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Structuralist Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss Passes Away

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Lévi-Strauss in Brazil in the 1930s (Apic/Getty Images).

I found out in yesterdays New York Times that influential anthropologist and structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss passed away at the ripe old age of 100.  Considering how I am greatly influenced by such (post)structuralist philosophers such as Althusser, Foucault, and Barthes I am indeed in his debt.

The Times article reported:

His son Laurent said Mr. Lévi-Strauss died of cardiac arrest Friday at his home in Paris. His death was announced Tuesday, the same day he was buried in the village of Lignerolles, in the Côte-d’Or region southeast of Paris, where he had a country home.

As an anthropologist:

he found among [“primitive” societies] a dogged quest not just to satisfy material needs but also to understand origins, a sophisticated logic that governed even the most bizarre myths, and an implicit sense of order and design, even among tribes who practiced ruthless warfare.

Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s ideas shook his field. But his critics were plentiful. They attacked him for ignoring history and geography, using myths from one place and time to help illuminate myths from another, without demonstrating any direct connection or influence.

More on his theory and input into the field of philosophy Constance Holden blogs:

Lévi-Strauss introduced “structuralism” to anthropology–the concept that all societies follow certain universal patterns of thought and behavior, as exemplified in their myths. Anthropologists say his way of looking at human culture did away with conceptions of indigenous groups as having “savage” or “primitive” minds–as well as the corollary view that Western civilization is uniquely advanced. Lévi-Strauss’s way of re-conceptualizing anthropology–informed by what he called the “three mistresses” of geology, psychoanalysis, and Marxism–helped shape trends in social sciences and literary theory, and influenced intellectuals such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

On history Lévi-Strauss, who was influenced by Marx (which in turn influenced his structuralism, along with, as stated above, psychoanalysis), stated:

Anthropology cannot remain indifferent to historical process and to the most highly conscious expressions of social phenomena…His goal is to grasp, beyond the conscious and always shifting images which men hold, the complete range of unconscious possibilities.  These are not unlimited, and the relationships of compatibility or incompatibility which each maintains with all the others provide a logical framework for historical developments, which, while perhaps unpredictable, are never arbitrary.  In this sense, the famous statement by Marx, “Men make their own history, but they do not know they are making it,” justifies, first, history and, second, anthropology (Topolski, 193)

Jerzy Topolski, in an article on Marx and Lévi-Strauss, wrote that Lévi-Strauss had a very fatalistic view of history (which I cannot critique as I have not read enough of his theories to substantiate this) and that:

All behavior, according to Lévi-Strauss-writes Susan Sontag-is a language, a vocabulary and grammar of order; anthropology proves nothing about human nature except the need for order itself.  There is no universal truth about the relation between, say, religion and social structure.  There are only models showing the variability of one in relation to others…

Lévi-Strauss claims that among the universal laws of the human mind the basic one is the capability of grasping reality in binary oppositions.  Under conditions of societal existence the distinctive pairs have cultural significance.  The most important for social life is the process of communication which takes place through the medium of a broadly understood “exchange” of words, persons, and things governed by the same formal rules (Topolski, 196).

While Lévi-Strauss has much to admire he was, as the Times obituary stated, much disliked by many anthropologists because of his mix of structural philosophy within his anthropology.  Hugo G. Nutini, an an article for American Anthropologist, wrote all the way back in 1971:

One of the main reasons why Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism has elicited such resistance, and sometimes outright antagonism, from the Anglo American anthropological world is the fact that almost invariable he writes in his dual capacity as scientist and ideologists.  Had he confined himself to expounding his theory and methods in strictly anthropological terms, his ideas would by now be much more acceptable to and better understood by his colleagues (Nutini, 537)

Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism cannot, from the anthropological standpoint, be viewed profitably as a kind of philosophy…I believe that empiricist anthropologists, instinctively realizing the differences in the scientific foundations of the empiricist approach and of structuralism…have viewed structuralism as just another philosophy in disguise…Structuralism should not be regarded as another approach to the handling of empirical social facts in conceptual contexts that do not involve the bifurcation of the socio-cultural universe, not in the light of the other, scientific, side of structuralism.  It will not do, then, to examine a structuralist construction in strictly empirical terms, as empiricist anthropologists are fond of doing when they assert that Lévi-Strauss’s generalizations cannot stand the test of particular ethnographic situations (543)

It is true that there is much to critisize in Lévi-Strauss’ work (as there is in any work of a philosopher or anthropologist) and as David G. Mandelbaum points out, “The writings of Lévi-Strauss have left a broad wake of effervescent admirers and roiled specialists.  Not many have attempted to check the evidence he advances in support of a thesis or have tried to verify his findings.  Those who have closely examined specific writings have generally found them deficient in both respects” (Mandelbaum, 32).

But what Lévi-Strauss has given us, in structural thought, is quite the gift indeed.  He has made many of us to reflect on the structural objects of our societies and the way that history and cultural can limit our choices and can harm certain populations for the benefit of other populations (such as the structural system of capitalistic white supremacy in North America).  He also provided a counter-point to many Western anthropologists who simply overlooked the knowledge of so called “primitive” cultures by pointing out how their fables and myths were as complex as Western philosophical discourse.


Mandelbaum, David G.  1987.  “Myths and Myth Maker: Some Anthropological Appraisals of the Mythological Studies of Lévi-Strauss.”  Ethnology 26, no. 1 (1987): 31-36.

Nutini, Hugo G.  1971.  “The Ideological Bases of Lévi-Strauss’s Structuralism.”  American Anthropologist 73, no. 3 (1971): 537-544.

Topolski, Jerzy.  “Lévi-Strauss and Marx on History.”  History and Theory 12, no. 2 (1973): 192-207.

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