Life and Theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologist

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss
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Claude Lévi-Strauss (November 28, 1908 – October 30, 2009) was a French anthropologist and one of the most prominent social scientists of the twentieth century. He is best known as the founder of structural anthropology and for his theory of structuralism. Lévi-Strauss was a key figure in the development of modern social and cultural anthropology, and was widely influential outside of his discipline.

Life and Career

Claude Lévi-Strauss was born to a Jewish French family in Brussels, Belgium and later raised in Paris. He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. Several years after his graduation, the French Ministry of Culture invited him to take a position as a visiting professor of sociology at the University of São Paolo in Brazil. After moving to Brazil in 1935, Lévi-Strauss held this teaching position until 1939.

In 1939, Lévi-Strauss resigned to conduct anthropological fieldwork in indigenous communities in the Mato Grasso and Brazilian Amazon regions, launching the beginning of his research on and with indigenous groups of the Americas. The experience would have a profound affect on his future, paving the way for a groundbreaking career as a scholar. He achieved literary fame for his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques, which chronicled part of his time in Brazil.

Claude Lévi-Strauss’ academic career began to take off as Europe spiraled into World War II and he was fortunate to escape France for the U.S., thanks to a teaching post at the New School for Research in 1941. While in New York, he joined a community of French intellectuals who successfully found refuge in the U.S. amidst the fall of their home country and the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe.

Lévi-Strauss remained in the U.S. until 1948, joining a community of fellow Jewish scholars and artists escaping persecution that included linguist Roman Jakobson and Surrealist painter André Breton. Lévi-Strauss helped found the École Libre des Hautes Études (French School for Free Studies) with fellow refugees, and then served as a cultural attaché to the French embassy in Washington, DC.

Lévi-Strauss returned to France in 1948, where he received his doctorate from the Sorbonne. He quickly established himself within the ranks of French intellectuals, and he was the director of studies at the École des Hautes Études at the University of Paris from 1950 to 1974. He became the chair of Social Anthropology at the famed Collège de France in 1959 and held the position until 1982. Claude Lévi-Struass died in Paris in 2009. He was 100 years old.

Structuralism

Lévi-Strauss formulated his famous concept of structural anthropology during his time in the U.S. Indeed, this theory is unusual in anthropology in that it is inextricably linked to the writing and thinking of one scholar. Structuralism offered a new and distinctive way to approach the study of culture, and built on the scholarly and methodological approaches of cultural anthropology and structural linguistics.

Lévi-Strauss held that the human brain was wired to organize the world in terms of key structures of organization, which enabled people to order and interpret experience. Since these structures were universal, all cultural systems were inherently logical. They simply used different systems of understanding to explain the world around them, resulting in the stunning diversity of myths, beliefs, and practices. The anthropologist’s task, according to Lévi-Strauss, was to explore and explain the logic within a particular cultural system.

Structuralism used the analysis of cultural practices and beliefs, as well as the fundamental structures of language and linguistic classification, to identify the universal building blocks of human thought and culture. It offered a fundamentally unifying, egalitarian interpretation of people across the world and from all cultural backgrounds. At our core, Lévi-Strauss argued, all people use the same basic categories and systems of organization to make sense of the human experience.

Lévi-Strauss' concept of structural anthropology aimed to unify – at the level of thought and interpretation – the experiences of cultural groups living in highly variable contexts and systems, from the indigenous community he studied in Brazil to the French intellectuals of World War II era New York. The egalitarian principles of structuralism were an important intervention in that they recognized all people as fundamentally equal, regardless of culture, ethnicity, or other socially constructed categories.

Theories of Myth 

Lévi-Strauss developed a deep interest in Native American beliefs and oral traditions during his time in the U.S. The anthropologist Franz Boas and his students had pioneered ethnographic studies of the indigenous groups of North America, compiling vast collections of myths. Lévi-Strauss, in turn, sought to synthesize these in a study spanning the myths from the Arctic to the tip of South America. This culminated in Mythologiques (1969, 1974, 1978, and 1981), a four-volume study in which Lévi-Strauss argued that myths could be studied to reveal the universal oppositions – such as dead versus living or nature versus culture – that organized human interpretations of and beliefs about the world.

Lévi-Strauss posited structuralism as an innovative approach to the study of myths. One of his key concepts in this regard was the bricolage, borrowing from the French term to refer to a creation that draws from a diverse assortment of parts. The bricoleur, or the individual engaged in this creative act, makes use of what is available. For structuralism, bricolage and bricoleur are used to show the parallels between Western scientific thought and indigenous approaches. Both are fundamentally strategic and logical, they simply make use of different parts. Lévi-Strauss elaborated on his concept of the bricolage with respect to the anthropological study of myth in his seminal text, The Savage Mind (1962).

Theories of Kinship

Lévi-Strauss’ earlier work focused on kinship and social organization, as outlined in his 1949 book The Elementary Structures of KinshipHe sought to understand how categories of social organization, such as kinship and class, were formed. These were social and cultural phenomena, not natural (or pre-ordained) categories, but what caused them?

Lévi-Strauss’ writings here centered on the role of exchange and reciprocity in human relationships. He was also interested in the power of the incest taboo to push people to marry outside of their families and the subsequent alliances that emerged. Rather than approaching the incest taboo as biologically-based or assuming that lineages should be traced by familial descent, Lévi-Strauss focused instead on the power of marriage to create powerful and lasting alliances between families.

Criticism

Like any social theory, structuralism had its critics. Later scholars broke with the rigidity of Lévi-Strauss’ universal structures to take a more interpretative (or hermeneutic) approach to cultural analysis. Similarly, the focus on underlying structures potentially obscured the nuance and complexity of lived experience and daily life. Marxist thinkers also criticized the lack of attention to material conditions, such as economic resources, property, and class.

Structuralism is curious in that, although it was widely influential in multiple disciplines, it was not typically adopted as a strict method or framework. Rather, it offered a new lens with which to examine social and cultural phenomena.

Fast Facts: Claude Lévi-Strauss

  • Full Name: Claude Lévi-Strauss
  • Occupation: Anthropologist
  • Born: November 28, 1908 in Brussels, Belgium
  • Education: University of Paris (Sorbonne)
  • Died: October 30, 2009 in Paris, France
  • Key Accomplishments: Developed the influential concept of structural anthropology as well as new theories of myth and kinship.

Sources

  • Bloch, Maurice. “Claude Lévi-Strauss Obituary.” The Guardian. November 3, 2009.
  • Harkin, Michael. “Claude Lévi-Strauss.” Oxford Bibliographies. September 2015.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques. Translated by John Russell. Hutchinson & Company, 1961. 
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Translated by Claire Jacobson and Brooke G. Schoepf. Basic Books, Inc., 1963.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. The University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Translated by J.H. Bell, J.R. VonSturmer, and Rodney Needham. Beacon Press, 1969.
  • Rothstein, Edward. “Claude Lévi-Strauss, 100, Dies; Altered Western Views of ‘The Primitive.’” The New York Times. November 4, 2009.