Understanding and Using a Rhetorical Situation

The rhetorical situation is a concept first used by Lloyd Bitzer in 1968. A fundamental and practical part of developing as a writer, it refers to the setting in which writers or speakers create rhetorical discourse.

The fundamental parts the rhetorical situation are:

  • The sender (or the rhetor)
  • The receiver (or the audience)
  • The message (or the delivered language)
  • The purpose and the exigence (or the specific need and setting for a rhetorical transaction)

Each of the components referenced are interdependent and interrelated.

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Commonly, a rhetorical situation is the basis of the framework for writers and speakers developing the necessary rhetoric. It has been previously argued by Andrea Lunsford and Cheryl Glenn in their book “Rhetorical Theory and the Teaching of Writing,” that the meaning of a rhetorical situation lends itself to the specific situation involving the rhetor, the audience, the message itself, ad the context. These four components should effectively guide writers and their writing process based on their own core value – or belief system – and that of their audience. The potential range of the message and its context will also come into play.

While you read and write you should always take the following issues into consideration:

  • The nature and character of the people you are writing for
  • The demand or exigence impelling you to join the conversation
  • Your overall goal or objective
  • Anything that someone might have previously said about the topic or subject matter
  • The overall state of society and anything that might specifically affect or speak to the issue at hand

These elements intermingle to determine which type of argument will have the most effect on a specific type of audience, and under which circumstance. As Aristotle described it, the rhetorical situation is “the ability to observe in any given situation the available means of persuasion.” That doesn’t mean that rhetorical ability bares any similarity with the ability to successfully persuade your audience but rather that ability to solicit understanding.

The concept of the rhetor, the audience, the message, the objective or purpose and the overall context are essential for effective writing, especially in an academic writing setting or when writing professionally.

For the purposes of academic writing, and only after you’ve established the rhetorical situation either in part or in full, you can begin to develop appropriate material for your writing.

Developing your sense of rhetorical situation will help to better determine the most appropriate responses for a variety of rhetorical questions, such as:

  • What is at stake? What is my purpose, and what role do I play?
  • Who am I writing for or speaking to?
  • How am I best able to establish ethoswith regards to my audience? Am I able to establish a common ground?
  • How will I best deliver my message based on the personality of my audience?
  • What type of argument is the most relevant or rational? How can I effectively use logos?
  • What type of evidence or supporting information do I need to support my claims?
  • Based on the values and beliefs of my audience, what should I focus on to use pathos effectively?
  • In terms of the rhetorical situation, which words should I use? How educated, formal, etc should I appear to my audience? At what level should I speak?

Rhetorical Situation – Definition of the Term

The term ‘rhetorical situation’ is frequently thrown around by writing instructors and other professional heavily involved in the study of language. In layman’s terms is means simply ‘the circumstances involving one or more people communicating with the intent of changing the perspective of another person.

Many people have heard the word ‘rhetoric’ in passing but most are confused by its intended meaning, thinking that it means persuasive or that it implies something more undesirable like being deceitful or dishonest. In order to fully appreciate the benefits of a rhetorical situation it is first necessary to develop a stronger understanding of rhetoric itself.

In short, rhetoric refers to any act of communication that is used with the express or implied purpose of altering the perception of others.

More specifically, the word rhetoric is used to reference the study and uses of language (written, spoken  and visual) and how that language is used to organize and maintain group, establish meaning, organize behaviors, mediate authority, create change and deliver knowledge.

What is a rhetorical situation in real life?

As mentioned in the introduction, a rhetorical situation is merely the context, or setting, of a rhetorical act. It is comprised of a speaker or writer (the rhetor), an issue or problem (exigency), a method of communication (written, oral, etc.) and an audience of one of more parties.

Although the concept of the rhetorical situation has been examined throughout history, one of the first modern scholars to explore the fundamentals of the rhetorical situation was Lloyd Bitzer. In his thought provoking article, “The Rhetorical Situation” )Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1968) he wrote “Rhetorical discourse comes into existence as a response to a situation in the same sense that an answer comes into existence in response to a question, or a solution in response to a problem.”  In stating that rhetorical discourse happens as a follow up to a rhetorical situation, he clearly identifies three elements that define every rhetorical situation.

Those elements are defined below.

Definition of rhetorical situation according to Bitzer

As Bitzer found, the three elements that comprise a rhetorical situation are exigence, audience and constraint.

  • Exigence is defined as some sort of hurdle or action being met with urgency.
  • Audience refers to the person or people who are capable of being influences by discourse

Constraints are comprised of people, events, or objects relative to any given situation provided they have the ability to constrain decision and modify the exigence.