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Wednesday 21 May 2014

Claude Lévi-Strauss


Claude Lévi-Strauss


Perhaps the most intellectually wide ranging and theoretically daring anthropologist of the modern era, and the one who has had the most influence in philosophical and lit- erary circles, Lévi-Strauss was born in Brussels in 1908 but grew up in Paris. He was a brilliant student with strong political convictions, writing his baccalaureate thesis on the philosophical implications of Marx before taking up a teaching post in the provinces. 
Bored with his job, Lévi-Strauss was determined to reconcile his intellectual interests with his desire for adventure, and in 1935 he set off for São Paulo, Brazil to teach sociology at the newly formed University there. Without any formal training in anthropology, but inspired by his reading of American ethnographers, and especially by Robert LOWIE's Primitive society, he used his holidays to begin fieldwork with the Bororo and Caduveo tribes, and later conducted research with the Nambikwara   an experience wonderfully evoked in his memoir Tristes tropiques (1963c), which remains the best introduction to his elusive literary style   a seductive blend of erudition and intuition. 
Lévi-Strauss returned to Paris in 1939 but soon was obliged to migrate to New York, where he taught afternoons in the New School, spent his mornings in the New York Public Library reading ethnographies, and mixed with a remarkable circle of French exiles and American academics in the evening. Especially influential was Roman Jakobson, who introduced Lévi-Strauss to the work of the Prague school of LINGUISTICS. It was with Jakobson's encouragement that he began work on the book that gained him his reputation, The elementary structures of kinship (1969a), which he completed in 1947 and presented as his doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne. 

Major Works:

Elementary structures of kinship:

In his classic work on the link between kinship and exchange – The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) – Lévi-Strauss describes the following custom. In inexpensive restaurants in the south of France, especially in the wine-growing regions, a meal normally includes a small bottle of wine. The quality and quantity of wine for each diner is the same: one glass of the lowest quality. Instead of pouring wine into his or her own glass, the owner will pour the wine into that of a neighbour. Despite the exchange, the quantity of wine remains the same. The exchange of wine becomes a means of establishing social contact. Even more. In microcosm, the link between exchange and the ‘total social fact’ is revealed, since it is not what is exchanged that is important, but the fact of exchange itself, a fact inseparable from the very constitution of social life.

Two important aspects of Lévi-Strauss’s anthropology are introduced here. The first is the principle that social and cultural life cannot be uniquely explained by a version of functionalism: cultural life is not explicable in terms of the intrinsic nature of the phenomena in question. Nor can it be explained empirically by facts deemed to speak for themselves. In short, although empirical research constitutes an important part of his work, Lévi-Strauss is not an empiricist. Rather, he has always maintained that he is first and foremost a structural anthropologist. Broadly, structural anthropology, inspired by Saussure, focuses on the way elements of a system combine together, rather than on their intrinsic value. ‘Difference’ and ‘relation’ are the key notions here. Moreover, the combination of these elements will give rise to oppositions and contradictions which serve to give the social realm its dynamism.

‘Scope’ is another crucial aspect of Lévi-Strauss’s approach. For while many social researchers have limited their interpretations of social life to the specific society in which they have carried out fieldwork, Lévi-Strauss adopts a universalist approach, theorizing on the basis of both his own and other anthropologists’ data. Of all the general criticisms that have been levelled against Lévi-Strauss, the one which claims that he theorises from an inadequate fieldwork base is probably the most common in English-speaking countries. For these are also the countries with the strongest empiricist tradition.

Generally speaking, the stakes of Lévi-Strauss’s work are high. They amount to a demonstration that when all the data are to hand, there is no basis upon which one could draw up a hierarchy of societies –whether this be in terms of scientific progress, or in terms of cultural evolution. Rather, every society or culture exhibits features that are present in a greater or lesser degree in other societies, or in other cultures. Lévi-Strauss argues this way because he is persuaded that the cultural dimension (in which language is predominant), and not nature – or the ‘natural’ – is constitutive of the human. Symbolic structures of kinship, language, and the exchange of goods become the key to understanding social life, not biology. Indeed, kinship systems keep nature at bay; they are a cultural phenomenon based on the interdiction against incest, and as such are not a natural phenomenon. They make possible the passage from nature into culture, that is, into the sphere of the truly human. To understand this more fully, we turn to Lévi-Strauss’s notion of structure.

‘Structure’ for Lévi-Strauss is not equivalent to the empirical structure (whether, by analogy, it is deemed to be skeletal or architectural) of a particular society, as it is in Radcliffe-Brown’s work. Thus, structure is not given in observable reality, but is always the outcome of at least three elements, and it is this ternary nature that gives it its dynamism. Having said this, we should acknowledge that in Lévi-Strauss’s oeuvre, there is in fact an ambivalence between the kind of structuralism which views structure as an abstract model derived from an analysis of phenomena seen as a (more or less) static system of differences – that is, the synchronic dimension is privileged – and the notion of structure as being fundamentally ternary, containing an inherently dynamic aspect. The third element of the ternary structure would be always empty, ready to take on any meaning whatsoever. It would be the element of diachrony, that is, the element of history and contingency, the aspect which accounts for the perpetuation of social and cultural phenomena. While Lévi-Strauss’s own explanation of the ‘structural’ in structural analysis2 tends towards focusing on the synchronic dimension, in practice his work clearly leads towards seeing structure as being essentially ternary and dynamic. We can confirm this point through reference to Lévi-Strauss’s most important writings on kinship, myth, and art.

Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss:

Lévi-Strauss’s Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, published shortly after the appearance of The Elementary Structures of Kinship, shows that while exchange in Mauss’s Essay on the Gift is equivalent to the ‘total social fact’, Mauss failed to recognise that exchange was also a key to understanding the phenomenon of mana. Although Mauss had seen that exchange was a concept constructed by the anthropologist and that it did not have an intrinsic content, he treated mana differently. Like Durkheim,
Mauss attributed to it the meaning it took on in indigenous societies, a meaning that sees mana as having an intrinsic, or sacred, content.
Lévi-Strauss, on the other hand, argues that the diversity of contents assumed by mana means that it has to be seen as empty, much like an algebraic symbol, and able to take on any number of meanings – like the word ‘thing’ in English. In short, mana is a ‘floating’, or pure signifier with a symbolic value in itself of zero. And it exists in a general sense (every culture will have examples of floating signifiers) because there is an abundance of signifiers in relation to signified, since language must be thought of as having come into being all at once (it is a system of differences, and therefore fundamentally relational), while knowledge (the signified) only comes into being progressively.
The structural aspect of Lévi-Strauss’s approach here is more implicit than explicit. It consists in the fact, first, that emphasis is not placed on the (hypothetical) content of mana, but on its potential to assume a multitude of meanings. It is an empty signifier, much as for Lacan the phallus has no intrinsic meaning, but is the signifier of signification. Second, and more importantly perhaps, mana, in Lévi-Strauss’s interpretation, is a third element intervening between the signifier and the signified, the element which would give language its dynamism and continuity. For if there were a perfect ‘fit’ between the level of the signifier and the level of the signified, there would be nothing more to be said, language would come to an end. The floating signifier, therefore, is a structural feature of language in general, an element that introduces into it an asymmetrical, generative aspect: the aspect of contingency, time and, in Saussure’s terms, the level of parole.

The Elementary Structures of Kinship:

Although the title might suggest it, no explicit reference to Saussurian linguistics is to be found in The Elementary Structures of Kinship. The reason, no doubt, is that this, the first major work in structural anthropology, was written in New York in the 1940s, and so before the revival of interest in Saussure’s work had taken place in Europe – let alone America. In The Elementary Structures of Kinship, marriage (the outcome of the universal interdiction against incest) in non-industrialised cultures is reduced to two basic forms of exchange: restricted exchange, and generalised exchange. The former, may be represented as in Figure 1.
Figure 1 Restricted exchange
Here, reciprocity requires that when an X man marries a Y woman a Y man marries and X woman. Similarly, generalised exchange can be represented as in Figure 2.

Figure 2 Generalised exchange

Source: Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, p. 178.
Thus, where an A man marries a B woman, a B man marries a C woman; where a C man marries a D woman, a D man marries an A woman. Almost all of The Elementary Structures of Kinship is a development of the variants of these two forms of matrimonial exchange.
Even to the untrained observer, what is striking about both forms of exchange is that reciprocity seems to entail a symmetrical structure (the only difference between restricted and generalised exchange being that the latter has twice the number of terms, thereby remaining entirely symmetrical). As Lévi-Strauss later realised, the question arises as to whether a symmetrical structure can be permanent; for after a period of time, groups X and Y in restricted exchange would, through marriage, merge into a single group. Similarly, even with generalised exchange – because of the symmetrical nature of the structure – a single group would eventually emerge. In other words, exchange, set in motion by the interdiction against incest, would encounter an insuperable limit, one that would place at risk the very continuation of social relations. For exchange to remain viable as an institution, the presence of a third, heterogeneous element is always necessary. Such is indeed the theme of two important articles – one published in 1945, the other in 1956 – which clarify this point. In the first article, Lévi-Strauss points out that the child is the dynamic, asymmetrical element in the kinship structure: we must understand that the child is indispensable in validating the dynamic and teleological character of the initial step, which establishes kinship on the basis of and through marriage. Kinship is not a static phenomenon; it exists only in self-perpetuation. Here we are not thinking of the desire to perpetuate the race, but rather of the fact that in most kinship systems the initial disequilibrium produced in one generation between the group that gives the woman and the group that receives her can be stabilized only by the counter-prestations in following generations.


The study of myth led Lévi-Strauss to refine his structuralist approach. A clear enunciation of the principle that the elements of myths gain their meaning from the way they are combined and not from their intrinsic value, leads Lévi-Strauss to the position that myths represent the mind that creates them, and not some external reality. Myths resist history: they are eternal. Even different versions of a myth are not to be thought of as falsifications of some true, authentic version, but as an essential aspect of the structure of myth. On the contrary, different versions are part of the same myth precisely because a myth is not reducible to a single uniform content, but is a dynamic structure. Eventually, all the versions (diachronic aspect) of a myth have to be taken into consideration so as its structure can become apparent. From another perspective, myth is always the result of a contradiction – for instance, ‘the belief that mankind is autochthonous’, ‘while human beings are actually born from the union of man and woman’.  In effect, contradiction, as the unassimilable aspect of human society, generates myths. Myth derives from the asymmetry between belief and reality, the one and the multiple, freedom and necessity, identity and difference, etc. Looked at in terms of language, myth, says Lévi-Strauss, is ‘language functioning on an especially high level’. Moreover, if langue – the synchronic element of language – is equated with reversible time, and parole with the diachronic, or contingent, historical aspect, myth constitutes a third level of language.

Myth is the (impossible) synthesis between the diachronic and the synchronic aspects of language. It is the continual attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable: since the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real), a theoretically infinite number of [versions] will be generated, each slightly different from the others.
Myth thus becomes the third dimension of language: in it a continuous attempt is made to reconcile the other two dimensions (langue and parole) of language. Because complete reconciliation is impossible ‘myth grows spiral-wise until the intellectual impulse which has produced it is exhausted’. Myth grows, then, because, structurally, the contradiction – the asymmetry – which gives it life, cannot be resolved. Like myth, the facial painting of the South American Caduveo Indians, described in Lévi-Strauss’s autobiographical work, Tristes Tropiques, provide another illustration of structure as a dynamic, ternary phenomenon. There, facial painting designs are asymmetrical arabesques – a ternary structure geared to generate more designs. A purely symmetrical design, as well as being difficult to ‘fit’ to a real face, would fail to fulfil the purpose assigned to it. This purpose is like that of a figure in European playing cards. Each figure on a playing card must fulfil both a contingent function; it is an element in a specific game between players and a structural (synchronic) function; it is an element occupying a particular place in the pack, and this place never changes. Caduveo facial painting tries to capture the symmetry of function (status in the group), and the asymmetry of part played (contingency) by the adoption of a composition that is symmetrical but set on an oblique axis, thus avoiding the completely asymmetrical formula, which would have met the demands of the role but run counter to those of the function, and the reverse and completely symmetrical formula, which would have had the opposite effect. The arabesques of the facial painting bring two conceptions of structure into sharp focus.
For his part, Lévi-Strauss writes as though his own work were more focused on the static, symmetrical, binary notion of structure, while his actual analyses of social and cultural phenomena suggest that it is the second, ternary view of structure which has far greater explanatory and methodological significance. Such an ambivalence with regard to the basis of his theoretical framework has led to misunderstandings. In particular, critics have been able to claim that history is neglected in structural anthropology, a fact that has been played up because, no doubt, of Lévi-Strauss’s hostility to Sartre’s Existentialism, a doctrine in which almost every act is historical (that is,  contingent). Furthermore, Lévi-Strauss’s insistence on the scientific status of anthropology (admittedly in order to defend the possibility of a social science detached from immediate political debates) sits oddly with his view that science cannot entirely escape being mythical, and the view that cultures are not hermetically sealed off from each other, but constitute an infinite series of transformations. And so while, for instance, science thinks of the concrete, native thought thinks with the concrete. Again, when Lévi-Strauss says in the ‘Overture’ to The Raw and the Cooked that the book about myth is itself a myth, the very possibility of a detached science in the usual Western sense is brought into question. Lévi-Strauss, however, has often shown himself to be loath to take the consequences of this into account.
Unlike Julia Kristeva, or those inspired by Lacan’s reading of Freud, there is little about subjectivity in Lévi-Strauss’s oeuvre. It is as though he believed that Durkheim’s battle to separate psychology from anthropology and sociology were still to be won, and that any concessions to a theory of subjectivity would be equivalent to conceding to the explanatory power of psychology over anthropology. But this battle is not still to be won. And the anthropologist’s work suffers from the absence of any attempt to include within it a theory of the subject.
Nevertheless, the significance of Lévi-Strauss’s anthropology, as mentioned earlier, cannot be limited to its analytical contents. Much more is at stake. For Lévi-Strauss shows the complexity of non-industrialised cultures which the West – often through its anthropologists (cf. Lévy-Bruhl and Malinowski) – had assumed to be equivalent to the childhood of mankind and who, through that fact, were deemed to be more primitive and more simplistic than the West in their thinking (primitive societies have myth; the West has science and philosophy, etc.). Lévi-Strauss’s universalism should thus be understood to mean that transformations of the same myth (as in the Oedipus myth) throughout the world indicate that human beings belong to a single humanity, but that the presence of others is essential if we are to constitute our differences.


On the methodological level, the main project, the isolation of a small number of elementary invariant structures from which the diversity of observable kinship structures might be derived, is directly inspired by the work of Roman Jakobson and Nicolai Trubetzkoy in phonology. On the conceptual level, the notion of the unconscious operation of social norms is construed by analogy with the implicit rules of language. The analogy had already been well established in anthropology since Franz Boas at least, to whom Lévi-Strauss refers, but he clearly also has in mind more contemporary developments in linguistics (Lévi-Strauss, 1967 [1949]: 126–7 [108–9]). Further, the linguistic model is not mentioned in the conception of agent and object of exchange as arbitrary and differential signs, but the argument that women are as much signs as values and the differential variation of marked/non-marked between givers and takers are both clearly based on the linguistic concept of binary opposition. Finally, the idea of culture-specific socialization of individuals as the regressive selection and combination of universal traits  is compared with the process of language acquisition.
Yet, although inspired by structural phonology, Lévi-Strauss proposed a completely new method to explain the mechanisms of symbolic and social systems. Essentially, it is the model of exchange, Marcel Mauss’s Gift (1950) to Lévi-Strauss, as Harris (1968: 484) punningly put it, which is seen to be more important to the theoretical infrastructure of The Elementary Structures. Giving to others, an act that necessarily generates a debt, has the effect of creating social relationships by making it possible to renew and perpetuate them; it is an act on which the very functioning of the social order is based. Exchange is the mechanism underlying different rules of marriage exogamy: this is the positive aspect of the incest prohibition, seen as the primary and archetypal agent of social cohesion, representing the passage from ‘‘nature’’ to ‘‘culture’’, from the indifferent biological relation of individuals to their social relation. Without this properly dialectical sublation of the natural within the social, society could not exist. Once men are forbidden to enjoy their own women but must exchange them for others, they are forced to set up a system of exchanges, which provides the basis for the organization of society.
Lévi-Strauss’s methodological closure may consist in a relatively limited range of responses and default positions, in a kind of cross-categorical application of different models of analysis and replication of methodologies, which are part of his constant appeal to unify the different parts of his system and ensure its overall theoretical coherence (Johnson, 2003: 1867). Yet in a way Lévi-Strauss’s work is also, as Geertz (1988: 32) put it, organized neither linearly in a progress of views, nor quantumly in a series of discontinuous reformulations of a fixed and single view, but centrifugally, as a virtual analogue of his own kaleidoscopic image of “concrete thought”. In this sense, its overall meaning is well constructed in a syntactic conjunction of discrete elements by projecting the analogue axis of paradigmatic substitutions played out vertically along what Jakobson (1981 [1960]) called the plane of similarity, or ‘‘metaphor’’, onto the digital axis of syntactic combination played out horizontally along what he called the plane of contiguity, or ‘‘metonymy’’. This makes Lévi-Strauss’s whole oeuvre look like a metonymically adjoined poetic text. This is a model of analysis where any aspect analysed stands side by side with the others, where the meaning of the whole lies, in good structuralist style, in the conjunction rather than in the parts conjoined, as if the syntax of syntax, the enclosing form, were abstract enough to represent or govern the whole.

Major writings of Levi-Strauss:

The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), trans. J.H. Bell and John von Sturmer, Boston, Beacon Press, 1969
Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (1950), trans. Felicity Baker, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987
Tristes Tropiques (1955), trans. John and Doreen Weightman, Atheneum, New York, 1974
Structural Anthropology (1958), trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, New York, Basic Books, 1963
The Savage Mind (1962) (translated from the French), London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966
Totemism Today (1962), trans. Rodney Needham, Boston, Beacon Press, 1963.
Introduction to a Science of Mythology:
Volume I: The Raw and the Cooked (1964), trans. John and Doreen Weightman, London, Jonathan Cape, 1978
Volume II: From Honey to Ashes (1967), trans. John and Doreen Weightman, London, Jonathan Cape, 1973
Volume III: The Origin of Table Manners (1968), trans. John and Doreen Weightman, London, Jonathan Cape, 1978
Volume IV: The Naked Man (1971), trans. John and Doreen Weightman, London, Jonathan Cape, 1981
Structural Anthropology, Volume II (1973) trans. Monique Layton, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1978
The Way of Masks (1975), trans. Sylvia Modelski, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1982
The View From Afar (1983), trans. Joachim Neugroschel and Phoebe Hoss, New York, Basic Books, 1985
The Jealous Potter (1985), trans. Bénédicte Chorier, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1988


1. Doja, Albert. 2006. The shoulders of our giants: Claude Le´vi-Strauss and his legacy in current anthropology, Social Science Information, 45 (1) pp. 79–107
2. Lechte, John. 1994. Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity. London: Routldege
3. Wisemean, Boris. 2007. Levi-Strauss, Anthropology and Aesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4. Clarke, Simon. 1981. The Foundations of Structuralism: A Critique of Levi-Strauss and Structuralist Movement. Sussex: Harvester Press
5. Stasch, R. 2006. Structuralism in Anthropology, In Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Vol 12.  pp. 167 - 170. Oxford: Elsevier 

A brief introduction to Structuralism as proposed by Levi-Strauss (meant for my college students)