Chapter 6: Critical / Rhetorical Methods (Part 2)

As noted in part 1 of this chapter, no single predetermined step-by-step process exists for conducting a rhetorical criticism, but it always involves reading a text (or looking at an artifact) multiple times and developing a heuristic vocabulary (covered in the previous section/chapter) that enables you to analyze (and not just report about) the artifact or text. The best model for understanding the critical/rhetorical research process is argument (Brockriede).

A rhetorical criticism makes a case or an argument for how and why an artifact or text makes meaning, and whether that meaning making is ethical. So, in writing a rhetorical criticism, you need to be able to identify what your argument is, and then organize and amass evidence to support that argument. The goal to writing a rhetorical criticism is not to find the single best interpretation of an artifact's or text's meaning, but instead to make an argument about your particular interpretation given the audiences you identify.

Nothstine, Blair, and Copeland argue that the best criticism of a symbolic action is not guided by a step-by-step method in which the results are predictable and replicable by anyone else studying the same act. Instead, they argue the best methods for studying rhetoric may be "at their best, critically, when they are least rigorous 'methodologically'" (40). Thus, as your textbook authors, we cannot offer you a series of steps that will guarantee the same analysis every time for a particular artifact for a study. You will probably not know the exact argument you will make until you thoroughly examine the data in its historical context.

The processes below, although not followed in a strict step-by-step order, can help you as you figure out how to do a rhetorical criticism.

Rhetorical Criticism

Initiating the Research

Select an Artifact or Text

How will you decide what artifact or text to analyze? Opportunities exist all around you, in media news coverage of current events, in song lyrics, on blog and Facebook postings on the Internet, at a local school board debate, on local cemetery headstones, at the beach. You are limited only by your interests and imagination. Remember the artifact or text can be written, oral, visual and/or audio. The following is just a glimpse at the wide variety of topics examined with critical/rhetorical methods (most of the examples have an essay written about them).

Artifact type Example
Movie Juno
Saving Private Ryan
Harry Potter
Protest March 2004 March for Women's Lives 
2009 9/12 Tea Party Taxpayers March on Washington
Spring 2011 Wisconsin protests at the capitol
Body Rhetoric Public kissing by LGBTQ people 
Tree sitting to stop logging 
Woolworth's sit ins by Civil Rights protesters
Historic Documents Declaration of Independence
Declaration of the Rights of Women
Speeches Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural
George W. Bush's Iraq War speeches
Barbara Jordan's keynote address
Photos Joe Rosenthal's Iwo Jima photo 
Jeff Widener's tank man in Tiananmen Square photo 
Dorothea Lange's migrant mother photo 
Thomas E. Franklin's flag raising at Ground Zero photo
Cyber-Communication Barack Obama's facebook page during the presidential campaigns
blog posting about Trent Lott's toast to Strom Thurmond
Legal Cases Brown v. Board of Education
Roe v. Wade
Song Bruce Springsteen's "Into the Fire"
Greenday's American Idiot
Comic Books Barack the Barbarian
Y: The Last Man
Hothead Paisan
Monuments Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield 
September 11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero 
Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in World War II
Museums U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum 
National Museum of the American Indian
Magazine Maxim
Billboards Guerilla Girls billboards

Most rhetorical analyses focus on public forms of communication, such as speeches, newspaper articles, and public acts of protest. Thus, critical/rhetorical researchers normally do not have to seek prior approval from an Institutional Review Board. The artifact or text being studied does not include individuals' private lives or attempts to communicate with those individuals. It is public information.

Although virtually no limit exists on what you can pick to study, scholars do offer some guidelines to help you be more successful and do work that has the potential to be useful for others. Select an artifact/text for which you:

  • Have access to the complete text
  • Can obtain context information (an anonymous text from an undetermined time is difficult to study)
  • Can isolate a manageable portion of text to examine (in others words, if you are interested in studying Ronald Reagan, find a speech of his on which to focus; do not try to study all the speeches he ever delivered)
  • Can add to the discussion (many things have been written about King's "I Have a Dream" and Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," so you might want to avoid those texts unless you have something new to offer. Your criticism should not be a book report on what others write, but should be a new creative analysis you developed).
  • Have an interesting question, such as:
    • Why was this effective?
    • Why was this not effective?
    • How does this text change the way I think about the world?
    • Is there something I cannot explain about the text without more study?

Once the text is selected, read/examine/watch it carefully and try to determine what it is you want to figure out about the text. Does your reading of the text raise questions about gender? Power? Metaphors? Ideographs? Memory? Depending on what questions are raised, where you go in the literature will differ.

Explore Possible Heuristic Vocabulary: Do a Literature Review

When writing a literature review for a rhetorical criticism, your goal is to use that review to develop your heuristic vocabulary (the set of critical terms such as what was covered in Part 1 of this chapter) which enables you to not only describe, but also analyze, your text or artifact. If studies have already been done on your text/artifact, then your literature review needs to expand the critical vocabulary used so that you can add insights into the ongoing conversation about your text. If no studies on your text/artifact exist, then you review the literature about your type of text/artifact or the type of question you ask. So, for example, here are citations from two beginning literature reviews on two texts, one which has already been studied, and another which has not.

Beginning literature review for a paper on Barack "A New Beginning: Speech at Cairo University," a text without existing studies Beginning literature review for a paper on Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "Solitude of Self," a text with existing studies
Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Deeds Done in Words: Presidential Rhetoric and the Genres of Governance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Darsey, James. "Barack Obama and America's Journey." Southern Communication Journal 74.1 (January/March 2009): 88-103.

Frank, David A. "The Prophetic Voice and the Face of the Other in Barack Obama's 'A More Perfect Union' Address, March 18, 2008." Rhetoric and Public Affairs 12.2 (Summer 2009): 167-194.

Hart, Roderick K. and John L. Pauley, Eds. The Political Pulpit Revisited. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue UP, 2004.

Obama, Barack H. "A New Beginning: Speech at Cairo University." American Rhetoric: Online Speech Bank. 4 June 2009. Web. 25 May 2010.

Parameswaran, Radhika. "Facing Barack Hussein Obama: Race, Globalization, and Transnational America." Journal of Communication Inquiry 33.3 (July 2009): 195- 205.

Pintak, Lawrence and Jeremy Ginges. "The Mission of Arab Journalism: Creating Change in a Time of Turmoil." Harvard International Journal of Press Politics 13.3 (July 2008): 193- 227.

Rowland, Robert C. and John M. Jones. "Recasting the American Dream and American Politics: Barack Obama's Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention." Quarterly Journal of Speech 93.4 (November 2007): 425-448.

Tulis, Jeffrey K. The Rhetorical Presidency. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1987.

Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. Man Cannot Speak for Her, Vols 1 and 2. New York Praeger, 1989.

Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. "Stanton's 'The Solitude of Self': A Rationale for Feminism." Quarterly Journal of Speech 66.3 (October 1980): 304-312.

Hogan, Lisa Shawn. "Elizabeth Cady Stanton: 'Our girls'." Voices of Democracy 1.1 (2006): 104-117.

Huxman, Susan Schultz. "Perfecting the Rhetorical Vision of Woman's Rights: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anna Howard Shaw, and Carrie Chapman Catt." Women's Studies in Communication 23.3 (Fall 2000): 307-336.

Solomon, Martha. "Autobiographies as Rhetorical Narratives: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Anna Howard Shaw as 'New Women'." Communication Studies 42.4 (Winter 1991): 354-370.

Southard, Belinda A. Stillion. "Elizabeth Cady Stanton: 'Address on Woman's Rights.'" Voices of Democracy 2.1 (2007): 152-169.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady "The Solitude of Self." Man Cannot Speak for Her, vol. 2. Ed. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell. New York: Praeger, 1989. 371- 384.

Strange, Lisa S. "Dress Reform and the Feminine Ideal: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the 'Coming Girl'." Southern Communication Journal 68.1 (Fall 2002): 1-13.

Stormer, Nathan. "Embodied Humanism: Performative Argument for Natural Rights in 'The Solitude of Self'." Argumentation and Advocacy 36.2 (Fall 1999): 51-64.

Waggenspack, Beth M. The Search for Self- Sovereignty: The Oratory of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 1989.

A literature review for a critical or rhetorical essay is not the same as one for a social science study. In fact, you usually find that the methods section and the literature review sections are collapsed in a rhetorical essay because the method is embedded in the vocabulary offered by the literature.

Start Formulating an Argument

When reading a rhetorical criticism, you are unlikely to ever see an author talk about a research question (RQ). Instead, authors open their essays with the argument they will advance. The authors then work through each part of the argument, providing evidence from research into the historical context of the artifact/s or text/s being studied, and evidence from the artifacts/texts themselves, to support their argument. The authors, however, do not formulate their argument at the very beginning of their research process. Rather, this argument starts becoming clear as they move back and forth between analyzing the artifact and applying possible heuristic vocabulary to the artifact. The argument emerges from the analysis and writing process, making the processes used in doing a rhetorical criticism more circular than linear in their nature.

What follows are a series of examples of artifacts/texts studied, and the argument the author/s advanced about the artifact/text.

Artifact/Text Argument Citation
AIDS memorial quilt The AIDS Memorial Quilt is an act of "public commemoration [that] harbored both the potential for a progressive political practice and the conditions for subversion of that practice" (Blair and Michel 595). Blair, Carole and Michel, Neil. "The AIDS Memorial Quilt and the Contemporary Culture of Public Commemoration." Rhetoric and Public Affairs 10.4 (2007): 595-626.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is able to speak to a range of people "who assume very different stances toward the Vietnam War. . . . [T]his appeal stems from five major visual features of the memorial: (a) It violates the conventional form of war memorials; (b) It assumes a welcoming stance; (c) It provides little information to the visitor; (d) It focuses attention on those who did not survive the war; and (e) It generates multiple referents for its visual components" (Foss 331). Foss, Sonja K. "Ambiguity as Persuasion: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial." Communication Quarterly 34.3 (1986): 326-340.
Barack Obama's 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address Obama's speech is "more about narrative than a defense of public policies associated with liberalism as an ideology. He said relatively little about particular policies, but instead focused on reclaiming the romantic narrative we have identified for liberals. In that way, Barack Obama's keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention forecasts the possibility of a sea change in political ideology, based not on policy but on narrative preference" (Rowland and Jones 428). Rowland, Robert C. and John M. Jones. "Recasting the American Dream and American Politics: Barack Obama's Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention." Quarterly Journal of Speech 93.4 (2007): 425-448.
Toxic Links Coalition's annual "Stop Cancer Where It Starts" tours "public discourse such as the one promoted by NBCAM can foster both conservative and progressive political ends for the breast cancer movement. . . . TLC's tour . . . performed a discourse that attempted to interpellate people into an identification with TLD, a counterpublic, so more people might strengthen the impact of their discourse" (Pezzulo 347) Pezzulo, Phaedra C. "Resisting 'National Breast Cancer Awareness Month': The Rhetoric of Counterpublics and Their Cultural Performances. Quarterly Journal of Speech 89.4 (2003):345-365.
Jackass movies and television shows "Jackass . . . is all about men. The performers in the show are all white males in their twenties. . . . The few women . . . are presented along the lines of the traditional feminine stereotype. . . .This reinforces a strict gendered division of practices, where the female as well as the male gender is connected to specific tasks . . .[and] gender roles are constructed in terms of difference and incompatibility." (Lindgren and Lélièvre 394). Lindgren, Simon and Maxime Lélièvre. "In the Laboratory of Masculinity: Renegotiating Gender Subjectivities in MTV's Jackass." Critical Studies in Media Communication 26.5 (2009): 393-410.

For example, say you wanted to write a rhetorical criticism of The Hurt Locker, which won the academy awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 2010. You could ask questions about how the film constructed meanings of the Iraq War, or the meanings of masculinity, or of war in general. If you wanted to analyze the creative or artistic elements of the film, that would require a different vocabulary, one best learned in film criticism classes which focus on creative styles and things like cinematography, editing, sound and the mise-en-scene(the design aspects of film).

As you begin your research, one thing would quickly become clear about the movie. Depending on the audience, very different reactions were invoked. Iraq War veterans tended to focus on the objective errors in the film, noting incorrect medal placement on uniforms, errors in dress code, and mistakes about combat and everyday life in a war zone. Kate Hoit, writing for the Huffington Post on February 4, 2010, enumerated all these mistakes, but then noted despite all the errors, the "movie resonated with many. My civilian friends 'loved it', called it 'awesome', and even told me I have 'large balls' for going over there." Hoit also concluded the characters were unrealistic: "The writers did not attempt to formulate a story based on the actual job of an EOD [explosive ordinance disposal] soldier." Others, however, argued the character development was exceptional – that the characters made sense. In terms of technical issues of filmmaking, Roger Ebert posted on his website on July 11, 2009: "'The Hurt Locker' is a great film, an intelligent film, a film shot clearly so that we know exactly who everybody is and where they are and what they're doing and why." Another critic argued that the film was real. Lisa Schwarzbaum, from Entertainment Weekly's website, posted June 17, 2009: "The result is an intense, action-driven war pic, a muscular, efficient standout that simultaneously conveys the feeling of combat from within as well as what it looks like on the ground. This ain't no war videogame, no flashy, cinematic art piece; there's nothing virtual about this reality." For Ebert and Schwarzbaum, the issue was not whether the scene and characters corresponded to some known job in the military, but whether the scene and characters were developed in such a way they became real on the screen. So, what was the potential effect of these characters, true or not? Tara McKelvey, from The American Prospect website, posted on July 17, 2009: "For all the graphic violence, bloody explosions and, literally, human butchery that is shown in the film, The Hurt Locker is one of the most effective recruiting vehicles for the U.S. Army that I have seen."

Given all these diverse reactions, what would a rhetorical criticism of the film do? It could try to explain why these diverse reactions occurred. It would explore the way the film used symbolic resources (dialogue and images) and how those resources worked with all the audiences addressed. For those who have fought or are fighting in Iraq, the critic might note that the intersubjective meaning of war developed by soldiers might be challenged by the film. In fact, soldiers' clear understanding for rules and hierarchy might be so challenged, they find the film to be a failure. Because it does not accurately depict their lives, the film fails. In contrast, those who are not aware of military protocol might find the film powerful and fascinating, as depicting a form of masculinity tied to violence and action. An analysis of the film would call for you to consider audiences, ideology, narratives and characterizations, and ideographs (for what ideals is the war being fought?).

Note that in the attempt to determine an argument to be made about The Hurt Locker, we actually were exploring what other people had written about the film, as well as being very aware of the elements of the film from repeatedly watching it. This type of thinking moved us into the analysis step of our process, illustrating that these processes are not independent of each other, but we often move back and forth between them when doing a rhetorical criticism.

Doing the Analysis

At this point, you have selected an artifact to study – a photo, a speech, a memorial, a viral video, etc. You also have seen what other people have written about the artifact or about some rhetorical concept used in the artifact (i.e., metaphor, ideograph, narrative, pentad, hegemonic ideology), and possibly started composing an argument in your own mind about the artifact.

What can you do to start creating a deep analysis of that artifact to support your argument? The process consists of doing a close description of the artifact and its historical context.

Describe the Data: Doing Close Reads

Criticism requires that you read, look at, listen to, and examine the artifact or text over and over again, each time asking questions about what makes the artifact/text work and what meanings the text produces. Sometimes, you might find interesting things out about a text the first time you read it closely and critically. Other times, you may read a text 10 or 15 times before you discover something interesting.

Thus, when thinking about data collection in a rhetorical criticism, do not think of data in a positivist sense. Instead think of data as evidence from the text that provides proof for an argument you want to advance about the text. Multiple interpretations of a single text are possible, but not all interpretations are equally persuasive. Sometimes, people reach conclusions about a text not because of something in a text, but because of preconceived biases they bring to it. (And, studying how those biases interact with the text to create meaning also is interesting to study).

The best interpretations are those that are supported by data from the text. So, think of your interpretation as an argument about what the text does or means. Data from the text is support for your argument. Data comes from the text, not from others' reaction to it. Thus, when you are collecting data, you are not looking for broad themes in audience response (that would be a different study), but you are trying to develop a critical read, saying something about the text that a cursory assessment of it would not provide. So, how might you go about collecting this data?

The approach we find helpful was originally outlined by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell in The Rhetorical Act. She calls this process "descriptive analysis," and tailors it to the analysis of verbal texts such as speeches or essays. Note, this critical approach calls for you to do a descriptive analysis. The purpose of the analysis is not just to be able to describe the text, but also to analyze it. To make clear how this process works, we will first outline the different questions you can ask of a text and its context, and then outline an example using Mary Fisher's 1992 speech on AIDS.

After examining your artifact closely, you will then want to conduct research into the context in which that symbolic action occurred. You cannot do a close read that uncovers the nuances in the text until you really understand the context. You will want to find out about challenges to and opportunities for the rhetor that arose (or continue to arise) from both the immediate and the historical context of the artifact. Following the guide below will help you do this.


  1. The subject: Here, your goal is to make sure you understand what people generally thought about the subject at that time. This is particularly important if you are studying a historical text. Audiences' comfort and familiarity with a subject change across time. So, you should research the following questions:
    • Is the subject controversial, with clearly defined sides (like the abortion controversy is now)?
    • Is the subject taboo, something about which very few would speak or write publicly (like breast cancer was in the 1950s)?
    • Is the subject so technically complex that it requires special training to understand (like the subprime mortgage meltdown of the early 2000s)?
    • Is the subject one which calls for sustained and repeated audience action (like recycling) or is a single action enough to fulfill the rhetorical act's purpose (like a single donation)?
  2. The audience/s: Here, you need to first identify all the possible audiences who may hear a rhetorical act, and then for each one, determine whether the audience finds the subject important, is likely to misinterpret the message, is willing to act. In addition, you need to determine whether the target audience, the audience that can be an agent of action, is reachable. For example, think of speeches you may have heard in a public speaking class that argued for a change of federal policy, but never made clear how you could effect that change. Those speeches failed to reach their target audience (legislators) and did not create a way in which you could serve as an agent of action (say, by contacting your legislator).
  3. The speaker: Here, you need to research information about the rhetor. What is their reputation? Are their negative perceptions they need to overcome, or positive perceptions they can build upon?

After developing an understanding of the context, then go back and reread the text. As you reread your text, try to identify the following elements of the text. As you answer each of the following questions about a text, think about what in the text led you to your answer – what data in the text supports your description?


  1. Thesis and purpose: What is the main argument the text makes, and what goal does it seek to advance?
  2. Tone: What tone does the rhetor use? Tone means the attitude the rhetor uses, and attitude can be expressed toward the speech's subject and toward the audience.
    • In terms of the subject, is the tone celebratory, somber, angry, etc.?
    • In terms of the audience, does the rhetor talk down to the audience (treat them as inferior), beseech or beg the audience (treat them as superior), or communicate with the audience as a peer?
  3. Persona: When a person engages in rhetorical action she or he assumes a persona, or role. All human beings are complex creatures, and at different times can emphasize different elements of themselves. So, in one instance a rhetor may assume the persona of expert, while in another a rhetor may assume the persona of regular person.
  4. Audience: Here, you ask not who actually listens to the speech, but instead you try to identify with whom the rhetor believed she or he was communicating.
  5. Evidence: As you read a text, think about the types of evidence the rhetor uses to support her or his claims: statistics, appeals to universal values, expert testimony, personal witness, stories, etc.
  6. Structure: What structure is used in the text? Problem-cause-solution? Chronological? Lyrical? Narrative?
  7. Strategy: Can you discern an overall strategy in the speech?

To clarify how you can use these questions to guide data collection, we apply them to a speech. Just to be clear, even after you have answered all the questions, you have not completed a descriptive analysis. The data collection helps you with the description part. You still need to analyze the data, or figure out what it means.

Toolbox applied to Mary Fisher's 1992 AIDS speech:


Subject: In 1992, HIV/AIDS was still a somewhat taboo topic and highly controversial, with people drawing distinctions between so-called innocent victims who contracted the disease through blood transfusions or sex with a spouse and those who contracted it through IV drug use or sex. Many saw it as a "gay disease," and not something about which everyone should be concerned. President Reagan made this distinction in a 1987 speech to the American Foundation for AIDS research, his second major speech on AIDS, in which he called for "routine testing for those who seek marriage licenses" to prevent "innocent, unknowing people" from contracting the disease. For him, the problem was that innocent people contracted the disease and the solution was that people should be tested before marriage to prevent the spread of the disease to marriage partners. Citation: Reagan, Ronald. "President Reagan's amfAR Speech." The Age of AIDS. PBS. May 31, 1987. Web. 31 Jan 2008.

In the early 1980s, "The new conservatism also engendered hostility toward those with AIDS. People with AIDS (PWAs) were scapegoated and stigmatized. It was widely reported, as well, that New Right groups, such as the Moral Majority, successfully prevented funding for AIDS education programs and counseling services for PWAs. At various points in the epidemic, conservatives called for the quarantining and tattooing of PWAs. Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority, was quoted as stating: 'AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.'"
Citation: Rimmerman, Craig A. "Presidency, U.S." The Body: The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource. 1998. Web. 29 May 2010. Check accuracy – historical document.

"A review of public opinion polls conducted between 1989 and 1991 shows that most Americans think AIDS is a serious health problem that will get worse in the future. Most people surveyed think they have a low risk of contracting AIDS, and half said they are not taking special precautions to protect themselves. Of those who know they are at risk, many are not taking precautions. Most people are becoming more tolerant of people with AIDS, but they may reserve this sympathy for those who contracted the disease through no fault of their own. Most of those surveyed think the government is not doing enough to combat AIDS. They want more information about AIDS, and they want the government to provide it. They believe doctors have an obligation to care for AIDS patients, but they also believe that all health care workers should be tested for the virus. Most also think that all individuals in high-risk groups should be tested. Americans seem to be equally divided on the distribution of clean needles to intravenous drug addicts. Most of those surveyed said all immigrants should be tested for HIV and barred from entering the US if they are positive. Some believe tourists should be tested."
Citation: Blendon, Robert J., Karen Donelan, and Richard A. Knox. "Public Opinion and AIDS: Lessons for the Second Decade." JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association 267 (1992): 981-986. Web.

"1992 was an election year, and may have represented the peak of AIDS activism. Demonstrations against the President and government officials had become routine. . . . At the end of 1992: 335,211 are diagnosed with AIDS in the US, 198,322 are dead, and it is estimated that well over 11 million people world wide are infected with HIV."
Citation: Graham, Jeff. "25 Years of AIDS and HIV: ACTing Up From 1987-1992." The Body (April/May 2006). Web.

The 1992 convention was kicked off with a speech by Patrick Buchanan, in which he declared: "Yet a militant leader of the homosexual rights movement could rise at that same convention and say: 'Bill Clinton and Al Gore represent the most pro-lesbian and pro-gay ticket in history.' And so they do. . . . Friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. And so to the Buchanan Brigades out there, we have to come home and stand beside George Bush."
Citation: Buchanan, Patrick J. "Address to the Republican National Convention." (17 Aug 1992). American Rhetoric. Web.

Audience: The speech was nationally televised, so the general public constituted one audience, while the Republican Party delegates present at the convention constituted another audience.

General audience: "misinformation about AIDS transmission and negative attitudes toward homosexuals are strong predictors of support for stringent restrictions of persons with AIDS. The findings suggest that background factors, including education and political liberalism, may play decisive roles in influencing levels of support for restricting those infected with the AIDS virus" (29).
Citation: "Public Opinion About AIDS Policies - The Role of Misinformation." Public Opinion Quarterly, 56.1 (1992): 29+. Web (Document ID: 741262).

Republic party delegates: If the speeches of other major figures at the convention were any indication, Republican perceptions of gays were quite negative. Citation: Black, C. (1992, Aug. 21). Attacks sadden a delegate. Boston Globe. Web.

Part of the anti-homosexual impetus came from Dan Quayle's conception of family values. Family values were a dominant theme in his speech, his wife's and in Patrick Buchanan's. This was a dominant theme for Republican politics. "This article performs an ideographic analysis of the bipartisan political deployment of the slogan 'family values' during the 1992 Presidential election campaign. The analysis shows that 'family values' talk functioned during that campaign to scapegoat Black men and poor Americans for social problems. However, the 'family values' ideograph also is invested with a gendered utopian narrative that makes its scapegoating less apparent and more persuasive. Ultimately, in constructing the family as the site of all responsibility and change, the rhetoric of 'family values' privatizes social responsibility for ending poverty and racism."
Citation: Cloud, Dana L. "The Rhetoric of Scapegoating, Utopia, and the Privatization of Social Responsibility." Western Journal of Communication 62.4 (1998): 387-419.

daughter Republican fund raiser Max Fisher (honorary chair for the Bush/Quayle Finance Committee)
heterosexual woman and mother 
contracted the disease in marriage from husband
Citation: Fisher, Mary. Sleep With the Angels: A Mother Challenges AIDS. Kingston, RI: Moyer Bell, 1994.

Text: note how quotations from the text (in this case, Mary Fisher's speech) are provided as data one can use to answer questions about each element

  1. Thesis and purpose:
    1. Thesis: "The lesson history teaches is this: If you believe you are safe, you are at risk. If you do not see this killer stalking your children, look again. There is no family or community, no race or religion, no place left in America that is safe. Until we genuinely embrace this message, we are a nation at risk."
    2. Purpose: "I have come tonight to bring our silence to an end."

      "In the context of an election year, I ask you, here in this great hall, or listening in the quiet of your home, to recognize that AIDS virus is not a political creature. It does not care whether you are Democrat or Republican; it does not ask whether you are black or white, male or female, gay or straight, young or old."

      "My call to you, my Party, is to take a public stand, no less compassionate than that of the President and Mrs. Bush."

  2. Tone:
    1. Toward Audience: "I bear a message of challenge, not self- congratulation. I want your attention, not your applause." "HIV is different; and we have helped it along. We have killed each other with our ignorance, our prejudice, and our silence."
    2. Toward Subject:

      *urgency – "This is not a distant threat. It is a present danger." "the epidemic which is winning tonight."

      *certainty – "The reality of AIDS is brutally clear."

  3. Persona: Messenger for AIDS community: "Tonight, I represent an AIDS community whose members have been reluctantly drafted from every segment of American society. Though I am white and a mother, I am one with a black infant struggling with tubes in a Philadelphia hospital. Though I am female and contracted this disease in marriage and enjoy the warm support of my family, I am one with the lonely gay man sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of his family's rejection."


  4. Audience: public in general and Republicans specifically. "I ask you, here in this great hall, or listening in the quiet of your home," "My call to you, my Party, is to take a public stand," "My call to the nation is a plea for awareness. If you believe you are safe, you are in danger."
  5. Evidence:
    1. Statistics: "Two hundred thousand Americans are dead or dying. A million more are infected. Worldwide, forty million, sixty million, or a hundred million infections will be counted in the coming few years."
    2. Metaphor: AIDS as army to be fought: "reluctantly drafted," Pastor Nemoellor quotation, "HIV marches resolutely toward AIDS in more than a million American homes, littering its pathway with the bodies of the young"
    3. History: "The lesson history teaches is this"
    4. Enactment: she is proof of the claim all are at risk. Her own narrative offers an alternative way to characterize HIV/AIDS
  6. Structure: The speech is a lyrical consideration of the meaning of providing a series of arguments as to why AIDS is an issue for all people. All are at AIDS, risk; AIDS is a human issue: "We may take refuge in our stereotypes, but we cannot hide there long, because HIV asks only one thing of those it attacks. Are you human? And this is the right question. Are you human? Because people with HIV have not entered some alien state of being. They are human. They have not earned cruelty, and they do not deserve meanness. They don't benefit from being isolated or treated as outcasts. Each of them is exactly what God made: a person; not evil, deserving of our judgment; not victims, longing for our pity -- people, ready for support and worthy of compassion."

    Superimposed over this repeated consideration of AIDS is a problem, cause, solution structure:

    • Problem: AIDS "It is a present danger." Cause: Is not the virus but people's ignorance: "We have killed each other with our ignorance, our prejudice, and our silence." 
      Solution: "My call to you, my Party, is to take a public stand, no less compassionate than that of the President and Mrs. Bush. . . . With the President's leadership, much good has been done. Much of the good has gone unheralded, and as the President has insisted, much remains to be done."
  7. Strategy: answer Buchanan and Quayle "But we do the President's cause no good if we praise the American family but ignore a virus that destroys it." In a way, her speech is part of the contest over the ideograph <family values>.

    Even though she looked to be absolutely healthy, she had to make her illness real. Thus, she ended her speech with messages to her two children, having the audience overhear what she said to them. Her message to her children made clear she though she would die: "Someday our children will be grown. My son Max, now four, will take the measure of his mother. My son Zachary, now two, will sort through his memories. I may not be here to hear their judgments, but I know already what I hope they are." "To all within the sound of my voice, I appeal: Learn with me the lessons of history and of grace, so my children will not be afraid to say the word "AIDS" when I am gone. Then, their children and yours may not need to whisper it at all."

Making the Argument/Writing the Paper

Once you have all your data about text and context collected, now starts the process of making your argument. For example, given the rhetorical situation Mary Fisher faced, do you judge her speech to be rhetorically powerful? Did she begin to alter the public, or at least Republican, vocabulary about the disease and those it affected? Did she provide an alternate understanding of the disease from one of personal failing to a public calling to act? Did she provide a compelling narrative that made clear AIDS was not a "gay disease," but a human issue? At this point, you have gathered data. You now need to actually develop the argument you want to make, and structure your paper around that argument.

Apply the Heuristic Vocabulary

When developing your argument, the heuristic vocabulary provided by the earlier section/chapter can be of assistance. In Mary Fisher's speech, a powerful metaphor was used (AIDS as invading army), an ideograph (family values) was challenged, and a narrative was told that characterized AIDS into a human issue (Fisher's story). You could focus on one of these, and using the vocabulary you developed in the review of your literature, you could carefully construct an argument about how Fisher created a particular social reality.

Organize the Argument/Paper

Once you have all your data collected, it is now time to start organizing that data so that it supports an argument about the text. The organization of your paper should not follow the organization of the text, nor should it follow the organization of the descriptive analysis questions outlined above. Instead, you need to develop an organization that makes sense of your argument. You should organize the data generated in the descriptive analysis and apply the heuristic vocabulary to what you've discovered. Once you have the data, you may discover you need to develop a better vocabulary to analyze it. If a metaphor is central, find out more about how metaphors operate.

Because each rhetorical criticism makes a different argument, and uses a different heuristic vocabulary, every criticism will have a different structure. The arguments advanced given the data gathered will require different levels of complexity. Generally, though, all papers will contain the following (though not necessarily in this order):

  1. Introduction: (no more than 1/6th of the paper length) This should provide general background on the text's subject, and then provide a vivid one paragraph description of the text's content, context, and form. The introduction should end with a preview/thesis paragraph, in which the argument advanced in the paper is stated.
  2. Literature review/heuristic vocabulary: (1/6th the paper length) Literature on the general argument will be synthesized, and a critical vocabulary developed to be used in the analysis of the text.
  3. Analysis: (3/6th of paper) Do NOT follow the outline of steps in the descriptive and historical context data collection steps. Instead, take the data and organize it to make sense of it. Data is just data. To make the data meaningful, you need to fit it into an argument. You need to make an argument, and then support it with data from the text. Here is where different critical papers will diverge. Depending on the complexity of the argument, this part of your paper may have 1, 2, or even more subsections.
  4. Conclusion: (1/6th of paper). Explain why your conclusions matter. How does your analysis explain something interesting about the text in particular and rhetoric in general?

For examples of critical analyses of different types of texts, and to get a sense of different paper organizations, see the following:

Music video
Newspaper articles

Going back to the example of Mary Fisher's speech, you could write a rhetorical analysis in which you argued Fisher was able to alter the perception Republican delegates and the US public held about AIDS through a skillful use of enactment, metaphor and identification. The organization of your paper might look something like this:

  1. Introduction
    1. Convention addresses historically
      1. Celebratory
      2. Critical of other party, not of own
    2. Fisher's convention address was unique (describe speech)
      1. Both content and form were not celebratory, but a challenge
      2. Critical of her party
    3. Powerful positive reaction to her speech occurred even though it violated audience expectations. Why?
    4. Thesis/preview paragraph
  2. Analysis of Rhetorical Situation: Fisher faced barriers from the audience and subject
    1. Family Values ideograph as a campaign theme
    2. AIDS relation to family values in Republican rhetoric
    3. General public misperceptions of AIDS/HIV
  3. Analysis of speech
    1. Metaphor
      1. Theory of metaphor (Burke, Lakoff & Johnson, Kuusisto)
      2. Analysis of invading army metaphor
        1. Similarities to Hitler b. Role of Pastor Nemoellor quotation
    2. Enactment
      1. Theory of enactment (Campbell)
      2. Analysis of Fisher's enactment of argument "You are at risk."
    3. Identification
      1. Theory of identification (Burke)
      2. Analysis of identification
        1. With humans
        2. With Republicans
        3. With other HIV positive people
  4. IV. Conclusion

Descriptive Analysis for Primarily Visual Artifacts

When analyzing visual artifacts, awareness of the technical elements of a visual artifact is essential to a detailed analysis. In many ways, the technical elements position you in relation to what you are viewing. Those who study visual media such as film focus on:

  1. cinematography (i.e., camera angle and perspective),
  2. mise-en-scene (i.e., setting, costume, lighting and staging),
  3. sound, and
  4. editing (Bordwell and Thompson, Zettl).

For the purposes of this introduction to criticism, however, this text focuses on analysis of a still image.

Visual rhetoric is complex, with multiple interpretations possible. Thus, how might you go about systematically figuring out your reactions to visual rhetoric? One cannot determine how and why an image achieves its purpose and effect if one cannot figure out the way in which the image works. One should consider some of the aesthetic elements unique to visual forms. Compositional interpretation (Rose chapter 2) would have you examine:

  1. Content: what is shown.
  2. Color: includes hue (the actual colors), saturation (the purity of the color), and value (the lightness or darkness of the color). Here, one examines not only what the colors are, but also their effects in terms of what they stress and whether they are harmonious.
  3. Spatial organization: includes questions of form, shape, and geometrical perspective, all of which can create the impression of movement, or direct the eye in one direction or another. Frame magnetism, or the way the margins of the photo pull your eye in one direction or another, is part of this spatial organization.
  4. Light: includes what type of light is present, as well as its source.
  5. Expressive content: what feeling is evoked by an image.

Try applying these concepts to the following image, a photograph of Yosemite Valley taken by Carlton Watkins:

Yosemite's Domes

Carleton E. Watkins. Yosemite's Domes. ca. 1865
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

A compositional interpretation of Watkins's images would analyze content (sweeping vistas of natural spaces), color (black and white photos may lack the vibrancy of color photos, but Watkins was able to capture the stark beauty of the space with his use of contrast), spatial organization (Watkins's photos of half dome sweep the eye upward as the shapes reach for heaven and his photos of rivers draw the eye into the photo, pulling the viewer even deeper into the wild space), light (given these are photos of the natural world, only natural lighting is present, but the light is used to create a sense of depth), and expressive content (Watkins's photos are noted for their ability to induce a sense of the sublime – a reverent sense of awe). However, as much as critics may pick apart an image to understand its purpose and aesthetics, much about visuals is difficult to analyze.

After examining Carleton Watkins's 1860s photographs of Yosemite Valley took, two rhetoric scholars developed an argument about how the functioned to create social reality. The California Geological Survey began to map the valley in 1863. As part of his appeal to have the Valley declared a public park, survey head Josiah Dwight Whitney used 28 of Watkins's original photographs to illustrate the Survey's report, which was an unprecedented use of photographs to illustrate a scientific survey. When a bill finally was written calling for President Abraham Lincoln to preserve Yosemite Valley, advocates attached photographs taken by Watkins to the bill. As the images circulated, they "became iconic of an American vision of nature itself" (DeLuca and Demo 242). These images were central to the preservation of that area and influenced the focus of environmental movements for years to come. How?

These images are more than a simple reflection of the Yosemite Valley. They also select and highlight a particular understanding of nature even as they deflect other understandings. Kevin DeLuca and Anne Demo ask in their analysis of these photos: "what vision of nature do the photographs authorize, warrant, and legitimate?" (DeLuca and Demo 244). For them, Watkins's images were more than "merely evidence in a conventional political argument;" nor were they "simply representing reality or making an argument about reality. Instead . . . the pictures are constituting the context within which a politics takes place – they are creating a reality" (DeLuca and Demo 242). These images influenced what it meant to be an environmentalist by reducing the environment to pristine, untouched lands, rather than all the land, sky and water in which beings live. The images also reinforced the prevailing myth that Eur-American settlers were the only people to step foot into this pristine wilderness, wiping the presence of Native Americans from the awareness of US citizens. These images induced US citizens to accept a particular view of nature as untouched by human habitation. The photos framing (framing being a technique that directs attention) meant that Native Americans were not present within the frame of reference.

The centrality of photographic images to a people's understanding of their identity cannot be underestimated. Watkins's images reinforced the identity of Eur-Americans as explorers and discoverers. When studying photographs, the question is not just what meaning does the image maker want to transmit, but also what does the image do, how do audiences read images, and how does the rhetor call a particular audience into being? The influence of rhetoric, visual and verbal, can be subtle and pervasive, and is essential to understand if one is to be an active, engaged, and self-reflexive citizen. You live in a visual culture and are bombarded by visual rhetorics. How do you develop an awareness of what images are asking of you, instead of just doing what they ask?

When analyzing a photo, you need to use a toolbox that enables you to analyze shot composition and visual aesthetics. A number of websites engage in critical analysis of still images, and can be entertaining reading.

Errol Morris is an Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker who blogs regularly about visual rhetoric at

Rhetoric scholars Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites write extensively about iconic photos. Their blog,, is "dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society."

As you read the commentary on these sites, you will note that the writers tend to focus on key elements of visual images, such as: 1) color, 2) light, 3) spatial organization, and 4) content, both denotative and connotative (or emotional). In addition, most critics pay close attention to the way captions for photos direct the way you view them.

Application to Visual Artifacts

As with the descriptive analysis, you can use the above concepts to explore the context of a visual artifact. However, you may also want to consider slightly different tools.

As mentioned earlier, rhetoric scholars Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites write extensively about iconic photos (see more information at their blog, To analyze how these function, first follow this link to this image and think about what it might mean. Then, read what Robert Hariman wrote in his analysis of the image.

If you are uncertain about what the photograph might mean, it could be helpful to understand some background, which is the information about the rhetorical situation in which this photo appears. As democratic institutions, like voting, were introduced to Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of the US invasion of those countries, distinctive processes emerged. In both countries, in order to preserve the ideal of one person/one vote, after voters had cast their ballots in an election, they would have their index finger dipped in purple ink. As people in Iraq and Afghanistan celebrated their new political rights, they would hold up their fingers as proof of their participation.

As you read his analysis, you should note his attention to movement in terms of how the photograph really foregrounds the finger. The form of the finger also plays an important role; fingers have come to symbolize the ideal of one person/one vote. The form of the burqa (a dark robe that completely covers the body; worn in public spaces by some Muslim women) also plays an important symbolic role. As rhetorical critics have noted, the image of a burqa clad woman has come to represent the oppressive policies of Islamic countries (Cloud). You could also supplement Hariman's analysis of such a photo by attending to the role of color – how the purple finger against the black backdrops make the finger appear even closer and makes the finger even more prominent, thus adding to the power of how it participates in the form of finger as symbol. All of these contextual issues will help you in framing your argument as you move forward in making the argument by using your heuristic vocabulary.

Extended Example

To see how all of these processes work together in tandem, often moving back and forth between the processes, we offer a summary of a rhetorical analysis done by two rhetoric scholars of a photo. On May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students and wounded nine others during a protest against the Vietnam War on the campus of Kent State University. The United States had been involved in Vietnam since 1950 when it had sent military advisors and escalated its involvement in 1965 by sending combat units. Although U.S. citizenry initially supported the war as part of U.S. efforts to contain the spread of communism, opposition to the war grew, and the Kent State shootings cemented the resolve of protestors and drew many others to the anti-war movement.

Kent State photojournalism student John Filo captured an image that came to symbolize the event and earned him a Pulitzer Prize (the highest national honor for newspaper journalism). Filo's image shows the uncontrolled grief of fourteen-year old runaway, Mary Ann Vecchio, as she kneels over the body of a dead student, Jeffrey Glen Miller, who had been shot in the mouth. When the National Guard let loose 67 shots in 13 seconds, they also killed Allison Krause, William Knox Schroeder, and Sandra Lee Scheuer. Schroeder and Scheuer were not taking part in the protest, but were just walking to class.

Kent State

John Filo. Kent State. May 4, 1970. Retrieved from

National reaction to the Kent State shootings was immediate and intense. In its wake, the only nationwide student strike in U.S. history occurred, with over 4 million students protesting and over 900 U.S. colleges and universities closing. However, protestors had faced violence from authorities before, so what was different about this event? In part it was different because National Guard soldiers had shot and killed college students, some of whom were not even part of the protest. However, what was most distinctive was that a visual record of the event was available, offering a virtual experience of the event. The picture asked viewers to think about what they would do, much as the lyrics to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song written in the immediate wake of the event, "Ohio," would ask: "What if you knew her/And found her dead on the ground/How can you run when you know?" (Young).

In their rhetorical analysis of this photograph, communication scholars Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites argue that even as Vecchio's cry of grief asks a nation what it would do in response to this event, it is more than just an expression of emotion. Although people often think of public deliberation as best conducted in an atmosphere free of emotional display, it is sometimes those very moments of emotion that constitute a nation as a people by expressing those things that tie the people together.

In their analysis, Hariman and Lucaites found photos like Filo's function as icons that help form public culture. Iconic photographs become touchstones and reminders to the people of a nation of who they are and what they believe. Hariman and Lucaites explain, "Instead of seeing visual practices as threats to practical reasoning, or ornamental devices that may be a necessary concession to holding the attention of a mass public, we believe they can provide crucial social, emotional, and mnemonic materials for democratic identity and action" (Harriman and Lucaites 7). Much as figures of speech like metaphors are more than ornamental devices, so too are photographs. Filo's photograph from Kent State contained emotional appeals about who the nation should be, reminders of what is lost when dissent is stifled, and called for a place in which democratic action can be safe. According to Harriman and Lucaites's analysis of this photo, emotional display can become a mode of dissent, screaming "NO" at the act of a government and mourning the loss of life. This is a very particular emotional display, however: mourning in the face of apparent indifference. The photo's focus on the display of emotion by Vecchio is contrasted with the indifferent actions of the strangers who make up the social scene, the people walking by to whom Vecchio is reaching out.

As the analysis of Filo's photo should demonstrate, rhetorical criticism (of artifacts like speeches or photographs) seeks to explain how a particular symbolic action participates in the social construction of meaning. How is it Kent State came to mean something so powerful that the school actually changed it name to just Kent to avoid the negative connotations attached to the place as a result of the shooting? Why is it that national outcry arose over this event, while virtually no one remembers that Mississippi police shot over 460 rounds of ammunition in less than 30 seconds at protestors at Jackson State University just ten days later, killing 21-year old Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and 17-year old James Earl Green, and wounding 12 others (King)? Part of the answer rests in the existence of Filo's extremely evocative photo of a white girl grieving over the slain body of a white student. At historically black Jackson State, images of the bloody aftermath and bullet-riddled buildings exist, but no images are available of the students at the moment of their deaths.

Harriman and Lucaites's rhetorical analysis of the photo asks and answers interesting questions about photographic composition, the public expression of emotion, protest, and citizenship. As with their analyses of other iconic photos, they sought to identify how people in the United States come to understand themselves as citizens. And, one of their answers is through the symbols that populate the public screens of televisions, newspaper front pages, and computer screens.

How did Harriman and Lucaites develop this analysis? They researched the context of the photo, the war protests, the campus and national political climate, the role of photography in reporting, and the role of emotional display in public policy argument. As they read widely to develop their critical vocabulary to study iconic photographs, they also spent time carefully examining the photo itself. They explored the composition, the play of color, the centering of Vecchio's face, the placement of the bodies around Vecchio, and how the photo was framed. Carefully going back and forth between their research on the context, and their study of the text, they developed an analysis of the photograph that enables others to understand its power, even 30 years removed from the event. (For their ongoing analyses of the role of images in contemporary democracy, visit their blog, "No Caption Needed.")


Rhetorical criticism is an inventional process: you invent a method (or vocabulary) with which to analyze a text or artifact. The challenge with rhetorical criticism is to find a vocabulary that enables you to say something new and interesting about a text that a cursory read of it would not reveal. You job, as a rhetorical specialist, is to help your readers see something about a text they otherwise would not have.

Given the complexity of symbolic action, the process of rhetorical criticism rarely follows a straight line or a simple series of steps. Instead, you read your artifact, you research about the context, you research to develop a critical vocabulary, you read your text again, you research some more, and then you begin to develop and argument you will advance about the text. Then, you read the text again.

Although the process initially is time-consuming, the result is that you begin to develop a critical eye and ear, and every time you encounter a symbolic action, you are better able to see how it works on you and on the world around you. You begin to be a critical receiver (rather than a non-critical sponge). You begin to be able to offer oppositional reads, instead of merely participate in dominant reads. You gain the ability to be a participant in the interplay of symbolic actions that construct your world, rather than just being a spectator to the world building work that goes on around you.


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