Chapter Six: Critical / Rhetorical Methods (Part 1)

Researchers use critical/rhetorical methods to ask questions about how a particular symbolic action constructs social reality. The questions posed by rhetorical criticism are as varied as the messages analyzed. Although a research question may not be stated explicitly, the central argument advanced by the research is. Unlike quantitative and qualitative research methods, there are no specific pre-defined step-by-step procedures in critical/rhetorical methods that can be replicated.

Researchers use critical/rhetorical methods when they want to understand and analyze what an act of communication does. Learning methods of rhetorical criticism enables you to critique communicators' use of verbal and nonverbal symbols in a specific context so that you can understand how communication constructs a specific understanding of the world. The more adept you become at analyzing others' messages, the more skilled you become at constructing your own. In the end, the quality of a critical/rhetorical study depends on the quality of the argument the researcher presents.

In Part I of this chapter, we explain of the importance of symbolic action to the critical/rhetorical approach and describe key concepts central to doing critical/rhetorical research. In Part II, we provide specific direction on how to do critical/rhetorical research, charting a path for you regarding how critical/rhetorical work can be accomplished.

Rhetoric is Symbolic Action

Rhetoric is the use of symbolic action by human beings to work together to make decisions about matters of common concern and to construct social reality. For communication studies scholars, rhetoric is the means by which people make meaning of, and affect, the world in which they live. Central to this definition is the concept of symbolic action, which is a little more complex than might first appear. So, we will unpack it, defining symbolic, then defining action, and then providing an few example of symbolic action.


By symbolic, we mean that rhetoric is composed of symbols, including language-based symbols (like words) and visual symbols (like photographs, flags and icons). With this, we do not mean to imply visual and verbal symbols are mutually exclusive. In fact, most symbolic actions include both visual and verbal components. They work interdependently to create meaning.

For example, the power of a speech is never just its words, but also is the body from which it is delivered and the place where it is delivered. When Mary Fisher (artist and daughter of a major Republican fundraiser) delivered a speech on AIDS at the 1992 Republican National Convention, it was powerful because she proclaimed from her Republican, white, attractive, non-drug using, heterosexual, economically privileged, married when infected, HIV+ body: "You are at risk" (par. 18). If the same words had been spoken by a different body, they would not have been as powerful.


Often people think of their communication as something that just happens, as if it is separate from purposeful actions, such as driving a car recklessly or opening a door for another person. But when one habitually says "hi," she/he is exhibiting an action of politeness, or when one says "you are forgiven," the act of forgiveness has begun. All communication, intentional or not, is an action. People do something when they communicate.

The emphasis on rhetoric as symbolic action is heavily influenced by rhetorician Kenneth Burke. Burke profoundly influenced the disciplines of rhetoric and communication studies by arguing that words are actions and that the best way to understand human relations and motives is through an analysis of symbolic action (Burke, "Dramatism" 447). Understanding rhetoric as symbolic action is the first step in recognizing the way in which the human world is socially constructed.

A core assumption of rhetorical criticism is that symbolic action is more than a means to transmit information, but actually constructs social reality, or people's understanding of the world. When we say "rhetoric is symbolic action," we mean that rhetoric is the use of symbols to act in and on the world.

Rhetoric is Symbolic Action: Example

Linguist George Lakoff explores the how use of the phrase "tax relief," a phrase that has become commonly used in political debates since the early 2000s, implies a very particular understanding of what taxes are and how they function. The phrase "tax relief" is a symbolic action that structures the way people understand taxes. The phrase "tax relief" has embedded within it a metaphor – it uses the idea of burden to explain what taxes are. According to Lakoff, relief implies that one is carrying some burden; in this case taxes are a burden from which one needs to be relieved. This metaphor did not arise spontaneously, but was chosen by human beings to frame how people understand taxes. If you accept that taxes are best understood as a burden, then you also begin to think that the person who relieves another of a burden is a "hero," while anyone who would impose taxes is a "villain."

Leakoff describes how fiscal conservatives have worked for decades and spent billions of dollars funding think tanks to develop language to represent their ideas, and "tax relief" is an example of that language. Lakoff explains, "It has taken them awhile to establish the metaphors of taxation as a burden, an affliction and unfair punishment – all of which require "relief'" ("Framing" par. 7).

Taxes could be thought of differently, not as a "burden," but as a "civic duty" for living in the United States and reaping the benefits of its extensive road, water, electricity, and Internet infrastructures. In contrast to taxes as a burden, here is how Lakoff describes them (a description that contains its own political perspective as well):

As [early 1900s Supreme Court Justice] Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, ["]taxes are the price of civilization.["] They are what you pay to live in America -- your dues -- to have democracy, opportunity and access to all the infrastructure that previous taxpayers have built up and made available to you: highways, the Internet, weather reports, parks, the stock market, scientific research, Social Security, rural electrification, communications satellites, and on and on. (Lakoff, "Framing" par. 8)

Looking at taxes as "dues" frames the way people think about taxes differently than thinking about taxes as a burden (Lakoff, Moral 189-192), illustrating the power of words chosen to describe a concept that could be viewed as positive or negative. The predominant way of describing something like taxes, when used over and over again in a society, helps build the "reality" for people about that concept – showing the power of rhetoric to create people's belief systems.

People invest significant time and money in finding the right words to express their positions. Conservative pollster and republican strategist Frank I. Luntz has made a profession of it, with his group The Word Doctors that advertises: "Got words? We make them better." His webpage identifies a series of phrases he has researched in order to find the words that best identify conservative ideas, including: "estate tax" vs. "death tax," "drilling for oil" vs. "exploring for energy," "global warming" vs. "climate change," "school choice" vs. "parental choice." In each case the second phrasing shifts people's attention to see the world from a perspective more consistent with conservative ideals.

Assessing Symbolic Action

Given rhetoric is an action, researchers can assess it from a variety of perspectives: the effects of the action, the aesthetics of the action, and the ethics of the action. Effects refers to the identifiable influence a rhetorical act may have had upon an audience. Aesthetics refers to the artistic techniques used in a rhetorical action – the artistry of the act. Ethics refers to the morality of both the techniques used and the ends sought by the symbolic action.

Simply identifying a speech or advertisement as effective is only part of the critical process (and usually determining a cause-effect relationship is best done through controlled quantitative methods). In fact, determining an effect happened (or not) is more likely the starting point of criticism, not the end goal. You first might find a text that seemed to have a strong effect (or none at all). Then, you ask the more interesting question for rhetoric: What was it about the symbolic action that enabled or induced the effect? One can easily determine that Mary Fisher's speech had an effect on her audience. The Republican Convention hall was filled with tear-stained faces who had been struck silent by Fisher's speech (usually, during speeches by people other than the candidates, the floor of the convention is quite noisy as people talk to each other and rarely listen to the speakers). People stopped, and listened, to Fisher. Why?

Fisher's speech was aesthetically elegant and powerful. In her speech, Fisher skillfully wove together powerful metaphors, comparing AIDS to the invading armies of Hitler, declaring: "HIV marches resolutely toward AIDS in more than a million American homes, littering its pathway with the bodies of the young" (par. 13). She used herself as proof of her argument that all are at risk, that the disease "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" (par. 3). She also personalized the impact of AIDS. Although she looked in perfect health, she made real what AIDS meant to her as she closed her speech by making clear she would die, and then each of her sons would "take the measure of his mother" and "sort through his memories" (par. 16). These linguistic and nonverbal choices functioned to create a stronger empathic response from multiple audiences. Fisher's speech also was ethical in its means and goals. She did not lie, she did not treat human beings as a means to an end, she used inclusive language, and she sought to invoke a humane response in her audience to treat all people as members of the human family.

Given rhetoric is an action, this means it is an action for which people can be held accountable. Although a person may not intend to do something with a rhetorical action, she or he can be held accountable for its effects, and should consider the effects of their actions whenever they communicate. In other words, all people need to be more self- reflexive about their rhetorical action in order to be ethical communicators. Thus, rhetorical criticism explores not only if or why a text was effective, but also whether it is ethical.

Examining the concept of ethics is particularly central in critical/rhetorical analyses. Native Canadian author Jeanette Armstrong outlines a powerful language ethic, making clear each person is responsible for the words she or he uses:

We may not want to have that responsibility or we may feel unworthy of that responsibility, but every time we speak we have that responsibility. Everything we say affects someone, someone is hearing it, someone is understanding it, someone is going to take it and it becomes memory. We are all powerful, each one of us individually. We are able to make things change, to make things happen differently. (29)

Thus, whenever one talks about rhetorical or symbolic action, one necessarily is also talking about ethics. Communication ethics thus involves not just your intent when using words as a tool, but also the action involved in using words to construct social reality whether consciously intended or not.

The point of learning methods of rhetorical criticism is to be able to critique the use of symbolic action by communicators so that you can understand how a particular symbolic action constructs a particular understanding of the world by framing a concept in one way rather than another.

Components of Rhetoric

For any rhetorical action, you will need to analyze the central components of the action: the text, the audience, and the rhetor (the originator of the message). These three core components have structured the analysis of rhetoric since Aristotle, who systematized the study of rhetoric in his 4th century BCE treatise, On Rhetoric. As we discuss these components, we will use the example of President Barack Obama's speech at Cairo University on June 4, 2009, to illustrate each component.


The concept of text is central to critical/rhetorical study. Text is the focus of one's study, the artifact the researcher examines. In Communication Studies, text not only refers to something composed of words, but also of images and sound. Examples of texts/artifacts include: speeches, advertisements, photos, monuments, films, songs, bodies, documentaries, and newspaper articles. Although the historical focus of rhetorical criticism was speeches, in a multi-mediated age, rhetoric happens in a variety of forms, both visual and verbal. People now often hear/see fragments of texts rather than complete texts.

Although you might at first think identifying the artifact for study is easy, it can be more complicated. Is the text only the speech in its entirety, as transcribed, or is the text something a little different? The reality is presidential speeches are rarely listened to in their entirety but instead appear as sound bites on television news. When President Barack Obama spoke at Cairo University, his speech was over 6000 words long. However, when the NBC nightly news aired a story about the speech, it replayed less than 300 words ("Highlights"), which is considerably more than average. In a quantitative analysis of political campaign coverage, communication researchers Erik P. Bucy and Maria Elizabeth Grabe found that from 1992 to 2004, the average length of a presidential campaign sound bite on network newscasts went down from 8.52 seconds to 7.73 seconds (664). Interestingly, as the length of time you could hear a candidate speaking declined, the amount of time you could see a candidate's image increased from 22.99 seconds to 25.83 seconds, demonstrating the need to remember that symbolic action involves words and images. So, your text could be just the speech transcript, or it could be the fragments aired on the nightly news, or it could be a videotape of the speech, or a videotape of the news segments in which President Obama was shown speaking. Once you have the text identified, you should not stop there. The text is not just the words and images, but also the deeper social meanings attached to them.

In order to analyze this speech, you could pick a variety of texts or artifacts: the words of the speech itself, the interplay between the image of Obama as president and the words of the speech, the speech sound bites as played on the evening news, the speech parts reprinted in print outlets, or the media coverage of the speech. Depending on the text/artifact chosen, different constructions of reality may be presented. For example, the way MSNBC covered the speech is probably different from how Fox News covered the speech.

When studying a text, one looks not only at the surface meaning of the text, but also the deeper, culturally influenced meaning. One way to explain how a text may mean different things to different people can be found in the study of what U.S. philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce called semiotics. Peirce rejects the idea that each symbol refers or corresponds to only one thing in the world. Instead, he identified three aspects to symbols or "signs": the symbol/sign itself, the referent (what the sign refers to), and the connotative meaning of the symbol/sign (a person's individual meaning for the symbol/sign).

Semiotics enables people to distinguish between a word's denotative and connotative meanings. Denotation refers to the literal, commonsense or semantic meaning of a sign; it is ostensibly value-free and objective. For example, estate tax and death tax have the same denotative meaning; they refer to the exact same part of the tax code.

Connotation refers to the emotional or cultural meanings attached to a term. Connotations often are usage-specific and emerge when the sign's denotative meaning is not sufficient to enable complete communication of a concept. So, even though the thing referenced by estate tax and death tax is identical, the change in the symbol/sign used influences your thoughts about what is being referenced. Estate tax likely induces a neutral or positive valuation, while death tax induces a negative valuation. Thus, while words' (signs') denotations may be easily decoded, their connotations require a more complex form of decoding.


Although people often think of audience as composed of those who hear a speech (or see a movie, or listen to a song), in actuality, multiple audiences may exist, and not all of them may be present for the delivery of a speech. Audience can mean: any person who hears, reads or sees a symbolic action; the group targeted by a message, even if it is not present; or the group capable of acting in response to the message. Additionally, for any given symbolic action, multiple audiences may exist.

Commentators noted President Obama addressed multiple audiences in his attempt to respond to the problems that arose in U.S.-Muslim relations in the wake of 9/11; not all of those audiences were present at the speech. NBC's chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd explained during the NBC Nightly News: "The president used this speech to talk to three or four different audiences, including explaining Islam to Americans, explaining America to Muslims, and trying to jumpstart a conversation between Israelis and the Arab world" ("Highlights"). The speech was not simply a single message to a homogenous audience, but was a complex set of messages directed to heterogeneous audiences. Americans, Muslims, Israelis and Arabs operate from diverse cultural orientations, participate in distinct ideologies, and possess a range of different values, beliefs and attitudes. To speak effectively to all these audiences, President Obama had to consider all of this, which is why he reportedly began working on the speech even before he was elected to office ("Highlights").


By rhetor, we mean the person, institution, group, or entity that originated the text. In the above example, President Obama is the rhetor (he delivered the speech). However, in other cases, multiple rhetors or an institution may the originator of the text. For example, during a medical crisis, hospitals, the Centers for Disease Control, or even the state government may produce messages.

Multiple rhetors (or authors) may exist for a single text. For example, is a movie director the author of a movie? Or is the screenplay writer the author? Or the producer? And, especially if the movie is one in which actors are encouraged to improvise, who is the author then? The focus of rhetorical criticism, then, is not finding out the authors' (whoever they may be) intent (whatever it may be), but is instead examining and trying to understand the rhetorical (verbal and nonverbal) action or interplay among contexts and audiences, as will be explained next. One uses the rhetorical/critical approach to ask questions regarding how a text functions to construct social meaning, to persuade, and to create a connection between the rhetor and the audience. The ability to reveal the practical and theoretical functions of a text is a distinct characteristic of this method.

In the case of President Obama's speech, you could treat him as the rhetor, or you could also consider the fact that presidents use staffs of speechwriters (Ritter and Medhurst). If you choose to study the news fragments, then the news producers and anchors also become part of consideration of the rhetor.

So, how might you decide which method to use to study Obama's 2009 speech to Cairo University. If you wanted to know what the diverse audiences (from the United States, or Muslims in the Middle East, or both) thought about the speech, then that question would lead you to use quantitative methods (like surveys) or qualitative methods (like interviews). But, if you had a question about why the speech was praised so widely, or how through the speech the President sought to reposition the United States in the post 9/11 world, or how Obama as a president of African-American descent who had spent time in a Muslim country could speak to multiple audiences, or how media coverage of the speech framed it, then a rhetorical criticism examining the verbal and nonverbal symbolic actions is your method of choice.

Key Concepts: A Heuristic Vocabulary

How does one then study all the ways a message could influence perceptions of reality? Instead of the rigid methods prescribed for quantitative research, rhetorical criticism offers what communication scholars William L. Nothstine, Carole Blair, and Gary A. Copeland refer to as "conceptual heuristics or vocabularies" (40). A heuristic enables you to learn and discover through the process of trial and error. Thus, a heuristic vocabulary is a collection of terms you can use to discover things about your artifact. What follows is a description of heuristic vocabulary terms that can be helpful in a rhetorical criticism.


Identification occurs when people are unified on the basis of common interests or characteristics. Identification does not automatically occur, but instead is created by a rhetor between her or himself and the audience. Thus, questions asked by rhetorical criticism often focus on how symbolic actions create a sense of identification between the rhetor and audience. Although attention to persuasion long dominated studies of rhetoric, identification now functions as rhetoric's key term. With identification, the focus is less on how one person can intend to create symbolic action to persuade other people, and more on how symbolic actions "spontaneously, intuitively, and often unconsciously act upon" people to create a sense of collective identity between them (Burke, Development 27-8). Identification does not automatically exist, but is created through symbolic action.

For example, in the speech by Mary Fisher described earlier, she seeks to create identification on multiple levels. On one level, she creates identification between herself and others with HIV/AIDS. She declares:

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. (par. 4)

On another level, she creates identification between herself and the delegates at the convention when she says to them: "My call to you, my Party, is to take a public stand . . ." (par. 7). She identifies herself as a member of the Republican Party. Here is one of the deft moves in her speech, as she creates identification between Republican delegates and those with HIV/AIDS. Think of it this way: If black infant/lonely gay man = Mary Fisher = Republican Party member, then black infant/lonely gay man = Republican Party member. Fisher sought to make HIV/AIDS a human issue, not a gay man's issue as was commonly assumed in the U.S. at the time.


Another way of analyzing Fisher's speech is to examine it from a dramatistic perspective. Burke argues that within every rhetorical act resides a drama, a story – thus, his commonly cited approach is called "dramatism." When doing a dramatistic analysis, one would apply Burke's pentad of dramatistic terms to the text.

According to Burke, each person's symbolic action identifies, and constructs within it, relationships between a pentad of terms: the agent of action, the act, the agency, the purpose, and the scene (Burke, Grammar xv). According to Burke:

  • agent refers to the "person or kind of person who performed the act
  • act refers to "what took place, in thought or deed"
  • agency refers to the means by which the act was accomplished
  • purpose refers to the justification for the act
  • scene refers to "the background of the act, the situation in which it occurred"

(Burke, Grammar xv)

Whenever a human being describes an event or situation, all these elements are present, offering a drama for consideration. Which aspects of the drama are emphasized in the telling of the story affect the audience's interpretation of the narrative told. In the case of Mary Fisher's speech, she filled out the pentad in the following way:

  • agent: HIV and AIDS – "this killer stalking your children" and "It is a present danger."
  • act: "stalking," "marches"
  • agency: a militaristic attack – "HIV marches resolutely toward AIDS in more than a million American homes, littering its pathway with the bodies of the young" enabled by people's belief they are safe – "If you believe you are safe, you are at risk" and "We have killed each other with our ignorance, our prejudice, and our silence."
  • purpose: AIDS purpose is to destroy indiscriminately -- "the AIDS virus is not a political creature"
  • scene: everywhere in the United States and world – "There is no family or community, no race or religion, no place left in America that is safe" and "The reality of AIDS is brutally clear. 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."

Note: Fisher is not the agent, the scene is not the convention hall, the act is not the speech. Instead, pentadic criticism has you look at how rhetors describe why they think is the agent, how rhetors describe the scene, etc.

Although many were deeply moved by Fisher's speech, not everyone agreed with Fisher's description of AIDS and the government's responsibility to combat it as it would an invading force. A Minnesotan delegate, Ruth Hatton, rejected Fisher's basic premise that ignorance was a primary cause of the spread of AIDS, saying "It's promiscuity" (qtd. in DeFrancisco and Jensen 269). She completed the pentad in a way distinct from Fisher's. As Burke explains, "Men [and women] may violently disagree about the purposes behind a given act, or about the character of the person who did it, or how he [or she] did it, or in what kind of situation he [or she] acted; or they may even insist upon totally different words to name the act itself" (Burke, Grammar xv.). Thus, critical/rhetorical questions can focus on the stories told within a symbolic action, the way in which the elements of the story are characterized, and the multiple attributions and interpretations rendered.

Another example illustrates the way different people can describe the exact same event in radically different ways, in fact naming the event in such a way that it becomes two different things. The event happened in 1876 in southern Montana along the Little Bighorn River. Is it "The Custer Massacre," "Custer's Last Stand," or "The Battle of Little Bighorn"? Two different dramatic narratives give very different accounts of the event. A news story appearing in the Bismark (ND) Tribune days after the event offered the "First account of the Custer Massacre." An eyewitness account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse described "The Battle of Little Bighorn."

With headlines declaring "MASSACRE," the Tribune story called "Gen. Custer and 261 men the victims" and declared "Squaws Mutilate and Rob the Dead." This constructed a very particular perspective or drama. In the news story, Custer was centered as the agent of action: "Custer with his usual vigor pushed on . . . and attacked the village" (1). In the act of their attack, Custer and his men used the agency of "desperate hand to hand combat" in order to fight back the "red devils." Custer and his men were portrayed as "gallant defenders" of the hill; "of those who went into battle with Custer none are living." The scene was a battlefield, in which soldiers were "massacred" by a mindless horde.

In contrast to the desperate defensive fighting of the soldiers, the story portrays Indians as mindless enemies. In other words, the Indians' purpose was not to defend their village, but was to kill for killing's sake. The story explains: "The Sioux dashed up beside the soldiers, in some instances knocking them from their horses and killing them at their pleasure." Lt. McIntosh "was pulled from his horse, tortured and finally murdered at the pleasure of the red devils." The Indians were not described as human, but instead were labeled "screeching fiends." The Indians did not mount a concerted defense of their village, but "literally swarmed the hillsides and on the plains." Swarming is something that insects, not humans, do. The end result of this description is that Custer and his men were portrayed as heroes who, in service to their country, were massacred by red devils. The first real difference in the two stories comes in how the event was labeled. Chief Red Horse refers to a battle, not a massacre. This is an important distinction. Technically, a massacre occurs when a group of people is indiscriminately killed by an organized force.

Massacres do not happen when competing military forces meet. Those are battles. In addition, in Chief Red Horse's account, the scene is foregrounded differently. Although a battle took place, it was not the primary scene. Instead, the scene was a peaceful village composed of many native nations and where women were digging wild turnips. Into this scene, "soldiers were charging into the camp" and women and children had to "mount horses and go, meaning to get out of the way" (par. 3).

In his account, Chief Red Horse distinguishes between the soldiers and their levels of bravery. He does not refer to them as "white devils," but instead provides individual accounts of their actions. One officer was described as "the bravest man they had ever fought" (par. 4) while others were described as "foolish" when they asked to be taken prisoners (par. 9). In this drama, the invasion of a village led to a defensive battle in which the superior force of Indian warriors bested US soldiers.

As these quick summaries demonstrate, the very same event can be presented in very different ways. From the newspaper's perspective, Custer bravely led soldiers into a battle where they were overwhelmed by a mindless force of red devils who massacred the soldiers for no purpose other than to kill. From Chief Red Cloud's perspective, Indian warriors defended their village from an attack by soldiers. Indian warriors killed soldiers for the purpose of defending their village.

Thus, questions asked by rhetorical criticism often focus on how symbolic actions name the elements of the dramas they describe in distinctive ways. This approach to symbolic action also influences the aesthetic study of film. In their book Film Art, film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson note how one productive way to study film is through an analysis of "narrative form" (74). They define narrative as "a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring through time and space" (75). How you understand that story "depends on [y]our understanding of the pattern of change and stability, cause and effect, time and space" (75). To draw a connection to Burke, your ability to understand the narrative depends on your unique interpretation, and your ability to see relationships between agent and act, act and scene, purpose and agency, etc., and also to see the relationships between the various acts.

Public Vocabulary Repertoire

The power of rhetoric extends beyond its impact on an immediate audience. It constructs and maintains a public vocabulary that structures people's everyday lives. In other words, rhetoric carries not just the short-term effects of a single message, but also long-term effects as it maintains and/or alters the way people talk about the world. Communication scholar Celeste Condit argues that the "process of convincing" involves more than just acceptance of a particular policy or idea; it also requires "that a given vocabulary (or set of understandings) be integrated into the public repertoire" (6). The public repertoire refers to a collection of words, a vocabulary, with which to discuss public issues.

Rhetorical critics John L. Lucaites and Celeste M. Condit describe this public vocabulary as the "culturally established and sanctioned" terms that compose people's taken-for-granted understanding of the world. However, this vocabulary is not just a neutral naming of things and ideas, it is a means through which people come to understand themselves as individuals, as members of communities, and as members of publics and cultures. Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer clarifies how "language is not only an object in our hands, it is the reservoir of tradition and the medium in and through which we exist and perceive our world" (29). Ideology is embedded in language.

A public vocabulary is how an ideology is enacted on a day-to-day basis in human interaction. Daily, people in a community call upon this vocabulary to justify their actions. But, when they want to bring about social change, language is also a tool to affect the way a society values an issue. However, when conditions call for social change, "the public vocabulary needs to be managed and reconstituted in ways that require" rhetorical skill (Lucaites and Condit 8). Rhetors can try to "rearrange and revivify" the existing vocabulary or they can introduce new vocabulary (Lucaites and Condit 8). Metaphors, narratives and characterizations, and ideographs are key elements of the public vocabulary that frame perception and can be used to change perceptions.

Metaphor. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which two dissimilar things are presented as similar. This comparison of unlike things offers a new perspective. In the introduction to this chapter, the metaphor of burden is meant to provide a perspective on taxes, while dues provides a different perspective. Burke believes metaphor provides "perspective," because it is "a device for seeing something in terms of something else. It brings out the thisness of a that, or the thatness of a this. . . . metaphor tells us something about one character as considered from the point of view of another character" (A Grammar 503-4). Because of their ability to provide perspective, metaphors play a central role in the public vocabulary.

People make decisions about what to do not only on the basis of arguments supported by empirical data, but also on the basis of the metaphors used in the arguments. Finnish political scientist Riikka Kuusisto explains "Divergent interpretations are the rule in human interaction and, in order to gain wider approval, each version of a case has to be supported by careful argumentation in which convincing metaphors are integral" (52).

Because public arguments occur in language that has embedded within it judgments, a close analysis of rhetoric would include a consideration of the metaphors used. Thus, a rhetorical criticism could focus on the role of metaphor in order to really unpack the perspective on reality contained within a message.

In her rhetorical criticism of Western leaders' rhetoric on the war, Kuusisto identifies the ways former U.S. President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and French President Jacques Chirac created particular perspectives on the NATO military intervention in Kosovo through their use of the metaphors of heroic fairy tale, athletic game, and business deal. These metaphors played a role in the arguments over the conflict as they structured people's perspective on the conflict: "they made participation in the conflict chivalrous and reassuring (heroic tales), exciting and fun (games), and profitable and rational (trading)" (Kuusisto 62). The perspective created by the metaphors "brought the complicated and destructive conflict into the sphere of the well-known and harmless" (62). In the process, the metaphors downplayed "the misery, pain, and turbulence often associated with deadly quarrels" (62). The metaphors enabled people living outside of the conflict zone, and who had no direct experience of the horrors of war, to understand the war; but the metaphors provided a very particular understanding, one that "tied the progression of the events to a logic of responding and accepting the challenge, a logic that could not easily be reversed into negotiating or giving the enemy a second chance" (62).

Characterizations and Narratives: Characterizations are the labels and descriptions attached to the parts of a story. Those parts include: act, agency, agent, scene and purpose – the elements of drama Burke identifies, as discussed previously. These labels "integrate cultural connotations and denotations while ascribing a typical and pervasive nature to the entity described" (Lucaites and Condit 7). In other words, the language used in the telling of story is never neutral or purely denotation, but also contains within it judgments about the people in the story, their actions and motives, the means used to achieve their purposes, and even the scene in which the acts occurred. The connotations attached to the characterizations will direct your judgment of the people and their actions. The earlier example of the competing stories of the Battle of Little Bighorn provide one example. A speech event for U.S. Senator John Kerry and the "Don't tase me, bro!" video that went viral on YouTube in September of 2007 provides another.

During an address by U.S. Senator John Kerry at a Constitution Day Forum at the University of Florida, Andrew Meyer, a senior telecommunication major, asked Kerry why he had conceded the 2004 presidential election and whether he was a member of Yale secret society Skull and Bones. Meyer's questions exceeded the time allowed, and university police officers attempted to escort Meyer out of the lecture hall. Meyer declared he had done nothing wrong and asserted his right to stay in front of the microphone, which was turned off after which the officers forcibly escorted him outside. Meyer resisted, and the officers used a taser. In response, Meyer screamed: "Don't tase me, bro!"

If you critically analyze the media coverage of this event, you would likely discover that the initial stories seriously questioned what appeared to be an excessive use of force against a college student. Media stories characterized the tasing (the act) as an unwarranted use of force and the officers (the agents) as acting wrongly. However, as more details about Meyer emerged, they created a characterization of him. He became the agent whose purpose was attention seeking. One day after the incident, CNN reported Meyer had his friend videotape him with his own camera ("Cops on Leave"). The International Herald Tribune and ABC's Good Morning America both noted Meyer was known for "practical jokes" ("Florida Student" and "Taser Attack"). The characterization of Meyer as a practical joker also characterized his act not as the exercise of free speech, but as just a joke. Thus, the officers were not interfering with a constitutional right, but with the immature acts of an attention-seeking college student.

Narratives, or stories, are everywhere. Leading moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, describes the human being as "a story-telling animal" (216). Thus, it should be unsurprising that narratives form part of the public vocabulary. Communication scholar Walter Fisher identifies the way narratives offer good reasons in public deliberation and help people make sense of the world. Thus, rhetorical criticisms can focus on the narratives, and the way agent, act, agency, purpose and scene are characterized in those narratives.

For example, if you were interested in how meaning was created about the May 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, and the ensuing oil spill caused by the ongoing leak, you could analyze a variety of texts: statements by BP officials, statements by President Obama and administration officials, and/or media coverage of the incident. Debates over fault and responsibility ultimately are debates over who is the agent: who is the person or group responsible for what happened, and fixing it. Also, the degree of responsibility is affected by characterizations of purpose. Was BP's purpose to discover oil in domestic waters in order to lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and, thus, the accident was just that – an accidental byproduct of a good act? Or, was BP's purpose to make money and did they ignore safety requirements and take shortcuts – thus this was no accident but an act of negligence?

Ideograph. The rhetorical critic's goal is to develop a better sense of the ideology in the symbolic action. What are the core assumptions of the rhetor, and what assumptions does the rhetor want the audience to make as well? Communication scholar Michael Calvin McGee recognized the intimate connection between language and ideology. He developed the term ideograph to describe

an ordinary language term found in political discourse. It is a high-order abstraction representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal. It warrants the use of power, excuses behavior and belief which might otherwise be perceived as eccentric or antisocial, and guides behavior and belief into channels easily recognized by a community as acceptable or laudable. (15)

Ideographs are examples of single words, or short phrases, that have embedded within them the ideology of a group, nation, or culture.

For example, if you log onto the Tea Party Patriots website, you are immediately faced with a pop-up window asking you to "Join the fight for liberty." Liberty is being used as an ideograph here. Its meaning is more than its denotation of being free from constraints or being able to do something. If you went around your classroom, and asked each person to define liberty, you likely would hear as many definitions as there were people in your class. The interesting question is: what is liberty? So, you could analyze the main documents of the Tea Party Patriots movement to try and track down what they mean when they say liberty. Their "Mission Statement and Core Values" mentions liberty in the following passages:

  • Fiscal Responsibility: . . . A constitutionally limited government, designed to protect the blessings of liberty, must be fiscally responsible or it must subject its citizenry to high levels of taxation that unjustly restrict the liberty our Constitution was designed to protect. . . Such runaway deficit spending as we now see in Washington D.C. compels us to take action as the increasing national debt is a grave threat to our national sovereignty and the personal and economic liberty of future generations.
  • Constitutionally Limited Government: . . . As the government is of the people, by the people and for the people, in all other matters we support the personal liberty of the individual, within the rule of law.
  • Free Markets: A free market is the economic consequence of personal liberty. The founders believed that personal and economic freedom were indivisible, as do we. Our current government's interference distorts the free market and inhibits the pursuit of individual and economic liberty. (Tea Party)

In these passages, liberty is something bestowed by a higher power in the form of a "blessing." The greatest threat to liberty is taxation, and economic liberty is the type most often mentioned. Liberty is possessed by the individual, as a form of "personal liberty." Thus, the best way to protect liberty is to protect the economic assets of an individual.

For the Tea Party Patriots, liberty functions as a powerful ideograph. Liberty is an abstraction that represents the group's "collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal" (McGee 15). The reality of the goal being ill- defined was made clear when some Floridians and Texans aligned with the Tea Party in protests against supposed cuts in government spending on NASA's space shuttle program because it might adversely impact jobs in their state (Davidson, "Tea Party"). Typically, government spending is viewed as an infringement on liberty (because it relies on taxing the individual). Yet, in this case, members of the Tea Party protested cuts in government spending, making clear how liberty can be ill-defined.

The Tea Party's understanding of liberty is a very particular one. A rhetorical critic focusing on ideographs might say the Tea Party's focus on economic rights as freedom from taxation is quite narrow, especially when one compares it to the rights articulated in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3 of which recognizes "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person" (United Nations).

As this example should make clear, it is easy to invoke agreement and identification on the basis of ideographs. All are likely to say: "Yes, I support liberty." Yet, when you ask a person what that means, she or he may come up with quite different answers.


Understanding rhetoric rests on many postmodern assumptions. To understand postmodernism, is might help to understand what it is post to. Modernism (emerging in the Age of Enlightenment in 18th century Europe and America) emphasizes the certainty of the scientific and technological progress of humanity and the modern emphasis on scientific objectivity, often demonstrated by the systematization and categorization of knowledge. In contrast, postmodernism questions the fixedness of categories, recognizes texts have multiple interpretations, argues authors are not sole determinants of texts' meanings, and recognizes many contemporary texts are fragments. Because postmodernism is suspicious of the possibility of objective truth or global narratives, it tends to emphasize the role of language and symbols in the creation of meaning. For postmodernists, truths do not exist outside of the human ability to symbolize those supposed truths.

Postmodern rhetorical criticism does not seek to find the meaning of a text, but rather to unpack the multiple meanings in a text. Carole Blair, Marsha S. Jeppeson, and Enrico Pucci's rhetorical study of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial illustrates the utility of such an approach. After the Vietnam War, the public was deeply divided over its meaning, so divided it took years before a monument to the fallen soldiers was commissioned. Even after Maya Lin's wall was selected from among 1,421 proposals in 1981, controversy continued. Not until an agreement was reached to add a flagpole and Frederick Hart's Three Serviceman statue did construction proceed, with the wall being unveiled in 1982 and the statue in 1984. Blair, Jeppeson and Pucci point out the tensions over the monument "designates the domestic conflict over the war itself" (277). Lin's wall questions whether the war was an event worthy of admiration, while Hart's statue resoundingly affirms it was. The complex meanings of the war and the monuments induce a range of reaction in visitors. Some who visit the memorial scream in anguish, while others cry, and others form friendships with strangers.

What accounts for these different responses, these different meanings in the text? Blair et al. argue the Memorial is "a prototype of postmodern memorializing" (264). Because it was born of debate over the meaning of the Vietnam War, and Hart's statue was added as an answer to Lin's wall, the monument carries multiple meanings. Thus, the rhetorical critic's "goal is not to locate the message but the multiple, frequently conflicting messages. To attempt a unified, centered reading, thus, is to miss the point" (269).

The thing that is so interesting about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is not that it has one clear meaning, but that it has so many conflicting meanings. In this way, the monument with its multiple meanings is a more complete representation of public views toward this conflicted historic period in U.S. history.

Rhetorical scholar Barry Brummet summarizes the implications of postmodernism for rhetorical criticism methods and the questions scholars ask. Postmodern rhetorical scholars operate from the assumption that truth is intersubjective: human beings construct social reality through their symbolic actions. Meaning is not totally subjective; otherwise communication would be impossible. Nor is it totally objective and fixed by some external reality. From where does meaning come? Brummet says "people get meanings from other people through communication" (29). Meaning is not only taken from a person's experiences, but meaning is also taken from a person's communication about it with others. Brummet acknowledges the fact that there is the constraint of sensory data, using the example that one cannot simply imagine a tree and have it appear. However, he says, "experience is sensation plus meaning. Sensation alone is meaningless" (28). Thus, it would be senseless to ask whether a rhetor speaks the truth. Instead, critics should explore what truth is assumed and advanced by a rhetorical text.

Ideology & Hegemony

A question that consumes much of rhetorical scholars' interests is how some interpretations of truth become predominant in a culture and other interpretations do not, and what impact this can have on society. In the case of the oppositional titles describing the historic battle between General Custer's military and Chief Red Horse's Sioux braves, from the predominant White perspective, it has been portrayed as "the Custer Massacre," versus the less known, native people's title, "The Battle of Little Bighorn."

Rhetorical action occurs in a world whose meanings operate within ideologies. In some cases, an ideology becomes the dominant one and maintains its power through hegemony.

Ideology. In Making Sense of Political Ideology, communication scholars Bernard L. Brock, Mark E. Huglen, James F. Klumpp, and Sharon Howell define ideology as "typical ways of thinking about the world [that] help shape human action" (39). Ideology shapes human action because it normalizes "day-to-day social, political, economic, and cultural structures" by making them appear natural and inevitable (Brock et al. 39). In short, ideology is the belief system that makes sense of a society.

Kenneth Burke offers a metaphorical description of how words operate together to constitute an ideology, and how that ideology induces people to act in certain ways: "An "ideology' is like a spirit taking up its abode in a body: it makes that body hop around in certain ways; and that same body would have hopped around in different ways had a different ideology [or set of terms] happened to inhabit it" (Language 6). An ideology guides the way one evaluates (attaches meaning and valuations to) the world. Ideology consists of the shared beliefs, attitudes, and values of an audience.

Hegemony/Polysemy. Ideologies become resistant to change when they become hegemonic. Hegemony occurs when the predominant ideology uses non-coercive legal and political power to induce the dominated to consent to social and political control (Gramsci). Philosopher Rosemary Hennessy explains that hegemony is not a form of power that controls through overt violence, but rather subtly controls by determining what makes sense, or what could be called the "status quo": "Hegemony is the process whereby the interests of a ruling group come to dominate by establishing the common sense, that is, those values, beliefs, and knowledges that go without saying" (145-6). People participate in the status quo culture because of the sense of order it provides, even though the predominant cultural ideology may control (or strongly influence) their values, beliefs, and attitudes, many times without them even realizing it.

Although many forms of power exist, such as economic power, analyses of hegemony focus on the power of symbols. Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci argues that social control is primarily accomplished through the control of ideas. Economic structures (or control over the means of production) do not determine hegemony, but cultural and rhetorical structures establish it. People are encouraged to accept an idea as common sense, even if it conflicts with their own experiences. Even though Native Americans may question the way predominant U.S. history portrayed "Custer's last stand" and the many other battles with the White foreigners, history has been controlled by white scholars in the U.S. and so that perspective have long framed people's understanding of the westward expansion as exploration and discovery, rather than as invasion and colonization.

Scholarly debate proceeds over how much ability audience members have to resist hegemonic messages. Some scholars argue people are merely a sponge while others see audience members as free-thinking members of the society who can interpret messages in distinct ways while others argue audience members have varying abilities to read messages critically. Media studies is one area where substantial scholarly debate on this issue occurs. The debate revolves around whether mediated messages exert hegemonic control over audiences, or whether mediated messages are open to a range of audience interpretations and uses. Thus, critical/rhetorical methods are useful for studying media influences.

Hegemony in Mass Media. Those who identify media as highly hegemonic see the audience as passively receptive, and believe media have extensive power to create the audience's view of what is real. Scholar Theodor Adorno argues that commercial mass media are hegemonic insofar as they produce products that keep audiences passive and, hence, maintain the present ideological system. Within this theory of media hegemony, the audience has limited agency, is passively receptive, and commercial media have extensive power.

Media scholar John Fiske takes the opposing position. He argues texts' meanings are open to multiple interpretations by audiences, and audiences are able to create their own meanings and not just be passive recipients (Fiske, Television). Fiske believes people actively and creatively engage with media using a range of tactics to make the media meet their needs. Fiske believes diverse readings are possible because media messages are polysemous (poly meaning many and sem referring to sign or symbol), with multiple meanings attached to them (Fiske, "Television").

This discussion of polysemy again calls into question the role of the author. In this perspective, meaning is not determined by the media providers or culture industry, but is created individually by each person (Fiske, "Television"). The meaning of a text is not determined by its author, but is co-created by the author and the audience. This explains why different audience members might come away from the same rhetorical event with radically different interpretations of what the event meant.

Mediated messages do not occur in a vacuum, but in a particular place, at a particular time, and to particular audiences. As Communication scholar Celeste Condit explains, using a rhetorical approach to study mass media reminds the researcher that "[a]udiences are not free to make meanings at will from mass mediated texts" because "the ability of audiences to shape their own readings . . . is constrained by a variety of factors in any given rhetorical situation" including "access to oppositional codes . . . the repertoire of available texts" and the historical context (103-4).

For this reason, media scholar Stuart Hall identifies three positions from which audiences can decode (make sense of) a text: 1) dominant or preferred (hegemonic) meaning, 2) negotiated reading, and 3) oppositional (counter-hegemonic) reading (98-102).

When a reader (or viewer) takes the "connoted meaning from . . . a television newscast . . . full and straight . . . we might say that the viewer is operating inside the dominant code" The viewer does not challenge the ideology behind the newscast or the way in which it maintains hegemonic power. For example, the viewer takes the newscast's report on the rising stock market as good news, accepting the connotative meaning that what is good for Wall Street is good for everyone. When engaging in a negotiated reading, the viewer accepts some of the hegemonic meanings, but also recognizes some exceptions (Hall 102). Here the denotational meanings are understood, but some of the connotational meanings are challenged. In this case, the viewer might take the rising stock market as good news, but might also realize that it is good news mainly for corporate executives and those with large stock holdings. In an oppositional reading, the viewer decodes the denotational and connotational meanings of a text in the way intended by the creator, but challenges it from an oppositional perspective. This viewer might understand the rising stock market as it relates to corporate cost-cutting; that is, this viewer decodes "good news" on Wall Street as bad news for the thousands who lost their jobs as production was outsourced to low-wage nations.

Reading positionCharacteristicDenotationConnotation
DominantAccepts preferred hegemonic interpretation; does not challenge ideologyUnderstands messageAccepts values embedded in message
NegotiatedAccepts some aspects of ideology, but challenges othersUnderstands messageChallenges some of the embedded values
OppositionalCritically analyzes the dominant, hegemonic read and offers an alternative interpretationUnderstands messageChallenges all of the embedded values

The media, like other rhetorical symbolic actions, influence how one sees the world. In his now classic book, Ways of Seeing, media critic John Berger advanced a series of claims that have influenced media scholarship ever since. First, he argues that the invention of the camera drastically changed how human beings see. It "destroyed the idea that images were timeless" and challenged the viewer's belief that he (and Berger means he) was the center of the universe, a perspective created by paintings up until that time (18). Berger argues that in European art, from the Renaissance onward, men were the presumed viewer (64). He develops this argument in one of the book's most quoted passages:

[M]en act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. (Berger 47)

The presumed sex of the viewer is male, and even when the viewer is female, she views herself through men's eyes. Thus, when women assess their bodies, they do so not from the perspective of another woman, but from the perspective of a man. In this case, the hegemonic ideology of patriarchy positioned all viewers as male, such that women participated in their own subordination by always looking at themselves through men's eyes. Berger's point is that the way the body is positioned, whether in paintings or advertisements, employs a series of codes that audiences are induced to read in a particular way, even though they may not be conscious that they are decoding in this way. In other words, the male gaze is one way a hegemonic reading is induced, rather than an oppositional or negotiated read as Hall previously suggested.

At about the same time as Berger's work, media theorist Laura Mulvey published what would become one of the most cited essays in media studies. Using psychoanalytic theory, Mulvey posits that cinema not only highlights woman's to-be-looked-at-ness, but actually builds the way woman is to be looked at into the film itself. The way the camera, the audience, and the male character (with whom all spectators -- male and female -- identify) look at women reinforces the male as active and the female as passive. For Mulvey, the cinematic gaze is male. Mulvey's criticism applies to all mainstream cinema, and she believes the only way to avoid the dominance of the male gaze was through avant garde film that undermines the system of representation. She developed an oppositional gaze.

Mulvey's theory is criticized because she identified a single, universal gaze: she assumed there was only one White male gaze, and that no possibility for a female or non-White gaze existed. However, negotiated and oppositional reads of dominant ideology films exist, as do films that challenge the hegemony of the male gaze. Communication scholar Brenda Cooper critically analyzed Thelma & Louise, the 1991 Academy Award winner for best original screenplay. She argues that one can find a rejection of the dominant male gaze even in mainstream Hollywood films insofar as Thelma & Louise encourages viewers to identify not with the males on the screen, but with the female figures who actively mocked and challenged patriarchal conventions ("Chick Flicks"). Cooper's analysis is bolstered by her earlier study of spectator responses that found men and women saw the film differently ("Relevancy"). Men tended to see the film as an example of unjustified male bashing (perhaps because they identified with the men in the film, few of whom were sympathetic) and women tended to see it as a commentary on women's marginalized social position (because they identified with the women in the film).


The goal of rhetorical criticism is not to find the meaning of a text, but rather to unpack the multiple meanings in a text. Carole Blair, Marsha S. Jeppeson, and Enrico Pucci's rhetorical study of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial illustrates the utility of doing rhetorical criticism with this goal in mind.

At the heart of rhetorical criticism is an understanding of the ability of rhetoric to act – to construct social reality. Rhetoric studies communication from the perspective that an act of communication is never just a transmission of information, but is an intervention in the world and how others see it. Symbolic action construct reality, and rhetorical criticism analyzes how that construction is accomplished and what it means.

Although a range of rhetorical approaches exists to study texts and artifacts, we have emphasized an approach that sees rhetorical method as a heuristic vocabulary that enables you to see things in a text you otherwise may not (because you did not have the language to describe what you saw). We have not outlined a step-by-step approach, but instead encourage you to invent methods appropriate to the text you study. We describe how you go about that inventional process in the next chapter.


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