Rhetorical criticism refers to a process in which an individual analyzes symbolic artifacts (including words, phrases, images, gestures, performances, texts, films, and "discourse" in general) to discover how, and how well, they work: how they instruct, inform, entertain, move, arouse, perform, convince and, in general, persuade their audience, including whether and how they might improve their audience. Rhetorical criticism puts the focus on what a piece of work does, not what it is. In short, rhetorical criticism seeks to understand how symbols act on people.
“[C]riticism is an art, not a science. It is not a scientific method; it uses subjective methods of argument; it exists on its own, not in conjunction with other methods of generating knowledge (i.e., social scientific or scientific)."  The end goals of such criticism is greater understanding and appreciation: “By improving understanding and appreciation, the critic can offer new and potentially exciting ways for others to see the world. Through understanding we also produce knowledge about human communication; in theory this should help us to better govern our interactions with others.”
What is called "rhetorical criticism" in the Speech Communication discipline is often called "rhetorical analysis" in English. Through this analytical process, an analyst defines, classifies, analyzes, interprets and evaluates a rhetorical artifact. Through this process a critic explores, by means of various approaches, the manifest and latent meaning of a piece of rhetoric thereby offering further insight into the field of rhetorical studies generally and into an artifact or rhetor specifically. Such an analysis, for example may reveal the particular motivations or ideologies of a rhetor, how he or she interprets the aspects of a rhetorical situation, or how cultural ideologies are manifested in an artifact. It could also demonstrate how the constraints of a particular situation shape the rhetoric that responds to it. Certain approaches also examine how rhetorical elements compare with the traditional elements of a narrative or drama.
Generally speaking, the average audience member lacks the knowledge or experience to recognize rhetoric at first glance. Therefore, one of the more important functions of rhetorical studies is to determine whether an artifact is inherently rhetorical. This involves the identification of the exigence, rhetor's constraints, audience, and the artifact's persuasive potential.
Criticism also classifies rhetorical discourses into generic categories either by explicit argumentation or as an implicit part of the critical process. For example, the evaluative standard that the rhetorician utilizes will undoubtedly be gleaned from other works of rhetoric and, thus, impose a certain category. The same can be said about the examples and experts quoted within the work of criticism.
Within the realm of rhetorical criticism, analysis involves examining structure and analyzing how the individual rhetorical and communicative elements work within the context of the artifact. Rhetorical criticism is an art that involves the rhetorician developing strong reasoning for their judgement. The rhetorician must act as a rhetorical critic of their own work, they must examine the necessity of their research as well as the analysis. A rhetorician must also be able to defend the method of their analysis and the accuracy of their research.
Closely related with analysis, to interpretation widens the scope of the examination to include the historical and cultural context of the artifact. A rhetorician should, at this point, draw comparisons with other established works of rhetoric to determine how well the artifact fits into a particular category or if it redefines the constraints of that category as well as how the elements illuminate the motivation and perspectives of a rhetor. Rhetorical criticism can then be broke into judgement and understanding. Judgement is concerned with determining the effectiveness of the information and the strategies of presentation that leads to the success or failure of the artifact. The understanding is drawn from the acknowledgment and acceptance of what has been presented.
The purposes of rhetorical criticism fall within three evaluative categories: academic, ethical, and political. Academic purposes seek to further the process of rhetorical study. Ethical purposes attempt to reveal implicit cultural values or unethical manipulations. Political purposes involve revealing hegemonic power structures in order to expose oppressive discourses or give voice to marginalized groups.Rhetorical criticism has gained more recognition and importance in the past forty years, especially in the academic field. This increase in interest has lead to colleges and universities devoting more courses to the study of rhetorical matters such as rhetorical criticism.
Rhetorical Criticism Approaches
- Neo-Aristotelian (This perspective is sometimes also known as The "Traditional" Perspective)
- Ideographic (or Ideological)
Notable Rhetorical Criticism Scholars
- Kenneth Burke
- Edwin Black
- Lloyd Bitzer
- Celeste Condit
- Sonja Foss
- Walter Fisher
- Michael Calvin McGee
- Herbert Wichelns
- Wayne C. Booth
- Chapter_7_-_Rhetorical_Criticism "Rhetorical Criticism". WikiMedia. Retrieved Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
- Kuypers, Jim A. (2009). Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-7391-2774-2.
- Kuypers, Jim A. Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action. p. 13.
- Jasinski, James (2001). Sourcebook on rhetoric: key concepts in contemporary rhetorical studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication, Inc. ISBN 0-7619-0504-9.
- Kuypers, Jim (2009). Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action. Lexington Books.
- Hart, Roderick (2005). Modern Rhetorical Criticism. Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.
- Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Waveland Pr Inc. ISBN 1-57766-318-7.
- Hill, Forbes I. (2005), "The "Traditional" Perspective", in Kuypers, Jim A., The Art of Rhetorical Criticism, New York: Pearson, pp. 72–81