2. Claude Lévi-Strauss


Claude Lévi-Strauss, (1908-2009) was born in Belgium, the son of a Franco-Jewish painter, but grew up in Paris. He studied law and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, later abandoning law to graduate in philosophy in 1931. He worked first as a secondary-school teacher, but then joined a French cultural mission to Brazil as a visiting Professor of Sociology at the University of São Paulo (1935-39) with his wife Dina also as Professor of Ethnology.

First ethnographic studies

From 1935 to 1939 the couple undertook their first ethnographic research in Brazil in the Mato Grosso and the Amazon Rainforest, at first studying and living with the Guaycuru and Bororo Indian tribes. They returned in 1938 for a second, half-year-long expedition to study the Nambikwara and Tupi-Kawahib societies. This field-work established Lévi-Strauss’s reputation as an anthropologist and is narrated in his autobiographical travelogue, “Tristes-Tropiques”.

The War Years

Although he returned to France in 1939 to assist in the war effort, following the French defeat and Nazi occupation of 1940, Lévi-Strauss had to flee Paris, initially, to Martinique. He was offered a position in New York, where he spent most of the War years. He also undertook a series of voyages to Puerto Rico, at one time arousing the suspicion of both customs officials and the FBI after German letters were found in his luggage. Together with other intellectual emigrés, he taught at the New School for Social Research. With Jacques Maritain, Henri Focillon and Roman Jakobson, he co-founded the École Libre des Hautes Études, an institution which served as a university-in-exile for French academics.

The relationship with Jakobson was fundamental in the formation of what was to be known as structuralist thought, and the two are seen as its ‘founding fathers’. In America, Lévi-Strauss also befriended the American anthropologist Franz Boas (at Columbia University), a fact which later assisted the acceptance of Lévi-Strauss’s work in the U.S.

From 1946 to 1947 Lévi-Strauss served as a cultural attaché to the French embassy in Washington, DC. In 1948 he returned to Paris, where he received his doctorate from the Sorbonne by submitting, two inter-related theses. These were “The Family and Social Life of the Nambikwara Indians” and “The Elementary Structures of Kinship“.

“The Elementary Structures of Kinship” (whose title pays hommage to Émile Durkheim‘s, “Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”), was published in 1949 and was quickly recognised as one of the most important anthropological works on kinship. Simone de Beauvoir considered it to be an important statement on the position of women in non-western cultures. The book examined how family relationships could be understood in terms of their underlying logical structures rather than their contents. Where anthropologists such as Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown argued that kinship was based on descent from a common ancestor, (usually through the male line) Lévi-Strauss argued that kinship was based on the alliance between two families that formed when women from one group married men from another.

Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lévi-Strauss continued to publish and experienced considerable professional success. On his return to France, he became involved with the administration of the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research) and the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) before finally becoming chair of the fifth section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études, the ‘Religious Sciences’ section previously chaired by Marcel Mauss, which he renamed “Comparative Religion of Non-Literate Peoples”.

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. Lévi-Strauss combined beautiful prose, philosophical reflexion, and ethnographic analysis of the Amazonian peoples to produce a masterpiece.

Lévi-Strauss was appointed to a personal 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. At the same time as he was laying the groundwork for an intellectual programme, he began a series of institutions for establishing 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”. The title pun plays on the double meanings of ‘pensée’ (thought and the flower pansy) and ‘sauvage” (uncivilised or wild) In English the book has been translated as “The Savage Mind” or more recently as “Wild Thought”. The book concerns primitive thought, in the sense of forms of thought that we all use.

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. This part of the book engaged Lévi-Strauss in a heated debate with Jean-Paul Sartre over the nature of human freedom. On the one hand, Sartre’s existentialist philosophy committed him to a position that human beings were fundamentally free to act as they pleased. On the other hand, Sartre was committed to the idea that, for instance, individuals were constrained by the ideologies imposed on them by those in power (the status quo). Lévi-Strauss presented his structuralist notion of agency in opposition to Sartre. Echoes of this debate between structuralism and existentialism would eventually inspire the work of younger authors such as Pierre Bourdieu.

Now a worldwide celebrity, Lévi-Strauss spent the second half of the 1960s working on his master project, a four-volume study called “Mythologiques”. In it, he 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’s 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’s masterwork.

Lévi-Strauss completed the final volume of “Mythologiques” in 1971 and in 1973 he was elected to the Académie Française, France’s highest honour for an intellectual. He is also a member of other notable academies worldwide, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also received the Erasmus Prize in 1973. In 2003 he received the Meister-Eckhart-Prize for philosophy. He has received several honorary doctorates from universities such as Oxford, Harvard, and Columbia. He was also a recipient of the Grand-croix de la Légion d’honneur, and was a Commandeur de l’ordre national du Mérite and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. During his long retirement, he continued to publish occasional meditations on art, music and poetry.

In 2008, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade started to publish his main works, a very rare occurrence for a living person.

Claude Lévi-Strauss died in 2009 just before his 101st birthday.

Intellectual Origins

Antecedents to Lévi-Strauss included the English anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), author of the monumental “The Golden Bough” – an analysis of primitive myths from a variety of cultures which sought to define certain archetypal or underlying stories in them all, and thereby help to give meaning to contemporary society; and Bronisław Malinowski, (1884-1942) born in Poland, but naturalised as a British citizen, who spent most of his life in the analysis of data gathered over a four year period in a small village in the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia. Frazer hoped to discover fundamental truths about the nature of human psychology by comparing the details of different myths from different parts of the world. Malinowski, on the other hand was much more concerned with arriving at specific knowledge by careful and scientific study of a specific culture, thus avoiding the temptation to make sweeping generalisations.

The other major influences on Lévi-Strauss were :

1. The ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure on the underlying structure of language and sign-systems, with his key notions of the arbitrary nature of the Sign, the concepts of Sign, Signifier, and Signified, and the two types of analysis – Synchronic or static or frozen analysis, and Diachronic or an analysis which is fluid/changing over time; and lastly, the precedence of ‘Langue’ (the collective storehouse of language) over ‘Parole’ (individual speech acts) or the social whole over the individual speech act.

2. Phenomenology, a school of philosophical thought which flourished in Germany in the 1920s-40s, chiefly through the work of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and his pupil Martin Heidegger, (1889-1976) and was later popularised in France by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-61). Briefly, it tried to describe the essence of consciousness as a whole and not the consciousness of one particular individual. It was an attempt by philosophy to understand the basic necessities of thinking (ontology) so as to be able to get rid of any (subjective) preconceptions which still lingered in philosophical thinking, and, like Structuralism it saw everything in terms of interlinked parts within a broader structure.

3. Gestalt Psychology which was another widely influential philosophical movement of the 1910s to 1930s. ‘Gestalt’ is the German word for pattern or shape, and essentially Gestalt psychology claimed that all conscious experience is structured according to underlying patterns. We perceive and make sense of visual, auditory or other signals by grasping the essential pattern which underlies them first, and then adding the details later. When looking at a picture, for example, we take in its overall structure – or Gestalt – very quickly, before we elaborate on the details; likewise, when we look at a landscape or a human face. The Gestalt Psychologists, like the Structuralists saw the world in terms of underlying structures.

The other key influences undepinning Lévi-Strauss’s works are Hegel, Marx, Darwin and Freud, (the early proto-structuralists, without whom one cannot really understand the 20th-century), and also the sociologist Émile Durkheim, who wrote about contemporary societies in terms of their underlying trends and features, such as the “work ethic” or the role of religion or suicide.

Lévi-Strauss is, in many ways, the most purely Structuralist thinker of all, since he holds that the Structuralist method is the one appropriate mode of thinking in all fields of activity today.

He analysed whatever culture he came across with the specific intention of drawing out its hidden structures, and making claims about the general nature of human thinking. In this sense, he is, like Saussure, studying his object, societies, as they exist here and now, (synchronically) but then abstracting general rules from them (diachronically). Mostly, he follows a thinker like Frazer, rather than Malinowski, in that he is ultimately concerned with making generalisations about “human nature” rather than stressing the uniqueness of a particular society. A key element in this, as Edmund Leach points out, is that, unlike Malinowski, Lévi-Strauss, never stayed longer than a few weeks on the location of his particular study group, believing that the immediately apparent structure was the most useful for his purposes. The anthropologist needs to take the history of the tribe into account only insofar as this seems relevant or important to the individuals currently living within it.

Lévi-Strauss was interested in drawing attention to the elements of sameness as well as difference in the various cultures he studies, and drawing from these a general theory of culture. In so doing, Lévi-Strauss cannot afford to place too much emphasis on the vagaries of the individual – it is the collective group which interests him.

Adapting schemes which Roman Jacobson (1896-1982) had used to portray the structures of grammar, Lévi-Strauss devised his own analysis of the cultural uses of food. He observed that just as there was no human society which did not develop a lingusitic structure, so there was no society which did not evolve a system of processing food, from its initial “raw” state to its developed “cooked” form. Food is transformed from one state to another by either natural means such as rotting or smoking, or by cultural means such as boiling. The various types of cooking – roasting, smoking, boiling, frying, etc. can then be analysed as to whether they belong to Nature or Culture. Thus, in Lévi-Strauss’s terms, the techniques of roasting and smoking are natural processes (which could take place without man’s intervention), whereas boiling (because it depends on a pot to contain the water) is a cultural process. As the culture gets more complex, so too do the various ways to cook – steaming, frying, grilling etc. Where animals just eat food, mankind treats it culturally: certain types of food take on religious or ritual values, other aspects relate to social events (ie the Sunday roast); and some foods become taboo in certain cultures – pork to Islam or non-Kocher foods to orthodox Jews; dogs, cats, monkeys, and frogs are delicacies to some cultures but not to others. Some of these cultural differences are inherent in the techniques of cooking – Boiling for example preserves all the foods natural juices: it is thus more economic, whereas roasting lets much more evaporate – To Lévi-Strauss then, roasting is more aristocratic/wasteful and becomes the suitable means for public or ostentatious ceremonies, like weddings. The structure of a menu will follow a tightly organised hierarchy of raw (for example Oysters or salad) followed by smoked (salmon), then boiled (lobster) roast (mutton), cooked (soufflé), and rotted (Stilton).

Some foods take on male or female roles, some are forbidden to children, etc..

The key element in all this is of course language; for it is language which distinguishes us from the “merely animal” – and language is what enables culture. In this sense, animals can form social groupings, which have their own structure, but however advanced, they can never have culture, because culture depends on language. It is language, and the many different forms it takes which makes us human. The difference between Nature and Culture can be found in whatever aspect of human society we look at: speaking, eating, making pots, painting (either ourselves from war paint to make up) or surfaces like caves or canvases. The way we dress, from battle uniforms to wedding dresses, all reveal the ‘pecking order’ of the society and what/whom it considers culturally important.

In language itself, it is specifically the birth of Metaphor which created self-conscious culture. Before this, language was concerned with the simple naming of things. With the arrival of metaphor, poetic links could be drawn between things; one thing could stand in for another; objects could take on mysterious or godly attributes, or be used to represent things like aspects of our hopes and fears. Take for example the apparently irrational distinction which a fox-hunter makes between “pets” (dogs) to be nurtured and “vermin” (fox) to be exterminated: both belong to the same animal species. (Caninae which includes domestic dogs, wolves, foxes and other extant and extinct species). The fox is here being used symbollically and internally to represent the negative aspects of the hunter/society which he is attempting to expunge. A clearer example is the cultural role of the bullfight in Spain, which goes back to ritualised sacrifices to maintain the food supply by magical means. This relationship between the natural world and the cultural or contrived came to be known as “Totemism”, and to Lévi-Strauss, it is a near-universal phenomenon. He discussed it at length in his book “Totemism today” (1962).

Another key aspect of Lévi-Strauss’s work revolves around the role and function of myths in a society, and their relation to the actual history of a culture. To Lévi-Strauss, the view that myths are ‘false history’ is not really relevant, because the myth is “true” to the person who believes in it. What is more important is the function of the myth: what task it is performing within a given culture. Broadly speaking, he sees myths as preserving and passing on important messages from previous ages to the present, in terms of reminders of what is and is not permitted within kinship systems, and to allay fears about Creation or procreation; to give structure and order to an otherwise baffling world. Most cultures have a Creation myth, and in most of them is the same paradox. If there was only one originary couple created, then any subsequent generations must have been the result of incestuous second-level relationships. The only other answer is that two couples were created, but this then destroys the idea, basic to most cultures, that we all spring from one original source. In order to allay these anxieties, and prevent future generations from becoming incestuous, myth intervenes and smoothes things out supernaturally. Consequently, elaborate systems of marriage and kinship develop in each culture, and a system of exchange or dowry becomes institutional to compensate for the loss of the societies basic productive asset – women, who alone are seen to have the power to recreate the tribe. To compensate for Man’s genetic inability, he takes over the aspects of social control (primarily control over his daughters or sisters) over the economy, and over magic and the arts ( his form of metaphorical creation). Women thus become the first commodity of exchange between different families or tribes, whose “value” is established by the brothers or fathers.

Myths also articulate structures operating between such common cultural aspects as: earthly/heavenly; Culture/Nature; Wild/Tame; masculine/feminine (as against Male/Female); Monsters/Domestic animals; Good (god)/Evil (devil) ; light/darkness; naked/clothed; sacred/profane; noise/silence. These dichotomies are fundamental to almost all societies and social and cultural conventions. They are ways of making sense of an otherwise incohate world.

The Group Kinship and Myth

Lévi-Strauss sought to apply the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) to anthropology, in which the family, (which was treated as a self-contained unit, consisting of a husband, a wife, and their children), was traditionally considered to be the fundamental object of analysis. Nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, however, were all treated as secondary. But Lévi-Strauss argued that, akin to Saussure’s notion of linguistic value, families only acquire determinate identities through their relations with one another. Thus he inverted the classical view of anthropology, putting the secondary family members first and insisting on analysing the relations between units instead of the units themselves. Saussure had shown that meaning does not derive from words in isolation, but only in their relationship to other words within a sentence. It is the group/collectivity which gives meaning.

In his converstaions with Georges Charbonnier on French radio, Lévi-Strauss explained how he saw art working in a similar way – it is the group/context which gives meaning to the individual works created by an artist, and thus their value as communication.

In his own analyses of the formation of the identities that arise through marriages between tribes, Lévi-Strauss noted that the relation between the uncle and the nephew was to the relation between brother and sister as the relation between father and son is to that between husband and wife, that is, A is to B as C is to D. Therefore if we know A, B and C, we can predict D, just as if we know A and D, we can predict B and C. The goal of Lévi-Strauss s structural anthropology, then, was to simplify the masses of empirical data into generalised, comprehensible relations between units, which allow for predictive laws to be identified, such as A is to B as C is to D.

Similarly, Lévi-Strauss identified myths as a type of speech through which a language could be discovered. How else, he thought, could tales so fantastical and arbitrary be so similar across cultures? Thus he sought to find the fundamental units of myth, namely, the mytheme. So believing there is no one authentic version of a myth, that they are all rather manifestations of the same language, he broke each of the versions down into a series of sentences, consisting of a relation between a function and a subject. Sentences with the same function were given the same number and bundled together. These are mythemes.

What Lévi-Strauss believed he had discovered when he examined the relations between mythemes was that a myth consists of nothing but binary oppositions. Influenced by Hegel, Lévi-Strauss believed that the human mind thinks fundamentally in these binary oppositions and their unification (the thesis, antithesis, synthesis triad), and that these are what make meaning possible: what is known as Dialectics, or dialectical thinking. In fact, this tactic or strategy for thinking, goes back at least to Plato and is the basis for his “Dialogues”, and thence, the future development of Western philosophy at least until the twentieth-century. Furthermore, he considered the job of myth to be a kind of ‘trick’, an association of an irreconcilable binary opposition with a reconcilable binary opposition, creating the illusion, or belief, that the former had been resolved. (ie Myth as ‘fake history’)

Anthropological theories

Lévi Strauss’ theories are set forth in “Structural Anthropology” (1958). Briefly, he considers culture a system of symbolic communication, to be investigated with methods that others have used more narrowly in the discussion of novels, political speeches, sports, and movies.

For Lévi-Strauss, the methods of linguistics became a model for all his earlier examinations of society.

“A really scientific analysis must be real, simplifying, and explanatory,” he says (in “Structural Anthropology“). Phonemic analysis reveals features that are real, in the sense that users of the language can recognise 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.

A proper solution to the puzzling diversity of family relations is to find a basic unit of kinship which can explain all the variations. For Lévi-Strauss this is a 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.

He notes that it is logically possible for a different atom 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.

The purpose of structuralist explanation is to organize real data in the simplest effective way. All science, he says, is either structuralist or reductionist. In confronting such matters as the incest taboo, one is facing an objective limit of what the human mind has so far accepted. One could hypothesize some biological imperative underlying it, but so far as social order is concerned, the taboo has the effect of an irreducible fact. The social scientist can only work with the structures of human thought that arise from it.

And structural explanations can be tested and refuted. A mere analytic scheme that wishes causal relations into existence is not structuralist in this sense.

Later works

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 Mythologiques). For instance he compares anthropology to musical serialism and defends his “philosophical” approach. He also pointed out that the modern view of primitive cultures was simplistic in denying them a history. The categories of myth did not persist among them because nothing had happened: it was easy to find the evidence of defeat, migration, exile, repeated displacements of all the kinds known to recorded history. Instead, the mythic categories had encompassed these changes.

Following Saussure’s model of Diachronic and Synchronic, Lévi-Strauss argued for a view of human life as existing in two timelines simultaneously, the eventful one of history (Synchronic) and the long cycles in which one set of fundamental mythic patterns dominates and then perhaps another. (Diachronic). In this respect, his work also resembles that of Fernand Braudel, the historian of the Mediterranean and ‘la longue durée,’ the cultural outlook and forms of social organisation that persisted for centuries around that sea.


Charbonnier, Georges, “Converasations with Lévi-Strauss”, Jonathan Cape, London 1968.

Culler, Jonathan, “On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism”, London, 1983.

Jefferson, Ann and David Robey (eds), “Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction”, London,1982,

Harland, Richard, “Superstructuralism : The Philosophy of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism”, London, 1987.

Leach, Edmund, “Lévi-Strauss: Modern Masters”, Fontana/Collins, Glasgow, 1970, 1974, 1985.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté “(1949); “The Elementary Structures of Kinship“, (translated by J. H. Bell, J. R. von Sturmer, and R. Needham), 1969.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “The Scope of Anthropology”, London, Cape 1967.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “Tristes Tropiques”, (1955); transl.) Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “Anthropologie structurale” (1958); “Structural Anthropology” (translated by C. Jacobson and B. G. Schoepf), 1963.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “Mythologies”, 1962. 

Lévi-Strauss, “Le Totemisme aujourdhui”, “Totemism Today”, translated by R. Needham. 1963.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “La Pensée sauvage” (1962), “The Savage Mind”, Harmondsworth, 1966.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, Mythologiques I–IV, (1964–1971), translated by J. Weightman and D. Weightman.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 1964. Le Cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked, 1969)

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 1966. “Du miel aux cendres” (1966), “From Honey to Ashes”, 1973.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “L’Origine des manières de table” (1968) / “The Origin of Table Manners”, 1978

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “L’Homme nu” (1971) / “The Naked Man”, (1981)

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “Anthropologie structurale deux” (1973); “Structural Anthropology,” Vol. II, translated by M. Layton, 1976

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “La Voie des masques” (1972), “The Way of the Masks”, translated by S. Modelski, 1982.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude , “Myth and Meaning”, First published 1978 by Routledge & Kegan Paul, U.K, Taylor & Francis Group, 2005.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “Le Regard éloigné” (1983), “The View from Afar”, translated by J. Neugroschel and P. Hoss. 1985.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “Paroles donné” (1984), “Anthropology and Myth: Lectures, 1951–1982”, translated by R. Willis, 1987.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “La Potière jalouse” (1985), ” The Jealous Potter,” translated by B. Chorier. 1988.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “Histoire de Lynx” (1991), “The Story of Lynx”, translated by C. Tihanyi. 1996.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “Regarder, écouter, lire” (1993); “Look, Listen, Read”, translated by B. Singer, 1997.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “Saudades do Brasil” (1994), Paris: Plon.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “Le Père Noël supplicié” (1994). Pin-Balma: Sables Éditions.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “L’Anthropologie face aux problèmes du monde moderne”. (2011), Paris: Seuil.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, “L’Autre face de la lune”, (2011) Paris: Seuil.