Dramatism Theory Explained


Dramatism Theory was developed by Kenneth Burke as a way to analyze human relationships through interpretive studies. It is a theory that compares life to a drama. This provides a direct route from human motivation to human relationships. It is a strategy that intends to help others view life, not live it, and be able to compare each social unit or activity as one of the five elements of a drama.

How do we explain human action? Motivations behind human activities? The Dramatism Theory uses a five-pointed star to help separate the key elements that exist within this idea.

What Are the 5 Points of Dramatism Theory?

Burke uses a parallel extension of the six questions that should be asked in an interview: who, what, where, when, and how. This brought him to the 5 elements that should be in every drama: an act, a scene, an agent, an agency, and the purpose.

This corresponds with the decisions that are made in life that correspond to motivation and relationships.

  • The Act: This describes what was done. It is the motivation behind the decisions that are being made.
  • The Scene: This describes where the event occurs. It has an influence on the decision that was made.
  • The Agent: This is a description of the decision-maker.
  • The Agency: This is a detailed description of the methodology that was used to implement the decision that was made. Various methods can be incorporated into this point, including apologetics, messaging, or storytelling.
  • The Purpose: Why did the decision need to be made in the first place?

This leads to the three key concepts that are associated with dramatism theory.

  1. Dramatistic Pentad. This is the instrument that is used to create the set of principles, either relational or functional, to understand the motive behind the decisions that are made. It incorporates the 5 points of dramatism and provides a complete statement behind each element of the decision0-making process.
  2. Identification. When two people overlap with the substance of what is being offered, this concept is used to distinguish them. Because there is overlap in every human relationship, Burke argues that identifaction is impossible to ignore. It offers rhetoric, can be falsified, and be reflective of any ambiguities that are present within the substance that is being offered.
  3. Guilt. The root of all rhetoric lies in guilt. Burke sees human activity as a method to purge oneself of guilt, which often occurs through public speaking. Other emotions are associated into this concept, such as shame, anxiety, or disgust.

There is a hierarchy associated with these points and concepts through the power that is available within each relationship. The dramatic process must have structure for it to reflect the human condition. The structure of each relationship helps to determine the social awareness of the individual and how they will react in any given situation.

Let’s take a husband and wife for example. The husband kisses his wife goodbye as he heads out the door for work. Does he kiss the next woman he meets as he gets on the subway? Not likely, since the structure of the relationship is different. Through communication, we each make decisions.

The Three Aspects of Communication in Dramatism Theory

Burke offers three types of communication that are used to form social hierarchies within society.

The first is superiority. This communication occurs when one individual feels that they have a moral or ethical control over a specific situation. They act in confidence because they “know” they are right. What other people think or feel doesn’t matter to them.

The second is inferiority. This communication occurs when there is a concession to another that they are, in fact, superior in some way. It is a social relationship that communicates, “Go ahead and lead. I’ll follow.”

The third is equality. It may occur when there are differences or similarities in opinion. It can occur between different socioeconomic classes. It occurs when both may feel superior or both may feel inferior. It is a concept that we often hear expressed as, “I have a lot of respect for this person.”

In Dramatism Theory, many equate “respect” to “equality.”

Some people may choose to reject the place they seem themselves in the social order. Others may feel like they are being purposely victimized so they cannot “get ahead.” Some scapegoating can be fractional, others can be general, with the purpose to get others to feel sorry for them.

Dramatism Theory does an excellent job of explaining the motivation behind decisions and then actions which follow. Just like a script, when the parts are all there, the outcome can become predictable.