Jordan Kitterman, Tiffany D Grant, Zoie Adams

Learning Objectives

  • Define and understand a rhetorical situation
  • Be able to identify the six different components of a rhetorical situation.
  • Understand how each component operates and correlates with each other.

Key Terms

  • Rhetor: the person(s), real or imagined, creating a given discourse.
  • Rhetorical Situation: the context of a piece of discourse—people, history, things, and ideas that relate to and shape the discourse.
  • Exigence: a condition or event—often a problem to be solved—that prompts a rhetor to create discourse.
  • Purpose: the rhetor’s intended outcome or goal for a piece of discourse; the proposed solution to the exigence’s problem.
  • Audience: the person(s), real or imagined, whose thoughts or actions a rhetor attempts to influence through discourse.
  • Medium: the material (digital or physical) conveying a piece of discourse.
  • Genre: a typified response to a recurring rhetorical situation.
  • Constraints: factors in a rhetorical situation that limit the rhetor’s options when creating discourse.
  • Affordances: opportunities present in a rhetorical situation that a rhetor can exploit to benefit the discourse.

Introduction of Rhetorical Situation

When engaged in rhetorical studies, we should all be aware that our focus transcends that of the primary elements of a text. In dealing with rhetoric we delve into the origins, substance, and intentions of a text. Therefore, identifying a rhetorical situation interprets everything that surrounds and relates to the text. It distinguishes the author’s intentions when he first constructs  certain content, identifies the different mechanics of the text, and acknowledges how they all interrelate with each other.

Rhetorical situations, as defined by LLoyd Bitzer, are “the context in which speakers or writers create rhetorical discourse”.[1]  A rhetorical situation is a text composed of six different components. These parts are the rhetor (or author), exigence, purpose, audience, constraint and affordance. Defining and understanding the roles these play is critical in grasping the full concept of a rhetorical situation. When we are aware of the rhetor, our knowledge surpasses that solely of the author’s name and we are given a greater understanding of the author’s credibility. The exigence portrays the situation an author may have faced that led to a certain text being created, while the purpose explains the reason and what the author intends to convey with the text. Understanding the audience interrelates with who the author is, and it conveys to us how we should interpret the information presented through (via) the content, while the constraint and affordances restrict and creates opportunities for the author to communicate their text the way they do.

Being aware of rhetorical situations can help make you a better writer and reader overtime. Once you have established what the rhetorical situation is, you can develop the material of what you are going to write. Some important ideas to keep in mind while you identify a rhetorical situation:

  • The nature and character of the people you are writing for
  • The demand (exigence) impelling you to join the conversation
  • Your goal or objective (claim)
  • Anything that another individual has said about the topic or subject previously
  • The state of society and anything that will affect or speak to the issue at hand

When we analyze a rhetorical situation we acquaint ourselves with the mechanics of a text’s operation, effects, and purpose.


When considering the different components of a rhetorical situation, the starting point can be identified as the exigence. Generally an unfamiliar term to those inexperienced with rhetoric, the exigence of a text can be described as the problem or situation that prompts an author to create content. Its origin starts way before the author puts their pen to paper, and it is the very situation that compels him to compose a certain text. Hence, the exigence can be defined as “the problem or situation that prompts an author to create content.”

The easiest way to distinguish the exigence of a text is by first shifting your perspective from that solely of the reader, to that also of the author. Ask yourself a few questions, “after analyzing this text, what issue or issues does this text seem to address? What situation or problem is this text a response to? What has prompted the author to create this text?” For example, it’s safe to say that we have all encountered a dictionary at least once. We can identify its exigence as “there are a myriad of vocabulary words that we do not know how to define, use in the proper context, spell or pronounce.” In distinguishing the dictionary’s exigence we have determined what situation the author faced that led him to produce a response.

Another example of exigence seen in rhetorical situations would be Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. What prompted King to present his speech was racism and inequality among African Americans and needing a speech to present during the March on Washington protest.

When identifying an exigence do not formulate it as an infinitive. Once you have used the word “to”, you would then be referring to it as the purpose which will be discussed afterward. Think about the problem to which the text is a response. You may be having difficulty because the term is foreign to you, but don’t quit, just keep practicing! Just like anything else, practicing this concept results in easier comprehension.

Rhetors & Audiences

Having now talked about the exigence of a rhetorical situation, it is essential to discuss the author and the audience(s) of rhetorical situations. Audiences are the people that rhetors negotiate with through discourse, or discussion, to achieve rhetorical solutions or objectives. There are two main audiences that discourse can create, which are primary and secondary or collateral audiences which are mentioned later on.[2] Primary audiences are those who receive the rhetorical situation and are the decision making body of the rhetorical situations, also known as the target audience. Secondary or collateral audiences are not directly addressed or the target audience but still are allowed to preview such rhetorical situation.

Audiences are key to helping the rhetor accomplish his or her purpose. If the rhetor’s exigence is needing money, the audience solves that by buying the rhetor’s book, article, or any other piece of writing that exist. If the rhetor is trying to let their audiences know of a current issue via a blog, the audience creates support and discourse on the medium of forums.

It is important to know that the audiences control what the rhetor writes or creates as well. When mentioning rhetors creating rhetorical situations over blogs, they also have to keep in mind the genre for why the audience follows such a blog. If it’s a purely education blog, the rhetor does not want to write out an article that would be too taboo when speaking about education like politics unless it is directly affecting education itself. The rhetor has to appeal to the masses that follow these blogs for these types of articles, not the other way around.  The rhetor is here to appease the audience for whatever exigence they may have.

What makes an audience?

The audience is already created in the rhetor’s mind beforehand. The reason for this is because the rhetorical situation the rhetor is creating is meant to create a solution for a specific topic/situation for which certain people can agree on. A great example is actually politics. Lets use the United States State of the Union address since its easy to comprehend. During the State of the Union address, the president presents a speech to address the state of the nation and announce plans for the coming year. The audience are the citizens of the United States and the president must ensure that his very diverse audience agrees with most of the statements he will be making during his speech. Not everyone will agree or accept what the president wants to do in the future but he tries to present a speech where everyone will agree with the solutions he presents.

Certain genres can actually create an audience as well. For example, if a certain audience likes Marvel movies, they will almost always go to every single Marvel movie that premieres because those movies are created for the audience who all love Marvel comics and their superheroes created by them. Marvel’s exigence is that they need profit off of their ideas so, in order to do that, they create these fan service type movies for Marvel fans. The audience is solving the directors or Marvels exigence and creating discourse based off of the rhetorical situation the movie presents.

Douglas Park had created four great and easy to understand meanings of audience. These four ideas also are other ways audience are made or created. These are: (1) any people who happen to hear or read a discourse, (2) a set of readers or listeners who form part of an external rhetorical situation, (3) the audience that the writer seems to have in mind, and (4) the audience roles suggested by the discourse itself.  You become audience of anything almost everyday. It could be people creating conversation around you or the news station reporting situations on the daily. You just happen to hear or you just turn into those types of channels to listen to the situations, where hopefully you’ll generate your own opinions and ideas about the situation and respond to it.


Being aware of the type of audience can also influence the way the rhetor would want to address the rhetorical situation to his audience as well. Understanding the medium can help a rhetor decide whether to present their information in speech or written text. That being said, the medium is the way the rhetor conveys  information to the audience. There are various forms of medium that are used. We communicate through many media, verbal and nonverbal. Each medium has unique characteristics that influence both what and how we communicate. This is why different mediums work better for different subjects.

Lets use Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech again as an example. In order to spread the message that African Americans were facing inequality and racism at the time, he had to present his information in the form of a speech so that everyone would be able to hear his voice during the March on Washington. The setting he found himself in influenced the way he conveyed information to his audience.

Another example would be travel brochure for an amusement park. The purpose of a travel brochure for an amusement park is to inform the audience about an amusement park. The travel brochure is written by the rhetor to convey information about the amusement park to his audience. The rhetor chose the written medium because he is aware that his audience would pick up the brochure and look at its information to become more informed about a particular amusement park.



The purpose of a rhetorical situation can be described as the effect of a rhetorical situation. The purpose of a rhetorical situation is usually found inside of the text, and is satisfied through the text’s content.

Back to our example of the dictionary, what do you think the purpose of the dictionary is? The dictionary’s purpose is to inform us of definitions, proper context, spelling, and pronunciations of words we are unfamiliar with. The effect of a dictionary would be, once we have consulted it for a word we are ignorant of, we should be acquainted with its definition, proper context, spelling and pronunciation. A dictionary should enlighten us about words we are not familiar with.

In regards to the second example stated previously in relation to exigence, the purpose of an safety instruction pamphlet is to inform airplane passengers how to respond in the case of an emergency.

This concept correlates with an author’s claim. The claim is the point the author is trying to make within the text.

Keep in mind…

The exigence is the cause, the purpose is the effect.

Constraints & Affordances

When a rhetor is writing to their audience there are factors that can affect the way in which the rhetor can achieve the rhetorical objectives. These factors are called constraints and affordances. Both do not always affect what is being written in a negative way, as one can also have a positive effect. Instead of calling these positive and negative constraints writers use the word constraints when speaking of negative constraints and the word affordances when speaking of positive constraints.

When writing there can be different factors that can hold them back from writing what they want. These constraints can stem from a number of things such as who the audience of the writing is and where the writing is being published. An example of this would be in the State of the Union address. While the president presents his speech, he must be very careful to not offend the audience or have too much controversial material that he could get criticized by the media. He also must make sure he includes plenty of background information on certain topics that his audience might not be aware of or understand.

Affordances can also be attributed to the audience and the place of publication. The difference between affordance and constraint thought is that an affordance allows a rhetor to make decisions in their writing that they would normally avoid doing. Going back to the State of the Union address, the president also has affordances. The president’s popularity can help shape the way the president presents his speech. If he is aware that many citizens support him, he can afford to implement more of his own political party’s plans into helping the nation rather than supporting the opposite political party’s ideas that he is against.

Another example of constraints and affordances outside of writing would be a seatbelt. When you get in a vehicle and put on a seatbelt you are constrained by being strapped in and not being able to move around easily and quickly. Seatbelts also give you a huge affordance. By being strapped into a seat with little ability to move, you are given the safety of not flying out of your vehicle if by unfortunate chance you get involved in a car accident.

Bias can also an example of a constraint or an affordance. An author can use their bias on the right platform to gain power over their audience and attract them to the writing. At the same time this bias can deter potential audience members away from the writing because it goes against the beliefs of that person.

Constraints and affordances can play a large part in what a rhetor writes. They have to take in account who they want the intended audience to be and the things they would and would not want to see in a piece they read.


As we have discussed throughout this chapter, a rhetorical situation is made up of its constituents which are exigence, purpose, rhetors, audiences, and constraints and affordances. These all play a key role in making rhetorical situations what they are, problems solved by discourse. When writing, these are the things that influence how someone will write and what they will write. If you have a better understanding of what these constituents are, you will also gain a better understanding of any rhetorical situation.

Considering this, there are many benefits that you can receive from having this new knowledge about rhetorical situations. Some benefits of being aware of rhetorical situations include: the ability to determine the purpose and role you play as a reader, identify who you are writing for or speaking to, adding appropriate evidence to support your claims, and determining the lexis of which you should write.

Review Questions

  • What is the main difference between a constraint and an affordances?
  • When identifying the exigence of a rhetorical situation ask: What issue does this text seem to address? What has prompted the author to create this text? What situation or problem is this text a response to?
  • Does genre create audiences and dictate what the rhetor can/cannot do? How?


  • Choose at least two different text, and in groups of two make attempts in identifying the text’s exigence and purpose.
  • Define primary and collateral audiences and create your own example of both.
  • Give an example of exigence an author would have for making a book.


  1. http://www.bhsu.edu/Portals/201/Bitzer--Rhetorical%20Situation.pdf
  2. http://www.jstor.org/stable/465644?seq=7#page_scan_tab_contents - Grant-Davie


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Writing @ Saint Leo Copyright © 2020 by Jordan Kitterman, Tiffany D Grant, Zoie Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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