12 The Rhetorical Situation
What is the “Rhetorical Situation”?
The term “rhetorical situation” refers to the circumstances that bring texts into existence. The concept emphasizes that writing is a social activity, produced by people in particular situations for particular goals. It helps individuals understand that, because writing is highly situated and responds to specific human needs in a particular time and place, texts should be produced and interpreted with these needs and contexts in mind.
As a writer, thinking carefully about the situations in which you find yourself writing can lead you to produce more meaningful texts that are appropriate for the situation and responsive to others’ needs, values, and expectations. This is true whether writing a workplace e-mail or completing a college writing assignment.
As a reader, considering the rhetorical situation can help you develop a more detailed understanding of others and their texts.
In short, the rhetorical situation can help writers and readers think through and determine why texts exist, what they aim to do, and how they do it in particular situations.
Elements of a Rhetorical Situation
The writer (also termed the “rhetor”) is the individual, group, or organization who authors a text. Every writer brings a frame of reference to the rhetorical situation that affects how and what they say about a subject. Their frame of reference is influenced by their experiences, values, and needs: race and ethnicity, gender and education, geography and institutional affiliations to name a few.
The audience includes the individuals the writer engages with the text. Most often there is an intended, or target, audience for the text. Audiences encounter and in some way use the text based on their own experiences, values, and needs that may or may not align with the writer’s.
The purpose is what the writer and the text aim to do. To think rhetorically about purpose is to think both about what motivated writers to write and what the goals of their texts are. These goals may originate from a personal place, but they are shared when writers engage audiences through writing.
The exigence refers to the perceived need for the text, an urgent imperfection a writer identifies and then responds to through writing. To think rhetorically about exigence is to think about what writers and texts respond to through writing. As the previous chapter suggests, however, sometimes the exigence can be interpreted as giving rise to the entire rhetorical situation.
Subject (or Message)
The subject refers to the issue at hand, the major topics the writer, text, and audience address.
Context & Constraints
The context refers to other direct and indirect social, cultural, geographic, political, and institutional factors that likely influence the writer, text, and audience in a particular situation.
Often considered a type of constraint, the genre refers to the type or form of text the writer produces. Some texts are more appropriate than others in a given situation, and a writer’s successful use of genre depends on how well they meet, and sometimes challenge, the genre conventions.
Visualizing the Rhetorical Situation
This image shows how the various elements of the Rhetorical Situation interact.