Key Theories of Claude Levi Strauss

Claude Levi Strauss was born into a Belgian Jewish family in 1908. Both his parents were artists, and so while he was learning to read and write, the future anthropologist had a paintbrush or crayon in his hand.

claude-lvi-strauss-1Although he completed an agre´gation in philosophy at the Sorbonne in the early 1930s, the desire to escape from the philosophical orthodoxies then in vogue in Paris (neo-Kantianism, Bergsonism, phenomenology and, later, existentialism) prompted Le´vi-Strauss in 1934 to accept a position as professor of anthropology at the University of Sao Paulo. Later, following military service in France, Le´vi- Strauss fled, to escape persecution, to the United States where, from 1941 to 1945 he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1941, he met Roman Jakobson who was to be a formative influence in the linguistic and structuralist turn in Le´vi-Strauss’s postwar anthropology.

Intellectual Trajectory: Exchange and Structure

Not only did Levi-Strauss distance himself from the French philosophy of his day, he also distanced himself from orthodox interpretations of Durkheim, which played up the positivistic and evolutionist aspects of his thought. However, it was a reinterpretation of the work of Durkheim’s disciple, Mauss, which played a major part in defining Le´vi-Strauss’s early intellectual trajectory.

In his classic work on the link between kinship and exchange – The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) – Levi-Strauss describes the following custom. In inexpensive restaurants in the south of France, especially in the wine-growing regions, a meal normally includes a small bottle of wine. The quality and quantity of wine for each diner is the same: one glass of the lowest quality. Instead of pouring wine into his or her own glass, the owner will pour the wine into that of a neighbour. Despite the exchange, the quantity of wine remains the same (Le´vi-Strauss 1969: 59–60). Exchange of wine becomes a means of establishing social contact, through reciprocity. Indeed, wine is the social element of the meal – gives it a group aspect – while food is the individual element, intended for the nourishment of the diner. In microcosm, then, the link between exchange and the ‘total social fact’ is revealed, since it is not what is exchanged that is important, but the fact of exchange itself, a fact inseparable from the very constitution of social life.

Two important aspects of Levi-Strauss’s anthropology are introduced here. The first is the principle that social and cultural life cannot be uniquely explained by a version of functionalism: cultural life is not explicable in terms of the intrinsic nature of the phenomena in question. Nor can it be explained empirically by facts deemed to speak for themselves. In short, although empirical research constitutes an important part of his work, Levi-Strauss is not an empiricist. Rather, he has always maintained that he is first and foremost a structural anthropologist. Broadly, structural anthropology, inspired by Saussure, focuses on the way elements of a system combine together, rather than on their intrinsic value. ‘Difference’ and ‘relation’ are the key notions here. Moreover, the combination of these elements will give rise to oppositions and contradictions which serve to give the social realm its dynamism.

‘Scope’ is another important aspect of Levi-Strauss’s approach. For while many social researchers have limited their interpretations of social life to the specific society in which they have carried out fieldwork, Levi-Strauss adopts a universalist approach, theorising on the basis of both his own and other anthropologists’ data. Of all the general criticisms that have been levelled against Levi-Strauss, the one which claims that he theorises from an inadequate fieldwork base is probably the most common in English-speaking countries. For these are also the countries with the strongest empiricist tradition.

Generally speaking, the stakes of Levi-Strauss’s work are high. They amount to a demonstration that when all the data are to hand, there is no basis upon which one could draw up a hierarchy of societies – whether this be in terms of scientific progress, or in terms of cultural evolution. This is because every society or culture exhibits features that are present in a greater or lesser degree in other societies, or in other cultures. Le´vi-Strauss argues this way because he is persuaded that the cultural dimension (in which language is predominant), and not nature – or the ‘natural’ – is constitutive of the human. Symbolic structures of kinship, language and the exchange of goods become the key to understanding social life, not biology. Indeed, kinship systems keep nature at bay; they are a cultural phenomenon based on the interdiction against incest, and as such are not a natural phenomenon. They make possible the passage from nature into culture, that is, into the sphere of the truly human. To understand this more fully, we turn to Le´vi-Strauss’s notion of structure.


‘Structure’ for Levi-Strauss is not equivalent to the empirical structure (whether, by analogy, it is deemed to be skeletal or architectural) of a particular society, as it is in Radcliffe-Brown’s work. In fact, structure is not given in observable reality, but is always the outcome of at least three elements, and this ternary nature gives it its dynamism. Having said this, we should acknowledge that in Levi-Strauss’s oeuvre, there is in fact an ambivalence between the kind of structuralism which views structure as an abstract model derived from an analysis of phenomena seen as a (more or less) static system of differences – that is, the synchronic dimension is privileged – and the notion of structure as being fundamentally ternary, containing an inherently dynamic aspect. The third element of the ternary structure would be always empty, ready to take on any meaning whatsoever. It would be the element of diachrony, that is, the element of history and contingency, the aspect which accounts for the perpetuation of social and cultural phenomena. While Levi-Strauss’s own explanation of the ‘structural’ in structural analysis (Levi-Strauss 1972: 31–54, esp. 33) tends towards focusing on the synchronic dimension, in practice his work clearly leads towards seeing structure as being essentially ternary and dynamic. We can confirm this point through reference to Le´vi-Strauss’s most important writings on kinship, myth, and art.

Mana: the Empty Signifier

Levi-Strauss’s Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (Levi-Strauss 1987), published shortly after the appearance of The Elementary Structures of Kinship, shows that while exchange in Mauss’s Essay on the Gift is equivalent to the ‘total social fact’, Mauss failed to recognise that exchange was also a key to understanding the phenomenon of mana. Although Mauss had seen that exchange was a concept constructed by the anthropologist and that it did not have an intrinsic content, he treated mana differently. Like Durkheim, Mauss attributed to it the meaning it took on in indigenous societies, a meaning that sees mana as having an intrinsic, or sacred, content.

Levi-Strauss, on the other hand, argues that the diversity of contents assumed by mana means that it has to be seen as empty, much like an algebraic symbol (Levi-Strauss 1987: 55 and see 55–66 for a discussion of the ‘floating’ signifier), and able to take on any number of meanings – like the word ‘thing’ in English. In short, mana is a ‘floating’, or pure signifier with a symbolic value of zero. And it exists in a general sense (every culture will have examples of floating signifiers) because there is an abundance of signifiers in relation to the signified, since language must be thought of as having come into being all at once (it is a system of differences, and therefore fundamentally relational), while knowledge (the signified) only comes into being progressively.

The structural aspect of Levi-Strauss’s approach here is more implicit than explicit. It consists in the fact, first, that emphasis is not placed on the (hypothetical) content of mana, but on its potential to assume a multitude of meanings. It is an empty signifier, much as for Lacan the phallus has no intrinsic meaning, but is the signifier of signification. Second, and more importantly perhaps, mana is a third element intervening between the signifier and the signified, the element which would give language its dynamism and continuity. For if there were a perfect ‘fit’ between the level of the signifier and the level of the signified, there would be nothing more to be said, language would come to an end. The floating signifier, therefore, is a structural feature of language in general, an element that introduces into it an asymmetrical, generative aspect: the aspect of contingency, time and, in Saussure’s terms, the level of parole.


Although the title might suggest it, no explicit reference to Saussurian linguistics is to be found in The Elementary Structures of Kinship. The reason, no doubt, is that this, the first major work in structural anthropology, was written in New York in the 1940s, and so before the revival of interest in Saussure’s work had taken place in Europe – let alone America. In The Elementary Structures of Kinship, marriage (the outcome of the universal interdiction against incest) in nonindustrialised cultures is reduced to two basic forms of exchange: restricted exchange, and generalised exchange. The former, may be represented as in Figure 1.


Figure 1 Restricted exchange

Here, reciprocity requires that when an X man marries a Y woman a Y man marries an X woman. Similarly, generalised exchange can be represented as in Figure 2.


Figure 2 Generalised exchange.
Source: Leve´i Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1969: 178.


Thus, where an A man marries a B woman, a B man marries a C woman; where a C man marries a D woman, a D man marries an A woman. Almost all of The Elementary Structures of Kinship is a development of the variants of these two forms of matrimonial exchange.

Even to the untrained observer, what is striking about both forms of exchange is that reciprocity seems to entail a symmetrical structure (the only difference between restricted and generalised exchange being that the latter has twice the number of terms, thereby remaining entirely symmetrical). As Le´vi-Strauss later realised, the question arises as to whether a symmetrical structure can be permanent; for after a period of time, groups X and Y in restricted exchange would, through marriage, merge into a single group. Similarly, even with generalised exchange – because of the symmetrical nature of the structure – a single group would eventually emerge. In other words, exchange, set in motion by the interdiction against incest, would encounter an insuperable limit, one that would place at risk the very continuation of social relations.

For exchange to remain viable as an institution, the presence of a third, heterogeneous element is always necessary. Such is indeed the theme of two important articles – one published in 1945 (Levi-Strauss 1972: 31–54), the other in 1956 (Le´vi-Strauss 1972: 132–63) – which clarify this point. In the first article, Le´vi-Strauss points out that the child is the dynamic, asymmetrical element in the kinship structure:

we must understand that the child is indispensable in validating the dynamic and teleological character of the initial step, which establishes kinship on the basis of and through marriage. Kinship is not a static phenomenon; it exists only in self-perpetuation. Here we are not thinking of the desire to perpetuate the race, but rather of the fact that in most kinship systems the initial disequilibrium produced in one generation between the group that gives the woman and the group that receives her can be stabilized only by the counter-presentations in following generations. (Levi-Strauss 1972: 47)

In the article on dual organisations, Levi-Strauss points out that every apparent division into two groups in fact implies three elements precisely because of the requirements of self-perpetuation. Any truly dual (i.e. symmetrical) structure leads to the dissolution of the groups involved. There must, then, be a third element – whether real or imagined – which introduces asymmetry and dynamism into the situation. Consequently, institutions having a ‘zero value‘ are an indispensable element in any society. Like mana, these institutions ‘have no intrinsic property other than that of establishing the necessary precondition for the existence of the social system to which they belong; their presence – in itself devoid of significance – enables the social system to exist as a whole’ (Levi-Strauss 1972: 159).


The study of myth led Levi-Strauss to refine his structuralist approach. A clear enunciation of the principle that the elements of myths gain their meaning from the way they are combined and not from their intrinsic value, leads Levi-Strauss to the position that myths represent the mind that creates them, and not some external reality. Myths resist history: they are eternal. Even different versions of a myth are not to be thought of as falsifications of some true, authentic version, but as an essential aspect of the structure of myth. On the contrary, different versions are part of the same myth precisely because a myth is not reducible to a single uniform content, but is a dynamic structure. Eventually, all the versions (diachronic aspect) of a myth have to be taken into consideration so that its structure can become apparent. From another perspective, myth is always the result of a contradiction – for instance, ‘the belief that mankind is autochthonous’, ‘while human beings are actually born from the union of man and woman’ (Levi-Strauss 1972: 216). In effect, contradiction, as the unassimilable aspect of human society, generates myths. Myth derives from the asymmetry between belief and reality, the one and the multiple, freedom and necessity, identity and difference, etc. Looked at in terms of language, myth, says Le´vi-Strauss, is ‘language functioning on an especially high level’ (Levi-Strauss 1972: 210).

Moreover, if langue – the synchronic element of language – is equated with reversible time, and parole with I diachronic, or contingent, historical aspect, myth constitute; a third level of language (Le´vi-Strauss 1972: 209). Myth is the (impossible) synthesis between diachronic and the synchronic aspects of language. It is the continual attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable:

since the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real), a theoretically infinite number of [versions] will be generated, each slightly different from the others. (Levi-Strauss 1972: 229)

Myth thus becomes the third dimension of language: in it a continuous attempt is made to reconcile its other two dimensions (langue and parole). Because complete reconciliation is impossible ‘myth grows spiral-wise until the intellectual impulse which has produced it is exhausted’ (Le´vi-Strauss 1972: 229). Myth grows, then, because, structurally, the contradiction – the asymmetry – which gives it life,
cannot be resolved.

Art and Structure

Like myth, the facial painting of the South American Caduveo Indians, described in Levi-Strauss’s autobiographical work, Tristes Tropiques (Le´vi-Strauss 1974: 178–97), provide another illustration of structure as a dynamic, ternary phenomenon. There, facial painting designs are asymmetrical arabesques – a ternary structure geared to generate more designs. A purely symmetrical design, as well as being difficult to ‘fit’ to a real face, would fail to fulfil the purpose assigned  o it. This purpose is like that of a figure in European playing cards. Each figure on a playing card must fulfil both a contingent function – it is an element in a specific game between players – and a structural (synchronic) function: it is an element occupying a particular place int he pack, and this place never changes. Caduveo facial painting tries to capture the symmetry of function (status in the group), and the asymmetry of part played (contingency)

by the adoption of a composition that is symmetrical but set on an oblique axis, thus avoiding the completely asymmetrical formula, which would have met the demands of the role but run counter to those of the function, and the reverse and completely symmetrical formula, which would have had the opposite effect. (Levi-Strauss 1974: 194)

The arabesques of the facial painting bring two conceptions of structure into sharp focus. For his part, Levi-Strauss writes as though his own work were more focused on the static, symmetrical, binary notion of structure, while his actual analyses of social and cultural phenomena suggest that it is the second, ternary view of structure which has far greater explanatory and methodological significance.

Levi-Strauss’s Critics and His Achievements

Such an ambivalence with regard to the basis of his theoretical framework has led to misunderstandings. In particular, critics have been able to claim that history is neglected in structural anthropology, a fact that has been played up because, no doubt, of Levi-Strauss’s hostility to Sartre’s Existentialism, a doctrine in which almost every act is historical (that is, contingent) (Pace 1983: 183–84 and chapter 6). Furthermore, Levi-Strauss’s insistence on the scientific status of anthropology (admittedly in order to defend the possibility of a social science detached from immediate political debates) sits oddly with his view that science cannot entirely escape being mythical, and the view that cultures are not hermetically sealed off from each other, but constitute an infinite series of transformations. And so while, for instance, science thinks of the concrete, native thought thinks with the concrete. Again, when Le´vi-Strauss says in the ‘Overture’ to The Raw and the Cooked (Le´vi-Strauss 1970: 7) that the book about myth is itself a myth, the very possibility of a detached science in the usual Western sense is brought into question. Levi-Strauss, however, has often shown himself to be loath to take the consequences of this into account.

Unlike Julia Kristeva, or those inspired by Lacan’s reading of Freud, there is little about subjectivity in Le´vi-Strauss’s oeuvre. It is as though he believed that Durkheim’s battle to separate psychology from anthropology and sociology were still to be won, and that any concessions to a theory of subjectivity would be equivalent to conceding to the explanatory power of psychology over anthropology. But this battle is not still to be won. And the anthropologist’s work suffers from the absence of any attempt to include within it a theory of the subject.

Nevertheless, the significance of Le´vi-Strauss’s anthropology, as mentioned earlier, cannot be limited to its analytical contents. Much more is at stake. For Le´vi-Strauss shows the complexity of nonindustrialised cultures which the West – often through its anthropologists (cf. Le´vy-Bruhl and Malinowski) – had assumed to be equivalent to the childhood of mankind and who, through that fact, were deemed to be more primitive and more simplistic than the West in their thinking (primitive societies have myth; the West has science and philosophy, etc.). Le´vi-Strauss’s universalism should thus be understood to mean that transformations of the same myth (as in the Oedipus myth) throughout the world indicate that human beings belong to a single humanity, but that the presence of others is essential if we are to constitute our differences.

Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

Le´vi-Strauss, Claude (1969), The Elementary Structures of Kinship, trans. James Bell and John von Sturmer, Boston: Beacon Press, revised edn.
—— (1970), Introduction to a Science of Mythology, Volume I: The Raw and the Cooked, trans. John and Doreen Weightman, New York and Evanston: Harper Torchbooks.
—— (1972), ‘Structural analysis in linguistics and anthropology’ in Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
—— (1974), Tristes Tropiques, trans. John and Doreen Weightman, New
York: Atheneum.
—— (1987), Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, trans. Felicity Baker, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Pace, David (1983), Claude Le´vi-Strauss, The Bearer of Ashes, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Le´vi-Strauss’s Major Writings
(1997 [1993]) Look, Listen, Read, trans. Brian C.J. Singer,New York: Basic Books.
(1995 [1991]) Story of Lynx, trans. Catherine Tihanyi, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
(1988 [1985]) The Jealous Potter, trans. Be´ne´dicte Chorier, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
(1987) Anthropology and Myth: Lectures, 1951–1982, trans. Roy Wills, Oxford and New York: Blackwell.
(1987 [1950]) Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, trans. Felicity Baker, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
(1985 [1983]) The View From Afar, trans. Joachim Neugroschel and Phoebe Hoss, New York: Basic Books.
(1982 [1975]) The Way of Masks, trans. Sylvia Modelski, Seattle: University of Washington Press.
(1978 [1964]) Volume I: The Raw and the Cooked, trans. John and Doreen Weightman, London: Jonathan Cape.
(1973 [1967]) Volume II: From Honey to Ashes, trans. John and Doreen Weightman, London: Jonathan Cape.
(1978 [1968]) Volume III: The Origin of Table Manners, trans. John and Doreen Weightman, London: Jonathan Cape.
(1981 [1971]) Volume IV: The Naked Man, trans. John and Doreen Weightman, London: Jonathan Cape.
(1978 [1973]) Structural Anthropology, Volume II, trans. Monique Layton, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
(1974 [1955]) Tristes Tropiques, trans. John and Doreen Weightman, New York: Atheneum.
(1972 [1958]) Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, New York: Basic Books.
(1969 [1949]) The Elementary Structures of Kinship, trans. J. H. Bell and John von Sturmer, Boston: Beacon Press.
(1966 [1962]) The Savage Mind, (translated from the French), London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
(1963 [1962]) Totemism Today, trans. Rodney Needham, Boston: Beacon Press.

Further Reading
Badcock, C. R. (1975), Le´vi-Strauss: Structuralism and Sociological Theory, London: Hutchinson.
Pace, David (1983), Claude Le´vi-Strauss, The Bearer of Ashes, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Categories: Anthropology, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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  1. On finding the right one - aicomo

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