Rhetorical stance

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“Rhetorical stance” is the position of a speaker or writer in relation to audience, topic, and situational context. It encompasses the same elements as, “rhetorical situation”, but is a more active concept. One is simply “in” a situation; the author, audience, and exigent subject merely exist. “Rhetorical stance” connotes a position “taken”—the exploitation of rhetorical appeals, audience, subject, and contextual circumstances—with the goal of persuasion. Rhetoric scholars Golden, Berquist, and Coleman define the position of the rhetor as “the attitude a speaker assumes toward the relationships that he believes should exist among the communicator [the rhetor himself], the message, and the auditor [audience]”.[1]


According to Wayne C. Booth, an author who has adopted an appropriate rhetorical stance can not only change our minds, but also “engages us in the process of thinking—and feeling—[the subject] through."[2] To find the appropriate stance, authors/speakers must be acutely aware of their own persona, strengths, weaknesses, and communication style, as well as their audience’s character and needs. Authors accomplish this awareness both consciously and unconsciously.

Humans develop an unconscious understanding of rhetorical stance as they develop their communication skills and style throughout their lives by learning how and to whom to express themselves to get what they want or need. This process becomes a purposeful undertaking when authors and speakers analyze a rhetorical situation for a deeper understanding of their own ethos, their topic, and the subtleties of their audience’s needs. To control their style and tone, authors must be aware of their persona—the encapsulation of their relevant demographics, their knowledge of and experiences with the topic, and their own peculiarities of thought and style. To establish a credible ethos, authors must consciously build their rhetorical presentation on this self-awareness. Evidenced in a study done by psychology and linguistic scholars Hatch, Hill, and Hayes,[3][4]


To gain their audience’s trust and accomplish their rhetorical purpose, authors must not only appropriately utilize their persona, but also comprehend the context of the communication. Authors position themselves in relation to their audience based on the relevant interrelational contextual elements that affect the communication situation. Brian Street argues for a broad definition of “context” to include “conceptual systems, political structures, economic processes, and so on, rather than simply a ‘network’ or ‘interaction’”.[5] With this broad definition, he counters Levinson’s narrower definition, which limits relevant contextual elements to immediate and observable events. However one defines “context”, the circumstances of the communication event must be taken into consideration by a persuasive author/speaker. The author’s awareness of the relevant contextual circumstances that influence the delivery of the message, along with knowledge of the subject and clear perception of purpose, is essential to building credibility with the audience, with whom the author must also become familiar.[1]

Digital Literacy|Digital Contexts[edit]

Traditionally, scholars have concentrated on verbal texts, oral and written, but newer rhetoric scholarship also looks at digital literacy. Jeff Rice argues for a new rhetorical paradigm not only to counter anachronistic conventions for print media, but also to embrace communication technology.[6]
Clay Shirky[7] sheds some light on how communicators use social technology to create and distribute their messages,[8] and he describes how new media contexts, such as the passionate affinity spaces described by J.P. Gee and Elisabeth R. Hayes,[9] can help create and connect communities.


Golden, Berquist, and Coleman begin their process of adopting rhetorical stance with an analysis of the audience. Successful authors and speakers utilize their knowledge of their audience so that the audience believes they are motivated to the author’s purpose by their own agency (see Campbell and Hugh Blair). The author creates this impression by demonstrating an understanding of her audience’s needs and by “substantiating”,[10] according to Kenneth Burke, intellectual and empathetic relationships between herself and her audience. Plato’s “noble aims”[11] of rhetoric require the author to strive for a moral elevation of both author and audience; Aristotle[12] and Cicero[13] emphasized the consideration of human nature and emotion in the successful understanding of one’s audience and the establishment of the relationships necessary for achieving persuasion.


An author’s understanding of his persona, audience, and context will help him determine the appropriate arguments and rhetorical tropes for achieving his persuasive goal. Authors and speakers can use only the arguments and communication skills available to them to convey their purpose.[1] The arguments available for any given topic are specific to that particular rhetorical situation[12] and depend on the relationships between author, audience, context, and purpose.[14] For example, skilful communicators recognize the wisdom of excluding or including certain information in the scope of their argument or adjusting their tone when addressing X audience versus addressing Y audience. To fully realize their stance, authors and speakers must also exercise control over the rhetorical appeals and arrangement natural to their topic. This step is the most observable event in the author’s achievement of rhetorical stance because it is the verbal expression of his position in relation to both audience and topic.

In Academic Communities[edit]

It is in academia that one finds the bulk of the discussion on rhetorical stance, specifically in speech and English departments. The bodies of research into rhetorical stance in the fields of cultural studies,[15][16] anthropology,[17] history, and sociology[18] are also growing.

In Non-academic Communities[edit]

An author or speaker takes a rhetorical stance in all communications, not only public address, formal argument, or academic essays. Although one finds the bulk of the discussion on rhetorical stance in academia, myriad “other-than-academic communities,” such as business,[19] the law,[20] journalism/media,[21] religious institutions,[22] and politics,[23] utilize and discuss theories of rhetorical stance.

References and Further Reading[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Golden, James L.; Goodwin F. Berquist; William E. Coleman (1978). The Rhetoric of Western Thought. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. p. 303. ISBN 0-8403-2916-4. 
  2. ^ Booth, Wayne C. (Oct 1963). "The Rhetorical Stance". College Composition and Communication. 14 (3): 139–145. 
  3. ^ Hatch, Jill A.; C. Hill; John R. Hayes (Oct 1993). "When the Messenger is the Message: Readers' Impressions of Writers' Personalities". Written Communication. 10 (4): 569–98. 
  4. ^ Hayes, John R. (2001). Cushman, Ellen, ed. "A New Framework for Understanding Cognition and Affect in Writing". Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's: 172–198. 
  5. ^ Street, Brian (2001). Cushman, Ellen, ed. "The New Literacy Studies". Literacy: A Sourcebook. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's: 430–442. 
  6. ^ Rice, Jeff. (2007) The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and the New Media. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
  7. ^ Shirky, Clay (2008). Here Comes Everybody. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-311494-9. 
  8. ^ Computers and Writing
  9. ^ Gee, James Paul (2011). Language and Learning in the Digital Age. London & New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-60277-8. 
  10. ^ Burke, Kenneth (1962). A Grammar of Motives and A Rhetoric of Motives. Cleveland: The World Publishing Co. 
  11. ^ Plato. Phaedrus. 
  12. ^ a b Aristotle. Rhetoric. 
  13. ^ Cicero. de Oratore. 
  14. ^ Bitzer, Lloyd (Jan 1968). "The Rhetorical Situation". Philosophy and Rhetoric. 1 (1): 3. 
  15. ^ Shirley Brice Heath
  16. ^ Gerald Graff
  17. ^ Soliday, Mary.(2004) "Reading Student Writing with Anthropologists: Stance and Judgment in College Writing". College Composition and Communication 56(1): 72-93.
  18. ^ Harvey J. Graff
  19. ^ Ghaziana, Amin and Marc J. Ventresca.(2005) "Keywords and Cultural Change: Frame Analysis of Business Model Public Talk, 1975-2000". Sociological Forum. 20(4): 523-59.
  20. ^ Phillips, Scott and Ryken Grattet. (2000) "Judicial Rhetoric, Meaning-Making, and the Institutionalization of Hate Crime Law". Law & Society Review 34(3): 567-606.
  21. ^ Marshall McLuhan
  22. ^ Burke, Kenneth. (1970) "The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology". Berkeley: U of California Press.
  23. ^ Holihan, David B. (2004) "He's Stealing my Issues! Clinton's Crime Rhetoric and the Dynamics of Issue Ownership". Political Behavior. 26(2): 95-124.