Claude Lévi-Strauss is widely considered one of the fathers of structuralism and the most important structuralist anthropologist. He was born in Belgium in 1908 and studied law (but philosophy and sociology as well) in Paris from 1927-1932. He taught sociology at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, from 1934 to 1937, during which time he also visited various native peoples of the Amazon. From 1939-1940 he served in the French Army, and with the help of anthropologist Franz Boas fled German occupation to teach at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1941. In 1950 he was appointed Director of Studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études at th University of Paris and in 1959 he was appointed Chair of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France.

Structuralism among the sciences

Structuralism is a method of the social sciences and the humanities and begins with a presupposition shared by many non-structuralists: things are not what they seem. More specifically, structuralism (like other theories or disciplines -- Lévi-Strauss explicitly mentions Marxism, psychoanalysis, and geology, and alludes to chemistry) assumes that the forms things (whether dreams, rocks or rituals) take are ultimately the product of forces that are not only unseen, but often disguised by the visible forms they take.

Theoretical Antecedants of Structuralism

Structuralism has more specific antecedants in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and works by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and the sociologist Emile Durkheim. Kant argued that it is the human mind that gives a structure to our perceptions. For example, wavelength gets shorter as we move from infrared to ultraviolet, but along a continuum -- there is no "break" from yellow to green in nature; the difference is a product of the human mind.

The same principles apply to language: we are capable of producing and perceiving a tremendous variety of sounds. All languages must distinguish between meaningful and meaningless sounds (thus, in English a burst of air formed by bringing teeth together and separating them creates the sound represented by "t," but the sound created by snapping the toungue away from the roof of the mouth does not create a meaningful sound. In other languages, the reverse may be the case.) Moreover, all languages must distinguish between meaningful differences in sound (In English, one may pronounce the first vowel in "chocolate" as "aw" or as "ah" with no change in meaning to the word. But if one changes the first sound in the word "bat" to a "p," one changes the meaning of the whole word.) In other words, meaning is constituted through difference.

Durkheim pioneered the study of society in terms of relationships between different parts (in sociology the parts may be social statuses, social groups, or social institutions). Durkhem was especially interested in the difference between societies in which most of the parts were identical (for example, all men are hunters) and societies in which most of the parts are different (for example, most people have very different jobs). One of Lévi-Strauss's innovations was to apply Kant's and de Saussure's notions of structure to the kinds of phenomena studied by Durkheim.

Structuralism Applied: Kinship and Myth

In his earliest work, Lévi-Strauss focused on the social institution of marriage. Lévi-Strauss was especially interested in the problem of incest. Anthropologists had observed that in all societies there is some prohibition against incest. Some had proposed psychological or biological theories, but none of these theories fit the evidence. Lévi-Strauss argued that the incest taboo should be thought of as the inverse of marriage, because compliance with the incest taboo requires one to marry a non-relative. He concluded that what needed explanation was not the incest taboo but rather marriage. Influenced by Durkheim's son-in-law Marcel Mauss, who analyzed the role of exchange in social structure in his book, "The Gift," Lévi-Strauss argued that marriage is best thought of not as a relationship between a man and a woman but as a relationship between two men, bound by the exchange of women. He reached this conclusion by considering evidence such as the answer provided by an Arapesh man as to why he would not marry his own sister. The man explained that if he married his own sister, he would not acquire a brother-in-law with whom he could hunt. Lévi-Strauss imagined a primordial situation in which two men, strangers to each other, met. How would they treat one another? They could fight one another, or avoid one another, but Lévi-Strauss supposed that they formed a relationship by exchanging sisters. He then devised a model of kinship systems based on different patterns of exchange between men and groups of men.

Later in his career, Lévi-Strauss turned to the study of myth. Some people understand myths to be a form of corrupted history, others interpret them as expressions of individual psychological dynamics. Lévi-Strauss rejects both of these views; like most anthropologist he sees myths as expressing the values of a society in the present, although often in the form of stories about the past. But this focus on the present meaning does not ignore the question of time; myths are transmitted over generations. It is inevitable that in the course of transmission, different elements of a myth may be lost or distorted. Lévi-Strauss observes that the best solution to signal degredation is signal redundancy: if you cannot be heard clearly, keep repeating your message. He therefore proposes that the best way for people to communicate a message to the younger generation is to repeat the same mesage in different forms. What this means is that some parts of the message may be clear in one myth, and other parts clear in other myths. Thus, an anthropologist cannot analyze one myth by itself; to reveal the message one must look at a body of myths. Lévi-Strauss accomplishes this by reducing myths to their formal elements (generally involving the presence or absence of particular kinds of relationships). After comparing a variety of myths in such a way, he concluded that all myths involved the transformation of basic oppositions (or differences), especially the opposition between nature and culture. In short, when one looks at the early work of Lévi-Strauss the fundamental structures are in social relations and institutions; in later works they are in language and the mind.


Lévi-Strauss's influence in anthropology extends far beyond his specific theories about kinship and myth. In part, this is because he provided a clearly articulated alternative to two dominant models of anthropological research. Cultural or social anthropologists typically write either ethnography or ethnology. Ethnography is a description and analysis of a particular society based on the participant-observation method of fieldwork. Ethnology involves the systematic comparison of different societies. Prior to Lévi-Strauss, ethnologists either classified societies into different types (most commonly conceived of as different evolutionary stages), or sought to establish valid generalizations about human societies. From the point of view of structuralism, however, both of these approaches make the mistake of working from superficial differences or similarities. Lévi-Strauss argued that any comparison must be based on the analysis of the underlying structures; his goal was not to make bigger and bigger generalizations but rather to develop a universal model (comparable to the periodic table of elements).

Another reason Lévi-Strauss was so influencial is that he presented structuralism in terms of an engagement with the major moral questions of Western philosophy. In 18th century, philosophers argued over the moral condition of humanity in a state of nature, and asked whether civilization has a corrupting or enobling effect on people. In the course of this debate they distinguished between "civilized" and "uncivilized" (or "savage" or "primitive") peoples such as American Indians (who were taken to be prime examples of humans living in a state of nature). Virtually all anthropologists have rejected this debate as sterile and facile, since all humans -- including American Indians -- have and live within cultures. Lévi-Strauss makes this clear in his memoire, "Tristes Tropiques," where he describes Amazonian Indians who disdain nature and celebrate their alienation from nature as a way of celebrating their humanity. Indeed, Lévi-Strauss argues that one thing that all humans have in common is their sense of being alienated from nature -- this is ironic, because if this sense of alienation is universal, then one can suppose that it is "natural," meaning that human beings really do have a "nature," and are thus not in fact alienated from nature. The alienation of humans from nature is human nature. And the difference between "civilized" societies versus people living in a "state of nature" is a false problem.

But Lévi-Strauss suggests that there is a meaningful difference between Europeans and Amazonian Indians, and it is in contemplating this difference that he confronts what he believes is the real problem facing humanity. In the tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau Lévi-Strauss is highly critical of the West, which he identifies with the Nazi occupation of France and the Holocaust. But these are not problems of "Western civilization" per se, for he sees the same problem in "Eastern civilization," in the caste system of Hindu India an institutionalized, and only arguably more humane, version of Naziism, where people who are different are kept separate and unequal.

According to Lévi-Strauss, the greatest challenge facing humanity is precisely that challenge he saw as the origin of the incest taboo and marriage: what happens when two strangers meet one another? One can kill the other (as in the Holocaust), or they can avoid one another (as in the caste system), or they could form an equal relationship (as through marriage -- an act of relating that creates, rather than destroys, the possibility of society). Tristes Tropiques is in one sense the story of his quest to discover a society which most purely represents this alternative.

Many critics of structuralism have pointed out that the equality he claims to have discovered in simple kinship systems is predicated on an inequality he could not recognize (ironic, as a structuralist would predict this): the inequality between men and women.

For further Reading

Major works by Lévi-Strauss

  • The Elementary Structures of Kinship
  • Mythologiques (four volumes)
The above two works are the best sustained examples of structuralist ethnology
  • Totemism
  • The Savage Mind
The above two works deal with the problem of "classification"
  • Tristes Tropiques
  • Part memoire, part philosophical reflection, this is probably the best introduction to Lévi-Strauss's thought for a non-anthropologist. Nevertheless, it would help to have some general background in anthropology and philosophy.

Influences on Lévi-Strauss

  • Immanuel Kant, A Critique of Pure Reason
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau Discourse on Social Inequality
  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels The German Ideology
  • Emile Durkheim The Division of Labor
  • Ferdinand de Saussure Course in General Linguistics
  • Roman Jakobson and M. Halle Fundamentals of Language

Discussions about Lévi-Strauss

  • Edmund Leach Claude Lévi-Strauss
  • A very short introduction to structuralism by an important British social anthropologist.
  • Jacques Derrida Of Grammatology
  • A dense critique of Rousseauian thought. Part II chapter 1 consists of an insightful critique of structuralism, through a close reading of part of Tristes Tropiques