Rhetorical Foundations

17 Understanding the Rhetorical Situation

Robin Jeffrey; Emilie Zickel; and Erica M. Stone

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 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 Aristotle 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.



The “authors” of a text are the creators—the people who are communicating in order to try to effect a change in their audience. Of course, 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 authors and their background. The following questions may aid your understanding of the author(s):

  • What kind of experience or authority does the author have in the subject being addressed?
  • What values does the author hold, 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?



In any text, an author is attempting to engage 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 recipient 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 certain things. The following questions will prompt you to consider relevant information about audience:

  • Who is the author addressing? Sometimes this is the hardest question of all. We can sometimes get this information by looking at where an article is published. Often, you can research the newspaper, magazine, website, or journal title where the text is published to get a good sense of who reads that publication. Or you might consider the references that the author makes.
  • What is the demographic of the intended audience? Demographics can include  age, gender, race, socio-economic status, religious or political beliefs.
  • What are the backgrounds, values, interests of the intended audiences?
  • 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?



Nothing happens in a vacuum, and that includes the creation of any text. Essays, speeches, photos, political ads, or any other type of text were 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—exigence—that prompted the text’s creation at the particular time it was created. The following questions will help you to do that:

  • 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 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 has the author decided to join in? In any text, the author may be trying to inform, to convince, to define, to announce, or to activate. Can you tell which one of those general purposes your author has? Use the following questions as prompts when trying to determine purpose:

  • 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?



Use the following prompts to help you better understand the text itself:

  • In what format is the text being made, or through which medium is it being delivered?
  • Is it an image, written essay, speech, song, protest sign, meme, or sculpture?
  • What is gained by having a text composed in a particular format/medium?
  • What limitations does that format/medium have?
  • What affordances or opportunities for expression does that format/medium have (that perhaps other formats do not have?)



This chapter contains material from “The Word on College Reading and Writing” by Monique Babin, Carol Burnell, Susan Pesznecker, Nicole Rosevear, Jaime Wood, OpenOregon Educational Resources, Higher Education Coordination Commission: Office of Community Colleges and Workforce Development is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0



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Understanding the Rhetorical Situation Copyright © 2021 by Robin Jeffrey; Emilie Zickel; and Erica M. Stone is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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