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Dramatism Theory and Kenneth Burke

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4468 words Published: 23rd Jul 2018

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Investigation Into The Theory Of Dramatism And Kenneth Burke

This report investigates the communication theory of dramatism and Kenneth Burke, to understand the basic concepts of dramatism and obtain an understanding. Kenneth Burke is the founder of the theory of dramatism, he lived until the age of 96 (1897-1993). The theory uses two terms to differentiate between movements, action is used to describe intentional action and motion describes meaningless action. The theory uses the term guilt to describe any feeling of tension within a person. Burke believed that humans communicate to purge their guilt, in a guilt redemption cycle. The theory explains identification as a consubstantiation, a portion of substance that overlaps when people communicate. A core component of dramatism is the dramatistic pentad and its elements, which can help analyse a communication event. An example of applying the pentad is included and explanation on how dramatism can be applied to day to day events, with a portion explaining how dramatism can be applied in information technology. Dramatism is then evaluated by using common tests for testing interpretive communication theories. This report contains several criticisms of dramatism regarding problems in the theory and with interpretation of the theory.



The purpose of this report is to investigate the communication theory of dramatism and Kenneth Burke, to gain an understanding of this theory to share with my class. The basis of the research in this report will be used for an education presentation, in an attempt to share my findings with my class.


The scope of this report is to investigate Kenneth Burke and his theory of dramatism, to gain a basic understanding. This included an understanding of Burke’s history, the concepts of dramatism and problems with dramatism. The information researched was from books, journal articles found on databases and Internet websites with information about dramatism.


This report is affected by several limitations, the biggest of which is my knowledge of rhetoric communication theories starting this research project. This is a large limitation because dramatism is based on previous work in the field of rhetorical communication, and this significantly increased the time taken to understand the theory. Time is another limitation which affected this report, as this report is written under the pressure of a deadline, reducing the amount of research that could be done. Another factor involving time that impacted this report is that while writing this report as a student, time is a valued and rare commodity. A final limitation on this report is the availability of information which is targeted at a student investigating dramatism, as a lot of the work is aimed at Burklean scholars.

Research Methods

Information obtained for this report is found from books, journal article from databases and Internet sites. The books were a basis for my research, as they provided a broad overview of the core theory and explanations. While the journal articles and Internet sites provided an in depth view into one or few aspects of the theory.

Structure Of Report

This report moves onto a literacy review which provides a brief summary, evaluation of accuracy and evaluation of validity of the information. The literacy review contains two sources from books, journal articles and internet sites related to the topic of dramatism. The findings section follows which provides a background to Kenneth Burke, an outline of theories, an application of the theory and an evaluation of the theory. From the findings a conclusion section is drawn, providing a summary of points of information points and a critique of the theory. A glossary of terms, references and bibliography is provided to assist the reader.

Literature Review

Theories of human Communication (7th ed.)

Littlejohn, S W. (2003). Theories of human communication (7th ed.). California: Wadsorth/Thomson Learning.

Although Littlejohn does not cover Kenneth Burke’s personal history, he does cover the theory of Dramatism in depth. Littlejohn describes the terms actions, motives, guilt, substance, consubstantiality and identification from Burke’s work, with examples. Other fundamentals of Burke’s work are explained in great detail such as symbols, no neutral words, dramatistic pentad and the five elements of the dramatistic pentad. Littlejohn also uses the example of Edward Kennedy to explain how the dramatistic pentad can be applied.

Littlejohn’s information appears to be accurate and valid to other sources studied, he also includes a large bibliography and footnotes at the bottom of each page to reference the information. Aside from the described physical evidence found to validate accuracy, Littlejohn is a highly regarded authority in communication theories.

Communication Theories

Miller, K. (2001). Communication Theories. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies

Miller describes Burke’s personal history and education before moving onto the topic of Dramatism. It is described that four aspects of Burke’s thought have been particularly influential in shaping views of the social world. Aside from describing aspects of Burke’s work such as motion versus action, guilt and Burke believing life is drama, Miller includes and briefly analyses Burke’s poem labelled as “definition of man”, and discusses a paper written about the problem of agency. The dramatistic pentad and its five elements are clearly defined, along with action as rhetorical, identification, substance, consubstantiation and the importance of Burke’s work.

Miller is regarded as an authority in the field of communication theories, and used a large bibliography in this book. The information on Dramatism was consistent with other sources studied.

“Identification” as a Key Term in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetorical Theory

Quigley, B L. (n.d.). Identification as a key term in Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory. Retrieved August 12, 2009 from http://acjournal.org/holdings/vol1/iss3/burke/quigley.html

Quigley explains that Burke’s use of Identification is accessory to the traditional focus of persuasion, and then explains how and why. The article goes over the basic concepts of Burke’s work in the field of identification and persuasion, and then moves onto different types of identification. The article covers identification as semi-conscious, through self-persuasion, though mundane/recurring and through representation with examples from Princess Diana’s death.

Quigley only had five references for this article, although three of them are work by Kenneth Burke. Despite a relatively small number of references, this article expands on topics that I have studied in other sources.

Coming to Terms with Kenneth Burke’s Pentad Clarke, J. (n.d.). Coming to terms with Kenneth Burke’s pentad. Retrieved August 12, 2009 from http://www.acjournal.org/holdings/vol1/iss3/burke/rountree.html

This paper starts as an introduction to Burke’s work, to move onto expanding the pentad into a heuristic, as Burke discovered in his later work attitude belongs in the pentad. The paper also explains that Burke does not claim any originality for his pentad, as previous theorists had come up with the same heuristic using different terms. Clarke then explains an interpretation of the pentad in which critics should also look for grammatical and non-verbal function for motives, not just their superficial connection to a source.

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This paper included ideas and theories that I had not yet studied or seen before, but it included examples of how the ideas should be applied. Clarke has used a large list of references to create this document and the article can be found from Em Griffen’s website. With this in mind, a lot of the information I have seen in other sources and I believe the rest to be accurate and valid for reasons given.

Re-visiting Kenneth Burke: Dramatism/Logology and the problem of Agency Conrad, C., & Macom, E A. (1995). Re-visiting Kenneth Burke: Dramatism/Logology and the problem of agency. The Southern Communication Journal. 61(1), 11-29.

The problem of agency arises in this document from human actors being defined as “choice-making animals”, the balance between voluntarism and determinism are questioned. The problem with agency described in this article is based on the problem of finding a way of accounting for human experience with recognition, and a pure determinism and pure voluntarism are unacceptable. The article describes Burkes work with this problem and a number of different interpretations of the relationship between action and motion. It is suggested that a social action theory needs to be developed which is not grounded in dualism between action and structure inevitably.

This document has been extensively researched as it has a large list of references which include Kenneth Burke’s work and his thoughts and the criticism received regarding this topic. This article is from The Southern Communication Journal, indicating that it should be very accurate and contain only valid information.

Defending Dramatism as ontological and literal Crable, B. (2000). Defending dramatism as ontological and literal. Communication Quarterly. 48(4),

This article was written to document Crable’s work as he reread the dispute the work of Burke to provide insight to the argument of dramatism as epistemological and metaphorical or ontological and literal. The document investigates Burke’s work with an independent view to discover how Burke would have answered the question at hand. But it is concluded that Burke defends dramatism as ontology because he begins with language as action, not representation. Burke’s work also argues that this starting point is literal, that it offers the most complete approach to the study of motivation.

The article mostly references Burke’s work as that is what is in question, and the article was published in the Communication Quarterly. Therefore the work must contain a high level of accuracy and validity.


Background To Theorist

The theory of dramatism was developed by Kenneth Burke who lived from 1897 to 1993, to “describe what he saw going on when people opened their mouths to communicate” (Griffin, 2009, p.289). Burke’s work has had a large impact on communication although Burke never graduated from college, and despite this he taught at a number of institutions of higher level education. Burke entered the field of communication in 1952 and he was introduced by Maris Hochmuth Nichols, with her contrast between old rhetoric and the new rhetoric. Burke’s career included literary critic, social critic, poet, fiction author, translator, composer and social theorist. Since Burke’s death at the age of 96, there is now a Kenneth Burke Society which holds conferences and tributes to Burke and his work.

Outline Of Theory

To understand humans and the social world, Kenneth Burke uses two terms to differentiate between intentional and unintentional movements or behaviour. These are motion used to describe behaviour which are non-purposeful or unintentional and action which is behaviour that is purposeful or intentional. Burke believed that it is the difference between action and motion that makes human distinct from other animals. Miller states “In the most basic sense, through, the move from motion to action – through the use of symbolism, and especially language – marks humans as agents rather than reactors in the social world” (p. 90). The difference between an action and a reaction from past experience has caused much controversy over the description of agency.

For Burke language is always emotionally loaded and no word can be neutral, as attitudes and feelings appear in the language used. Miller (2001) states “Burke (1935) believed that the drama of life is motivated by guilt” (p. 90). Burke used the term guilt to describe a variety of negative processes such as anxiety, embarrassment, shame and disgust. He also believed that to purge our guilt we use victimage, in that we either blame ourselves as in the term mortification or blame some else as in the term scapegoating. The guilt redemption cycle is complete once the guilt has been purged through mortification or scapegoating, although it is often short lived because the social world involves guilt that will start the cycle again. Burke’s work used three sources of guilt, the negative, principal of perfection and principal of hierarchy.

For Burke rhetoric was not just a process of persuasion, but also a process of creating identification. For this identification Burke used the term substance, to describe characteristics or identity of a person. When two people meet their substances overlap to different extents, the amount of substance overlapping was called consubstantiation by Burke. It is through consubstantiation that identification is felt between people, and speakers will often try to gain an area of consubstantiation with their audience to form identification. Burke proposed three sources of identification, material identification, idealistic identification and formal identification. Littlejohn (2003) states “Identification is not an either/ or occurrence but a matter of degree” (p. 156).

There are many different types of identification described in Burke’s work, a common method of identification is common ground. Identification by common ground can be identification as semi-conscious, this identification occurs when a speaker uses symbols associated with a wealth or class. Identification through self-persuasion can be described as keeping faith despite criticisms, due to rationalising their choice in ways that strengthen identification. Identification through mundane and recurring can be caused by becoming familiar with something or someone because they are always in your life somehow. Identification through representation typically occurs when a person views another person’s actions as inspiring, and this creates identification with that person they would like to be.

Successful communicators often adopt strategies in order to identify with their audience, and Burke suggests in order to analyse an event the strategies must be identified. Miller states “His proposal of the dramatistic pentad (Burke, 1945, 1968) considers five aspects of social life that should be considered in order to understand how we behave, and talk about our behaviour, in the symbolic world” (p. 91). When analysing with the pentad it is important to also look for grammatical and non-verbal functions for motives as well as their analysis of words. The five elements of the dramatistic pentad are:

  • Act – What was done
  • Scene – The location and context of the act.
  • Agent – The person or people that performed the act
  • Purpose – The goal of the act
  • Agency – Method used to perform the act

From analysing a situation with the five elements of the dramatistic pentad and using Burke’s pentadic ratio, it is possible to find the hidden views of a communication event.

Application Of Theory

Littlejohn (2003) describes David Ling’s work on how the Burke’s pentad can be used to understand a communication event, as similar communications are seen often from politicians around the world:

In 1969 Edward Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts, was involved in an automobile accident with an aide, Mary Jo Kopechne, in which he accidentally drove a car off a bridge into a pond. Kennedy escaped, but Kopechne drowned. In a remarkable address to the public about a week later, he explained what happened and attempted to regain the support of the people. Ling writes that Kennedy wanted to achieve two things: to minimize his own responsibility for the accident and to make the people of Massachusetts responsible for whether or not he would continue in office. Kennedy’s appeal on the first point describes himself (agent) as helpless victim of the events leading to the death of the young woman (scene). He explains his own failure to report the accident (act) as a consequence of his confusion and injuries. Kennedy’s depiction makes him out to be a victim of a tragic situation. Later in his speech, Kennedy essentially offered to resign if the citizens wanted him to. Here, the scene shifted to the public reaction to the accident, the agent became the people of Massachusetts, the act was their decision as to whether he should resign, the agency would be a statement of resignation, and the purpose would be to remove him from office. Ling believes this was a very effective speech. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and Kennedy continued in office. (p. 156-157)

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From the above example of how to apply Burke’s work and the pentad to analyse an event, as the pentad can be used to analyse many communication events including political speeches. Burke’s work can also be applied to just about any other communication event as well, to analyse underlying focus and views. Identification methods and substance can be seen in common events such as Michael Jackson’s death, there was much criticisms when he was alive by the media, although many people still shared a feeling of identification with him. The guilt redemption cycle can be used on a daily basis to help understand different motives for communications, especially communications resulting from a negative situation or result.

Initially Burke’s work was developed for face-to-face communication, but it can also be applied to the IT industry. A main source of communication in the IT industry is via email or instant messaging, this can also be analysed by the Burke’s work. By analysing communication strategies, language and tones used in the message sent it is possible to detect guilt, mortification or scapegoating. It is very easy to send a message of identification through hierarchy via online messaging, as the physical distance is ignored. Identification and persuasion can occur very easily through online messages and from websites, by the sender displaying a wide substance. Due to the large amount of communication methods in the information technology industry, the method of communication (scene) can hold significance in the communication strategy. This can be in the case of sending an important message as an email, signifying that the person does not particularly interested or want to see you. With the opposite being possible as well, a person not sending an email for an unimportant reminder can indicate an excuse to start conversation.

Evaluation Of Theory

Dramatism is an interpretive theory about understanding why a person behaves in the way that they do, and not so much in the predication of human behaviour. Burke’s theory offers a new understanding of people, behaviour and symbolic interaction. Burke applied his theory to Shakespeare, and since then has been applied to many politicians and public speakers in order to get a greater understanding of the underlying communications and texts. Burke’s pentad applied to texts can provide a clarification of values, as it can identify the ideology behind the message being examined. The theory does not contain much aesthetic appeal, although it does use bibliographic terms over scientific terms which creates an aesthetic appeal. Aside from the bibliographic terms, the theory does not provide much aesthetics. Burke’s work has appeared in many communication journals, and there is now a Kenneth Burke society dedicated to ensuring the understanding of dramatism and development on the kbjournal (Kenneth Burke journal). Although there are debates over components of dramatism, the theory is widely accepted and considered to be a fundamental part of human interpretation. Aside from the Kenneth Burke society, there are now Burklean scholars which are dedicated to dramatism, so it is fair to conclude that this theory has caused a reform of society.


Summary Of Points Of Information

This report has described information found about Kenneth Burke and the theory of dramatism discovered from my research. A background of Kenneth Burke was found and described before describing dramatism and its elements. To start describing dramatism, it is explained first the different between action and motion in regards to symbolism. The next topic described is guilt and the guilt redemption cycle, including explaining the concepts of mortification and scapegoating. To understand identification it is described how Burke viewed this with substance, consubstantiation and some common types of identification. Some brief definitions and descriptions are included as identification through common ground, as this is an essential part of identification. Finally the dramatistic pentad, elements of the pentad and its use are described.

An example of applying dramatism to the real life incident of Edward Kennedy is included, as it is a great example of dramatism. It is then mentioned that Burke’s work can be applied to many day to day events and the guilt can be seen on a day to day basis. Then it is explained how dramatism can be applied to the information technology industry, especially when information communication technology is used. The final section to findings evaluates dramatism as an interpretive theory, finding that all the standard tests for an interpretive study are successful in dramatism.

Critique Of The Theory

A key issue with Burke’s work has been labelled the “problem of agency”, and the problem is finding a way of accounting for human reaction due to experiences and situations. It is when this is taken into consideration it becomes unclear as to if a choice was volunteered or determined, as an essential part of agency is choice. Burke was aware of this problem and spent a large portion of his career trying to construct a more accurate definition of agency, action and motion. This topic has been thoroughly analysed by many communication scholars with the suggestion that further work in developing a rhetorical theory of social action, that they start at the beginning with a view of the action-structure relationship which is not based on dualism like Burke’s work.

Another issue with Burke’s work is the debate on whether dramatism is epistemological and metaphorical, or that dramatism is ontological and literal. This issue was first debated at the Eastern Communication Association conference, the debate failed to settle the issue. There is not as yet an answer to this issue, as Burke has stated that his work is not merely metaphorical, but is instead a literal way of speaking about the human condition. Although Burke has claimed his work is ontological and literal, there is debate that his work does not depict out this way.

Burke’s theory of dramatism is highly respected and a common tool in interpretive analysis of a communication event. Although many students have difficulty in coming to terms with dramatism and the way it is written, provides a difficult learning experience. The theory is built off previous work in the field of rhetoric, which also can provide learning difficulties when studying dramatism without exposure to old rhetoric. This theory is used frequently, although it is arguable whether dramatism is complete as problems still exist and debates still occur. In summary, Burke’s work has changed the world of rhetoric although it may not be complete, in the sense that Burke did not finish solving problems in dramatism and debate continues. Although Burke is recognized for dramatism and all of its elements, Burke does not claim any originality for his pentad. As the same pentad is found in Aristotle’s and Talcon Parson’s work, with the exception of different terms used to describe the same elements of the pentads.

Glossary Of Terms

Action – Purposeful and voluntary behaviours.

Consubstantiation – The overlapping substance between people.

Dramatism – What Kenneth Burke saw when people opened their mouths to communicate.

Dramatistic – Looking at the nature of language stressing on language as action.

Guilt – Term used to describe any feeling of tension within a person.

Mortification – Purging guilt through self-blame.

Motion – Non-purposeful and non-meaningful behaviours.

Scapegoating – See victimage.

Substance – Term to describe a person’s physical characteristics, talents, occupation, experiences, personality, beliefs and attitudes.

Victimage – The process of purging guilt through blame of another person or persons.


Griffin, E. (2009). A first look at communication theory. (7th ed.). States of America: McGraw-Hill Companies

Littlejohn, S W. (2003). Theories of human communication. (7th ed.).

United States of America: Wadsorth/Thomson Learning.

Miller, K. (2001). Communication Theories. United States of America: McGraw-Hill Companies


Clarke, J. (n.d.). Coming to terms with Kenneth Burke’s pentad. Retrieved August 12, 2009 from http://www.acjournal.org/holdings/vol1/iss3/burke/rountree.html

Conrad, C., & Macom, E A. (1995). Re-visiting Kenneth Burke: Dramatism/Logology and the problem of agency. The Southern Communication Journal. 61(1), 11-29.

Crable, B. (2000). Defending dramatism as ontological and literal. Communication Quarterly. 48(4),  323-343.

Griffin, E. (2009). A first look at communication theory. (7th ed.). States of America: McGraw-Hill Companies

Kenneth Burke. (2009) Retrieved August 30, 2009,  from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Burke

Littlejohn, S W. (2003). Theories of human communication. (7th ed.). United States of America: Wadsorth/Thomson Learning.

Miller, K. (2001). Communication Theories. United States of America: McGraw-Hill Companies

Quigley, B L. (n.d.). Identification as a key term in Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory. Retrieved August 12, 2009 from http://acjournal.org/holdings/vol1/iss3/burke/quigley.html


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