Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss
Image source: Encyclopædia Britannica
Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss
Image source:

Claude Lévi-Strauss, (November 28, 1908 - October 30, 2009), was a French anthropologist and ethnologist whose work was key in the development of the theory of structuralism and structural anthropology. He was recognized as one of the twentieth century's greatest intellectuals by developing structural anthropology as a method of understanding human society and culture.
He applied his method to numerous cultural systems, notably kinship structures and mythological patterns. A leading proponent of structuralism, Lévi-Strauss' influence has been significant not only throughout the social sciences, but also in philosophy, comparative religion, and the study of literature. His life-long quest was to show us the deeper unity we share as human beings, in spite of so many outward differences.

Lévi-Strauss argued that the "savage" mind had the same structures as the "civilized" mind and that human characteristics are the same everywhere. These observations culminated in his famous book Tristes Tropiques (1955) that established his position as one of the central figures in the structuralist school of thought. As well as sociology, his ideas reached into many fields in the humanities, including philosophy. Structuralism has been defined as "the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity."

Tristes Tropiques was essentially a memoir detailing his time as a French expatriate throughout the 1930s, and his travels. Lévi-Strauss combined exquisitely beautiful prose, dazzling philosophical meditation, and ethnographic analysis of the Amazonian peoples to produce a masterpiece. The organizers of the Prix Goncourt, for instance, lamented that they were not able to award Lévi-Strauss the prize because Tristes Tropiques was technically non-fiction. This book served to popularize his other works immensely.

Among his many significant publications, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) and The Savage Mind (1962) exemplify his contributions to anthropology.


The Elementary Structures of Kinship

The Elementary Structures of Kinship was published in 1949 and quickly came to be regarded as one of the most important anthropological works on kinship. It was reviewed favorably by Simone de Beauvoir, who viewed it as an important statement of the position of women in non-Western cultures. A play on the title of Émile Durkheim's famous Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Elementary Structures re-examined how people organized their families by examining the logical structures that underlay relationships rather than their contents. While British anthropologists such as Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown argued that kinship was based on descent from a common ancestor, Lévi-Strauss argued that kinship was based on the alliance between two families that formed when women from one group married men from another.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Lévi-Strauss, in 1936, in Brazilian Amazonia, where he undertook fieldwork.

The Savage Mind (La Pensée Sauvage)

In 1962, Lévi-Strauss published what is for many people his most important work, La Pensée Sauvage, translated into English as The Savage Mind. The French title is an untranslatable pun because the word pensée means both "thought" and "pansy", while sauvage has a range of meanings different from English "savage". Lévi-Strauss supposedly suggested that the English title be Pansies for Thought, borrowing from a speech by Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet (ACT IV, Scene V). French editions of La Pensée Sauvage are often printed with an image of wild pansies on the cover.

The Savage Mind discusses not just "primitive" thought, a category defined by previous anthropologists, but also forms of thought common to all human beings.
The first half of the book lays out Lévi-Strauss's theory of culture and mind, while the second half expands this account into a theory of history and social change. This latter part of the book engaged Lévi-Strauss in a heated debate with Jean-Paul Sartre over the nature of human freedom. On the one hand, Sartre's existentialist philosophy committed him to a position that human beings fundamentally were free to act as they pleased. On the other hand, Sartre also was a leftist who was committed to ideas such as that individuals were constrained by the ideologies imposed on them by the powerful. Lévi-Strauss presented his structuralist notion that underlying unity would be found through the comparison of social structures. Echoes of this debate between structuralism and existentialism eventually inspired the work of younger authors such as Pierre Bourdieu.



Lévi-Strauss' theories are set forth in Structural Anthropology (1958). Briefly, he considered culture a system of symbolic communication, to be investigated with methods that others have used more exclusively in the discussion of novels, political speeches, sports, economic journals, and movies. His reasoning makes best sense against the background of an earlier generation's social theory. Victor Turner and others have critiqued structuralism, like Marxism and secular existentialism, as reducing general expressions of faith and community to mere symbolism, leaving them devoid of real meaning.

Lévi-Strauss was ever-dedicated to the exhaustive analysis of volumes of data. This often shocked and overwhelmed the academic community. He not only utilized a wide range of subject matter, he also utilized an array of scientific methodologies, including mathematical formulas, complex graphic comparisons, cybernetics, modern linguistic theory, and chaos theory, to mention just a few. He seemed to find patterns where no one else could find them, and his method, though rigorous, was unique in each application making it exceedingly difficult for others to replicate. He was criticized for not being an expert in these diverse fields and for utilizing the work of others, rather than limiting his research to the field of his own experience and with languages he was personally adept in. Yet, his attention to detail and precision in method was remarkable and difficult to defeat intellectually.

Lévi-Strauss is often cited as the founder of structural anthropology, and as such chose to use data that emphasized the demands of the social order. He had no difficulty bringing out the inconsistencies and triviality of individualistic accounts. Methods of linguistics became a model for all his earlier examinations of society. "A truly scientific analysis must be real, simplifying, and explanatory," he stated (in Structural Anthropology). Phonemic analysis reveals features that are real, in the sense that users of the language can recognize and respond to them. At the same time, a phoneme is an abstraction from language—not a sound, but a category of sound defined by the way it is distinguished from other categories through rules unique to the language. The entire sound-structure of a language can be generated from a relatively small number of rules.

In the study of the kinship systems that first concerned him, he utilized a comprehensive organization of data that had been partly ordered by other researchers. The overall goal was to find out why family relations differed in different South American cultures. The father might have great authority over the son in one group, for example, with the relationship rigidly restricted by taboos. In another group, the mother's brother would have that kind of relationship with the son, while the father's relationship was relaxed and playful.

A number of partial patterns had been previously noted. Relations between the mother and father, for example, had some sort of reciprocity with those of father and son—if the mother had a dominant social status and was formal with the father, for example, then the father usually had close relations with the son. But these smaller patterns joined together in inconsistent ways. For Lévi-Strauss, a proper solution to the puzzle was to find a basic unit of kinship which can explain all the variations.

He found this unit in the cluster of four roles—brother, sister, father, son. These are the roles that must be involved in any society that has an incest taboo, requiring a man to obtain a wife from some man outside his own hereditary line. A brother can give away his sister, for example, whose son might reciprocate in the next generation by allowing his own sister to marry exogamously. The underlying demand is a continued circulation of women to keep various clans peacefully related.

Right or wrong, this solution displays essential qualities of the structural position. Even though Lévi-Strauss frequently spoke of treating culture as the product of the axioms and corollaries that underlie it, or the phonemic differences that constitute it, he was concerned with the objective data of field research. He noted that it is logically possible for a different unit of kinship structure to exist—sister, sister's brother, brother's wife, daughter—but there are no real-world examples of relationships that can be derived from that grouping.

Lévi-Strauss' later works are more controversial, in part because they impinge on the subject matter of other scholars. He believed that modern life and all history was founded on the same categories and transformations that he had discovered in the Brazilian back country—The Raw and the Cooked, From Honey to Ashes, The Naked Man (to borrow some titles from the Mythologies). For instance he compared anthropology to musical serialism.

His voluminous data and ability to defend his analyses have had an impact on neurological brain research, especially in connection to his applications of linguisitic phonemes. His work seems to provide preliminary data on underlying connections with universal brain function, and has thus stimulated more research on these topics.

He has argued for a view of human life as existing in two timelines simultaneously, the eventful one of history and the long cycles in which one set of fundamental mythic patterns dominates and then perhaps another. In this respect, his work resembles that of Fernand Braudel, the historian of the Mediterranean and la longue durée, the cultural outlook and forms of social organization that persisted for centuries around that sea.
(New World Encyclopedia)