Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Rhetoric is the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing.

explanatory context

Rhetoric is a form of persuasive speech that has existed for at least 2000 years and was used in the Roman era. Up until the 19th century, rhetoric was viewed positively but in recent times, rhetoric is seen as rather negative.


In being persuasive, the rhetor exploits figures of speech and other compositional techniques, such as hyperbole.

Rhetoric also refers to language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect but that is also regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content. Politicians use this when they say 'all we have from the Opposition is empty rhetoric'.


Michael Billig developed 'rhetorical psychology' claiming that all language is rhetorical, in the sense that all anguage conceals some argumentation for a particular view and against some other implicit position (see for example, Billig (1976, 1995, 1996). This approach has been criticised for being speculative, deterministic and imposing binary categories on language.

analytical review

Wheeler (1998–2013) stated:

Rhetoric is the ancient art of argumentation and discourse. When we write or speak to convince others of what we believe, we are "rhetors." When we analyze the way rhetoric works, we are "rhetoricians." The earliest known studies of rhetoric come from the Golden Age, when philosophers of ancient Greece discussed logos, ethos, and pathos. Writers in the Roman Empire adapted and modified the Greek ideas. Across the centuries, medieval civilizations also adapted and modified the theories of rhetoric. Even today, many consider the study of rhetoric a central part of a liberal arts education.

One assumption implicit in the art of rhetoric is that people--even intelligent people--can disagree with each other. Sometimes they disagree with each other about deeply held beliefs. When such disagreements become pronounced, there are two typical results--either they begin to fight, or they engage in debate....Rhetoric removes disagreement from the arena of violence and turns it into debate--a healthy and necessary step in any democracy. For any headway to occur in a debate, wise participants should begin through figuring out what assumptions drive each group. Usually, when two groups disagree, it is because they do not share certain assumptions. The rhetor must assess her audience and then figure out what assumptions operate in her own argument and then what assumptions operate in the arguments made by others.
Common Rhetorical Mistakes:

The best arguments make use of shared assumptions--beliefs that both the writer and the reader can agree about even if they don't yet agree about the entire argument. It's often hard to find this common ground, but once a rhetor does find it, that clever writer can tailor her argument in an essay around that shared belief. Many amateur rhetors think of debate as an "us-versus-them" sort of affair, and that the readers who disagree are the enemy whose inferior arguments must be ground into the dirt. Accordingly, they mistakenly believe that ridiculing or attacking these mistaken beliefs is the most effective way to "win" the argument. These approaches are not usually the best means of persuasion. Such approaches do not constitute good rhetoric (or good manners, for that matter).

Master rhetors find it useful to think of debate as a cooperative, honest venture. This belief works for both a practical and an idealistic reason. On a practical level, people who feel insulted become unnecessarily defensive. Defensive people do not tend to be open-minded about new ideas coming from the mouth that just spewed venom upon the listeners. As a writer or speaker, it is far better to treat those who disagree with you respectfully. If the writer acknowledges disagreement, and acknowledges that her opponents have legitimate points, and carefully considers their concerns, it is far more likely these dissenting souls will consider her worth listening to. A pinch of politeness will work far better than a pound of verbal abuse. That's the practical reason for considering debate as a cooperative rather than confrontational practice.

In terms of idealism, there is a second reason to think of debate as cooperative rather than confrontational. ...If both approach the issue with an open mind, and are both prepared to change their minds after weighing the evidence carefully, the odds are pretty good that the best case will prevail. They have unleashed their best arguments, without seeking to trick or mislead each other, and the one with the most evidence or the most persuasive reasoning wins the day. ... If people are trying to create a personal policy, determine a course of action for their community, or even just plan something simple like a bedroom's layout, such a debate is a healthy way to "test-drive" many possible courses of action. ...

For such a system to work, each participant has to honestly want to find the answer by an efficient and thorough discussion. The point isn't merely to win the debate...

Burton (undated) stated:

Rhetoric is the study of effective speaking and writing. And the art of persuasion. And many other things.

In its long and vigorous history rhetoric has enjoyed many definitions, accommodated differing purposes, and varied widely in what it included. And yet, for most of its history it has maintained its fundamental character as a discipline for training students 1) to perceive how language is at work orally and in writing, and 2) to become proficient in applying the resources of language in their own speaking and writing....

Discerning how language is working in others' or one's own writing and speaking, one must (artificially) divide form and content, what is being said and how this is said..... Because rhetoric examines so attentively the how of language, the methods and means of communication, it has sometimes been discounted as something only concerned with style or appearances, and not with the quality or content of communication. For many (such as Plato) rhetoric deals with the superficial at best, the deceptive at worst ("mere rhetoric"), when one might better attend to matters of substance, truth, or reason as attempted in dialectic or philosophy or religion.

Rhetoric has sometimes lived down to its critics, but as set forth from antiquity, rhetoric was a comprehensive art just as much concerned with what one could say as how one might say it. Indeed, a basic premise for rhetoric is the indivisibility of means from meaning; how one says something conveys meaning as much as what one says. Rhetoric studies the effectiveness of language comprehensively, including its emotional impact (pathos), as much as its propositional content (logos)....

associated issues

Stanford University lists an array of definitions of 'rhetoric' ranging from Plato to the late 20th Century. Theses in clude the following:

Plato: Rhetoric is "the art of winning the soul by discourse."
Aristotle: Rhetoric is "the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.
Francis Bacon: Rhetoric is the application of reason to imagination "for the better moving of the will."
A. Richards: Rhetoric is the study of misunderstandings and their remedies.

Francis Christensen: "Grammar maps out the possible; rhetoric narrows the possible down to the desirable or effective." "The key question for rhetoric is how to know what is desirable."


For a full list visit (accessed 30 July 2013, page not available 28 December 2016)

related areas

See also

conversation analysis


discourse analysis


Billig, M., 1976, Social Psychology and Intergroup Relations, London, Academic Press.

Billig, M., 1995, Banal Nationalism, London, Sage.

Billig, M., 1996, Arguing and Thinking: A rhetorical approach to social psychology, revised edition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Burton, G.O., undated, 'What is rhetoric?' in "Silva Rhetoricae", Brigham Young University, available at, accessed 30 July 2013, page not available 28 December 2016.

Wheeler, L.K., 1998–2013, Rhetoric, available at, accessed 30 July 2013, still available 28 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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