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What Is Rhetorical Studies?

By Synthia L. Rose
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Rhetorical studies are an area of academics that merges philosophy, sociology and communication to examine how text, speech and symbols as well as images and motifs are used to persuade, anger, calm or redirect an audience through ethics it might consciously or subconsciously hold. This area of study looks at how every person or group operates according to a certain ethos and how buzz words, phrases and symbols used by public or private entities can affirm or conflict with that ethos, propelling people to act or not act, believe or not believe, align with the speaker or not to align. Such communicative persuasion is often used in marketing, politics, and social movements, all of which serve as backdrops for students in rhetorical studies.

The probing of rhetoric involves the study of literature, political speeches, advertising campaigns and company statements. It may also involve the study of messages in artistic media, such as music, cartoons, movies or even viral videos. Most significant messages targeted through rhetorical studies involve ideas that have caught on with the public whether historically or currently, sparking niche or mass followings and critics.

Training in rhetorical studies allows one to learn certain literary devices that can make communication more compelling. Such rhetorical devices include euphemism, hyperbole and pleonasm, which is the use of non-essential emphatic words. Other devices taught in rhetorical studies include apostrophe, which is the addressing of a specific person or entity, whether imaginary or real, and tautology, which is the repetition of the same idea by using different phrasing. These rhetorical strategies allow listeners to be conditioned to emotionally and mentally receive the content of a message.

Courses offered by rhetorical studies departments at a university may focus on trends of language in popular culture as well as free speech rights and what moral license one may take with free speech. The study of rhetoric also involves specific methods of presenting rhetoric and theories on why and how rhetoric works. Most courses require participants to perform rhetorical exercises where they engage in public speaking.

Since special interests affect language and messages to the public and create rhetorical contexts, rhetorical studies courses often look at how certain language appeal to certain special interest groups. Some rhetoric may cater to feminists or advocates of homosexuality while other rhetoric may appeal to certain ethnic groups, geographic locations or political affiliations. A student of rhetorical studies would learn how to create a message that targets its intended audience without seeming to pander.

Various avenues for sharpening skills learned in rhetorical courses include debate and forensics competitions, internships and forensics-based honor societies and fraternities. A minor or major in rhetorical studies can prepare one for a career in law, politics or other forms of public service. Broadcasters, marketing executives, copywriters and journalists also benefit from training in rhetorical studies. While knowledge and strategies gained in the study of rhetoric can be used to manipulate, they can also be used to mobilize communities and inspire social change.

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