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What Is The Rhetorical Context Of An Essay

Elements of Analysis

Summary:

This resource covers how to write a rhetorical analysis essay of primarily visual texts with a focus on demonstrating the author’s understanding of the rhetorical situation and design principles.

Contributors:Mark Pepper, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2010-09-30 02:09:58

The Rhetorical Situation

Introduction

No matter what specific direction your essay takes, your points and observations will revolve around the rhetorical situation of the document you are analyzing. A rhetorical situation occurs when an author, an audience, and a context come together and a persuasive message is communicated through some medium. Therefore, your rhetorical analysis essay will consistently link its points to these elements as they pertain to the document under question. More general information about the rhetorical situation can be elsewhere on the OWL. The following sections deal with considerations unique to analyzing visual documents.

Audience

The audience is the group of people who may or may not be persuaded by the document. Analyzing the audience for a visual production may not be all too different from analyzing an audience for a solely textual work. However, unlike academic essays or short answers written on an examination, visual productions often have the potential to reach wider audiences. Additionally, unlike literature or poetry, visual documents are often more ingrained in our daily lives and encountered instead of sought.

A website might potentially have an audience of anyone with internet access; however, based on the site, there are audiences more likely to end up there than others. A pamphlet or flyer may also technically have an audience of anyone who finds it; however, their physical placements may provide clues for who the designer would most like to see them. This is often called a “target audience.” Identifying and proving the target audience may become a significant portion of your rhetorical analysis.

It’s best to think of audience analysis as seeking and speculating about the variables in people that would make them read the same images in different ways. These variables may include but are not limited to: region, race, age, ethnicity, gender, income, or religion. We are accustomed to thinking these variables affect how people read text, but they also affect how people interpret visuals.

Here are some tips and questions for thinking about the audience of visual documents (they are also tips you can use when composing your own).

  • Different audiences have different taste for certain visual styles. For example, the quick cuts and extreme angles of many programs on MTV are often associated with the tastes and tolerance of a younger audience.
  • People have drastically different reading speeds. In slide shows or videos with text, look for accommodations made for these differences.
  • Whether by using controversial or disturbing imagery, sometimes documents purposefully seek to alienate or offend certain audience groups while piquing the curiosity of others. Do you see evidence of this and why?
  • Does the document ask for or require any background familiarity with its subject matter or is it referencing a popular, visual style that certain audiences are more likely to recognize?

Purpose

Visual productions have almost limitless purposes and goals. Although all parts of the rhetorical situation are linked, purpose and audience tend to be most carefully intertwined. The purpose is what someone is trying to persuade the audience to feel, think, or do. Therefore, a well produced document will take into account the expectations and personalities of its target audience. Below are four categories of purposes and example questions to get you thinking about the rhetorical use of visuals. Note: a document may cross over into multiple categories.

Informational: documents that seek to impart information or educate the audience

Examples: Brochures, Pamphlets, PowerPoint presentations

  • How does the layout of the information aid readability and understanding?
  • How do images clarify or enhance textual information? (Try imagining the same document without the visuals and ask how effective it would be).
  • What mood or feelings do the visuals add to the information? How does that mood aid the effectiveness of the information?

Inspirational: documents that primarily inspire emotion or feeling often without clearly predetermined goals or purposes

Examples: Photography, Paintings, Graffiti

  • What emotions are invoked by the document? How?
  • Can you use color symbolism to explain how the artist created a mood or feeling?
  • Has the image been framed or cropped in such a way to heighten a mood or feeling? Why?

Motivational: documents that spur direct action, attendance, or participation

Examples: Advertisements, Flyers, Proposals

  • How do images make the product look appealing or valuable?
  • How do images help create excitement or anticipation in the audience?
  • Is there text paired with the images that give the image added associations of value?

Functional: documents that aid in accomplishing tasks

Examples: Instruction Sets, Forms, Applications, Maps

  • How do pictures or illustrations clarify textual directions?
  • How does layout aim to make the form easy to use and eliminate mistakes?
  • Has size (of text or the document itself) been considered as a way to make the document user friendly and accessible?

As you may see, analyzing how a document’s purpose is rhetorically accomplished to persuade its audience can involve many factors. Search the owl for more information on some of the concepts mentioned in these questions.

Context

Context refers to the circumstances of the environment where a piece of communication takes place. Sometimes the author has a measure of control over this context, like within the confines of a presentation (where, of course, there will still be some factors beyond control). Other times,a document is specifically made for an audience to encounter on their own terms. Either way, context is an important part of the rhetorical situation and can easily make or break the effectiveness of a document’s message.

Below are some questions to get you thinking about the possibilities and pitfalls when analyzing the context of a visual document.

  • In a presentation setting with many people, has the document considered the size and layout of the room so that all participants have a chance of experiencing the document equally?
  • Does the document use any techniques to draw attention to itself in a potentially busy or competitive environment?
  • Linking is how websites get noticed and recognized. The sites that link to a web page or internet document can provide a context. Do the character of those links suggest anything about the document you are analyzing?
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