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The Rhetorical Situation

About the rhetorical situation:

The rhetorical situation is one of the most fundamental and useful concepts we offer our students in ENGL 015 or ENGL 202. The term was first used by Lloyd Bitzer (1968) in “The Rhetorical Situation,” to refer to all the features of audience, purpose, and exigence that serve to create a moment suitable for a rhetorical response. The concept itself, however, is a very ancient one and appears in some form in many earlier treatises, including Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Cicero’s De Oratore.

Generally speaking, the rhetorical situation can be understood as the circumstances under which the rhetor writes or speaks, including:

  • The nature and disposition of the audience,
  • The exigence that impels the writer to enter the conversation,
  • The writer’s goal or purpose,
  • Whatever else has already been said on the subject, and
  • The general state of the world outside the more specific context of the issue at hand.

All of these elements work together to determine what kinds of arguments will be effective (or, in Aristotle’s term, to define “ the available means of persuasion”) in the given case.

The rhetorical situation and the rhetoric course:

The notions of audience and purpose are key for most of the writing students do in ENGL 015 and ENGL 202, which in most cases will be the purposive audience-based writing required of citizens and professionals. For some assignments, we specify the audience and purpose and have students develop a suitable response (e.g “Convince your boss in a report that one brand of personal computer is a better buy than another”). For others, we might assign a particular genre or type of argument (e.g. a recommendation report) and leave it to the students to develop a suitable situation by investing potential audiences, the exigence, the writer’s purpose, and the current state of the conversation in the field.

Once the real or fictional context for the project has been established, the rhetorical situation serves as a guide or heuristic to invention. The student’s developing sense of the rhetorical situation serves as a basis for deciding a wide range of questions:

  • What forms or genre to use,
  • What kinds of arguments to make,
  • What kinds of explanations or evidence are needed,
  • What to leave out,
  • What to emphasize and what to downplay,
  • What kind of dictation and syntax to use, and
  • What terms to define.

Once students are comfortable with text-based definitions of the rhetorical situation, we can complicate the picture by discussing real world rhetorical situations that are not as fixed as they may appear in the classroom. While students can expect their professional lives to be filled with situations that demand specific types of responses, they will also encounter many circumstances in which an important part of the task of successfully addressing an issue is finding or creating a forum in which it can be discussed and an audience willing to entertain it. This asks students to move beyond the notion of the writer as the creator of a single text and to think instead of the writer as a strategist involved in an ongoing campaign which might need to begin with substantial groundwork to bring the issue to the point of being available for debate.

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