Claude Lévi-Strauss

From New World Encyclopedia

Claude Lévi-Strauss in 2005

Claude Lévi-Strauss (IPA) pronunciation [klod levi stʁos]) (November 28, 1908 - October 30, 2009), was a French anthropologist who became one of the twentieth century's greatest intellectuals by developing structural anthropology as a method of understanding human society and culture. He applied his method to numerous cultural systems, notably kinship structures and mythological patterns. A leading proponent of structuralism, Lévi-Strauss' influence has been significant not only throughout the social sciences, but also in philosophy, comparative religion, and the study of literature. His life-long quest was to show us the deeper unity we share as human beings, in spite of so many outward differences.


Though thought of as French, Claude Lévi-Strauss was born in Bruxelles, Belgium as the son of an artist and a member of an intellectual, artistic family. When he was six years old, his family began to feel unsafe in the pre-World War II political and economic milieu and decided to move near Versailles in Paris, France to be with Claude's grandparents.

His grandfather was a rabbi, and this provided the first context for his future work: Claude was an outsider looking in. He could not have been more alien to the French and Jewish cultures. Not only did he feel himself to be an outsider, the Jewish faith led him to be regarded by others as an outsider as well. This remained a theme in his work throughout his life.

He began his university studies in law and philosophy and was deeply interested in classic literature and music. However, he became bored with legal matters and studied psychoanalysis, geology, and political science with great interest. At that time in France, anthropology was not a separate discipline.

He graduated in philosophy from the Sorbonne in 1931, and married Dina Dreyfus in 1932. After a few years of teaching secondary school, in 1935 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 at the University of São Paulo until 1939. During this time, Lévi-Strauss became very interested in the social anthropology introduced by Marcel Mauss.

He returned to France in 1939 to join the French Army and take part in the war effort, but after French capitulation to the Germans, being a Jew, he fled Paris. After a series of attempts to obtain passage, Lévi-Strauss secured a series of voyages that eventually brought him to Puerto Rico, where he had to undergo final investigation by the FBI before he could finally gain admission to the United States.

Lévi-Strauss had secured a position in New York teaching at the New School for Social Research along with Jacques Maritain, Henri Focillon, and Russian semiotician Roman Jakobson. He divorced Dreyfus and married Rose Marie Ullmo in 1946, and they had one son, Laurent. He was a founding member of the École Libre des Hautes Études, a university-in-exile for French academics.

During his time as a cultural attaché to the French embassy in Washington DC from 1946 to 1947, Lévi-Strauss entertained Albert Camus, who had gained entrance to the United States after a difficult time because of his communist connections.

Lévi-Strauss returned to Paris in 1948, and 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. He became a professor at the Institut d'Ethnologie, University of Paris, and a research associate at the National Science Research Fund, Paris. Later he served as professor of anthropology at the Collège de France. In 1954, he divorced Ullmo and married Monique Roman and they had one son, Matthieu.

While Lévi-Strauss was well-known in academic circles, it was in 1955 that he became one of France's best known intellectuals by publishing Tristes Tropiques. This book was essentially a travel novel detailing his time as a French expatriate throughout the 1930s. But Lévi-Strauss combined exquisitely beautiful prose, dazzling philosophical meditation, and ethnographic analysis of Amazonian peoples to produce a masterpiece. The organizers of the literary prize, Prix Goncourt, for instance, lamented that they were not able to award Lévi-Strauss the prize because Tristes Tropiques was technically non-fiction. This book served to popularize his other work immensely.

Lévi-Strauss was named to a chair in social anthropology at the Collège de France in 1959. At roughly the same time, he published Structural Anthropology, a collection of his essays which provided both examples and programmatic statements about structuralism. Laying the groundwork for establishing anthropology to be accepted as a discipline in France, he began a series of institutions, 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, which concerns primitive thought, forms of thought we all use. The title is a pun untranslatable in English. In French, pensée means both "thought" and "pansy," the flower, while sauvage means "wild" as well as "savage" or "primitive." In English the book is known as The Savage Mind, but this title fails to capture the other possible French meaning of Wild Pansies. (Lévi-Strauss suggested the English title be Pansies for Thought, a reference to the speech by Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet.) The French edition to this day retains a flower on the cover.

As a world-wide celebrity, Lévi-Strauss spent the second half of the 1960s working on his master project, a four-volume study called Mythologiques. Lévi-Strauss took a single myth from the tip of South America and followed all of its variations from group to group up through Central America and eventually into the Arctic circle, thus tracing the myth's spread from one end of the American continent to the other. He accomplished this in a typically structuralist way, examining the underlying structure of relationships between the elements of the story rather than by focusing on the content of the story itself. While Pensée Sauvage was a statement of Lévi-Strauss' big-picture theory, Mythologiques was an extended, four-volume example of analysis. Richly detailed and extremely long, it is less widely read than the much shorter and more accessible Pensée Sauvage, despite its position as Lévi-Strauss' master work.

In the twenty-first century, he continued to publish occasional meditations on art, music, and poetry, as well as interviews and reminiscences of earlier periods of his life. He died on October 30, 2009, a few weeks before his 101st birthday.


Lévi-Strauss lived in Brazil from 1935 to 1939, and it was during this time that he carried out his first ethnographic fieldwork, conducting periodic research forays into the Mato Grosso and the Amazon Rainforest. He studied first the Guaycuru and Bororo Indian tribes, actually living among them for a while. Several years later, he came back again in a second, year-long expedition to study the Nambikwara and Tupi-Kawahib societies. It was this experience that cemented Lévi-Strauss's professional identity as an anthropologist.

Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lévi-Strauss continued to publish and experienced considerable professional success. The war years in New York were formative for Lévi-Strauss in several ways. His relationship with Roman Jakobson helped shape his theoretical outlook (Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss are considered to be two of the central figures on which structuralist thought is based). In addition, Lévi-Strauss was also exposed to American anthropology, especially as espoused by Franz Boas and Bronisław Malinowski. This gave his early work a distinctive American flavor that helped facilitate its acceptance in the U.S.

Among his many significant publications, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) and The Savage Mind (1962) exemplify his contributions to anthropology.

The Elementary Structures of Kinship

The Elementary Structures of Kinship was published the next year and instantly came to be regarded as one of the most important works of anthropological kinship to be published. It was reviewed favorably by Simone de Beauvoir, a former classmate at the Sorbonne, as an important statement of the position of women in non-western cultures. A play on the title of Émile Durkheim's famous Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Elementary Structures re-examined how people organized their families by examining the logical structures that underlay relationships rather than their contents. While British anthropologists such as Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown argued that kinship was based on "descent" from a common ancestor, Lévi Strauss argued that kinship was based on the "alliance" between two families that formed when women from one group married men from the other.

The Savage Mind

The first half of The Savage Mind 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. This part of the book engaged Lévi-Strauss in a heated debate with Jean-Paul Sartre over the nature of human freedom. Although echoes of this debate between structuralism and existentialism would stimulate many and eventually inspire the work of younger authors such as Pierre Bourdieu, many also believed their debate was a version of the Medieval theological discussions of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Sartre's existentialist philosophy committed him to a position that human beings were fundamentally free to act as they pleased, yet he also maintained they were constrained by the ideologies imposed on them by the powerful, as his hard-core leftist views dictated. Lévi-Strauss presented an alternative notion that underlying unity would be found through the comparison of social structures.


Lévi-Strauss' theories are set forth in Structural Anthropology (1958). Briefly, he considered culture a system of symbolic communication, to be investigated with methods that others have used more exclusively in the discussion of novels, political speeches, sports, economic journals, and movies. His reasoning makes best sense against the background of an earlier generation's social theory. Victor Turner and others have critiqued structuralism, like Marxism and secular existentialism, as reducing general expressions of faith and community to mere symbolism, leaving them devoid of real meaning.

Lévi-Strauss was ever-dedicated to the exhaustive analysis of volumes of data. This often shocked and overwhelmed the academic community. He not only utilized a wide range of subject matter, he also utilized an array of scientific methodologies, including mathematical formulas, complex graphic comparisons, cybernetics, modern linguistic theory, and chaos theory, to mention just a few. He seemed to find patterns where no one else could find them, and his method, though rigorous, was unique in each application making it exceedingly difficult for others to replicate. He was criticized for not being an expert in these diverse fields and for utilizing the work of others, rather than limiting his research to the field of his own experience and with languages he was personally adept in. Yet, his attention to detail and precision in method was remarkable and difficult to defeat intellectually.

Lévi-Strauss is often cited as the founder of structural anthropology, and as such chose to use data that emphasized the demands of the social order. He had no difficulty bringing out the inconsistencies and triviality of individualistic accounts. Methods of linguistics became a model for all his earlier examinations of society. "A truly scientific analysis must be real, simplifying, and explanatory," he stated (in Structural Anthropology). Phonemic analysis reveals features that are real, in the sense that users of the language can recognize and respond to them. At the same time, a phoneme is an abstraction from language—not a sound, but a category of sound defined by the way it is distinguished from other categories through rules unique to the language. The entire sound-structure of a language can be generated from a relatively small number of rules.

In the study of the kinship systems that first concerned him, he utilized a comprehensive organization of data that had been partly ordered by other researchers. The overall goal was to find out why family relations differed in different South American cultures. The father might have great authority over the son in one group, for example, with the relationship rigidly restricted by taboos. In another group, the mother's brother would have that kind of relationship with the son, while the father's relationship was relaxed and playful.

A number of partial patterns had been previously noted. Relations between the mother and father, for example, had some sort of reciprocity with those of father and son—if the mother had a dominant social status and was formal with the father, for example, then the father usually had close relations with the son. But these smaller patterns joined together in inconsistent ways. For Lévi-Strauss, a proper solution to the puzzle was to find a basic unit of kinship which can explain all the variations.

He found this unit in the cluster of four roles—brother, sister, father, son. These are the roles that must be involved in any society that has an incest taboo, requiring a man to obtain a wife from some man outside his own hereditary line. A brother can give away his sister, for example, whose son might reciprocate in the next generation by allowing his own sister to marry exogamously. The underlying demand is a continued circulation of women to keep various clans peacefully related.

Right or wrong, this solution displays essential qualities of the structural position. Even though Lévi-Strauss frequently spoke of treating culture as the product of the axioms and corollaries that underlie it, or the phonemic differences that constitute it, he was concerned with the objective data of field research. He noted that it is logically possible for a different unit of kinship structure to exist—sister, sister's brother, brother's wife, daughter—but there are no real-world examples of relationships that can be derived from that grouping.

Lévi-Strauss' later works are more controversial, in part because they impinge on the subject matter of other scholars. He believed that modern life and all history was founded on the same categories and transformations that he had discovered in the Brazilian back country—The Raw and the Cooked, From Honey to Ashes, The Naked Man (to borrow some titles from the Mythologies). For instance he compared anthropology to musical serialism.

His voluminous data and ability to defend his analyses have had an impact on neurological brain research, especially in connection to his applications of linguisitic phonemes. His work seems to provide preliminary data on underlying connections with universal brain function, and has thus stimulated more research on these topics.

He has argued for a view of human life as existing in two timelines simultaneously, the eventful one of history and the long cycles in which one set of fundamental mythic patterns dominates and then perhaps another. In this respect, his work resembles that of Fernand Braudel, the historian of the Mediterranean and la longue durée, the cultural outlook and forms of social organization that persisted for centuries around that sea.

Selected Awards

  • Académie Française, the highest intellectual honor in France
  • American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • Erasmus Prize
  • Meister-Eckhart-Prize for Philosophy
  • Grand-croix de la Légion d'honneur
  • Commandeur de l'ordre national du Mérite
  • Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres

Honorary Doctorates:

Selected Publications

  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1949. Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (The Elementary Structures of Kinship).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1952. Race et histoire. UNESCO; Race and History.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1955. Tristes tropiques.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. Anthropologie structurale (Structural Anthropology).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1962. La Pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1962. Le Totemisme aujourdhui (Totemism).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Mythologiques I-IV.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1964. I:Le Cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1966. II:Du miel aux cendres (From Honey to Ashes).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1968. III:L'Origine des manières de table (The Origin of Table Manners).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1971. IV:L'Homme nu (The Naked Man).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1972. La Voie des masques (The Way of the Masks).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1973. Anthropologie structurale deux (Structural Anthropology, Vol. II).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1983. Le Regard éloigne (The View from Afar).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1984. Paroles donnés (Anthropology and Myth: Lectures, 1951-1982).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1985. La Potière jalouse (The Jealous Potter).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1991. Histoire de lynx.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1993. Regarder, écouter, lire (Look, Listen, Read).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Champagne, Roland A. 1988. Claude Levi-Strauss. Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0805766464
  • Hayes, E. Nelson and Tanya Hayes. 1974. Claude Levi-Strauss: The anthropologist as Hero. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. ISBN 0262580160
  • Leach, Edmund. 1989. Claude Levi-Strauss. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226469689

External Links

All links retrieved December 19, 2023.


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