What are the essential tools for teaching rhetoric and rhetorical analysis? This blog series will explore one tool each week.

The Rhetorical Situation

Our modern understanding of the rhetorical situation goes back to Lloyd Bitzer’s 1968 article, “The Rhetorical Situation.” Bitzer describes his analytical process (1):

“When I ask, What is a rhetorical situation?, I want to know the nature of those contexts in which speakers or writers create rhetorical discourse: How should they be described? What are their characteristics? Why and how do they result in the creation of rhetoric? By analogy, a theorist of science might well ask, What are the characteristics of situations which inspire scientific thought? A philosopher might ask, What is the nature of the situation in which a philosopher “does philosophy”? And a theorist of poetry’ might ask. How shall we describe the context in which poetry’ comes into existence?”

Bitzer goes on to define rhetorical situation (6):

“Rhetorical situation may be defined as a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence 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.”

Three main components form the rhetorical situation. The first is exigence. This is essentially the issue that demands the audience’s immediate attention. Exigencies create a sense of urgency. The issue must be considered, addressed, resolved. Without exigence, there is no need for the audience to act in response to the rhetor.

The audience, then, is made of those individuals who will be influenced by the rhetor’s message. Bitzer further describes the audience as being “mediators of change” (8).

From there, we must consider constraints. These include “persons, events, objects, and
relations which are parts of the situation because they have the power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence” (8). Constraints might be

  • Beliefs
  • Attitudes
  • Documents
  • Facts
  • Traditions
  • Images
  • Interests
  • Motives

The constraints listed above are what Aristotle called “inartistic proofs.” They are influential elements that are not directly within the rhetor’s control. The other class of constraints, which Aristotle termed “artistic proofs,” are those aspects that the rhetor can control: personal character, style, and the argument itself.

Together, exigence, audience, and constraints form the rhetorical situation. However, these terms may still be vague to students, who need some additional guidance to analyze and apply the concepts. Here’s where an acronym like PASTA (purpose, audience, subject, tone, author’s bias) can be particularly helpful. Please check out my post on questions for rhetorical analysis for specific questions that can help students dig into the rhetorical situation of a text.

What’s next in the Essential Tools for Teaching Rhetoric Series? We’ll begin talking about the most popular part of rhetoric to teach: Aristotle’s persuasive appeals (ethos, logos, and pathos). Check back next week!

3 thoughts on “Essential Tools for Teaching Rhetoric: The Rhetorical Situation

  1. This is great! I stumbled upon this blog, but as a high school English teacher, one who has taught AP English Language and Composition for 8+ years, I need clear bite-sized learning resources like this.


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