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Rhetorical Criticism

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Rhetoric is defined as “the human use of symbols to communicate” in the communication field (Foss, 2009, p. 3).  Rhetorical criticism is the process of “engaging in the study of rhetoric” (Foss, 2009, p. 6).  The process of responding to symbols is used in most peoples’ daily life, but rhetorical criticism makes this process more “conscious, systematic and focused” (Foss, 2009, p. 6).  Rhetorical criticism can be defined with three primary dimensions.

First, humans are the creators of rhetoric (Foss, 2009). Humans are the creators of symbols, which are the focus of rhetorical criticism. Symbolic choices result in “seeing the world one way rather than another” (Foss, 2009, p. 4). Rhetoric is easy to come by because people are creating these symbols all the time.

Second, symbols are the medium for rhetoric (Foss, 2009). Rhetoric involves the uses of symbols and not signs (Foss, 2009). Symbols can be found in nonverbal and verbal manners such as: automobiles, art, furniture and poetry, novels and stories (Foss, 2009).

Third, communication is the purpose of rhetoric (Foss, 2009).  Some people consider the words communication and rhetoric to have the same meaning.  Primarily rhetoric is used as a way to persuade.

Rhetorical criticism is an effective method of research because it has been said, “humans are never so human as when they are engaging in persuasion” (G. Dionisopoulos, personal communication, February 2, 2009).  Rhetorical criticism can be a useful tool for finding patterns in communication between humans.  A message is considered rhetorical if it has a description of what is considered good, if it resonates with a particular audience, and it consists of “clearly implied policy recommendations” (Hart & Daughton, 2005, p. 12).

The case study method is used in rhetorical criticisms. This method allows for a small piece of evidence to be the focus of inquiry. The rhetor must work to tell the “largest story possible given the necessarily limited evidence available (Hart & Daughton, 2005, p. 24). The author works as a “sampler” among all human discourse.  They must pick and chose the best information to present to their audience. This is difficult because of the “people embed in their talk some of their most complicated motivations” (Hart & Daughton, 2005, p. 24). The critic must give up some information they find to offset the power of the insights they make available (Hart & Daughton, 2005). The power comes from choosing a “provocative text for study, asking important questions of that text, and drawing intriguing conclusions” of that text (Hart & Daughton, 2005, p. 24).

A critic has been compared to an anthropologist because they examine artifacts not simply because they exists but to find a larger meaning beyond the artifact (Hart & Daughton, 2005).  This infers that no instance is too small to examine. There will always be something bigger that the smaller rhetoric will tell.

The case study of rhetorical criticism requires the rhetoric to do five things (Hart & Daughton, 2005). First they must isolate an artifact for study (Hart & Daughton, 2005). An artifact can be any type of thing (for example a movie or a speech) or situation (a president’s silence), that the rhetor finds worthy of study.  The artifact in Bostdorff’s (2003) article would be Bush’s post September 11th speech.

The second thing a rhetor must do is describe “special aspects of the phenomenon” (Hart & Daughton, 2005, p. 25).  An example of this may be a speaker’s use of a past speaker’s methods in their speeches.  In Bostdorff’s (2003) article he describes Bush’s use of covenant renewal rhetoric and suggests similarities between Bush and the Puritans. This is a special aspect of Bush’s post September 11th speech.

The third thing a rhetor must do is “classify features of that phenomenon” (Hart & Daughton, 2005, p. 25).  That is, the features must be put into categories to identify them. The Osborn (1967) article shows this because it classifies the rhetoric into metaphors, specifically archetypal metaphors.

The four thing a rhetor must do is interpret any patterns they notice (Hart & Daughton, 2005).  Not only must the rhetor illustrate there are patterns, but they must interpret these patterns through their rhetoric. The Entman (1991) article interprets patterns in U.S. coverage of international news by explaining there is a  “de-emphasizing [of] the agency and the victims and by the choice of graphics and adjectives” in news story frames (p. 6).

The fifth thing a rhetor must do is “evaluate the phenomenon” (Hart & Daugton, 2005, p. 25).  The rhetor must come to possible conclusions that could arise from the phenomenon. An example of this is in Wyman’s and Dionisopoulos’ (2000) article where they suggest the virgin/whore dichotomy could continue into the future if the issue of female needs is not tended.

Advantages to using rhetorical studies include the easy accessibility to rhetoric. Rhetoric is everywhere and a part of everyone’s daily life’s. A rhetorical study can be done on most things people enjoy when they are not working, such as music, movies, art, etc.  Another advantage to rhetoric study is that rhetorical approaches are more realistic to everyday life (SPURS, 2009). A rhetorical approach will generally explain things that happened better. For example Murphy’s (1990) study shows the use of a modern jeremiad can word to “restore social harmony in a time of crisis” (p. 402). The study describes the American jeremiad from a new perspective to give new insights on its use. These uses can be applied to people whom need to give speeches during times of crisis.

Disadvantages in the rhetorical studies method include the use of evidence specifically included, or not included to persuade the audience to think a specific way. Arguments using rhetorical criticism can be subjective which may decrease their validity. People who prefer a quantitative method, may have trouble skewing information to guide people to believe or think certain things about specific topics.

The artifact is the primary data that will be used for the study. This may be any type of “rhetorical act, event, product” the rhetor wishes to analyze such as songs, poems, speeches, building, etc (Foss, 2009, p. 10). Choosing the artifact is the first step in the rhetorical process. A rhetor should keep in mind that artifacts must be appropriate for the method in two ways, when they are choosing their artifact.

First they must “maintain the kinds of data that are the focus of units of analysis of the method” (Foss, 2009, p. 10).  The rhetor should look for artifacts that the units of analysis method can be applied. The units of analysis method focuses on “certain dimensions of an artifact and not others” (Foss, 2009, p. 10). Therefore it narrows the information down to come to a more narrow type of analysis.  So, narrative methods can only be applied to a narrative or story. And obviously metaphor criticism can only be applied to metaphors. All the articles that were read this semester used this technique.  An example of this would be Goldzwig’s and Dionisopoulos’ (1986) article about tragedies.  They could not do their analysis on tragedies if they did not chose their artifact to be a tragedy, which is the Challenger tragedy.

Second the artifact must be one that is liked, disliked, baffles, or something that is unexplainable to the rhetor (Foss, 2009).  This is normally easy to do because we all have those responses to artifacts already, such as a favorite song (Foss, 2009).  Passion for a topic is important when choosing an artifact because it will contribute positively to the overall rhetorical criticism. Perez’ and Dionisopoulos’ (1995) article demonstrates the passion Foss (2009) speaks about through their use of presidential rhetoric. Dr. Dionisopoulos clearly focuses most of his work on presidential rhetoric because he has a passion for it.  This article may focus on President Bush and his rhetoric because he probably has a disliking towards him, so Bush’s rhetoric interests him.


Bostdorff, D. M. (2003). George W. Bush's post-Septemeber 11 rhetoric of covenant renewal:Upholding the faith of the greatest generation. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 89(4), 293-319.

Enthman, R. M. (1991). Framing U.S. coverage of International news: Contrasts in narratives of KAL and Iran air incidents. Journal of Communcaiton, 41(4), 6-25.

Foss, S. K. (2009). Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Waveland Press.

Goldzig, S., & Dionisopoulos , G. (1986). Explaining it to ourselves: The phases of national mourning in space tragedy. Central States Speech Journal, 37(3), 180-193. Hart, R. P., & Daughton, S. (2005). Modern Rhetorical Criticism (3rd ed.). Person Education Inc.

Murphy, J. M. (1990). A time of shame and sorrow: Robert F. Kennedy and the

American Jeremiad. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 76(4), 401-414.

Osborn (1967). Archetypal Metaphor in Rhetoric: The Light Dark Family. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 53, 115-126.

Perez, & Dionisopoulos, G. (1995). Presidential Silence, C. Everett Koop, and the

Surgeon Generals Report on AIDS. Communication Studies, 46, 18-33. SPURS, 2009).

SPURS (2009). Advantages to rhetoric. Retrieved on May 18, 2009 from http://www.spurs.drw.utexas.edu/

Wyman, L. M., & Dionisopoulos , G. (2000). Transcending the virgin/whore dichotomy: Telling Mina's story in Bram's Dracula. Women's Studies in Communication23(2), 209-237.





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