Using Kenneth Burke’s Concept of Identification

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book in which you “identified” strongly with the main character? This is what Kenneth Burke means by “identification.” We want to be like characters we admire. But this is also true in real life.

I took up the topic of Kenneth Burke’s concept of “Identification,” in a previous post, “Identification and Division in the Current Crisis.” In this post, I want to delve further into the concept and explore some possible uses of the concept.

Identification and Division

Burke notes that “Identification,” (and rhetoric itself) is necessary because there is division. In The Rhetoric of Motives he says,

Identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division. Identification is compensatory to division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity. (22)

“Division” is our natural state. However, humans are also social creatures. We form families, tribes, communities, nations, alliances, and movements. Each of these groupings has ways of signaling membership and recognizing outsiders. Problems arise when different groups want to occupy the same territory, or use the same resources. But where there is division, we can try to overcome it by finding common ground.

It is likely that some identification is unconscious. We see or hear a person and we immediately “identify” with them. They seem to be like us in some way, or to be someone we would like to emulate or believe, but we don’t know exactly why. It might be gestures, a tone of voice, a remembrance of someone we admire who is similar in some way. But identification can also be consciously attempted.

Current Politics

We see this in our current politics. A politician has a core “base” of supporters who think like she does. These people strongly identify with their candidate. However, it is usually the case that the “base” is not enough to win the election. The candidate has to find ways to appeal to a larger group, without alienating her base. She has to find ways to signal to other groups that she is one of them too. Sometimes this involves using terms that have one meaning to the base, but have another to an outside group. This strategy is often called a “dogwhistle.” An actual “dogwhistle” is a whistle that when blown produces a sound that is too high pitched for humans to hear, but can be heard by dogs, who can hear a higher frequency range. In politics, by analogy, a “dogwhistle” is term that sounds positive to the base, but neutral to outsiders, who may actually disagree with the implications it has for the base if they understood them.

Identification is not just in politics, however. It is part of persuasion in schools, workplaces, corporate boardrooms and in the news. It is part of families and communities. It is even part of friendships. How does it work?

Tracking Identifications

One way to think about this is to track ways to signal identification. A short list might include:

  • Clothing including uniforms
  • Colors such as gang colors, school colors, red states and blue states, Dodger blue and Angel red
  • Symbols such as flags, insignia, designs, logos
  • Images and memes
  • Words identified with particular viewpoints (including “dogwhistles”)
  • Slogans, maxims, and stock phrases
  • Gestures such as salutes and handshakes
  • Associations with occupations, regions, social classes

Of course, there is some overlap in these categories.

Military uniforms have a long history. At a very basic level they function to help soldiers tell friend from foe and combatants from civilians. Military organizations also have various badges and insignia that indicate rank and achievements. The uniform and various attachments signify to all that this individual is a member of this organization and what role they perform in it. Of course, members of this organization are more skilled in interpreting these signals than outsiders, which increases the insider/outsider effect of identification.

Outside of the military, uniforms and other clothing choices can help observers tell employees from customers, students form teachers, and identify members of social groupings such as athletes, “goths” or other groupings defined by choices in music, sports, gaming, or other cultural activities. Of course, if an individual attempts to identify with a group by wearing its clothing, but gets it wrong in some way, that will unintentionally signal outsiderness. There is nothing more embarrassing than attempting to identify with a group and failing.

Of course, symbols such as flags and logos also define groups. Recently, there has been considerable controversy about the Confederate battle flag, the “stars and bars.” Does it signify “southern pride” or racism and slavery? Does it unify through identification or divide? The answer will probably be found by exploring what groups want to be identified with the symbol.

Internet memes are now a powerful way of signaling identity. Images from films and other media are combined with short phrases to make concise points that often signal a specific point of view.

Inducing Identification (The Ethos Move)

An interesting exercise is to read an article or listen to a speech with identification in mind. We might ask

  • Who is the audience (or audiences) that the writer/speaker wants to persuade?
  • What are some of the things that this audience identifies with?
  • What moves does the writer/speaker make to identify with this audience?
  • How successful is the writer/speaker in getting the audience to identify with them? What goes right and what goes wrong?

Responding to Identification (The Pathos Move)

Another exercise is to analyze your own response to an article or speech. We might ask

  • What are some of the groups I identify with? What are some of the things that I associate with those groups?
  • Do I identify with this writer/speaker? Do I feel part of their group? Why or why not?
  • What moves does the writer/speaker make to try to win my identification? How do I react to these moves?
  • What could this writer/speaker do better to make me identify with them?
  • How much does identification influence my willingness to accept their arguments?

Recognizing False Identifications

Sometimes attempts at identification simply don’t work. The banker in a cowboy hat does not make a convincing member of a group of cattle ranchers. The white politician who doesn’t know how to eat a tamale is unsuccessful in convincing a Latino group that he is simpatico. The democratic politician from Massachusetts looks ridiculous wearing a helmet and sitting in a tank.

However, sometimes identifications are consciously deceptive. They are an attempt to fool the audience into believing that the writer/speaker is something they are not.

For example, from sea stories by Patrick O’Brian I learned that in the 18th century, it was considered a legitimate ruse of war to fly a false flag when encountering and approaching an enemy warship, as long as the true flag went up before a shot was fired. Many English warships were captured French ones because the French built better ships, but the English sailed them better, so this ruse often brought victory. The French saw a French ship flying a French flag. Then suddenly they saw an English ship and an incoming broadside. But firing a shot under a false flag was a court martial offense, in any navy. It was against the rules of war and highly dishonorable.

In our society, is it ever acceptable to pretend to be someone or something you are not by using the terms, symbols, and other signals of identification of another group? If so, under what circumstances? I’ll leave that up to the reader.

This post as a .pdf.

Identification and Division in the Current Crisis

I don’t usually write about politics in this blog because I think that rhetoricians should be as objective as they can be. I often tell my students that their job is to analyze how the rhetoric works and how effective it is, not who has right on their side. But there comes a time when certain things must be addressed.

As I write this, the whole country, already in the midst of a pandemic, is dealing with the anger, grief, and frustration of yet another death of a black man at the hands of police. I want to write about this in terms that Kenneth Burke would use. (A previous post explains more about Burke.) There is a danger that in using theoretical terms to analyze such a visceral and traumatic event, I am putting in too much emotional distance and escaping into cold abstractions. That is not my intent. I want to try to understand what is happening.

On May 25, 2020, a white police officer in Minneapolis put his knee on the neck of a black man and kept it there for nine minutes, even while the suspect complained that he could not breathe. The suspect, George Floyd, died.

Agent-Act Ratio

An agent-act ratio would determine that the act was motivated by the nature of the agent, in this case the police officer. This ratio is at the heart of all of the “bad apple” explanations of police brutality. If a few bad officers are the root of the problem, logically the solution is to investigate and fire those officers and improve hiring procedures. Invoking this ratio has the effect of deflecting blame away from institutions and officials and onto individuals.

However, at least three other officers stood by or assisted in this act. They qualify as co-agents. Are they more bad apples? They are all members of a police department. Are all the officers in the department co-agents responsible for this act? Is the training and culture of the department at fault?


What I am doing here is what Burke would call expanding the “circumference.” Burke usually uses this term in talking about the “scene.” The scene, or context for an act can be small, a particular intersection in a particular neighborhood, for example, or it can be as big as a nation and as long as history. But here, as I expand the circumference from one agent, to co-agents, to the whole department, perhaps to police departments throughout the nation, the concept of “agent” begins to become scenic. I’ll get back to scene in a bit.

Agency-Act Ratio

Another aspect of this discussion is how police departments are equipped. In recent years, it has been the practice to sell surplus military gear to police departments. This brings us to an agency-agent ratio. If police are equipped like soldiers with assault rifles, flak jackets, and even armored vehicles (all “agencies” in Burke’s sense), how does that define their role in the community? An individual equipped like a soldier is likely to think of him or herself as a soldier. This is sometimes discussed as a warrior/guardian binary. Is a police officer a warrior at war with the community or a guardian of the safety of the citizens?

In Flint, Michigan, a sheriff, Chris Swanson, put down his riot gear and was invited by protesters to “walk with us.” This sheriff opted to put off the agencies of a warrior and become one with his community, using instead the agencies of negotiation and identification.

Scene-Act Ratio

Of course, the larger question is whether the “scene” of American culture naturally produces acts like the killing of George Floyd. If we are going to define this act through a scene-act ratio, we have to define the circumference quite broadly because acts such as this happen to black people regularly throughout the country. Is racial prejudice and injustice an irredeemable, unerasable part of American society? Is the history of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, segregation, and institutional racism simply too powerful to overcome? I hope not. But overcoming it certainly can’t be achieved by removing a few “bad apples” or retraining the police, though certainly those things should be done.

Identification and Division

For Burke, the most powerful rhetorical strategy is “identification.” He says early in his book, The Rhetoric of Motives, contrasting it with the earlier Grammar of Motives, from which the ratios I was using above came, and the planned Symbolic of Motives, which was never finished

The Rhetoric deals with the possibilities of classification in its partisan aspects; it considers the way in which individuals are at odds with one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another.

Why “at odds,” you may ask, when the titular term is “identification”? Because, to begin with “identification” is, by the same token, though roundabout, to confront the implications of division. (22)

For Burke, rhetoric would not be necessary if there were no identifications and divisions. And he notes that such rhetoric often depends on “a body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement than to any exceptional rhetorical skill” (26).

We have been subjected to nearly four years of this sort of trivial repetition and dull reinforcement, all repeated in the name of division.

However, as I noted above, Sheriff Swanson of Flint, Michigan, at least for the moment, knocked down two divisive barriers,  the black/white divide and the people/police divide, when he put down his battle gear and said, “We want to be with y’all for real so I took the helmet off and laid the batons down. I want to make this a parade, not a protest” (Taylor). We need more actions like this.


As Burke knew, we can never eliminate division from our society. Divisions and identifications are always being re-negotiated. But we are all human, and that is a starting point. We are all Americans too, but we have to be careful, lest we divide ourselves from the rest of the world. Identification starts with respect and builds with recognition of common goals and values. Understanding is often too much to expect, but we can try. At least we can try.

Addendum: Here are a couple of links that I think are quite powerful. A high school teacher who had been in one of my ERWC module development workshops sent me the first one. It’s a powerful impromptu speech, full of pathos, but also arguing that protestors should channel their anger into working within the system, broken as it is. The teacher who sent it to me said, “It hits all the targets of rhetorical appeals in a profound way. I know my students will connect with it and perhaps be inspired to emulate its features in their own writing.”

Rapper Killer Mike gives impassioned speech during Atlanta protests

This second piece is from filmmaker Kasi Lemmons. She says,

As a filmmaker, I help people imagine what’s it’s like to be someone else, to experience things from a character’s point of view — things they never will experience outside the theater. But when it comes to black life in America, there’s only one conclusion I can reach about some white people: You don’t care to put yourself in our shoes. The consequences of this lack of imagination for black Americans are deadly.

White Americans, your lack of imagination is killing us

Both of these pieces ask us to imagine the life of the other. I think that is a first step toward identification rather than division.

This post available as a .pdf.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1950.

Taylor, Ariana. “‘Let’s walk’: Sheriff joins Flint protesters in show of solidarity.” The Detroit News, May 31, 2020.

Using Kenneth Burke and Implementing Gradual Release of Responsibility

In a previous post, “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions,” I explored several concepts related to designing instructional units, among them “Gradual Release of Responsibility” as presented by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. In this post, I will begin to apply this concept to the design of a module built around another previous post, “Using Kenneth Burke’s Pentad.” Writing this mini-module may take several posts. When I finish, I will post the whole module as a downloadable unit.

Fisher and Frey describe gradual release as a continuum: “I do, we do, you do together, you do.” I find those pronouns a little confusing because in writing modules we often shift from the teacher view to the student view. I think it is clearer to say, “teacher does, teacher and students do together, students do together, student does.” They also discuss this as “Focus Lessons, Guided Instruction, Collaborative Learning, and Independent Tasks.” Activities do not necessarily have to be done in that order. What is important is to be aware of where the responsibility for learning and thinking lies and to have a mix of different types of interactions as appropriate to the learning goals. For convenience, lets imagine a 1-4 scale with “1” representing “teacher does” and “4” representing “student does.”

Because of my concern with backwards mapping (or “Backwards Design”), another concept I discussed in the “Decisions” post, I want to start out by laying out for the students what they are going to learn and how they are going to use it. I am going to try being very direct. This is very much a “teacher does” activity:

A student (or teacher) reads aloud:

In this unit, you will learn about a useful strategy called “the pentad” that is related to the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions that you probably already know. As you explore this strategy, you will analyze relationships between people and places, between tools and actions, and think about why people do the things they do. We will use this strategy to analyze movies, stories, and political issues in new ways. When we are asked to write about something, one of the biggest problems is thinking of new things to say. The pentad can be a big help. At the end of this unit, you will be asked to write about a novel or story you have studied or written about before, but in a new way. After learning about the pentad, it will be easy to take a new approach.

After reading this paragraph, what questions do you have? What more do you want to know about “the pentad”? Write down at least one question to share with the class.

The follow up question moves from “teacher does” or “1” on my scale to “teacher and students do together,” which is “2” on my scale. The purpose here is to create some anticipation of what is to come.

Now I want to activate background knowledge by asking students to do a task that shows them that they already know something about this, but also allows them to see this knowledge in a new way. I want them to think about “scene” words, words that name or define a location or context. One way of doing this is to give them a passage and ask them to find “scene” words:

When someone does something, they have to do it somewhere. Action is situated. It happens in a time and place. We can call a time and place where something happens a “scene,” as in the phrase “the scene of the crime.” When a writer begins a story, the first few paragraphs usually “set the scene.” Here is the first paragraph of a famous short story, “Hill Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway. As you read the paragraph, try to identify “scene” words and phrases, words and phrases that are associated with places or parts of places where things might happen.

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

How many words did you find? For example, the “Ebro” is a river. That is a place. It has formed a valley, and there are hills. There are names of cities. There are also location words such as “side” and “between.”

The Hemingway passage “sets the scene” for the story, but you could substitute a passage from almost any literary work. I would rate this activity a “2” on my scale because the teacher is supplying the passage and asking the questions.

Next, I would like to explore the relationship between the scene and the people in it, what Burke will call a scene→agent ratio.

Write a paragraph about how where you grew up (scene) influenced who you are as a person. You can define the “scene” in various ways big or small–a country, a city or town, a neighborhood, a school, an ethnic community, a household, a family, etc.

This writing task will initiate a scene→agent ratio without using all of Burke’s terms. The task itself is a “4,” because the students are deciding what to write about and working independently. We could transition to a “3” type of activity by having students share their paragraphs in groups or pairs and commenting further on the ways that scenes influence the people in them.

At this point, the students have been introduced to the concept of “scene” and have worked on the relationship between scenes and agents with knowing very much about Burke’s entire scheme. They are now ready to read my short introduction to Burke’s pentad. This is a “Focused Instruction” activity, a “1” on my scale. It is essentially a lecture.

I will follow this with some group activities using the pentad to analyze popular movies, moving from “2” type “guided instruction” activities to “3” type collaborative activities. At the end they will get an independent writing assignment. I will describe these activities in detail in a following post.  So far, I have introduced some new concepts, explored them a bit with examples, and asked students to apply them.  In the following post, they will begin to use them for their own purposes.