Rhetorical Context

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the concept of rhetorical context

What is Rhetoric?

The definition of rhetoric commonly used is “the art of persuasion,” although it also has a larger meaning that includes the way we communicate—specifically the words, language, and techniques used to convey a persuasive message. For example, the rhetoric you use to send an email to a friend is different than the rhetoric you use to compose an essay for your class.

Rhetoric is about strategic choices and approaches to communication whether textually, verbally, or even aurally and visually. When we communicate to different types of audiences about the same topic, we make strategic decisions on what details to include or omit, what types of evidence or support to use, and so on.

Think It Over

Let’s imagine that you spent a little bit of time last weekend studying, but mostly you were party-hopping and celebrating because your school’s football team won the championship.

  • When you speak to your best friend about your weekend, you are likely to provide details about how many parties you went to and what exactly you did at the parties, including gossip about mutual friends.
  • When you speak to your grandmother about that same weekend, you might mention your study group meeting on Sunday afternoon, the take-out dinner you had on Friday night, and perhaps briefly mention that you celebrated the team’s win with friends.
  • When you speak to your supervisor at your on-campus job, you are likely to discuss the big football win (Go Team!), your looming exam schedule, and how your study and exam schedule will impact your availability to work for the rest of the term.

Watch It

Click on the video below to learn more about rhetoric and why it is important to your writing. Note that there are no captions, as all text is shown on the screen.

Text only version of “What is Rhetoric, and How Can it Help You As a Writer”.

Rhetorical Context

All versions are accurate representations of your weekend, but you make strategic choices about which details to include or not include based on the particular rhetorical situation of your discussion. Rhetorical context refers to the circumstances surrounding an act of reading and/or composition. That is, how and what you communicate is shaped by:

  • The writer, author, creator, also known as the rhetor
  • The audience, including primary, secondary, and tertiary audiences
  • The topic of the communication
  • The purpose, which often can be broken into a primary, secondary, and tertiary purpose
  • The context and culture within which the communication is taking place.

The context and culture impact the rest of the rhetorical situation (rhetor, audience, topic, purpose).

Rhetorical context: author, purpose, topic, audience, occasion

Figure 1. Understanding the rhetorical context of any given communication includes being aware of the author, their purpose, the topic, the audience, and the occasion, or setting.

Keep in mind that anytime anyone is trying to make an argument, they are doing so out of a particular context. And that context influences and shapes the argument that is made. Let’s take a closer look at each of the components of the rhetorical context:

Author

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, one must examine the identity of the author and their background.

  • What kind of experience does the author have in the subject?
  • 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?

Audience

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, one must examine who the intended audience is by thinking about these things:

  • 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 assumptions might the audience make about the author?
  • In what context is the audience receiving the text?

Topic

This is simply the topic, or subject matter, covered in the reading. What is it about? What information is presented? And in what format or medium is the argument being made: image? written essay? speech? song? protest sign? meme? sculpture?

Purpose

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.

Occasion

Nothing happens in a vacuum, and that includes the text you are trying to understand. The occasion, also known as the setting or situation, describe the circumstances of the text. 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.

Try It

Glossary

rhetoric: language used to persuade

rhetorical context: the circumstances surrounding an act of reading and/or composition

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