What is Identification in Rhetoric?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Kenneth Burke
American literary theorist and rhetorician Kenneth Burke (1897-1993). (Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images)

In rhetoric, the term identification refers to any of the wide variety of means by which a writer or speaker may establish a shared sense of values, attitudes, and interests with an audience. Also known as consubstantiality. Contrast with Confrontational Rhetoric.

"Rhetoric . . . works its symbolic magic through identification," says R.L. Heath. "It can bring people together by emphasizing the 'margin of overlap' between the rhetor's and the audience's experiences" (The Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, 2001).

As rhetorician Kenneth Burke observed in A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), "Identification is affirmed with earnestness . . . precisely because there is division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity." As mentioned below, Burke was the first to use the term identification in a rhetorical sense.

In The Implied Reader (1974), Wolfgang Iser maintains that identification is "not an end in itself, but a stratagem by means of which the author stimulates attitudes in the reader."

Etymology: From Latin, "the same"

Examples and Observations

  • "Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, or a study of the means available for any given situation. . . . [W]e might keep in mind that a speaker persuades an audience by the use of stylistic identifications; his act of persuasion may be for the purpose of causing the audience to identify with the speaker's interests; and the speaker draws on identification of interests to establish rapport between himself and his audience. So, there is no chance of our keeping apart the meanings of persuasion, identification ('consubstantiality'), and communication (the nature of rhetoric as 'addressed')."
    (Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives. University of California Press, 1950)
  • "You're an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition--and talent. We deserve each other . . . and you realize and you agree how completely you belong to me?"
    (George Sanders as Addison DeWitt in the film All About Eve, 1950)

    Examples of Identification in the Essays of E.B. White

    • - "I feel an extraordinary kinship with this aging statesman [Daniel Webster], this massive victim of pollinosis whose declining days sanctioned the sort of compromise that is born of local irritation. There is a fraternity of those who have been tried beyond endurance. I am closer to Daniel Webster, almost, than to my own flesh."
      (E.B. White, "The Summer Catarrh." One Man's Meat, 1944)
    • "I felt very deeply his sorrow and his defeat. As things go in the animal kingdom, [the old gander] is about my age, and when he lowered himself to creep under the bar, I could feel in my own bones his pain at bending so far."
      (E.B. White, "The Geese." Essays of E.B. White. Harper, 1983)
    • "I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting. . . .
    • "When we slid the body into the grave, we both were shaken to the core. The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig. He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world."
      (E.B. White, "Death of a Pig." The Atlantic, January 1948)
    • "Friendship, lust, love, art, religion--we rush into them pleading, fighting, clamoring for the touch of spirit laid against our spirit. Why else would you be reading this fragmentary page--you with the book in your lap? You're not out to learn anything, certainly. You just want the healing action of some chance corroboration, the soporific of spirit laid against spirit."
      (E. B. White, "Hot Weather." One Man's Meat, 1944)
    • "This general pattern of persistent identification followed by climactic division also underlies [E.B. White's] essay 'A Slight Sound at Evening,' a centenary celebration of the first publication of [Henry David Thoreau's] Walden. Characterizing Thoreau's 'odd' book as 'an invitation to life's dance,' White suggests parallels between their occupations ('Even my immediate business is no barrier between us'), their work places (White's boathouse being 'the same size and shape as [Thoreau's] own domicile on the pond'), and, most significantly, their central conflicts:
      Walden is the report of a man torn by two powerful and opposing drives--the desire to enjoy the world (and not to be derailed by a mosquito wing) and the urge to set the world straight. One cannot join these two successfully, but sometimes, in rare cases, something good or even great results from the attempt of the tormented spirit to reconcile them.
      . . . Clearly, White's inner quarrels, as depicted in his essays, are less profound than Thoreau's. White is customarily perplexed rather than 'torn,' uneasy rather than 'tormented.' And yet the sense of inner division to which he lays claim may explain, in part, his persistent urge to establish points of identification with his subjects."
      (Richard F. Nordquist, "Forms of Imposture in the Essays of E.B. White." Critical Essays on E.B. White, ed. by Robert L. Root, Jr. G.K. Hall, 1994)

      Kenneth Burke on Identification

      • "The overall thrust of 'Identify, Identification' [in Kenneth Burke's Attitudes Toward History, 1937] is that a person's identification with 'manifestations beyond himself' is natural and reflects our fundamentally social, political, and historical makeup. Attempts to deny this and 'eradicate' identification as a positive concept for understanding human nature is folly and perhaps even dangerous, Burke warns. . . . Burke asserts what he takes to be an inescapable truth: that 'the so-called "I" is merely a unique combination of partially conflicting "corporate we's"' (ATH, 264). We may substitute one identification for another, but we can never escape the human need for identification. 'In fact,' Burke comments, '"identification" is hardly other than a name for the function of sociality' (ATH, 266-67)."
        (Ross Wolin, The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke. The University of South Carolina Press, 2001)

      Identification and Metaphor

      • "Instead of thinking of metaphor as a comparison that leaves something out, try thinking of it as an identification, a way of bringing together seemingly unlike things. In this sense, metaphor is a strong identification, while simile and analogy are more cautious attempts to link unlike things. In this way, we can see that metaphor is not merely one technique among many but is instead a crucial way of thinking, an attempt to bridge conceptual gaps, a mental activity at the very heart of rhetoric. Rhetoric itself, as Kenneth Burke suggests, is all about identification, finding common ground among persons, places, things, and ideas usually divided."
        (M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Appeals in Modern Rhetoric. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005)

      Identification in Advertising: Maxim

      • "Great News! The Free Year Certificate enclosed is guaranteed to bring you a Free Year of MAXIM. . . .
        "It has your name on it and can only be used by you.
        "Why?
        "Because MAXIM is written for you. Especially for guys like you. MAXIM speaks your language and knows your fantasies. You're the Man and MAXIM knows it!
        "MAXIM is here to make your life better in every way! Hot women, cool cars, cold beer, high tech toys, hilarious jokes, intense sports action, . . . in short, your life will be SUPERSIZED."
        (subscription sales pitch for Maxim magazine)
      • "It is amusing to discover, in the 20th century, that the quarrels between two lovers, two mathematicians, two nations, two economic systems, usually assumed insoluble in a finite period should exhibit one mechanism, the semantic mechanism of identification--the discovery of which makes universal agreement possible, in mathematics and in life."
        (Alfred Korzybski)

      Pronunciation: i-DEN-ti-fi-KAY-shun