The Rhetorical Situation

The rhetorical situation is the term used to describe the elements that combine to constitute a communitcation situation.  To understand these elements as they apply to argument helps us understand what motivates the argument in the first place, who the author is, who the intended audience is, how the audience might react to it, and how we as readers might also respond.  By analyzing and understanding the rhetorical situation, we gain critical insight into the entire context as well as the parts of an argument, and this insight ultimately helps us evaluate its final success or failure.  Use the acronym TRACE to remember the five elements (Text, Reader, Author, Constraints, and Exigence). 

The text is the written argument, which has unique characteristics of its own that can be analyzed.  These include such things as format, organziation, argumentative strategies, language, and style

The potential reader or audience for the text must care enough to read and pay attention, to change its perceptions as a result, and perhaps to mediate change or act in a new way.  A rhetorical situation invites such audience outcomes.  Most authors have a targeted or intended reading audience in mind.  As you read, compare your reactions to a text with the reactions you imagine the targeted or intended audience might have had.

The author writes an audience to convince a particular audience.  You can analyze the author's position, motives, values, and varying degrees of expertise.

Constraints include the people, events, values, beliefs, and traditions that constrain or limit the targeted audience and cause it to analyze the situation and react to it in a particular way.  They also include the character, background, available resources, and style of the author that limit or influence him or her to write in a certain way.  Constraints may bring people together or drive them apart.  They influence the amount of common ground that will be established between an author and an audience.

Exigence is the real-life dramatic situation that signals that something controversial has occurred and that people should try to make sense of it.  Exigence is a problem to be solved, a situation that requires some modifying response from an audience.

The following set of questions will help you analyze the rhetorical situation and get insight into its component parts:

1.  Text.  What kind of text is it? What are its special qualities and features? What is it about?
2.  Reader or Audience.  Who is the targeted audience? what is the nature of this group? Can it be convinced? What are the anticipated audience outcomes? How do you as a reader compare with the targeted audience? What are your constraints? How much common ground do you share with the author? What is your initial position? Are you motivated to change your mind or modify the situation? How?
3.  Author.  Who is the author? Consider background, experience, education, affiliations, and values.  Waht is motivating the author to write?
4.  Constraints.  What special constraining circumstances will influence the audience's and author's reponses to the subject? What beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, people, habits, events, circumstances, or traditions are already in place that will limit or constrain their perceptions?
5.  Exigence. What happened to cause this argument? Why is it perceived as a defect or problem? is it new or recurring?