Rhetorical criticism is the process by which we discover how the things we see, hear, read, or otherwise experience affect us or those around us. It is, in essence, the practice of evaluating how colors, shapes, symbols, typefaces, constructions in language, and other rhetorical devices make meaning in our lives.
Consider, for example, viewing a billboard on the freeway that makes you laugh and, as a result, gives you positive vibes about the company that produced the billboard. Or, consider an advertisement you saw on TV that featured poverty-stricken children, with the ad urging you to donate to a cause. When you engage in rhetorical criticism, you are asking yourself, essentially, what is it about the communication that affected me? Why, exactly, did it make me laugh? Or feel sad? Or make me like or dislike a cause? What does it say about me, my environment, my culture, and so forth that made me react the way I did? In order to effectively answer those questions, you begin to evaluate the symbols, signs, rhetorical devices, language, and other communicative devices that affect your understanding and emotional reaction to a communication piece.
So why is rhetorical criticism important? Because, in a nutshell, you are communicating and you are being communicated to all of the time. The more you understand about the nuances of communication, the better you’ll understand how you are affected by advertising, by speeches, and by the media consume. Perhaps even more important, you’ll also better understand how to be more persuasive, ethical, and effective as a communicator.
A WORD ABOUT “RHETORIC”
If the term “rhetoric” is new to you, or if you only know it as a pejorative term used in politics (as in “he’s all rhetoric and no action”), it’s important we take a brief moment here to describe what rhetoric actually refers to.
Rhetoric is, essentially, the study of how communication affects our understanding. It is, in other words, the exploration of how language, symbols, and signs–the stuff we see, read, hear, or experience–make meaning to us. When we study rhetoric, we’re trying to learn how words, pictures, shapes, juxtapositions, and other arrangements of communication elements inspire us, persuade us, make us feel happy or sad, or otherwise shape our understanding about something.
TYPES OF RHETORICAL CRITICISM
While actually doing rhetorical criticism follows a fairly standard procedure (explained below), there are several different types of rhetorical criticism where you can evaluate a communication piece (like a billboard, film, pamphlet, cell phone app, or anything else). To jump to the different types of rhetorical criticism, go to the following pages:
- OPTIC Strategy for Analyzing Visuals
- DIDLS Strategy for Analyzing Tone
- SOAPStone Strategy for Analyzing Writing
HOW TO DO RHETORICAL CRITICISM
According to Sonja K. Foss, author of the brilliant book, Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, there are four steps to doing effective rhetorical criticism:
- Select an artifact to evaluate;
- Analyze the artifact with one or multiple rhetorical criticisms and analyses in mind;
- Develop a research question;
- Write an essay.
Step 1: Select an Artifact
Rhetorical artifacts can be just about anything. When you choose to do rhetorical criticism, it’s usually because you have an interest or curiosity in something. You may wonder, for example, why a presidential speech had such an impact on society. Or, you may be curious about why a building your city holds such significance to a particular group of people. Or, perhaps, you may be curious how an ad campaign affects how women perceive their personal beauty. As such, a rhetorical artifact may include any of the following (and much, much more):
- Landscape Architecture
- Office environment
- …anything that communicates something to you (but is, typically, human-made)
Step 2: Analyze the Arifact
Analyzing the artifact typically means to “code” an artifact to make sense out of its many parts. When we talk about coding an artifact, we are using a method of criticism (one of the criticisms listed above) in order codify (systematize or categorize) the many parts of the artifact that combine to make meaning. Analyzing an artifact requires that you look holistically at a communication piece, looking to determine how language, visuals, arrangement, organization, and other communication devices combine to make a particular meaning.
While there isn’t necessarily one right way to analyze and code an artifact, you are ultimately looking to be able to develop an interesting research question. With that in mind, consider, for example, analyzing a campaign for a beauty product. As you review the many pieces of this campaign, you will collect notes and begin to categorize the campaign’s different communicative features. Consider colors used; images of people; positions and facial expressions; language used to caption or supplement the visuals; media channels in which the campaign is broadcast; typography use; and so forth. In addition, apply one or more methods of criticism from the above list to provide even more understanding about the many parts of the artifact.
Step 3: Develop a Research Question
Once you have given a broad sweep of your artifact, analyzing its many features, you will most likely have questions come to mind about the artifact. There are typically many different questions that can arise from a single artifact, but your goal is to focus on just one. Consider four different ways of looking at the artifact’s overall affect: how it affects the person that produced the artifact (the “rhetor”); how it affects the audience intended (or unintended) to view the artifact (audience); how it affects the situation or context in which the artifact is present (situation); or how the message in and of itself may be interpreted (message).
Rhetor. When developing a question about the rhetor, you are concerned with what they are trying to do for themselves with the communication. If we’re still talking about the beauty product, for example, we may ask questions like this: how does the use of male models for traditionally female products affect the image of the company producing the campaign?
Audience: When developing a question about the audience, you are concerned with how audiences will be affected by the communication. You might ask a question like this: how does the repetition of a single body type affect how audiences perceive what is the “ideal” body type?
Situation: The situation or context in which an artifact resides can also make for interesting questions. In the beauty product case, there are a number of “situations” that we might look at: the beauty industry as a whole; a certain age or population of people that will be viewing the campaign; the economic or political climate; and so forth. When developing a question for the beauty product campaign, you might ask something like this: How has the escalated competitive nature of beauty products forced companies like X to push the boundaries of visual representations of bodies in order to attract consumers?
Message: When you’re asking questions about the message itself, you’re curious about how the message has been constructed as a message type and not necessarily about how affects a particular audience or situation. In other words, you’re curious about things like “the most effective way to communicate” or “creating the most impact from a message.” In the beauty product realm, you might ask questions like this: what body image type and color combination produce the most emotionally impactful results?
Step 4: Write the Essay
While essays can take different forms, a good formula to follow includes five steps:
- provide an introduction;
- describe the artifact;
- detail your method(s) of criticism;
- report your findings and provide analysis of those findings; and
- end with contribution to rhetorical theory.
In the introduction to your essay, your goal is to quickly identify your artifact so that your reader can understand as much as they need to in order to follow your official argument about the artifact. You also want to mention your thesis or argument, which is essentially the answer to the question you developed in Step 3. All in all, your introduction sets up the artifact you are analyzing as an important piece to study that has interesting and worthwhile communicative effects that you feel people should know about.
As you move from the introduction, you want to provide much more detail about the artifact. While you don’t want to jump ahead and start talking about what you found and how you analyzed, your goal here is to provide some context and clarity for your reader. Describe the article in detail so that your reader can understand when or why something was made; what it looks like; how language is used; who created it; and so forth. The more detail you can give, the more your reader can get on board with what your argument is.
Method(s) of Criticism
Now, detail your codification process. How did you analyze your artifact? What were you looking for? Describe the method of criticism you used and how you applied it to your artifact. For example, if you chose to use the Fantasy-Theme method to analyze how Disneyland creates experiences for their patrons, describe how the fantasy-theme method works and how you evaluated the Disney theme park (your artifact) to identify appropriate fantasy concepts. Be especially careful in this section not to get ahead of yourself. Your goal here isn’t to tell you reader what you discovered, but simply to describe how you conducted your analysis.
You’re now to the point where you can effectively clarify and give emphasis to your overall argument by establishing what you found. Describe how your research informs what you now now about the artifact. In the Disneyland example, you can now identify how Disney employees are trained to use particular phrases like “cast” and “crew” to establish a live set, as if experiencing a live play, where patrons become part of the set design.
Strong essays make contributions to the field of communication and rhetoric by identifying how what you learned is a new take on what has already been contributed to the field. As you construct an essay like this, you want to be aware of what other articles or books have been written about either your artifact or your method of criticism. Make note of these contributions and explain what still needs to be understood and where others can continue researching where you left off.