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Doing a Rhetorical Analysis of a Text - Kiefer

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One useful way to look at written arguments is to consider the context in which the text was written. Among the rhetorical elements outlined by Lloyd Bitzer in "The Rhetorical Situation" (Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1968), five are most likely to give readers insight into an argument essay:

The motivation for the argument. Bitzer calls this the exigence or the real-life spark that caused the writer to begin writing. When we consider argument texts, the motivation for writing is often a particular confrontation with someone who holds an opposing position or an insight into a problem that could be solved. Sometimes a writer's motivation is based on his or her values: the writer sees an event and feels strongly that such occurrences should not happen or should not work out the way this particular event did. Such a spark or motivation spurs the writer to begin thinking and eventually writing out the logic that supports a position in a controversy.

The reader. Whom is the writer writing to? Given the motivation for the argument, the writer might directly target someone with the power to change a policy or enact a law. Or the writer might decide that mobilizing public sentiment can help change a circumstance the writer views as unfair or wrong-headed. The most effective arguments are tailored specifically to their readers, so this element is a key part of "The Rhetorical Situation" or a rhetorical analysis.

The author. The writer is the next element to look at in a rhetorical analysis. A writer can adopt a particular mask to present to readers, emphasizing their common humanity or specialized education. In many rhetorical situations, the author will try to highlight the traits she shares with her readers. In other instances, the author may write as an outsider who has a better perspective on a problem or situation. Just how the author presents her character and knowledge, as well as how the author connects with the audience, are key elements in understanding the overall effectiveness of many arguments.

The limitations. Because writers must accommodate readers' background knowledge and their attitudes toward the focus of the argument, that set of limitations is most obvious as a component of rhetorical analysis. But writers are also limited by their own knowledge, by their perspectives on a topic, by their values, by their emotional connection to a topic. These, too, are key limitations. Finally, because this type of rhetorical analysis focuses on the motivation for an argument, the historical, political, economic, and social contexts for the motivating event also pose some limitations on what a writer can and cannot argue for. These limitations, or constraints as Bitzer labels them, are important to recognize as shaping forces of an overall argument.

The essay. The text itself is perhaps the most obvious piece of the rhetorical context to look closely at. Each argument has its own shape based on the specific claim, organization, argument strategies, types of evidence, and style. Each of these sub-points can repay careful analysis to see how they contribute to the effectiveness of an overall argument.

The easiest way to remember these five major components of rhetorical analysis is with the acronym realm:

You will almost certainly take up the elements in a different order (just as they were explained above in a different order), but the acronym will help you remember the five key perspectives to look at when dissecting an argument. You can also use this set of questions to help you begin your rhetorical analysis. As you answer these questions and re-read arguments carefully, other questions will certainly occur to you. Be sure to follow those leads as well to complete a thorough rhetorical analysis.

R - Can you define the probable readers in terms of age, gender, occupation, education, position of power? What values do target readers share with the writer? What range of positions on the issue might target readers hold before reading?

E - What features of the text seem most crucial to understand--the claim, the arrangement of arguments, the supporting evidence, the appeals, the style? What features of the essay make it a more convincing or persuasive argument? What parts of the text are most difficult to read? Why? What parts are most appealing? Why?

A - What do you know about this author? What specific qualifications does the author present to build credibility with the target audience? What appeals to the author's character do you see in the essay? In what ways does the author identify with the readers? Does this level of audience connection help the essay? How?

L - Given what you can discern about target readers, what limitations does that audience impose on the writer? How do the author's background knowledge and experience limit the argument? How do the author's character or values limit the argument? How does the larger context (its history or its social, political, and economic context) of the argument constrain the writer?

M - What seems to have prompted the writer to present this argument? What, if any, is the writer's history of work on this topic? What event might have prompted the writer? What value(s) might have sparked this essay?