Anthropology Rhetoric Culture Theory
Christian Meyer, Felix Girke, Michał Mokrzan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0157


A world in which the truth was certain, the past known, the future transparent, and identity unambiguous might be the aspirational ideal of the human sciences, and surely serves as a political model at times, but it occludes the realities of human cognition, culture, and communication. One attempt to understand the actual realm of human experience extends from the rhetorical theory of Greek and Roman Antiquity through philosophical anthropology and a revival of rhetoric in the 20th century, and most recently to rhetoric culture theory (RCT). RCT was first developed in Germany and soon advanced further, primarily in the United Kingdom and United States. Through juxtaposition of concepts from rhetoric and cultural anthropology, RCT articulates a concept of culture that views practice as epistemologically prior to both intention and structure. This focus is achieved specifically by the integration of three common dichotomies of cultural theory. First, RCT explores the productive tension between the willful individual and constraining society, especially as these are connected in an ongoing and ever-emergent process of mutual re-creation through language and culture. Second, RCT reconsiders the tension between structural determinism and situational openness, especially as indeterminacy is managed through interventions in time and often remains unresolved to maintain ongoing processes of social continuity and change. Finally, RCT draws together the fantastic or evocative as well as the material dimensions of culture, and does so by developing the concept of rhetorical energy, while also being interested in stylistic variation and aesthetic appeal through the concept of figuration. Through these precepts, RCT is able to provide detailed accounts of the specific rules and improvisations defining situated cultural practices, and yet also explores how those same practices are grounded in profound gaps in meaning due to the inchoateness, fallibility, and precariousness of the human condition. To stay close to how practice makes provisional use of recurrent forms, RCT also advocates a reflexive methodological stance that positions observer and observed and their respective concepts on the same epistemological level. Thus, as initially conceptualized by Ivo Strecker and Stephen Tyler, RCT can serve as a productive response to postmodern uncertainties in regard to theoretical, epistemological, and methodological questions in anthropology and cultural theory. It reaffirms both pragmatic and artistic modalities of cultural practice, and offers ways of becoming attuned to how communities live on the edge of both wonder and catastrophe.

Emergence of the Rhetoric Culture Project

As a consequence of the postmodern “mood” of the late 20th century, scholars from various disciplines developed new interests in rhetoric and vice versa. Prominently, rhetoricians working at the German university of Tübingen turned to philosophical anthropology, phenomenology, and hermeneutics in the mid-20th century, most famously with the work Gadamer 1960. This helped them fathom the universal capacities of Homo sapiens whom they preferred to call Homo rhetoricus. Human beings, Josef Kopperschmidt and his collaborators argued, use persuasive speech not only to influence others but also to shape their very selves (see Kopperschmidt 2000). This creative process involves the five great rhetorical arts that form, as Peter Oesterreich has put it, “a heuristic key for the fundamental-rhetorical notion of mind” (see Oesterreich 2009, p. 50). Work done by scholars such as Brian Vickers (see Vickers 1988), and specifically the Homo rhetoricus studies conducted at Tübingen, inspired Ivo Strecker together with Christian Meyer, Felix Girke, and others at the Institute of Anthropology and African Studies (Mainz, Germany) to establish a liaison between anthropology and rhetoric with the aim to develop a theory of cultura rhetorica, as recounted in Strecker 2014. Stephen Tyler of Rice University (Houston, TX) as well as other scholars from abroad soon joined the International Rhetoric Culture Project and attended the four conferences held at Mainz University in 2002 and 2005 (see International Rhetoric Culture Project). The results of these and other symposia and seminars that followed at universities in Evanston, IL (Ralph Cintron, Robert Hariman); Boulder, CO (Gerard Hauser, Pete Simonson); Durham, NC (Michael Carrithers); Cape Town, South Africa (Philippe-Joseph Salazar); and Hannover, Germany (Christian Meyer) have been and will continue to be published in the Berghahn Books series Studies in Rhetoric and Culture. From 2009 to 2016, seven volumes of the series have appeared from Berghahn Books, each extending RCT to another field or further elaborating one of its aspects, with more being planned for the coming years. It is important to note that RCT is inspired and supported not only by the occidental rhetorical tradition, but also by equivalent indigenous understandings of the power of speech, an influence that preempts a simple reproduction of Western philosophy. Quoting Maurice Leenhardt, Meyer 2009 examines the New Caledonians, that they used to have the concept of no, which “encompasses ‘thinking, speaking, and social action,’” and that for them, this implies “activity and psychic behaviour, through which each being reveals or affirms himself” (p. 1146). Similarly, the Hamar of southern Ethiopia say that “apho barjo ne” (the word is fate, good fortune). As Lydall and Strecker 1979 argues, this means that the fabric of their society has to be constantly renewed by using the power of the word. Only barjo aela (calling forth wellbeing) can ensure that the social and natural world will continue to appear in a regular and ordered way.

  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1960. Truth and method. London: Sheed & Ward.

    Teaching at the University of Heidelberg, Gadamer became one of the leading figures in postwar German “Philosophische Anthropologie.” His hermeneutic method was particularly congenial to Homo rhetoricus theory because it postulated that rhetoric is grounded in a “natural attitude,” which, when cultivated, will lead to “practical mastery.”

  • Kopperschmidt, Josef, ed. 2000. Rhetorische Anthropologie: Studien um Homo rhetoricus. Munich: Fink.

    This rich compendium is the result of dedicated work done at the Seminar für Allgemeine Rhetorik in Tübingen, Germany. In different ways the contributors explore the self-fashioning nature of Homo rhetoricus, but they do this without any naïve essentialism, and they try not to generalize inappropriately from cultural specifics.

  • Lydall, Jean, and Ivo Strecker. 1979. Baldambe explains: The Hamar of southern Ethiopia. Vol. 2. Hohenschäftlarn, Germany: Renner Verlag.

    Baldambe, mentor and teacher of the anthropologists, gives an account of the traditional life of his people and explains how the well-being of nature and society in Hamar is continually created and re-created by means of the human voice. The book may well serve as an indigenous introduction to the rhetorical creation of Hamar culture.

  • Meyer, Christian. 2009. Rhetoric and culture in non-European societies. In Rhetoric and stylistics: An international handbook of historical and systematic research. Vol. 2. Edited by Ulla Fix, Andreas Gardt, and Joachim Knape, 1144–1158. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110213713.1.1.1144

    This text discusses the relationship between rhetoric and culture as it is conceptualized in non-European cultures. It reveals that notions that connect rhetoric and culture emerge in particular under conditions of discourse-based political organization, a profound skepticism concerning cosmological and ideological certainties, a certain degree of social interdependence, and social prestige of skillful rhetoric associated with available yet limited social positions that talented, ambitious, and eloquent individuals might strive for.

  • Oesterreich, Peter L. 2009. Homo rhetoricus. In Culture and rhetoric. Edited by Ivo Strecker and Stephen Tyler, 49–58. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

    Building on his earlier studies of “fundamental rhetoric,” Oesterreich here explores, as he says, “the possibility of a more comprehensive rhetorical theory of culture that characterizes our species as homo rhetoricus” (p. 49).

  • Strecker, Ivo. 2010. Ethnographic chiasmus: Essays on culture, conflict and rhetoric. East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press.

    These ethnographic essays—meant to demonstrate the role of rhetoric in the creation of culture—emerged along with rhetoric culture theory. In one of the essays (“Rhetoric in the Context of War”), Strecker recalls that like other postmodern anthropologists, he had been searching for a new paradigm for the study of culture, and how eventually two of his teachers—Baldambe from Hamar in Ethiopia and Stephen Tyler from Rice University—influenced him by pointing his attention in the same direction: rhetoric.

  • Strecker, Ivo. 2014. Zur Liaison von Ethnologie und Rhetorik: Eine Chronik. In Wege moderner Rhetorikforschung: Klassische Fundamente und interdisziplinäre Entwicklung. Edited by Gert Ueding and Gregor Kalivoda, 503–527. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

    The essay chronicles the liaison between anthropology and rhetoric established at Mainz. For the first time, Strecker switches here to Latin in order to emphasize the close correspondence and mutual interdependence of the theory of man as a rhetorical being (Homo rhetoricus) and the theory of rhetoric culture (cultura rhetorica). Both fields of study belong closely together and supplement each other.

  • Studies in Rhetoric and Culture. 2009–2016. New York: Berghahn.

    From 2009 to 2016, seven volumes of the series have appeared from Berghahn Books, each extending RCT to another field or further elaborating one of its aspects, with more being planned for the coming years. Series edited by Ivo Strecker, Stephen Tyler, and Robert Hariman.

  • Vickers, Brian. 1988. In defence of rhetoric. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Ever since Ivor Richards, Kenneth Burke, and others, there have been scholars who liberated the discipline of rhetoric from its traditional confinements and broadened and refigured it in numerous ways. Vickers’s much-acclaimed book is part of this movement and recommends itself because of its lucid style and comprehensive coverage of the topic.

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