The Pentad of Kenneth Burke

The pentad is an instrument for interpreting actual and potential
motives. For Burke, the pentad evolved as a dialectical device for “rounding” one’s perspective, for preventing one from limiting himself to a single perspective.

Burke’s pentad

This model consists of five elements:

  1. Act – What was done? What took place in thought or deed?)
  2. Scene – Where and when was it done? (Context, background, situation)
  3. Agent – Who did it? What kind of person? What are the co- or counter-agents?
  4. Agency – By what means or with what tools was it done?
  5. Purpose – Why was it done?

Example #1: This morning, Tom got so bothered by the lack of light in his living room that he grabbed a chainsaw and cut down the apple tree in front of the window.

Act: Cutting down the apple tree
Scene: Morning (when), in the garden (where)
Agent: Tom
Agency: The chainsaw
Purpose: To let more light in

Example #2: Taking in summer guests was my parents’ way of
helping young academics revise a manuscript before

Act: Taking in summer guests
Scene: Summer
Agent: My parents
Agency: Knowledge
Purpose: To help young academics revise

The Pentad is most useful when we look for the relationships (ratios ) between the five terms. For example, let’s say that the topic is “students skipping classes”, a situation we can classify as primarily an act. We can now explain this action by creating the following ratios:

Act-Act: The act is the result of another act.

In the first class, the teacher embarrassed one of the
students, so the students felt entitled to skip classes.

Scene-Act: The act is the result of the setting and circumstances.

The school is right beside a beach. Can you blame young people for being drawn away to admire the local scenery?

Agent-Act: the act is the result of the agent’s motivation

The students were lazy. That’s why they skipped classes on a regular basis.

Agency-Act: The act is the result of the available tools or

Since no buses ran that early, the students couldn’t make use of public transport to get to class. That’s why many skipped classes on a regular basis.

Purpose-Act: The act is the result of a particular purpose.

The students skipped classes because skipping classes is fun.

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