhetors should shape their discourse in response to thoughtful analysis of their audience, purpose, and topic and then being further magnified by the social turn in Writing Studies–the awareness that the identities and interpretations of writers and readers are shaped by settings and sociocultural factors such as gender, race, and class.

The Aristotelian Model of the Rhetorical Situation

Rhetoricians–since Aristotle–have encourage writers and speakers to consider their audiences and purposes prior to and during writing in order to ascertain “the available means of persuasion.”

According to this classical view, there’s a dynamic relationship between audience and purpose: a text is persuasive so long as it addresses the perspectives of its intended audience. The success of any communicative act is largely determined by how well the text, thesis/research question, hypothesis, research methods

  • accounts for the needs, interests, knowledge, and dispositions of their audiences.
  • considers what the audience knows and feels about the topic, how the scholarly conversations about the topic have evolved over time.
rhetors and audienceHow well does the writer or speaker know the audience? What medium, genre, rhetorical stance, diction, style will empower the rhetor to communicate most successfully with the audience?
rhetors and textWhat is the rhetor’s mindset, knowledge about the topic, emotional ties to the topic?
audience and textHow knowledgeable is the audience of the topic? Is the audience to be swayed by appeals to ethos, logos, pathos?

The Rhetorical Situation from a Sociocultural Perspective

In 1968, Loyd Bitzer, a rhetorician, introduced a theoretical model of the rhetorical situation that remains highly regarded–and disputed. Bitzer’s model adds depth to the advice that writers and speakers should consider their audience and what’s been written about a topic when crafting their purpose/thesis statement/or research question.

In Bitzer’s model, the rhetorical situation is

  • “a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence [emphasis added] 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” (p.9).

Thus, Bitzer imagines the rhetorical situation as a dynamic between three primary forces:

  1. Exigence:
  2. Audience
  3. Constraints

For Bitzer, the impetus for writing or speaking is the situation:

  • “Rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation” (p. 9).
  • The situation gives rise to an exigency, which is “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing that is other than it should be” (p. 6)

Moreover, Bitzer argues the situation presumes a response:

  • “the situation dictates the sorts of observations to be made; it dictates the significant physical and verbal responses. . . .” (p. 5)

Bitzer’s theory of the rhetorical situation, published as the first article in a new academic journal (Rhetoric and Philosophy) initiated an academic conversation that is still ongoing. To this day, Bitzer is credited for introducing the concept of exigency and for questioning how constraintspersons, events, objects, and relations–impinge on composing.

Rhetorical Constraints

persons, events, objects, and relations
What social narratives, material conditions, histories are raised by the rhetorical situation? How do these constraints shape what is said, what is not said, what is researched, what is not researched.

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.

Furthermore, Bitzer deserves credit for introducing the notion that writing occurs in a sociocultural context–i.e., that there are rhetorical constraints that exist in the material world that shape how writers and speakers should respond to exigencies, situations.

However, in contemporary Writing Studies (as well as other academic disciplines), Bitzer’s argument that “Rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation” (p. 9) has been disputed on theoretical and empirical grounds:

  1. Empirical Grounds
    Bitzer’s model presumes that the writer or speaker lacks agency, that they are merely reactive to situations, that the situation determines whether or not something is translated to discourse/text or not. In contrast to this view, empirical research has found that writers and speakers bring their own agendas and desires to writing situations. When people enter a new rhetorical situation, they have aims/purposes, personalities, literacy histories, past experiences. All of those histories and more shape the their perception of the rhetorical situation, their invention, research, and reasoning processes.

    Rhetors experience an incessant flow of occasions and problems during their lives. And it is the rhetor who chooses to focus on any one particular rhetorical situation.
  2. Theoretical Grounds
    Bitzer’s theory of the rhetorical situation affirms the tenets of positivism: (1) An objective reality exists independent of humans that can be discerned by humans. (2) There is a direct relationship between situation and discourse–i.e., that specific situations call for specific responses.

    In contrast, rhetorical theory, postmodernism, constructivism, and feminism, among others, assume that interpretation, reasoning, and communication are dialogic processes–i.e., independent processes that coexist and shape one other. Thus, by this perspective, the rhetorical situation is shaped by
    • linguistic constraints
    • material constraints (e.g., timing, economics, governments, technology)
    • ideological constraints (especially gender, class, and race).

The Rhetorical Situation from a Ecological Perspective

From the 1980s to 2000s, scholars from across disciplines (e.g., Rhetoric, Writing Studies, Gender Studies, and Philosophy) further problematized models of the rhetorical situation that

  • implied communication is a simple process of transmitting a message, information, from sender to receiver
  • portrayed rhetorical situations as “unique, unconnected with other situations” (Cooper, p. 367).
  • oversimplified ways interpretation is an act of imagination, a social construction.

By the close of the 20th century, thanks to postmodernism, constructivism, and feminism, the discipline of Writing Studies embraced a new theory of the rhetorical situation: the ecological model.

The ecological model conceptualizes the rhetorical situation as composed of a universe of variables that interact with one another, rhetors, and audiences. Thus, rather than conceptualizing the rhetorical situation as a one-to-one dialog between the writer and the writer’s audience, the ecological model attempts to conceptualize the rhetorical situation with greater complexity–i.e., as a milieu of rhetorical elements that occur in a multi-dimensional space.

First introduced to Writing Studies by Greg Myers (1985) and then developed by Marilyn Cooper (1986), the ecological model of the rhetorical situation assumes “writing is an activity through which a person is continually engaged with a variety of socially constituted systems” Cooper p. 367).

“The metaphor for writing suggested by the ecological model is that of a web, in which anything that affects one strand of the web vibrates throughout the whole” (Cooper p, 370).

Rather than debate either the situation invokes the rhetoric or the writer/speaker invokes the rhetoric, the ecological view assumes both the rhetor and the sociocultural context are in dialog, in co-creation with one another:

“all organisms–but especially human beings-are not simply the results but are also the causes of their own environments. . . . While it may be true that at some instant the environment poses a problem or challenge to the organism, in the process of response to that challenge the organism alters the terms of its relation to the outer world and recreates the relevant aspects of that world. The relation between organism and environment is not simply one of interaction of internal and external factors, but of a dialectical development of organism and milieu in response to each other. (Lewontin et al., p. 275)

The Rhetorical Situation from a Psychological Perspective

While literally thousands and thousands of articles have been written about the social turn in Writing Studies, the topic of the writer’s psychology has been largely overlooked. the role of on the rhetorical situation. However, in psychology, the STEM community, and the learning sciences, mindset and personality have been robustly explored.

For example, research has found that people’s mindset about their competencies as writers and public speakers influence how they interact with rhetorical situations. People who hold a Growth Mindset about their potential as writers and communicators are more likely than people who hold a Fixed Mindset to engage in rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning. Being preoccupied with negative thoughts when composing makes writing aversive.

Being intellectually open is crucial to putting aside one’s own perspective and living in the shoes of the Other. Being narrow minded about a topic undermines efforts at research, rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning.

Being able to engage in metacognition & self-regulation is crucial to successfully navigating rhetorical contexts. We all don’t know what we don’t know. That’s unavoidable, that’s human. However, openness, metacognition and regulation are needed to question how our own experiences and observations shape our interpretations, research methods, and knowledge claims.

So, on the Topic of the Rhetorical Situation, What’s Next?

Moving forward, as bots emerge, as Artificial Intelligence reaches consciousness, the dynamics between humans and machines are likely to be a dominant topic of scholarly conversation.

Works Cited

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

nacular. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1972.

Lewontin, R. C., Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin. Not in Our Genes: Biology,
Ideology, and Human Nature. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Marilyn M. Cooper College English, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Apr., 1986), pp. 364-375

Myers, Greg. “The Social Construction of Two Biologists’ Proposals.” Written Communication 2 (1985): 219-45.

Vatz, Richard (1973). “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 6:3: 154-161.

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