Kenneth Burke’s Dramatism

B. Cohrs Spring 2002


            One of my favorite rhetorical theorists, Kenneth Burke has done wonders for communication.  Not only is he proficient in communication theory, but he is also known for creative writing, social psychology, and linguistic analysis.  His most noted theory, in which I will be discussing throughout this paper, is that of dramatism. 


            Burke has done amazing things to shape what we know about communication theory.  According to Littlejohn (2002), anyone who is writing about communication today, in some way is restating something that Burke had already created.  Burke wrote a several books over a period of fifty years dealing mainly with symbolic theory.


            As I said earlier, one of Burke’s most noted theories is dramatism.  The main concept of dramatism is broken into two parts: action and motion.  Action is something that people do on purpose in way of their voluntary behavior.  Motions are behaviors that are non-purposeful and non-meaningful.  Littlejohn (2002) explains that only people have actions and objects and animals have motion.


            Actions deal with the basic forms of thought.  According to Burke in one of his books entitled, “Grammar of Motives” (1945), basic forms of thought can be made prevalent through attributing motives.  Motives are a linguistic product of rhetorical action.  Motives are the particular way people understand events and the recommendations for response inherent to the discourse that it presents for its audience.  (Burke, 1945)


            In order for motives to be understood further, Burke presents what is knows as the Pentad.  The Pentad, in my opinion, is the backbone of Burke’s Dramatism.  There are five key terms in Burke’s pentad.  They are act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose.  According to Burke, the act is basically what took place.  The agent is who or what did the act.  The scene is where the act took place, or the background of the act.  The agency is what the person used to perform the act and finally the purpose is why the act took place.


            To sum it up, Burke’s pentad is similar to what reporters in journalism call the “who, when, where, why and how.” 


            Let’s setup an example in modern times to explain the pentad.  Let’s say that a fraternity guy finds that his sorority girlfriend has been cheating on him.  So he takes some nude photos that he has of her and publishes them on the internet for revenge.  The act is publishing the nude photos on to the internet.  This is what took place.  The agent is the fraternity guy who performed the act.  The scene is probably in the fraternity guy’s room where his computer is located.  It is also important when defining the scene to indicate when the act to took place.  So we will say that it took place in the middle of the night while the fraternity guy was irate.  The agency is tools used in performing the act.  In this case, the agency would be a computer and scanner.  The purpose of the act would be to seek revenge on his girlfriend or soon to be ex-girlfriend.


            The pentad can be used to explain and analyze almost any thing that happens in the world.  Whether it is a physical action similar to the above example or even what someone would say or think. 


            The thing that I like most about the pentad, which I feel is the backbone of Burke’s dramatism, is its simplicity.  It is very easy to understand and can be applied to the simplest scenarios or to the most complex.  Burke himself discuses his feeling about the pentad in his book, The Philosophy of Literary Form (1973):  “I think these five terms are particularly handy for extending the discussion of motivation so as to locate the strategies in metaphysical and theological systems.”  Burke goes on to state that by looking within the structure of these actions, one may find motivation within the structure.  The pentad itself is based around drama.  The words scene, act, etc. are all have dramatic roots.  Thus his communication theory is known as dramatism. (Burke, 1973).


            To further analyze this theory we must use check the criteria when evaluating theories.  When evaluating theories, it is important to check to see if the theory is necessary and desirable.  The theory is necessary because it is logically consistent and testable as I have shown.


            The theory, too, is desirable.  It is fairly simple, pleasing to the mind, and useful.  The theory is also interpretable to explain and predict.


            This theory also fits the standard functions of theories.  Burke’s dramatism allows us to organize and summarize our knowledge by separating an event into five easily recognizable parts.  With these parts separated, it allows us to focus our attention on the important variables.  Since our event is divided up it enables us to clarify our interpretations of observations.  Finally, it explains and predicts the event.


            Yet another aspect to look at when analyzing theories is corrigibility.  Corrigibility is the persistence that no matter how right everyone thinks the theory may be, that there might be some sort of flaw or disconfirmation some where along the lines.  Corrigibility is not a bad thing, but merely keeps the idea of having the ability to challenge one’s theory at any given time and proving the theory wrong.  If the theory eventually is proven wrong, we then can look into more detail to create one that is even better.  Thus, new theories advance our society. (Cagle, 2002)


            There is some corrigibility within Burke’s theory.  Two individuals can look at an event and possible see it different.  Each and every one of us has different temperaments, talents, and convictions, which persuade us to understand things slightly differently.  Since this happens, two individuals who experienced the same event may feel that they came up with a purpose that was not congruent.  In other words, I may feel that the fraternity guy posted those nude pictures of his girlfriend on the internet out of jealousy while someone else may feel he did it out of kindness.  Republicans and democrats do this all the time when political events occur. (Cagle, 2002)


            All and all, I feel that Burke created an excellent theory that may serve us for the next hundred years.  His theory fits the criteria for analyzing theories to a “T”.  His experience and knowledge in the field of communication makes him one of the most noted of his kind and his works and materials in all of his fields will remain as a mentor for all of us.





Burke, K. (1945). Grammar of motives.  New York, NY: Prentice Hall.


Burke, K. (1973). Philosophy of literary form (3rd ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press


Cagle, J. A. (2002). Science and theories. Retrieved 13 March 2002 from the World Wide Web:


Littlejohn, S. W. (2002).  Theories of human communication  (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning