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We will often begin our analysis of an argument by “situating” it. This means figuring out who the author is, what kind of text we are dealing with, who it is trying to persuade, and when and where it was written. The rhetorical situation (also called kairos) is the combination of author, audience, context, purpose, constraints, and genre. It is the situation shaping the text, the situation to which the text responds.
Key Elements of the Rhetorical Situation
To fully understand an argument, experienced readers ask big-picture questions about the author, the audience they address, the context, the genre of the text, the purpose of the text, and the constraints that shape how it is written.
Who is the author? Where are they coming from? When reading a text, take a few minutes to research who the author is. Who are they, what kind of writing do they do, what organizations do they belong to, what is their reputation?
In 7.2: Tailoring an Argument to an Audience, we discussed how to shape our own arguments with a particular audience in mind. We analyze an argument, we work backward to infer what the intended audience was. From there, we can also infer how the writer's sense of their audience shaped their choices as they wrote.
- Who does it appear the author is trying to reach? How does the author address and imagine the audience?
- Is the text aimed at a particular age, gender, cultural background, class, political orientation, or religion, for example? How is the text shaped to target this audience?
- Does the text also seem to address a secondary audience?
- Figuring out where the text was published, when it was published, what kind of text it is (speech, op-ed, article, song, etc.), and how it addresses readers can help provide clues to audience.
- Who is likely to find the text important, relevant, or useful? Conversely, who is going to be alienated by the text? Reread the first page and consider what readers have to believe, value, or care about to get past it. Who is likely to set it aside based on something they see at the very beginning?
- Consider style, tone, diction, and vocabulary. What do these tell you about the potential audience for the text? Examine the other authors and works referred to in the text (if there are footnotes or a Works Cited page, look at what is listed there. Just as you can learn a lot about a person by the people around them, you can learn a lot about a text from all the other texts it references). What does the author assume their readers know? What does the author assume about readers’ age, education, gender, location, or cultural values?
What is the author trying to achieve? What does the author want us to do, believe, or understand? All writing has a purpose. We write to bring awareness to a problem, make sense of an experience, call people to action, contribute to an area of knowledge, criticize or defend a position, redefine a concept, complain, clarify, challenge, document, create a beautiful story, and entertain (to name just a few purposes for writing).
As we analyze, we can ask ourselves what seems to be the question at issue. Why has the author written this text? What is the problem, dispute, or question being addressed? What motivated them to write, what do they hope to accomplish?
As we saw in 7.1: Deciding the Purpose of a Research-Based Argument, one way to classify arguments is according to the kind of question they set out to answer. If we determine that the argument we are analyzing is a definition, evaluation, causal, or proposal argument, we can look for common elements of that type of argument to help us understand the writer's choices and assess their effectiveness.
|Question the Argument Answers||Argument Purpose|
What is the nature of ________?
|Definition argument (see 7.3: Definition Arguments)|
|How good and/or bad is ________?||Evaluation argument (see 7.4: Evaluation Arguments)|
|What caused ________?||Causal argument (see 7.5: Causal Arguments)|
|What should be done about ________?||Proposal argument (see 7.6: Proposal Arguments)|
Context refers to situational influences that are specific to time, place, and occasion. When and where was the text written, and where is it intended to be read, seen, or heard? In her book Teaching Arguments, Jennifer Fletcher writes of "...the immediate social space and situation in which arguments must be made, including what's expected in terms of propriety or fitness for the occasion.”
- What is the situation that prompted the writing of this text? What was going on at the time? Can you think of any social, political, or economic conditions that were particularly important?
- What background information on the topic or associations with the topic would a reader of this time period likely have?
- Part of the context is the “conversation” the text is part of. It’s unlikely the author is the first person to write on a particular topic. As Graff and Birkenstein point out, writers invariably add their voices to a larger conversation. How does the author respond to other texts? How does she enter the conversation (“Many authors have argued X, but as Smith shows, this position is flawed, and I will extend Smith’s critique by presenting data that shows…”) How does the author position herself in relation to other authors?
- How does the knowledge of the text's original context influence our reading of it? How have circumstances changed since it was written?
Let's take an example: say we are analyzing an article on climate change, and we find that it doesn't try to prove that climate change is happening. Is it neglecting to address a counterargument? Is it making a bold choice to ignore likely objections? To answer, we would need to know in what decade the article was written. In the 1990s, when climate change was first widely publicized, many people doubted whether it was real. Now, in the 2020s, the negative effects of climate change are more prominently visible than before, and very few people deny that the earth is warming due to human influence. Global warming isn’t talked about like a scary monster that we can warn our children about at bedtime; now, global warming is a very real monster huffing and puffing at our front door. If we were commenting on a dated article on climate change by Glaiza Aquino, we might note something like "Aquino's choice not to address climate deniers' claims is bold for its time. She counts on others to dispel those claims and focuses instead on making an informed case for nuclear energy as the only way out of the crisis."
Genres are types of communication that have become routine and conventionalized. A poem, meme, lab report, op-ed, and magazine article are all examples of genres. Identifying the text’s genre can tell us a lot about audience, purpose, and context. We can ask ourselves, what kind of writing is this? Is this an academic argument? A Ted Talk? Is this a personal narrative essay that explores a momentous moment in the writer's life? Is this a literary analysis? A letter to the editor in a newspaper?
Genres give us clues about how we should read a text, what we can do with the text, and who the audience is. Consider the two images below.
The image below does not, by itself, give much guidance on how we should interpret it. But the image above is in a familiar genre – the road sign. Even if we have never seen a sign like this, we have a good idea of its purpose, intended audience, and meaning. Identifying a text’s genre will often reveal much about the rhetorical situation.