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date: 23 November 2017

LéVi-Strauss, Claude

Encyclopedia of Semiotics

Michael Harkin

LéVi-Strauss, Claude 

(b. 1908),

French anthropologist generally considered to be the principal figure of structuralism. Lévi-Strauss initially conceived of structuralism as the generalization of communication to all aspects of culture: “communication of women, communication of goods and services, communication of messages” (Lévi-Strauss, 1963). Under the influence of Roman Jakobson, whom he met in New York in the 1940s, Lévi-Strauss extrapolated the principles of the Prague School structural linguistics, more specifically its phonology, and applied them to the study of other cultural communication processes, ultimately relying on Saussure's models and methods. He considered these principles to operate universally in language, myth, and social structure and to reside in an unconscious faculty of the human mind. By his own account, his ideas were stimulated originally by a childhood interest in geology. Like geology, structuralism posits universal principles for uncovering hidden levels of reality.

Lévi-Strauss's early theoretical work presented a critique of and an alternative to the kinship studies of British structural functionalism, of which Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown was the main proponent. Rather than focus on questions such as nomenclature and descent, Lévi-Strauss saw the principle of alliance among groups based on marriage exchange as the key to understanding society, the “glue” holding it together. Dedicated to Lewis Henry Morgan, Lévi-Strauss's The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) reaches back to the Victorian tradition of universal synthesis based on secondary sources. Indeed, Lévi-Strauss claims in this work to have discovered a universal feature of humanity: the incest taboo and its correlative injunction to seek wives elsewhere. In particular, Lévi-Strauss was interested in complex systems wherein elaborate marriage rules give rise to permanent conditions of exchange. For example, among the Kachin, group A always stands as “wife giver” to group B, which plays this role for group C, and so on, until the system achieves closure. Economic goods such as cattle and social prestige might circulate in the opposite direction, although Lévi-Strauss adamantly denies that his model implies that women are exchanged for goods. Rather, “women are exchanged for women.”

Like Émile Durkheim before him, Lévi-Strauss was drawn to the aboriginal Australians, whose marriage customs were as complex as their material culture was considered to be primitive and who had long played the role of evolutionary antediluvian. For Lévi-Strauss, all aboriginal cultures can be explained in terms of a basic moiety system, supplemented by various divisions and subdivisions, upon which permutations of reciprocity were enacted. The sheer complexity of the Kariera system, for example, requires a formal, quasi-mathematical model to describe it. The resulting description resembles an Enlightenment representation of optics or mechanics. This formalism naturally appealed to Lévi-Strauss, whose foray into social organization might be seen, at base, as an attempt to establish human society on the basis of a recognition of difference rather than identity. His arguments on totemism similarly devalue the alleged identification between humans and animals, and replace this with a proportional logic (raven:eagle::group A:group B). Totemic animals, are, in his famous words, not good to eat but “good to think.”

It is not until The Savage Mind that Lévi-Strauss engages the basic issue raised by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857–1939) (the great “absent presence” of this work) and fundamental to social thought of the twentieth century: cognitive relativism. E. E. Evans-Pritchard had earlier tried to discredit Lévy-Bruhl's idea that “savages” think differently than “moderns”, and in this work Lévi-Strauss adopts such cognitive universality as the keystone to his entire system. Lévi-Strauss describes “savage” thought as “the science of the concrete.” By this he means that in primitive cultures material objects, including plant and animal species, function as signs. This differs from our thought in two ways, both of which are, in Aristotle's terms, “accidental.” First, lacking dedicated semiotic systems apart from spoken language (writing, mathematics, symbolic logic, theology), the savage has no choice but to use real things to symbolize abstract concepts (as we saw in totemism). But these real objects retain their corporeality and instrumental qualities; the two dimensions are in a sense mediated by language. Second, all cultures classify the world in distinctive ways. (Here, Lévi-Strauss is merely repeating the argument of his teacher, Marcel Mauss.) These two features of “savage” thought give it a quality that is at once opaque and understandable. Like geology, we can fathom primitive thought if we examine it at a sufficiently deep stratum.

Like Evans-Pritchard, Lévi-Strauss stresses the astonishing empirical knowledge and practical reason of the “savage.” This was thought to belie the argument that their mentalities are fundamentally different from ours. We might each elaborate different spheres of knowledge, but there is no need to resort to quasi-mystical concepts to explain this. Instead, this proves that “savages” are capable of fully realizing the physical component of objects, meaning they fully know when a object is “only” an object and when it is used as a symbol. This tension between the symbolic and corporeal dimensions of objects seems a productive one, upon which much of ritual is based.

One of Lévi-Strauss's most famous essays involves his reading of the myth of Oedipus, in which he uses the Saussurean oppositions of langue and parole; signifier and signified; and syntagmatric and paradigmatic. While Sigmund Freud also used a depth model of meaning, his exegesis involved a simple transformation of a preexisting narrative. That is, the myth refers somewhat obliquely to a parallel story that occurs outside the myth and is repeated latently in every boy's life. For Lévi-Strauss, the deeper levels of meaning are already inside the myth and can be accessed only by examining the logical structures of the myth itself.

A myth can be read in two ways, either syntagmatically, moving through the text from beginning to end, or paradigmatically, as the mind might reorder it upon reflection. Thus, we might note the parallel structures of two events that occur at widely different points in the text. These parallel events will have both similarities and differences; the differences, naturally, constitute the meaning of the relationship, which in turn is an element of the meaning system of the myth. Thus, in the Oedipus story, we might contrast incest with parricide as the overvaluation against the undervaluation of blood relations. Other transformations and oppositions are not as obvious, such as that between autochthony and impaired mobility. As a reading of Oedipus or of the Tsimshian myth of Asdiwal, Lévi-Strauss's interpretations are at least plausible and, in the latter case, resonate with what we know about other aspects of culture. It seems incontrovertible that Lévi-Strauss discovered something fundamental about the way at least some myths are constructed.

His larger project was to explore another opposition, that between nature and culture, which he believed was the underlying meaning of myth. Again, there are obvious symbols of this opposition, such as raw versus cooked food. It is, moreover, quite clear that many Native American myths are on some level about culture versus nature or, perhaps more interestingly, about culture as constituted versus other possibilities. But if Lévi-Strauss can be faulted for overreaching, it is nowhere more true than here. Mythic and artistic themes diffused widely among cultures in North and South America. However, in general terms, they were not transferred intact. The structural principles of opposition and transformation applied to diffusion across cultural boundaries. Not unlike marriage exchange, the transfer of myths both unites and opposes, and thus in a formal sense constitutes, groups. In his study of Pacific Northwest masks, Lévi-Strauss operationalizes this principle by attempting to prove the hypothesis that when plastic forms are borrowed intact, their meaning and function are inverted, while masks with similar meanings from neighboring groups will be formally opposed, often as mirror images of each other. The key concept here is transformation, which can be taken in the linguistic sense as a repeatable, reversible, structurally established operation. The transformation of a mytheme thus no more threatens the system than the transformation of a declarative sentence into an interrogative one threatens the language.

The late twentieth century has not been kind to grand theories in the human sciences, and although Lévi-Strauss's structuralism is no exception, its legacy remains alive. The various figures associated with poststructuralism, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, at the very least assume structuralism as a point of departure. The fruitfulness of the structural study of myth has been clearly demonstrated by the work of Dell Hymes (1981), among others. Lévi-Strauss's corpus stands as a remarkably coherent, consistent body of theory that makes the strongest possible argument for a rationalist, universalist view of humanity.


Hymes, D. In Vain I Tried to Tell You: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.Find this resource:

Lévi-Strauss, C. Structural Anthropology, vol. 1. Translated by C. Jacobson and B. Schoepf. New York: Basic Books, 1963.Find this resource:

Lévi-Strauss, C. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.Find this resource:

Lévi-Strauss, C. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Edited by R. Needham, translated by J. Harle Bell and J. R. von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.Find this resource:

Lévi-Strauss, C. The Raw and the Cooked. Translated by J. Weightman and D. Weightman. New York: Octagon Books, 1970.Find this resource:

Lévi-Strauss, C. The Way of the Masks. Translated by S. Modelski. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Lévi-Strauss, C. Histoire de lynx. Paris: Plon, 1991.Find this resource:

Levy-Bruhl, L. Primitive Mentality. Translated by L. A. Clare. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.Find this resource:

—Michael Harkin

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