Claude Lévi-Strauss: biography of this French anthropologist and philosopher.
We review the life and work of one of the key intellectuals of the 20th century.
Claude Lévi-Strauss was a French anthropologist and one of the most outstanding social scientists of the 20th century.
He is best known for being the founder of structural anthropology and for his theory of structuralism. He was also a key figure in the development of modern social and cultural anthropology, and had a great influence outside his discipline.
In this article we present the figure of Claude Lévi-Strauss, his life and career, as well as his main theoretical and philosophical contributions.
Claude Lévi-Strauss: life and career
Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 - 2009) was born into a French Jewish family in Brussels and later grew up in Paris. He studied philosophy at the historic Sorbonne University.. Several years after his graduation, the French Ministry of Culture invited him to teach as a visiting professor of sociology at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, a position he held as a lecturer, after moving to Brazil, until 1939.
In 1939, Lévi-Strauss resigned to conduct anthropological fieldwork in indigenous communities in the regions of Mato Grosso and the Brazilian Amazon, initiating the beginning of his research on indigenous groups of the Americas. The experience would have a profound effect on his future, paving the way for an innovative career as a researcher and intellectual. He achieved literary fame for his 1955 book "Tristes Trópicos" (Sad Tropics), in which he narrated part of his time in Brazil.
Lévi-Strauss's academic career began to take off when World War II broke out and he was fortunate enough to escape from France to the United States, thanks to a teaching position 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 United States amidst the fall of his home country and the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe.
Lévi-Strauss remained in the United States until 1948, joining a community of Jewish scholars and artists escaping persecution that included linguist Roman Jakobson and surrealist painter André Breton. He also helped found the Ecole Libre de Hautes Etudes (French School of Free Studies) with other refugees, and later served as cultural attaché to the French Embassy in Washington, D.C.
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 was director of studies at the School of Free Studies at the University of Paris from 1950 to 1974. He became chairman of Social Anthropology at the famous Collège de France in 1959 and held the post until 1982. and held the position until 1982.
Claude Lévi-Strauss formulated his famous concept of structural anthropology during his stay in the United States. In fact, this theory is unusual in anthropology in that it is inextricably linked to the writing and thinking of a scholar. Structuralism offered a new and distinctive way of approaching the study of culture, and was based on the scholarly and methodological approaches of cultural anthropology and structural linguistics.
Lévi-Strauss argued that the human brain is wired to organize the world in terms of key organizational structures, which allow people to order and interpret experience. Since these structures are universal, all cultural systems are inherently logical. They simply use different systems of understanding to explain the world around them, resulting in the surprising diversity of myths, beliefs and practices. According to Lévi-Strauss, the task of the anthropologist is 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. This philosophical current offered a fundamentally unifying and egalitarian interpretation of people from all over the world and from all cultural backgrounds. Lévi-Strauss argued that all people use the same basic categories and systems of organization to make sense of human experience.
Lévi-Strauss's concept of structural anthropology aimed to unify, at the level of thought and interpretation, the experiences of cultural groups living in widely varying contexts and systems, from the indigenous community he studied in Brazil to the French intellectuals of World War II. The egalitarian principles of structuralism were an important intervention because they recognized all people as fundamentally equal, regardless of culture, ethnicity, or other socially constructed categories.
The theory of myth
Lévi-Strauss developed a deep interest in Native American beliefs and oral traditions during his time in the United States. The anthropologist Franz Boas and his students pioneered ethnographic studies of North American Indian groups, compiling vast collections of myths. Lévi-Strauss, in turn, sought to synthesize them in a study covering myths from the Arctic to the tip of South America..
These investigations culminated in his work "Mythologiques," a four-volume study in which Lévi-Strauss argued that myths could be studied to reveal the universal oppositions (such as death versus life or nature versus culture) that organized human interpretations and beliefs about the world.
Lévi-Strauss presented structuralism as an innovative approach to the study of myths. One of his key concepts in this regard was "bricolage," a concept he borrowed from French to refer to a creation that is based on a diverse variety of parts. The "bricoleur," or the individual involved in this creative act, makes use of what is available. For structuralism, both concepts are used to show the parallel between Western scientific thought and indigenous approaches; both are fundamentally strategic and logical, and simply make use of different parts.
Claude Lévi-Strauss's earlier work focused on kinship and social organization, as described in his 1949 book, "The Elementary Structures of Kinship." In this sense, Lévi-Strauss sought to understand how the categories proper to social organization, such as kinship and class, were formed. He understood these concepts as social and cultural phenomena, not as natural (or preconceived) categories; however, the question he asked was: what caused them?
Lévi-Strauss's writings focused on the role of exchange and reciprocity in human relations. He was also interested in the power of the incest taboo to push people to marry outside their family, and the subsequent alliances that emerge from these situations.
Rather than addressing the incest taboo as a product with a certain Biological basis or assuming that lineages must be traced through family descent, Lévi-Strauss focused on the power of marriage to create powerful and enduring alliances between families.
Criticisms of Lévi-Strauss's structuralism
Like any other social theory, structuralism was not without its critics. Later researchers broke with the rigidity of Lévi-Strauss's universal structures to adopt a more interpretive (or hermeneutic) approach to cultural analysis.
Similarly, the focus on underlying structures potentially obscured the nuances and complexity of lived experience and everyday life. Marxist thinkers also criticized the lack of attention to material conditions, such as economic resources, property, and class.
Another criticism of Lévi-Strauss's structuralism came from Clifford Geertz, one of the leading exponents of symbolic anthropology. Geertz criticized that his doctrine did not take into account historical factors and that it underestimated the emotional dimension of human beings.He questioned the very possibility of subjecting polymorphous patterns of human behavior and beliefs to a closed and rule-based systematic analysis.
In short, Geertz's proposal consisted in delving into local knowledge, which, according to him, helps us to put ourselves in relation to the other. According to him, the important thing was not to study whether or not culture has a grammatical meaning or a structure where man can act, but to know its semiotic meaning.
For Geertz, the human being is an animal inserted in plots of meaning and therefore the question of knowing whether culture is structured behavior or a structure of the mind, or even the two things mixed together, does not make sense.
Alexander, J. C. (2008). Clifford Geertz and the strong program: The human sciences and cultural sociology. Cultural Sociology, 2(2), 157-168.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1984a): Antropología estructural. Editorial Eudeba. Buenos Aires.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1984b): El pensamiento salvaje. Fondo de Cultura Económica. Mexico.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1991a): Las estructuras elementales del parentesco. Paidós. Barcelona.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)