Claude Lévi-Strauss (28 November 1908 – 30 October 2009) was a French anthropologist and ethnologist, and has been called the "father of modern anthropology".
He also was one of the central figures in the structuralist school of thought, where his ideas reached into fields including the humanities and philosophy. Structuralism has been defined as "the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity."
When young, Lévi-Strauss organized expeditions into the French countryside, and later studied in Paris, where he went on to teach. He later traveled and did research in Brazil with his first wife, Dina. Returning to France, he was drafted into the French army, but after France was invaded by the Nazis, he escaped to New York, where he taught at the New School for Social Research. In 1948, he returned to France.
He was honored by universities throughout the world and held the chair of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France (1959–1982); he was elected a member of the Académie Française in 1973.
Early life, education, and career
Claude Lévi-Strauss was born to French parents who were living in Brussels at the time, where his father, a painter, had taken a contract to paint. He grew up in Paris, living on a street of the 16th arrondissement named after the artist Claude Lorrain, whose work he admired and later wrote about.
At the Sorbonne in Paris, Lévi-Strauss studied law and philosophy. He did not pursue his study of law, but agrégated in philosophy in 1931. In 1935, after a few years of secondary-school teaching, he took up a last-minute offer to be part of a French cultural mission to Brazil in which he would serve as a visiting professor of sociology at the University of São Paulo while his wife, Dina, served as a visiting professor of ethnology.
Lévi-Strauss lived in Brazil from 1935 to 1939. During this time he undertook his only ethnographic fieldwork. Together with Dina, a trained ethnographer who was a visiting professor at the University of São Paulo, he conducted research forays into the Mato Grosso and the Amazon Rainforest. They first studied the Guaycuru and Bororo Indian tribes, staying among them for a couple of days. In 1938 they returned for a second, more than half-year-long expedition to study the Nambikwara and Tupi-Kawahib societies. At this time his wife suffered an injury that prevented her from completing the study. This experience cemented Lévi-Strauss's professional identity as an anthropologist. Edmund Leach suggests, from Lévi-Strauss's own accounts in Tristes Tropiques, that he could not have spent more than a few weeks in any one place and was never able to converse easily with any of his native informants in their native language.
He returned to France in 1939 to take part in the war effort, and was assigned as a liaison agent to the Maginot Line. After the French capitulation in 1940, he was employed at a lycée in Montpellier, but then was dismissed under the racial laws (Lévi-Strauss's family, originally from Alsace, was of Judaic ancestry). In 1941, he was offered a position in New York and granted admission to the United States. A series of voyages brought him, via South America, to Puerto Rico where he was investigated by the FBI after German letters in his luggage aroused the suspicions of customs agents. Lévi-Strauss spent most of the war in New York City. Together with other intellectual emigrés, he taught at the New School for Social Research. Along with Jacques Maritain, Henri Focillon, and Roman Jakobson, he was a founding member of the École Libre des Hautes Études, a sort of university-in-exile for French academics.
The war years in New York were formative for Lévi-Strauss in several ways. His relationship with Jakobson helped shape his theoretical outlook (Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss are considered to be two of the central figures on which structuralist thought is based). In addition, Lévi-Strauss also was exposed to the American anthropology espoused by Franz Boas, who taught at Columbia University. In 1942, while having dinner at the Faculty House at Columbia, Boas died of a heart attack in Lévi-Strauss's arms. This intimate association with Boas gave his early work a distinctive American inclination that helped facilitate its acceptance in the U.S. After a brief stint from 1946 to 1947 as a cultural attaché to the French embassy in Washington, D.C., Lévi-Strauss returned to Paris in 1948. At this time he received his doctorate from the Sorbonne by submitting, in the French tradition, both a "major" and a "minor" thesis. These were The Family and Social Life of the Nambikwara Indians and The Elementary Structures of Kinship.
The Elementary Structures of Kinship was published the next year and quickly came to be regarded as one of the most important anthropological works on kinship. It even 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 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.
Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lévi-Strauss continued to publish and experienced considerable professional success. On his return to France, he became involved with the administration of the CNRS and the Musée de l'Homme before finally becoming chair of the fifth section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études, the 'Religious Sciences' section previously chaired by Marcel Mauss, which he renamed "Comparative Religion of Non-Literate Peoples".
While Lévi-Strauss was well known in academic circles. In 1955 he became one of France's best known intellectuals by publishing Tristes Tropiques. Essentially, this book was a memoir detailing his time as a French expatriate throughout the 1930s. 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 non-fiction. The role of his first wife, Dina, who introduced him to ethnology and her role in their research is extremely downplayed, however, she is mentioned exactly once in the over 500 pages of Tristes Tropiques.
Lévi-Strauss was named to a chair in Social Anthropology at the Collège de France in 1959. At roughly the same time he published Structural Anthropology, a collection of his essays which provided both examples and programmatic statements about structuralism. At the same time as he was laying the groundwork for an intellectual program, he began a series of institutions to establish anthropology as a discipline in France, including the Laboratory for Social Anthropology where new students could be trained, and a new journal, l'Homme, for publishing the results of their research.
In 1962, Lévi-Strauss published what is for many people his most important work, La Pensée Sauvage. The title is a pun untranslatable in English—in English the book is known as The Savage Mind, but this title fails to capture the other possible French meaning of 'Wild Pansies'. In French pensée means both 'thought' and 'pansy,' the flower, while sauvage means 'wild' as well as 'savage' or 'primitive'. The book concerns primitive thought, forms of thought all humans use. (Lévi-Strauss suggested the English title be Pansies for Thought, riffing off a speech by Ophelia in Hamlet.) The French edition to this day retains a flower on the cover.
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 of agency in opposition to Sartre. Echoes of this debate between structuralism and existentialism eventually would inspire the work of younger authors such as Pierre Bourdieu.
Now a worldwide celebrity, Lévi-Strauss spent the second half of the 1960s working on his master project, a four-volume study called Mythologiques. In it, he followed a single myth from the tip of South America and all of its variations from group to group up through Central America and eventually into the Arctic Circle, thus tracing the myth's cultural evolution from one end of the Western hemisphere to the other. He accomplished this in a typically structuralist way, examining the underlying structure of relationships among the elements of the story rather than by focusing on the content of the story itself. While Pensée Sauvage was a statement of Lévi-Strauss's big-picture theory, Mythologiques was an extended, four-volume example of analysis. Richly detailed and extremely long, it is less widely read than the much shorter and more accessible Pensée Sauvage, despite its position as Lévi-Strauss's masterwork.
Lévi-Strauss completed the final volume of Mythologiques in 1971 and in 1973 he was elected to the Académie Française, France's highest honour for an intellectual. He also is a member of other notable academies worldwide, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also received the Erasmus Prize in 1973. In 2003 he received the Meister-Eckhart-Prize for philosophy. He has received several honorary doctorates from universities such as Oxford, Harvard, and Columbia. He also is a recipient of the Grand-croix de la Légion d'honneur, and is a Commandeur de l'ordre national du Mérite, and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. After his retirement, he continued to publish occasional meditations on art, music, and poetry.
Later life and death
In 2008 he became the first member of the Académie Française to reach the age of 100 and one of the few living authors to have his works published in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.
He died on 30 October 2009, a few weeks before the 101st anniversary of his birth. The death was announced four days later. French President Nicolas Sarkozy described him as "one of the greatest ethnologists of all time". Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, said Lévi-Strauss "broke with an ethnocentric vision of history and humanity [...] At a time when we are trying to give meaning to globalisation, to build a fairer and more humane world, I would like Claude Lévi-Strauss's universal echo to resonate more strongly". The Daily Telegraph said in its obituary that Lévi-Strauss was "one of the dominating postwar influences in French intellectual life and the leading exponent of Structuralism in the social sciences". Permanent secretary of the Académie Française Hélène Carrère d'Encausse said: "He was a thinker, a philosopher [...] We will not find another like him".
"Deep insight and "expansive thought"
Lévi-Strauss sought to apply the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure to anthropology. At the time, the family was traditionally considered the fundamental object of analysis, but was seen primarily as a self-contained unit consisting of a husband, a wife, and their children. Nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents all were treated as secondary. Lévi-Strauss argued that, however, akin to Saussure’s notion of linguistic value, families acquire determinate identities only through relations with one another. Thus he inverted the classical view of anthropology, putting the secondary family members first and insisting on analyzing the relations between units instead of the units themselves.
In his own analysis of the formation of the identities that arise through marriages between tribes, Lévi-Strauss noted that the relation between the uncle and the nephew was to the relation between brother and sister, as the relation between father and son is to that between husband and wife, that is, A is to B as C is to D. Therefore if we know A, B, and C, we can predict D, just as if we know A and D, we can predict B and C. The goal of Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, then, was to simplify the masses of empirical data into generalized, comprehensible relations between units, which allow for predictive laws to be identified, such as A is to B as C is to D.
Similarly, Lévi-Strauss identified myths as a type of speech through which a language could be discovered. This theory attempted to explain how seemingly fantastical and arbitrary tales, could be so similar across cultures. Because he believed there was not one “authentic” version of a myth, rather that they were all manifestations of the same language, he sought to find the fundamental units of myth, namely, the mytheme. Lévi-Strauss broke each of the versions of a myth down into a series of sentences, consisting of a relation between a function and a subject. Sentences with the same function were given the same number and bundled together. These are mythemes.
What Lévi-Strauss believed he had discovered when he examined the relations between mythemes was that a myth consists of nothing but binary oppositions. Oedipus, for example, consists of the overrating of blood relations and the underrating of blood relations, the autochthonous origin of humans and the denial of their autochthonous origin. Influenced by Hegel, Lévi-Strauss believed that the human mind thinks fundamentally in these binary oppositions and their unification (the thesis, antithesis, synthesis triad), and that these are what make meaning possible. Furthermore, he considered the job of myth to be a sleight of hand, an association of an irreconcilable binary opposition with a reconcilable binary opposition, creating the illusion, or belief, that the former had been resolved.
|The world began without the human race and will certainly end without it. |
—Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1955
Lévi-Strauss's theories are set forth in Structural Anthropology (1958). Briefly, he considers culture a system of symbolic communication, to be investigated with methods that others have used more narrowly in the discussion of novels, political speeches, sports, and movies.
His reasoning makes best sense against the background of an earlier generation's social theory. He wrote about this relationship for decades.
A preference for "functionalist" explanations dominated the social sciences from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1950s, which is to say that anthropologists and sociologists tried to state the purpose of a social act or institution. The existence of a thing was explained, if it fulfilled a function. The only strong alternative to that kind of analysis was historical explanation, accounting for the existence of a social fact by stating how it came to be.
The idea of social function developed in two different ways, however. The English anthropologist Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, who had read and admired the work of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, argued that the goal of anthropological research was to find the collective function, such as what a religious creed or a set of rules about marriage did for the social order as a whole. Behind this approach was an old idea, the view that civilization developed through a series of phases from the primitive to the modern, everywhere in the same manner. All of the activities in a given kind of society would partake of the same character; some sort of internal logic would cause one level of culture to evolve into the next. On this view, a society can easily be thought of as an organism, the parts functioning together as do the parts of a body.
In contrast, the more influential functionalism of Bronisław Malinowski described the satisfaction of individual needs, what a person derived by participating in a custom.
In the United States, where the shape of anthropology was set by the German-educated Franz Boas, the preference was for historical accounts. This approach had obvious problems, which Lévi-Strauss praises Boas for facing squarely.
Historical information seldom is available for non-literate cultures. The anthropologist fills in with comparisons to other cultures and is forced to rely on theories that have no evidential basis whatsoever, the old notion of universal stages of development or the claim that cultural resemblances are based on some unrecognized past contact between groups. Boas came to believe that no overall pattern in social development could be proven; for him, there was no single history, only histories.
There are three broad choices involved in the divergence of these schools–each had to decide what kind of evidence to use; whether to emphasize the particulars of a single culture or look for patterns underlying all societies; and what the source of any underlying patterns might be, the definition of a common humanity.
Social scientists in all traditions relied on cross-cultural studies. It always was necessary to supplement information about a society with information about others. So some idea of a common human nature was implicit in each approach.
The critical distinction, then, remained: does a social fact exist because it is functional for the social order, or because it is functional for the person? Do uniformities across cultures occur because of organizational needs that must be met everywhere, or because of the uniform needs of human personality?
For Lévi-Strauss, the choice was for the demands of the social order. He had no difficulty bringing out the inconsistencies and triviality of individualistic accounts. Malinowski said, for example, that magic beliefs come into being when people need to feel a sense of control over events when the outcome was uncertain. In the Trobriand Islands, he found the proof of this claim in the rites surrounding abortions and weaving skirts. But in the same tribes, there is no magic attached to making clay pots even though it is no more certain a business than weaving. So, the explanation is not consistent. Furthermore, these explanations tend to be used in an ad hoc, superficial way–one postulates a trait of personality when needed.
But the accepted way of discussing organizational function didn't work either. Different societies might have institutions that were similar in many obvious ways and yet, served different functions. Many tribal cultures divide the tribe into two groups and have elaborate rules about how the two groups may interact. But exactly what they may do–trade, intermarry–is different in different tribes; for that matter, so are the criteria for distinguishing the groups.
Nor will it do to say that dividing-in-two is a universal need of organizations, because there are a lot of tribes that thrive without it.
For Lévi-Strauss, the methods of linguistics became a model for all his earlier examinations of society. His analogies usually are from phonology (though also later from music, mathematics, chaos theory, cybernetics, and so on).
"A really scientific analysis must be real, simplifying, and explanatory," he says (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 may be generated from a relatively small number of rules.
In the study of the kinship systems that first concerned him, this ideal of explanation allowed a comprehensive organization of data that partly had been ordered by other researchers. The overall goal was to find out why family relations differed among various 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 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.
One possible way of finding a master order was to rate all the positions in a kinship system along several dimensions. For example, the father was older than the son, the father produced the son, the father had the same sex as the son, and so on; the matrilineal uncle was older and of the same sex, but did not produce the son, and so on. An exhaustive collection of such observations might cause an overall pattern to emerge.
But for Lévi-Strauss, this kind of work was considered "analytical in appearance only." It results in a chart that is far more difficult to understand than the original data and is based on arbitrary abstractions (empirically, fathers are older than sons, but it is only the researcher who declares that this feature explains their relations). Furthermore, it doesn't explain anything. The explanation it offers is tautological–if age is crucial, then age explains a relationship. And it does not offer the possibility of inferring the origins of the structure.
A proper solution to the puzzle is to find a basic unit of kinship which can explain all the variations. It is a 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 may 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 the qualities of structural thinking. Even though Lévi-Strauss frequently speaks of treating culture as the product of the axioms and corollaries that underlie it, or the phonemic differences that constitute it, he is concerned with the objective data of field research. He notes that it is logically possible for a different atom 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.
The purpose of structuralist explanation is to organize real data in the simplest effective way. All science, he says, is either structuralist or reductionist. In confronting such matters as the incest taboo, one is facing an objective limit of what the human mind has accepted so far. One could hypothesize some biological imperative underlying it, but so far as social order is concerned, the taboo has the effect of an irreducible fact. The social scientist can only work with the structures of human thought that arise from it.
And structural explanations can be tested and refuted. A mere analytic scheme that wishes causal relations into existence is not structuralist in this sense.
Lévi-Strauss's 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 Mythologiques). For instance he compares anthropology to musical serialism and defends his "philosophical" approach. He also pointed out that the modern view of primitive cultures was simplistic in denying them a history. The categories of myth did not persist among them because nothing had happened–it was easy to find the evidence of defeat, migration, exile, repeated displacements of all the kinds known to recorded history. Instead, the mythic categories had encompassed these changes.
He 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.
 The structuralist approach to myth
Lévi-Strauss sees a basic paradox in the study of myth. On one hand, mythical stories are fantastic and unpredictable: the content of myth seems completely arbitrary. On the other hand, the myths of different cultures are surprisingly similar:
On the one hand it would seem that in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen. […] But on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions. Therefore the problem: If the content of myth is contingent [i.e., arbitrary], how are we to explain the fact that myths throughout the world are so similar?
Lévi-Strauss proposed that universal laws must govern mythical thought and resolve this seeming paradox, producing similar myths in different cultures. Each myth may seem unique, but he proposed it is just one particular instance of a universal law of human thought. In studying myth, Lévi-Strauss tries "to reduce apparently arbitrary data to some kind of order, and to attain a level at which a kind of necessity becomes apparent, underlying the illusions of liberty".
According to Lévi-Strauss, "mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of oppositions toward their resolution".
In other words, myths consist of
1. elements that oppose or contradict each other and
2. other elements that "mediate", or resolve, those oppositions.
For example, Lévi-Strauss thinks the trickster of many Native American mythologies acts as a "mediator".
Lévi-Strauss's argument hinges on two facts about the Native American trickster:
1. the trickster has a contradictory and unpredictable personality;
2. the trickster is almost always a raven or a coyote.
Lévi-Strauss argues that the raven and coyote "mediate" the opposition between life and death. The relationship between agriculture and hunting is analogous to the opposition between life and death: agriculture is solely concerned with producing life (at least up until harvest time); hunting is concerned with producing death. Furthermore, the relationship between herbivores and beasts of prey is analogous to the relationship between agriculture and hunting: like agriculture, herbivores are concerned with plants; like hunting, beasts of prey are concerned with catching meat. Lévi-Strauss points out that the raven and coyote eat carrion and are therefore halfway between herbivores and beasts of prey: like beasts of prey, they eat meat; like herbivores, they don't catch their food. Thus, he argues, "we have a mediating structure of the following type":
The trickster is a mediator. Since his mediating function occupies a position halfway between two polar terms, he must retain something of that duality—namely an ambiguous and equivocal character.
Because the raven and coyote reconcile profoundly opposed concepts (i.e., life and death), their own mythical personalities must reflect this duality or contradiction: in other words, they must have a contradictory, "tricky" personality.
This theory about the structure of myth helps support Lévi-Strauss's more basic theory about human thought. According to this more basic theory, universal laws govern all areas of human thought:
If it were possible to prove in this instance, too, that the apparent arbitrariness of the mind, its supposedly spontaneous flow of inspiration, and its seemingly uncontrolled inventiveness [are ruled by] laws operating at a deeper level […] if the human mind appears determined even in the realm of mythology, a fortiori it must also be determined in all its spheres of activity.
Out of all the products of culture, myths seem the most fantastic and unpredictable. Therefore, Lévi-Strauss claims, if even mythical thought obeys universal laws, then all human thought must obey universal laws.
The Savage Mind: Bricoleur and Engineer
Lévi-Strauss developed the comparison of the Bricoleur and Engineer in The Savage Mind. “Bricoleur” has its origin in the old French verb bricoler, which refers to extraneous movements in ball games, billiards, hunting, shooting, and riding. It has come to mean one who works with his hands, usually in devious or "crafty" ways in comparison to the true craftsman, whom Lévi-Strauss calls the Engineer. The Bricoleur is adept at many tasks and at putting preexisting things together in new ways. The Engineer deals with projects in their entirety, taking into account the availability of materials and tools required. The Bricoleur approximates "the savage mind" and the Engineer approximates the scientific mind. Lévi-Strauss says that the universe of the Bricoleur is closed, and he often is forced to make do with whatever is at hand, whereas the universe of the Engineer is open in that he is able to create new tools and materials. But both live within a restrictive reality, and so the Engineer is forced to consider the preexisting set of theoretical and practical knowledge, of technical means, in a similar way to the Bricoleur.
Lévi-Strauss's theory on the origin of the Trickster has been criticized on a number of points by anthropologists. Stanley Diamond notes that while the secular civilized often consider the concepts of life and death to be polar, primitive cultures often see them "as aspects of a single condition, the condition of existence." Diamond remarks that Lévi-Strauss did not reach such a conclusion by inductive reasoning, but simply by working backwards from the evidence to the "a priori mediated concepts" of "life" and "death", which he reached by assumption of a necessary progression from "life" to "agriculture" to "herbivorous animals", and from "death" to "warfare" to "beasts of prey". For that matter, the coyote is well known to hunt in addition to scavenging and the raven also has been known to act as a bird of prey, in contrast to Lévi-Strauss's conception. Nor does that conception explain why a scavenger such as a bear would never appear as the Trickster. Diamond further remarks that “the Trickster names 'raven' and 'coyote' which Lévi-Strauss explains can be arrived at with greater economy on the basis of, let us say, the cleverness of the animals involved, their ubiquity, elusiveness, capacity to make mischief, their undomesticated reflection of certain human traits.” Finally, Lévi-Strauss's analysis does not appear to be capable of explaining why representations of the Trickster in other areas of the world make use of such animals as the spider and mantis.
Anonymous. 2009. "Claude Lévi-Strauss". Wikipedia. Posted: November 7, 2009. Available online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_levi-strauss