48 Rhetorical Methodologies

We encode and decode messages everyday. As we take in messages, we use a number of criteria to evaluate them. We may ask, “Was the message good, bad, or both?” “Was it effective or ineffective?” “Did it achieve its intended outcome?” “How should I respond to the message?” Think about the last movie you watched. Did you have a conversation about the movie with others? Did that conversation include commentary on various parts of the film such as the set design, dialogue, plot, and character development? If so, you already have a taste of the variety of elements that go into rhetorical research. Simply stated, rhetorical methods of research are sophisticated and refined ways to evaluate messages. Foss explains that we use rhetorical approaches as a way “of systematically investigating and explaining symbolic acts and artifacts for the purpose of understanding rhetorical processes” (6).

Steps for Doing Rhetorical Research

We already outlined the seven basic steps for conducting research, but there are ways to vary this process for different methodologies. Below are the basic steps for conducting rhetorical research.

1. Determine a focus of study such as political speeches, television shows or genres, movies or movie genres, commercials, magazine texts, the rhetoric of social movement organizations, music lyrics, visual art, public memorials, etc.
2. Choose a rhetorical research method to evaluate and critique rhetorical acts and/or messages.
3. Analyze the message(s) of focus such as a Presidential address by using a particular rhetorical method.
4. Interpret the implications of the rhetorical act, as well as the rhetorical act itself. For example, a scholar might choose to rhetorically research television violence and provide interpretations regarding the implications of television violence on viewers.
5. Share the results of research. From sharing research comes the opportunity to improve our ability to create and evaluate effective messages. We can also use what we learn from rhetorical research to shape the ways messages are constructed and delivered.

Types of Methods for Rhetorical Criticism

What do rhetorical methods actually look like? How are they done? While each rhetorical methodology acts as a unique lens for understanding messages, no one is more correct over another. Instead, each allows us a different way for understanding messages and their effects. Let’s examine a few of the more common rhetorical methodologies including, 1) Neo-Aristotelian, 2) Fantasy-Theme, 3) Narrative, 4) Pentadic, 5) Feminist, and 6) Ideological.

  • Neo-Aristotelian Criticism. In Chapter 2 you learned quite a bit about the rhetorical roots of our field, including a few of the contributions of Aristotle. The neo-Aristotelian method uses Aristotle’s ideas to evaluate rhetorical acts. First, a researcher recreates the context for others by describing the historical period of the message being studied. Messages are typically speeches or other forms of oral rhetoric as this was the primary focus of rhetoric during the Classical Period. Second, the researcher evaluates the message using the canons of rhetoric. For example, the researcher may examine what types of logic are offered in a speech or how its delivery enhances or detracts from the ethos of the speaker. Finally, the researcher assesses the effectiveness of the message given its context and its use of the canons.
  • Fantasy Theme Criticism. Fantasy Theme analysis is a more contemporary rhetorical method credited to Ernest G. Bormann (1972; 1985; 1990; 2000; Cooren et al.). The focus of this methodology is on groups rather than individuals, and is particularly well-suited for analyzing group messages that come from social movements, political campaigns, or organizational communication. Essentially, a fantasy is a playful way of interpreting an experience (Foss). Fantasy theme research looks for words or phrases that characterize the shared vision of a group in order to explain how the group characterizes or understands events around them. Fantasy theme analysis offers names and meaning to a group’s experience and presents outsiders with a frame for interpreting the group’s rhetorical response.
  • Narrative Criticism. Much of what you learned as a child was probably conveyed to you through stories (bedtime stories, fables, and fairy tales) that taught you about gender roles, social roles, ethics, etc. Fairy tales, for example, teach us that women are valued for their youth and beauty and that men are valued when they are strong, handsome, smart, and riding a white horse! Other stories you remember may be more personal, as in the telling of your family’s immigration to the United States and the values learned from that experience. Whatever the case, narrative rhetorical research contends that people learn through the sharing of stories. A researcher using this method examines narratives and their component parts—the plot, characters, and settings—to better understand the people (culture, groups, etc.) telling these stories. This research approach also focuses on the effects of repeating narratives. Think about Hollywood romantic comedies such as When Harry Met Sally, Silver Lining Playbook, Knocked Up, and Bridesmaids. When you see one of these movies, does it feel like you’ve seen it before? For example, For example, these movies use usually have a confused character and some conflict that ends in a perfect relationship. Why does Hollywood do this? What is the purpose and/or effect of retelling these story lines over and over again? These are some of the concerns of researchers who use narrative analysis to research rhetorical acts.
  • Pentadic Criticism. Kenneth Burke developed the idea of the pentad using the metaphor of drama. As in a dramatic play, the pentad contains five elements—the act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose. The act tells what happened, the agent is who performed the act, agency includes the tools/means the agent used to perform the act, the scene provides the context for the act, and the purpose explains why the act occurred. By using the elements of the pentad to answer questions of who, what, when, where, and why, a rhetorical researcher may uncover a communicator’s motives for her or his rhetorical actions. Click below to watch a visual representation of Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic pentad.

Graphic of 6 circles.  From top left, they read: Neo-Aristotelian: Using Aristotle's ideas to evaluate rhetorical acts; Feminist: Helps determine the degree to which women's perspectives are absent/discredited; Pedantic: Five elements: the act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose; Fantasy Theme: Focusing on analyzing group messages rather than individuals; Narrative: Examining narratives and their components to better understand those telling the stories; and Idealogical: Collection of values, beliefs, or ethics that influence behavior for a group or culture.
  • Feminist Criticism. Most feminist perspectives share the basic assumptions that women are routinely oppressed by patriarchy, women’s experiences are different then men’s, and women’s perspectives are not equally incorporated into our culture (Foss). We can use feminist rhetorical research to help us determine the degree to which women’s perspectives are both absent and/or discredited in rhetorical acts. Thus, feminist rhetorical research, “is the analysis of rhetoric to discover how the rhetorical construction of gender is used as a means for oppression and how that process can be challenged and resisted” (Foss, 168). Although many think of “women” in reference to feminism, it is important to note that many men consider themselves feminists and that feminism is concerned with oppression of all forms—race, class, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and gender.
  • Ideological Criticism. Ideology is a collection of values, beliefs, or ethics that influence modes of behavior for a group or culture. Rhetorical scholars interested in understanding a culture’s values often use ideological methods. Ideologies are complex and multifaceted, and ideological methods draw from diverse schools of thought such as Marxism, feminism, structuralism, deconstructionism, and postmodernism. This research often uncovers assumptions and biases in our language that provide insight into how dominant groups and systems are maintained rhetorically, and how they can be challenged and transformed through rhetoric. Artifacts of popular culture such as movies, television shows, etc. are often the focus of this research as they are the sites at which struggles about meanings occur in the popular culture.

Case In Point

Rhetorical Methods In Action

In 2012, Mallary Jean Tenore examines rhetorical strategies that lead to successful speeches in an article titled “10 rhetorical strategies that made Bill Clinton’s DNC speech effective.” She looks at different rhetorical methods used to develop strong arguments in speech writing.

In contrast, Dr. Stephen H. Browne’s (2003) rhetorical criticism entitled, “Jefferson’s First Declaration of Independence: A Summary View of the Rights of British America Revisited.” explores Jefferson’s Summary View of the Rights of British America to understand and demonstrate Jefferson’s skill as a storyteller, and explain what Jefferson was trying to accomplish through a series of narratives. This piece demonstrates rhetorical research used as a means of understanding a historical rhetorical act in its particular context.

Outcomes of Rhetorical Methodologies

What is the value of researching acts of communication from a rhetorical perspective? The systematic research of messages tells us a great deal about the ways people communicate, the contexts in which they communicate, the effects of communication in particular contexts, and potential areas to challenge and transform messages to create social change.

Rhetorical research methodologies help us better determine how and why messages are effective or ineffective, as well as the outcomes of messages on audiences. Think about advertising campaigns. Advertising agencies spend millions of dollars evaluating the effectiveness of their messages on audiences. The purpose of advertising is to persuade us to act in some way, usually the purchasing of products or services. Advertisers not only evaluate the effectiveness of their messages by determining the amount of products sold, they also evaluate effectiveness by looking at audience response to the messages within the current cultural and social contexts.


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