One key concept in the study of rhetoric is the rhetorical situation, which refers to the factors that influence the creation of a message. Broadly speaking, the rhetorical situation includes all the elements that help you better understand how a particular text is attempting to enter an ongoing conversation, and unless you understand that, you’re not going to be able to fully comprehend the text, as no text stands on its own, outside of its context.
To understand the rhetorical situation of a text, ask yourself these questions:
- who is the author and what background does he or she have in the subject matter and/or research methods used?
- what occasion or event seems to have motivated the author to write this particular text at this particular time?
- what purpose was the author trying to achieve?
- what genre has the author chosen to compose the text in and what are the most relevant aspects of that genre?
- what target audience is the author trying to reach?
- how has the text been received by members of that audience? by readers outside that audience?
To answer some of these questions, you have to look more closely at the text itself. Often authors mention the occasion that prompted them to write an article within the introduction. They might also spell out their purpose there and possibly even comment on who they imagine to be the target audience. Some kinds of texts include short bios on the authors, which give you a few relevant details for assessing the author’s background.
To answer other questions, you may have to do some quick Google searches. For example, you might want to look up an author. You’ll have the best luck if you use the author’s full name and a key word or two from the title of the article, to avoid the likelihood of getting hits for the wrong person.
You might also want to look up references to the article, which you can do a variety of ways, but an easy way to start is to simply type the title of the article with quotation marks around it into a Google search box.
If you don’t see anything useful in the first few pages of results using that method, try using one of the library’s databases of academic articles, which will allow you to search for articles that cite a particular article or author.
You might also want to look up a publication to learn more about the nature of the audience it targets, the kinds of work it publishes, and the extent to which articles are subjected to editorial or scholarly peer review before they’re accepted by the publication. Many publications have entries on Wikipedia that can be useful for providing this kind of background.