Claude Lévi-Strauss and Structural Anthropology

Lévi-Strauss. Image: UNESCO/Michel Ravassard

Lévi-Strauss. Image: UNESCO/Michel Ravassard

On November 28, 1908, French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss was born. Lévi-Strauss’ work was key in the development of the theory of structuralism and structural anthropology. He argued that the “savage” mind had the same structures as the “civilized” mind and that human characteristics are the same everywhere.

Claude Lévi-Strauss grew up in Paris, living on a street of the upscale 16th arrondissement named after the artist Claude Lorrain, whose work he admired and later wrote about. During the First World War, he lived with his maternal grandfather, who was the rabbi of the synagogue of Versailles. He attended the Lycée Janson de Sailly and the Lycée Condorcet.

He studied law and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. 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 then wife, Dina, served as a visiting professor of ethnology.

The couple lived and did their anthropological work in Brazil from 1935 to 1939. During this time, while he was a visiting professor of sociology, Claude undertook his only ethnographic fieldwork. He accompanied Dina, a trained ethnographer in her own right who was also a visiting professor at the University of São Paulo, where they conducted research forays into the Mato Grosso and the Amazon Rainforest.

In 1941, he was offered a position at the New School for Social Research in New York City and granted admission to the United States. Lévi-Strauss was exposed to the American anthropology espoused by Franz Boas, who taught at Columbia University. Lévi-Strauss returned to Paris in 1948, and 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 quickly came to be regarded as one of the most important anthropological works on kinship. Lévi-Strauss argued that kinship was based on the alliance between two families that formed when women from one group married men from another, in contast to Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, who argued that kinship was based on descent from a common ancestor.

Lévi-Strauss continued to publish and experienced considerable professional success and became one of France’s best known intellectuals by publishing Tristes Tropiques. He was named to a chair in Social Anthropology at the Collège de France in 1959. Lévi-Strauss published Structural Anthropology, a collection of his essays which provided both examples and programmatic statements about structuralism in the same year. 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, translated into English as The Savage Mind. The Savage Mind discusses not just “primitive” thought, a category defined by previous anthropologists, but 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.

Lévi-Strauss became a world wide celebrity and also became a member of other notable academies worldwide, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters. After his retirement, he continued to publish occasional meditations on art, music, philosophy, and poetry.

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