During your time as a student of writing, you may hear instructors talk about “rhetorical situations.” This is a term used to talk about any set of circumstances in which one person is trying to change another person’s mind about something, most often via text (like a book, or blog post, or journal article).
These rhetorical situations can be better understood by examining the rhetorical concepts that they are built from. The philosopher Aristotle called these concepts logos, ethos, pathos, telos, and kairos – also known as text, author, audience, purposes, and setting.
Texts can come in all shapes and sizes, such as those listed earlier. But in this context, text is not limited to something written down. The text in a rhetorical situation could be a film, or a photograph, or a recording of a song or history. The important thing to ask yourself when faced with a text, no matter what it is, is what is gained by having the text composed in this format/genre. What are the relevant characteristics of a book versus a song? What might an oral history version of a text communicate that a book version would not?
Here the “author” of a text is the creator, the person utilizing communication 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, examine the identity of the author and their background. Not only do you want to know what kind of experience they have in the subject, but you’ll also want to explore basic biographical information about them. Where and when did they grow up? How could that affect their perspective on the topic?
The audience is any person or group who is the intended recipient of the text, and also the person/people the text is trying to influence. To understand the rhetorical situation of a text, examine who the intended audience is and what their background may be. An audiences’ assumptions about the author, the context in which they are receiving the text, their own demographic information (age, gender, etc.) can all effect how the text is seeking to engage with them.
What is the author hoping to achieve with the communication of this text? What do they want from their audience? What does the audience want from the text and what may they do once the text is communicated? Both author and audience can have purpose and it’s important to understand what those might be in the rhetorical situation of the text you are examining. An author may be trying to inform, to convince, to define, to announce, or to activate, while an audience’s purpose may be to receive notice, to quantify, to feel a sense of unity, to disprove, to understand, or to criticize. Any and all of these purposes determine the ‘why’ behind the decisions both groups make.
Nothing happens in a vacuum, and that includes the text you are trying to understand. It was written in a specific time, context, and/or place, all of which can affect the way the text communicates its message. To understand the rhetorical situation of a text, examine the setting of both audience and author and ask yourself if there was a particular occasion or event that prompted the particular text at the particular time it was written.