Burke – “Rhetorical Situation”

Burke, Kenneth. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Communication: Ethical and moral issues (1973): 263-75. Print.

In this essay, Kenneth Burke sought to compose a summative definition of rhetorical situation. He asserted that the rhetorical situation is not confined to the resources that help to constitute it. Burke suggested that the rhetorical situation can be better understood through identification and his unofficial subtitle “congregation and segregation.” Burke used the example of a presidential campaign to illustrate his point highlighting that during a campaign the presidential candidates emphasize their differences, but once elected a president then emphasizes unity and identification. Theses emphases fall into categories of competition and cooperation respectively.

With regard to the rhetorical situation, Burke identified three major means of identification: 1- by sympathy, 2- By antithesis, and 3- by inaccuracy/ false assumption/ unawareness (i.e. A person’s mistaken identification with the power of her/ his technologies). Burke claimed that the rhetorical situation hinged on these fluid identifications. He stated that  “… the poignancy of the rhetorical situation attains its fullness in its spontaneously arising identifications whereby, even without deliberate intent upon the part of anyone, we fail to draw the lines at the right places” (271). He concluded that identification can be vague and we don’t know where to draw the line.  Barbara Biesecker would later echo this notion in her theory of rhetorical situation where she argued meaning is found in the fluctuating line of différance and makes the production of identities and social relations possible (Biesecker, “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation”). This fluidity can also impact individual autonomy as illustrated by Burke’s example of the shepherd from Rhetoric of Motives in which the “protective” shepherd is simultaneously identified as the one leading the sheep to its slaughter.


8 thoughts on “Burke – “Rhetorical Situation”

  1. Mr. Sawyer,
    From your comment on Burke’ s rhetorical situation, I learn more about Burke’s thought on rhetoric. I wonder if you can email me Burke’s article on rhetorical situation. Many thanks!

      • Ms. Sawyer,
        I am doing a research on the concept of situation and strategy as a broader aspects to understand persuasion. Kenneth Burke’s work is the pivotal aspect for this study. your post suggests that this is the article which I must look at. I request you to please e-mail it to me as early as possible.
        With regards and many thanks!

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  3. Hi Ms. Sawyer,
    Thanks for sharing your comment on Burk’s Rhetorical Situation. I would like to lean more about it, but we don’t have the book with this article in our library. I wonder is it possible that you could email me this article for further reading? Thanks a lot. Mandy

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  5. Dr. LaToya,
    Thank you for your explanations. I am writing a rhetorical criticism paper using Bitzer’s concept of rhetorical situation (with challenges from Vatz and Consigny) to make an analysis of the 1960s Greensboro Sit-In event that became a movement, which ignited social protests throughout the decade. In my research, I had seen this Burke article noted, but I have yet to locate it. Along the way I found your website. I read your other entries. You are a very interesting person (from your background information); and great photograph. I want to thank you again for what you are offering to us the academic public. Good luck on your future endeavors. Your dissertation project is intriguing.
    Ronald W.

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