III. Rhetorical Situation
A key component of rhetorical analysis involves thinking carefully about the rhetorical situation of a text. You can think of the rhetorical situation as the context or set of circumstances out of which a text arises. Any time anyone is trying to make an argument, one is doing so out of a particular context, one that influences and shapes the argument that is being made. When we do a rhetorical analysis, we look carefully at how the rhetorical situation (context) shapes the rhetorical act (the text).
We can understand the concept of a rhetorical situation if we examine it piece by piece, by looking carefully at the rhetorical concepts from which it is built. The philosopher organized these concepts as author, audience, setting, purpose, and text. Answering the questions about these rhetorical concepts below will give you a good sense of your text’s rhetorical situation – the starting point for rhetorical analysis.
We will use the example of Kamala Harris’s vice presidential acceptance speech (the text) delivered November 7, 2020 to sift through these questions about the rhetorical situation (context).
The author of a text is the creator – the person who is communicating in order to try to effect a change in their audience. An author doesn’t have to be a single person or a person at all – an author could be an organization. To understand the rhetorical situation of a text, one must examine the identity of the author and their background.
- What kind of experience or authority does the author have in the subject about which they are speaking?
- What values does the author have, either in general or with regard to this particular subject?
- How invested is the author in the topic of the text? In other words, what affects the author’s perspective on the topic?
At the time she delivered this speech, Kamala Harris was a first-term vice-presidential nominee, a former US Senator, former Attorney General of California, and the first woman ever elected to the second highest office in the country. Ethnically, Harris identifies as both African American and South Asian American. She became the first person of color, and first woman, to be elected to the office of Vice President. Her political affiliation is with the Democratic party – the liberal political party in America.
In any text, an author is attempting to an audience. Before we can analyze how effectively an author engages an audience, we must spend some time thinking about that audience. An audience is any person or group who is the intended of the text and also the person/people the author is trying to influence. To understand the rhetorical situation of a text, one must examine who the intended audience is by thinking about these things:
- Who is the author addressing?
Sometimes this is the hardest question of all. We can get this information of who the author is addressing by looking at where an article is published. Be sure to pay attention to the newspaper, magazine, website, or journal title where the text is published. Often, you can research that publication to get a good sense of who reads it.
- What is the audience’s demographic information (age, gender, etc.)?
- What is/are the background, values, interests of the intended audience?
- How open is this intended audience to the author?
- What might the audience make about the author?
- In what is the audience receiving the text?
Harris was addressing the American people (and the world) at-large; since her acceptance speech was broadcast on major news networks and the internet, she was speaking to people of all ethnicities, genders, religions, nationalities. Harris was the VP candidate for Joe Biden. Biden’s election was contested by the , Donald Trump, and this contributed to tension already present among the country that was enduring a global pandemic. Members of the intended audience included health care workers, first responders, poll workers, etc., as well as women of all ages and demographics. While much of the intended audience was receptive to Harris’s speech and the significance of her election, a portion of the audience was in disbelief and felt that the election was . Given this tension, some audience members might assume that Harris was not legally elected and therefore would not represent them. Some audience members might assume that her gender would impact her ability to perform the duties of her office, while others might assume that Harris would be a for change in the country.
Nothing happens in a vacuum, and that includes the creation of any text. Essays, speeches, photos, political ads – any text – was written in a specific time and/or place, all of which can affect the way the text communicates its message. To understand the rhetorical situation of a text, we can identify the particular occasion or event that prompted the text’s creation at the particular time it was created. When considering the setting in terms of rhetorical analysis, consider the following:
- Was there a debate about the topic that the author of the text addresses? If so, what are (or were) the various perspectives within that debate?
- Did something specific occur that motivated the author to speak out?
The occasion of Kamala Harris giving this speech was the confirmation that Joe Biden had won enough electoral college votes to be considered the winner of the election. While it is customary for the President-elect to make an acceptance speech, it is less common for a Vice-President-elect to do so. However, given the historical significance of Harris’s election, millions of people wanted to hear from her.
The purpose of a text blends the author with the setting and the audience. Looking at a text’s purpose means looking at the author’s motivations for creating it. The author has decided to start a conversation or join one that is already underway. Why have they decided to join in? In any text, the author may be trying to inform, to convince, to define, to announce, or to activate a debate or discussion. When determining rhetorical purpose, consider the following in regard to the author:
- What is the author hoping to achieve with this text?
- Why did the author decide to join the conversation about the topic?
- What does the author want from their audience? What does the author want the audience to do once the text is communicated?
Harris’s purpose in this speech was to set the tone for the Biden presidency, to acknowledge the hardships many had been enduring, and to attempt to unite the country and prepare it for moving forward with peaceful acceptance.
When analyzing the rhetorical situation of a given text, it is important to consider the format, or medium, in which the text is being made. If you are analyzing an image for rhetorical context, elements such as shading, color, and placement are part of the argument being presented. Other forms of media that a text might take include a written essay, speech, song, protest sign, meme, or sculpture. When examining the rhetorical situation of a text’s medium, ask yourself the following:
- What is gained by having a text composed in a particular format/medium?
- What limitations does that format/medium have?
- What opportunities for expression does that format/medium have (that perhaps other formats do not have?)
Acceptance speeches are intended to celebrate victories while uniting across political lines. While the tone may be formal, oftentimes candidates use this opportunity to express gratitude. Given that they are broadcast internationally, there are two ways to examine the text: the written form and the spoken word.
A Note About Audience
What is the difference between an audience and a reader? Thinking about audience can be a bit tricky. Your audience is the person or group that you intend to reach with your writing. We sometimes call this the intended audience – the group of people to whom a text is intentionally directed. But any text likely also has an unintended audience, a reader (or readers) who read it even without being the intended recipient. The reader might be the person you have in mind as you write, the audience you’re trying to reach, but they might be some random person you’ve never thought of a day in your life. You can’t always know much about random readers, but you should have some understanding of who your audience is. It’s the audience that you want to focus on as you shape your message.
This section contains material from:
Jeffrey, Robin, and Emilie Zickel. “What is the Rhetorical Situation?” In A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing, by Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel. Cleveland: MSL Academic Endeavors. Accessed July 2019. https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/csu-fyw-rhetoric/chapter/rhetorical-situation-the-context/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
OER credited in the text above include:
Burnell, Carol, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear. The Word on College Reading and Writing. Open Oregon Educational Resources. Accessed December 18, 2020. https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/wrd/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Jeffrey, Robin. About Writing: A Guide. Portland, OR: Open Oregon Educational Resources. Accessed December 18, 2020. https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/aboutwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
- Kamala Harris, “Vice Presidential Acceptance Speech,” speech, Wilmington, Delaware, November 7, 2020, in “Read Kamala Harris’s Vice President-Elect Acceptance Speech,” by Matt Stevens, New York Times, November 8, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/article/watch-kamala-harris-speech-video-transcript.html ↵
A classical Greek philosopher and orator who lived from 384-322 B.C. A student of Plato, he is known for creating his own branch of philosophy known as Aristotelianism which is based on the use of inductive reasoning and deductive logic in order to study nature and natural law. Aristotle also wrote on various subjects including biology, physics, ethics, poetry, politics, linguistics, mathematics, and rhetoric. Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle is based on ethos, pathos, and logos and is considered the basis for understanding the rhetorical situation.
To occupy or attract the attention of someone or something.
A receiver or beneficiary.
Taking something for granted; an expected result; to be predisposed towards a certain outcome.
The set of circumstances that frame a particular idea or argument; the background information that is necessary for an audience to know about in order to understand why or how a text was written or produced.
The person who currently holds an office or position. The term is usually associated with political office.
Involving deception, dishonesty, or duplicity.
Someone or something that allows something tangible, such as money, or intangible, such as ideas, to go from one place to another; can also indirectly refer to a catalyst for change.