Chapter 6: Bitzer and The Rhetorical Situation

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Define the elements of Bitzer’s rhetorical situation
  • Distinguish between an exigence and a rhetorical exigence
  • Distinguish between an audience and a rhetorical audience
  • Explain how Bitzer’s three constituents—rhetorical exigence, rhetorical audience, and constraints—can impact a rhetorical situation

Key Terms and Concepts

  • Rhetorical Situation
  • Rhetoric
  • Rhetor
  • Exigence
  • Rhetorical Exigence
  • Rhetorical Audience
  • Constraints

What is a Rhetorical Situation?

Under what conditions does persuasion take place?

The same question can be made for : under what contexts does rhetorical discourse become possible? This question was the basis for Bitzer’s (2009) article “The Rhetorical Situation.” In this article, Bitzer (2009)[1] defines three elements that are required for rhetorical discourse to exist. These elements are:

  1. the rhetorical exigence
  2. the rhetorical audience
  3. the rhetorical constraints

When combined, these three elements make up what Bitzer (2009) calls the rhetorical situation. More broadly, Bitzer (2009) defines a rhetorical situation as “a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence” (pp. 19-20).

That’s a very complex quote, so we are going to break it down. If it helps, we can use the term “communication context” in place of rhetorical situation as both mean the same thing. At it’s core, Bitzer (2009) tells us what is the communication context for persuasion: what are the parts of it and what does it look like? To answer those questions, though, we will need to go over some terminology.

What is Rhetoric?

We use the word rhetoric a lot in this course, so it’s important that we have a clear definition of it before we go any further. According to Bitzer (2009), “a work of rhetoric is pragmatic; it comes into existence for the sake of something beyond itself; it functions ultimately to produce change or action in the world; it performs some task” (p. 19).

In other words, rhetoric is practical, purposeful communication that attempts to create change in the world by enabling a to persuade people to change their beliefs or solve problems.

That probably sounds likes a pretty big claim! How does rhetoric change the world? Bitzer (2009) writes, “…rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action” (p. 19). This means that rhetors do not act directly. If they see a problem, they are not the ones showing up, rolling up their sleeves, and creating change themselves; rather, they create change through communicating messages that bring together the thoughts and actions of an audience.

This is the core or rhetorical discourse. It is not the rhetor that is on the ground creating change, rather they use their words to convince others to do it. Rhetors use communication not only to help an audience think in a certain way, but also to inspire the audience to act according to the ideas they’ve been convinced to accept. Thus, Bitzer (2009) asserts that “the rhetor alters reality by bringing into existence a discourse of such a character that the audience, in thought and action, is so engaged that [they] becomes the mediator of change” (p. 19).

That may sound all well and good, but what does it have to do with working in a professional setting when you leave the university? We now know that rhetoric is communication that persuades an audience to think in a certain way, or do certain things. Will you be doing any of this in your career? Most definitely! The clients or producers you work with will have problems they need solved, and you will want to convince them that your plans, ideas, or solutions will solve those problems. If you can’t, you may not get that important contract for your company, or you be passed over for future projects. Rhetorical techniques can help you be more successful.


Rhetorical Exigence

Whenever we wish to persuade an audience to take action or change their beliefs, we must first have a clear definition of the problem or issue we would like them to address. This problem is what is known as exigence. A precise understanding of a problem better equips us to find a solution, and enables the audience to better understand how their behaviour or beliefs could improve the situation.

Keep in mind, however, that even though we are using the world “problem” here, that doesn’t mean that an exigence is always negative. In fact, the exigence could be something that needs to be said or done, which don’t always have a negative connotation.

Additionally, it’s important to understand that not all problems are rhetorical in nature. As Bitzer (2009) indicates for an exigence to be rhetorical, it must be able to be affected by human activity.

Many problems we face do not have a rhetorical exigence because of factors beyond our control: natural disasters, diseases, and death are all examples of phenomena that continue to exist regardless of human behaviour. However, within these non-rhetorical exigences, one can find many potentially rhetorical exigences since people can be persuaded to behave in ways that minimize the harm done by such phenomena.

The other important distinguishing feature of a rhetorical exigence is that it requires the use of communication (or what Bitzer calls “discourse”) in order to resolve or mitigate the issue it is addressing. If you can solve the problem by means other than communication, then it is not considered a rhetorical exigence.

This distinction is important to understand, as you will need to pick a topic with rhetorical exigence for both your written report and presentation in this course. Students often struggle with picking a topic that meets this criteria, so let’s look at a few examples where we show the difference between exigence and rhetorical exigence. We will lay out some scenarios and explain why they do or do not have rhetorical exigence. If you can, try to predict what would be a rhetorical exigence for the scenario before you read further.

The news is reporting that a severe winter storm bringing 50 centimetres of snow is about to reach our area.

The winter storm itself has non-rhetorical exigence since no human intervention could stop a winter storm. It will happen regardless of what actions humans do or do not take. However, the potential loss of power and access to grocery stores could be examples of rhetorical exigences in the situation. People could be persuaded to prepare for power outages by buying a generator or buying lots of warm blankets. Alternatively, people could be convinced stock up on supplies ahead of time like water and non-perishable foods.

After reading the explanation above, it may come as no surprise to you that debates often occur about whether an exigence is rhetorical or not. Take the following example:

Climate change is drastically impacting our environment and humans need to step in to slow its effects.

It is widely and generally accepted that human activity contributes to climate change, yet detractors attempt to argue that climate change is natural process that is unresponsive to human behaviour. As a result, they regard attempts to mitigate or remediate its effects are potentially misguided. Potential debates like these show that while you may feel your problem has a clear rhetorical exigence, others may not agree with you.

That being said, the act of telling an audience that humans need to step in to stop climate change does not have rhetorical exigence in of itself. This is because, even if your audience agrees, they may not know what to do, or feel like they can’t make a meaningful impact on such a global issue.

However, according the vast majority of researchers, specific human activities contribute significantly to climate change. Thus, such activities can be examples of rhetorical exigences because populations can be persuaded to change their behaviour. They can use fewer disposable products or invest in renewable energy and thereby mitigate the potential damage caused by an increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide.

Let’s look at this another way: Consider the difference between these two statements in terms of their exigence:

(1) “I want my audience to reduce the time they idle their vehicle because the earth’s climate is heating up.”

(2) “I want my audience to reduce the time they idle their vehicle because vehicle emissions contribute to the current increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change.”

Although we understand the implied argument of the first example due to our familiarity with this particular exigence, the second example better establishes the credibility of the rhetor because of the clarity of thought it expresses. It carefully draws the connection between human behaviour and its undesirable effects, and clearly presents the exigence as a condition we can improve through our collective effort, as opposed to it being an abstract quality of nature that is only implicitly connected to our activity.

This distinction between exigence and rhetorical exigence is tough. A lot of students struggle with it, so if you are still unclear, do not hesitate to reach out to your instructor for help.


Rhetorical Audience

The goal of rhetorical discourse is to “produce change by influencing the decision and action of persons who function as mediators of change” (Bitzer, 2009, p. 20). Obviously, we can’t do that without an audience.

Like with exigence though, it is important to distinguish between an audience and a rhetorical audience as they are not the same thing. For example, you have probably walked by the dozens of bulletin boards on campus that advertise different presentations that you can attend for free. In many of those cases, the presenter is talking about their research. You could be in the audience for any of those presentations and learn something new and valuable about a topic, but would they push you to make a change?

Probably not. In those circumstances, you are part of an audience, but not a rhetorical audience. 

According to Bitzer (2009), a rhetorical audience has two criteria:

  1. The audience must be able to take action that can either solve the problem or at least improve the situation.
    • This criterion might seem obvious, but it reminds us of the importance of finding a way for our audience to solve, or at least mitigate, the problem we’ve identified, or of finding an audience that has the power to do so.
  2. There must be some way for the author or speaker to persuade the audience to change their opinion or take action.
    • If the audience is unwilling or unable to consider the rhetor’s message, there is no since no change can happen through persuasive communication.

In summary, a rhetorical audience is one that can take action to solve a problem and can be persuaded by the rhetor to take that action.


Constraints

Obliviously, all this talk about convincing others to take action comes with some limits. These limits are what Bitzer (2009) calls constraints. A constraint is anything that can make it difficult for your message to be received. Sources of constraints include, but are not limited to:

  • beliefs
  • attitudes
  • documents
  • facts
  • traditions
  • images
  • interests
  • motives

These constraints are what limits a rhetors effectiveness in persuading their rhetorical audience. It’s important to note, however, that these constraints come from both sides. Specifically, a rhetor’s beliefs may affect how they design a message, and similarly, an audience’s beliefs will determine how they receive that message.

As a result, constraints cannot be simply acknowledged by the rhetor and then subsequently ignored. Constraints must be used as tools to help design the message itself.

For example, let’s say you want to convince your rhetorical audience to vote in favor of a project that will create a waste-to-energy plant as a way to generate new energy for your city. You may personally know that process is safe for the environment, but your rhetorical audience does not know that. Some, maybe all, will be concerned at the idea of smoke from burned trash getting into the atmosphere. Therefore, you must address this constraint in your presentation by talking about how filtering works.

Here’s another example. One of the best ways to understand Bitzer’s point about constraints is to imagine a situation in which you wish to persuade an audience to solve an , similar to the argument you’ll make in your extemporaneous speech later this term.

Let’s return to the exigence we considered earlier in the chapter: idling vehicles contribute significantly to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is responsible for climate change. Some constraints in this rhetorical situation could include:

  1. disagreement about the degree to which climate change is a threat to our ecosystem
  2. an inclination to value our own comfort and convenience above the well-being of future generations
  3. the difficulty of changing one’s habits in spite one’s belief in the importance of doing so
  4. doubts concerning the likelihood that changing one’s idling habits will mitigate the problem

Other types of constraints naturally arise from the medium that you use to communicate your message; for instance, are you delivering a speech, posting on social media, writing an editorial, or speaking with your colleagues or family? Constraints also arise due to your personality; for instance, what sorts of communicative risks are your willing to take, and are they likely to yield a positive response?

Looking Ahead

Two of your big assignments in this course are a written report and a persuasive speech. You will be expected to apply this rhetorical theory (and others) into both assignments.

For your persuasive speech at the end of term, you’ll need to find a rhetorical exigence that your audience can solve, or at least mitigate. As you think about potential or current problems you’d like your audience to solve, think carefully whether the exigence exists among your audience, and whether the action you’ve identified will actually solve the exigence.

For instance, let’s pretend you are particularly interested in dental hygiene, and you found some evidence that certain demographics have dental hygiene habits that could be improved. In order to solve this exigence,  you decide you want to persuade people to brush their teeth at least twice per day, and floss at least once per day.

As you consider whether to use this exigence and action for your speech, you would first need to consider whether your audience, that is, your classmates, actually fall into this demographic, otherwise you may end up simply attempting to persuade them to commit to an action they already engage in regularly.

If they already have good dental hygiene, the rhetorical exigence you’ve identified would not exist in this context, and thus you would not have a rhetorical situation. Nevertheless, the exigence might exist among a larger demographic outside of the classroom, in which case, in order to address the exigence, you would need to identify an action that enables your audience to promote good dental hygiene.

Chapter Quiz

Key Takeaways

  •  is purposeful communication that aims to create change in the world by allowing a persuade an audience to change their beliefs or solve problems.
  • The is a combination of elements that determine whether it is possible to persuade others in a given situation. These elements are rhetorical exigence, rhetorical audience, and constraints.
  • is a problem that needs to be addressed in a given situation. However, keep in mind that this “problem” does not have to be negative in nature. An exigence can be something that needs to be said, or a task that needs to be accomplished. As a result, not all exigences are rhetorical in nature.
  • is one that can be affected by human activity. Preventing a winter storm is an exigence, but it is not a rhetorical exigence  because humans can not stop it. However, humans can take measures to prepare for the storm to keep themselves safe. The act of persuading humans to prepare for the storm is rhetorical exigence.
  • A  is an audience who can take action that will either solve the problem or at least improve the situation.
  • are elements—such as the beliefs, traditions, motives of your audience or yourself—that can potentially hinder your message. As a result, constraints must be assessed in advance of your presentation and used to design your message.

References

Bitzer, L. F. (2009). The rhetorical situation. In J. MacLennan, Effective communication for the technical professions (2nd ed.) (pp.18-21). Oxford University Press. (Abridged from Bitzer, L.F. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1(1), 1-14.)


  1. Note: Bitzer's article was originally published in the inaugural issue of the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric in 1969. We are using the 2009 publication date because you will be reading an abridged version of Bitzer's article in the Canvas module.

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Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach by Rebekah Bennetch; Corey Owen; and Zachary Keesey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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