Schedule of Classes
Claude Lévi-strauss and French Structuralism
Language and Culture
The Elementary Unit of Kinship
Alliance Theory
The Avunculate:
The Tsimshian Myth of Asdiwal
Basic Principles
Pierre Bourdeau: The Berber House
Schedule of Classes
April 1 Structuralism
April 3 Marxist Anthropology
April 8: Symbolic Anthropology
April 10: Interpretative Anthropology
April 15th: Post Modernism
April 17th: The Future of Anthropology (term paper
April 28th 8: am Final Exam
Claude Lévi-Strauss
 born Belgium 1908
 1927-1932 studied law
and philosophy at the
University of Sorbonne
in Paris.
 1932-35 studied
Sociology under Marcel
Brazil 1938
1935-9 taught at the
University of Sao Paulo
 made several
expeditions to Matto
Grosso area in Western
1939 returned to Paris,
but because he was
Jewish unable to get
work and escaped to
New York City in 1942
1942-1945 he was
Professor at the New
School for Social
Research. In New York
1947 returned to France
presented Elementary
Structures of Kinship as
his doctoral theses at
1950 Director of Studies
at the Ecole Practique des
Hautes Etudes.
1959 –82 assumed the
Chair of Social
Anthropology at the
College de France.
The elementary structures of kinship
A world on the wane (Tristes tropiques)
Structural anthropology (collected essays) (I, II, III)
The savage mind
The raw and the cooked
From honey to ashes
(logics of myth)
The origin of table manners
The naked man
Myth and meaning
The way of the masks
The view from afar
Anthropology and myth (collected lectures, 1951-82)
* English titles shown, but arranged by original dates of publication in French
Steward & Faron
compare dozens of
variant versions of the
‘same’ basic narrative
collected over a wide
area — e.g. the origin of
the sexes; the origin of
look for basic
structures, typically
expressed as oppositions
sky/earth; dark/light
SOUTH AMERICA relate particular
oppositions to wider
and universal ones (e.g.
He proposed that the proper study for anthropologists is not how
people categorize the world but the underlying patterns of human
thought that produce those categories
The segmentation and imposition of form on inherently formless
phenomena (like space and time) reflect deeply held structure from
our humanness.
Conducted cross-cultural analysis of kinship, myths and religion in
an attempt to understand the fundamental structure of human
L-S believes that the underlying logical processes that structure all
human thought operate within different cultural contexts
Consequently, cultural phenomena are not identical but they are
the products of an underlying universal pattern of thought.
His anthropology centres on the search to uncover this pattern.
for Lévi-Strauss anthropology is not so much a means to
investigate and understand the richness of content of cultures as
it is a means of using the variability of cultures as a means of
gaining insight into the unconscious workings of the human
particular cultures are like so many projections of human
thinking, from the study of which it should be possible to deduce
the mechanisms which led to those projections…
for Lévi-Strauss, the subject matter of anthropology is
“Culture”, not “cultures (although the fact that there are
cultures is useful as a method to investigate Culture)
Language and Culture
All languages are composed of arbitrary groups of sounds called
Phonemes are the minimal units of sound which a group of
speakers consider distinct and which can create a difference in
Phonemes themselves are meaningless
It is only when they are combined into larger units (morphemes,
words, phrases etc) according to certain patterns (rules of syntax
and grammar) that phonemes form meaningful units or speech
Most speakers of a language cannot articulate the underlying
rules that structure their use of phonemes and create meaningful
communication yet all are able to use language to communicate
Therefore at a subconscious level we must “know” the rules that
structure our use of language.
Ferdinand de Saussure
The job of the linguist is to go beyond the outward use of language
and discover these unconscious principles
This was the great achievement of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss
Saussure's conception of language was based on the premise that
the meanings that words are associated with are arbitrary and are
maintained only through cultural conventions
Also, that as such, these meanings are relational in that no word
can be defined in isolation from other words within the same system.
A key insight was that words were built upon contrasts (binary
oppositions) between phonemes rather than simply being groups of
English distinguishes between the bilabial plosives /b/
and /p/
 cf. the minimal pair bat, pat…
Arabic makes no such distinction and an Arabic speaker
untrained in another language does not “hear” the difference
What in one language is a significant difference is
ignored in another language
Eg. The aspirated t in top and the unaspirated t in stop are
considered to be the same sound t. in English
But they are different sounds in Thai
 Arabic on the other hand has pairs of non-palatalized
and “palatalized” consonants (palatalization being
represented in transcription by a dot under the
 unless specifically trained in Arabic, an English speaker
would not “hear” these distinctions, although one could
not speak proper Arabic without them
The important aspects of linguistics for Levi-Strauss were:
1. The shift of linguistic focus from conscious behaviour to
unconscious structure
2. The new focus on the relations between terms rather than
on terms.
3. The idea of binary contrasts which was fundamental to
4. The importance of discovering the concrete existence of
systems relationships of meaning
5. The goal of discovering general laws.
Major life’s work:
 reorienting anthropology away from the extreme
cultural particularism of the Boasians and back to the
French Enlightenment focus on human universals …
 working out the possibilities of a rationalist form of
structuralism distinct from the empiricist structuralism
of Radcliffe-Brown …
 rescuing ‘armchair anthropology’ from the disrespect
into which it had fallen (thanks to Malinowski and
Boas) through a series of works which mined ‘gold’ out
of half-forgotten collections of Amerind myths, by
applying structuralist theories and methods
“In any society, communication operates on
three different levels: communication of women,
communication of goods and services,
communication of messages. Therefore kinship
studies, economics, and linguistics approach the
same kinds of problems on different strategic
[i.e. methodological] levels and really pertain to
the same field.” 1963: 296).
For L-S, culture like language is essentially a collection of
arbitrary symbols.
He is not interested in the meanings of the symbols, any
more than a linguist is interested in the phonemes
He is concerned with the patterning of the elements
The way the cultural elements relate to one another to form
the overall system.
L-S tried to design a technique for studying the unconscious
principles that structure human culture.
following the linguistic model of binary oppositions LS
proposed that the fundamental pattern of human thought
also uses binary contrasts such as black and white, night and
day, and hot and cold.
The Elementary Unit of Kinship
A kinship system like a language exists only in human
consciousness; it is an arbitrary system of representations, but
representations whose organizations reflect unconscious
“the unconscious activity of the mind consists in
imposing forms upon content, and if these forms are
fundamentally the same for all minds – ancient and
modern -, primitive and civilized – it is necessary and
sufficient to grasp the unconscious structure underlying
each institutions and custom” 1963: 21).
LS argued that phonemes and kinship terms are both
elements of meaning although meaningful only in reference to
systems which are building on the mind on the level of
unconscious thought
the linguistic model of binary oppositions dovetailed nicely
with Durkheim’s distinction such as sacred and profane, and
Hertz’s proposition that right and left were fundamental part of
the collective conscious.
Analyzed kinship based on his notion of the binary structure of
human thought.
Based on the work of Marcel Mauss
Mauss tried to demonstrate that exchange in primitive societies
was not motivated by economic motives but instead by rules of
reciprocity upon which the solidarity of the society depended.
LS took Mauss’s concept of reciprocity and applied it to
marriage in “primitive” societies.
LS argued that women are a commodity that could be
exchanged, and kinship systems are about the exchange of
LS argued that one of the most important distinctions a
human makes is between self and others.
Defining the categories of potential spouses and
prohibited mates.
This natural binary distinction then leads to the
formation of the incest taboo, which necessitates choosing
spouses from outside your family
In this way the binary distinction between kin and nonkin is resolved by the reciprocal exchange of women and
formation of kin networks in primitive societies.
Alliance Theory
based on an initial
direct exchange
between two men who
marry each others
Bilateral Cross Cousin Marriage
Direct or Restricted Exchange
A rule which specifies that
bilateral cross cousin must
marry, will establish a
permanent marriage exchange
between descent groups that
take their ancestry from the
original couples, in this case
patrilineages A and B.
The lineages are paired into
moieties which in principle form
a narrowly closed intermarrying
social system, which LeviStrauss terms "restricted".
Matrilateral Cross Cousin Marriage
Indirect or Generalized Exchange
In this case men and women marry without any regard to mutual
obligations to provide wives for each other. Integration of the system
is provided by the application of a matrilateral cross cousin rule, in
which a man marries his mother's brother's daughter.
This arrangement generates a system in which the groupings
(patrilineages in this case) that form according to descent from the
original couples always exchange women in the same manner as
their founders.
The resulting system assume the form of circle of intermarrying
groups that unlike the bilateral system can involve any number of
Because of the openness of this pattern it is considered to
constitute "generalized" rather than "restricted" exchange.
The Avunculate:
The Elementary Unit of Kinship
The relationship between Ego and his maternal uncle fits into a set
of relationships in which the relationships between Ego and father
(eg.formal or hostile relationship) and Ego and Maternal uncle
(eg.familiar relationship) are inversely correlated
The relationships between Father and Mother (husband and wife)
and Mother and Mother’s Brother (or brother and sister) are always
The avunculate only makes sense as one relationship within a
A structure in which there are attitudinal oppositions between
generations and between husband and wife and brother and sister,
constitute the “most elementary for of kinship that can exist
“In both groups, the relation between
maternal uncle and nephew is to the
relation between brother and sister as
the relation between father and son is
to that between husband and wife.
Thus if we know one pair of relations
then it is always possible to infer the
other”. (SA 42)
The Structural Analysis of Myth
Expanded the notion that human cognition was structured into
binary oppositions.
myths are arbitrary, imaginative, not linked with reality, not a
representation of facts.
Therefore there are laws operating a deeper level and since our
brains are pre-programmed to work in the same ways the structure
of all cultural elements is the same, even if the content varies.
It is in a sense reduced too imitating the mind itself as object.
L-S Believed that studying the mythologies of primitive people
allows him to examine the unconscious universal patterning of
human thought in its uncontaminated form
LS thought the mythology of primitive people is closer to these
universal principles than Western beliefs because the training we
receive in Western society buries the logical structure he seeks under
layers of cultural interferences created by our social environment.
LS believes that the elements of myth, like the phonemes
of language, acquire meaning only when arranged
according to certain structural relations
Consequently the structuralist examines the rules that
govern the relationships between myth elements
The task of the structural analysis is to break the myth
into its constituent elements – mythemes - and uncover the
unconscious meaning found in the binary relationships
between them
Uncovering this hidden structural core will reveal the
essential elements of human thought.
myth of
Edwin Curtis:
Kwakiutl: Hamatsa
Edwin Curtis: Kwakiutl: Hamatsa Ceremony
LS identifies four levels of representation within this myth:
geographic, techno-economic, sociological and cosmological.
The myth describes rivers, place names, famines post marital
residence patterns, and relations between affinal kin; these
descriptions are not distorted reflections of reality; but a
multilayered model of structural relationships.
LS proposes that there are two aspects in the construction of the
myth: the sequence of events which form the apparent content of
what happened.
And the Schemata of the myth which represent the different
planes of abstraction on which the sequence is organized.
On the geographic level, there is the basic opposition between east
and west, while on the cosmological level, there are oppositions of
highest heaven and the subterranean world
French Structuralism
Basic principles:
• all humans think identically, through mechanisms of
binary oppositions (the most ‘elementary structures’)
• that being so, structural analysis — essentially,
decoding the oppositions in an exotic cultural artifact
— is capable of ‘understanding’ the meanings
encoded in them:
• in a perfectly ‘scientific’ way — transparently reasoned
from the evidence
• with no claims to special subjective insight
Basic principles (cont.)
• Culture is first reasoned and then enacted
is in Nature but not of it — i.e. it has its own
economy, which is often in tension with nature…
appropriates matter from nature and
reorganizes it…
Culture : Nature : : Raw : Cooked
it does this according to a pre-established mental
template or “structure”
all human constructions (material, narrative,
ideological) contain the marks of the tools which made
then — the human mind
oppositions are reflected in various cultural
A hidden
reality exists beneath all cultural
expressions and the Structuralist anthropologist
aims thus to understand the underlying
meaning involved in human thought as
expressed in cultural acts
•The Culture is the
thought that guides the
hand which fashions raw
materials and ‘cooks’
them into cultural
•The thought is in effect
a code composed of
oppositions, analogies,
Dan mask (Côte d’Ivoire)
categories (‘columns’)
and layers (‘rows’)…
Humans do not simply fashion non-human materials,
they also fashion “themselves”:
• by arranging themselves into various categories
• by altering their physical appearance
All of culture is manifest in human exchanges of three
categories of commodities:
• goods (dried fish and figurines)
• messages (news and status-confirmation)
• persons (kinship and marriage systems)
In La pensée sauvage and Le totémisme aujourd’hui,
elaboration of the notion of bricolage…
BRICOLEUR (Fr.) —Repair man, to whose shop
broken objects can be taken for to be repaired, and
which is stacked floor-to-ceiling with broken and
discarded objects and parts, which the repair-man
‘cannibalizes’ and puts to new uses in fixing objects
brought in.
For L-S, all human thought is bricolage — appropriating
objects from one context and putting them to use in
another, e.g. totemism, in which likenesses and
differences in human groups is conceived by analogy with
likenesses and differences in the environment…
Definition: various descent groups in a society claim a
special or mystical relationship with natural species in
the environment
 e.g. name themselves after animal species
(crocodile clan, eagle people)
 in ceremonial rituals, dress up in costumes
to appear like their ‘totems’ & act out the
role of the totemic species
 often abstain from eating the totemic animal
and carry out increase rites to enhance its
(a.) early ‘childlike’ stage of human understanding
(b.) primitive form of more abstract religious concepts —
diagnostic marker of ‘primitive mentality’
(a.) a means of protecting species in the natural environment
(i.e. by tabooing the eating of them)
(b.) a way of symbolically recognizing the priority of the
group over the individual (i.e. the group is ‘sacred’)
Totemism is everywhere a use of
thinking in one familiar realm (the part of the
natural world accessible to members of a culture) to
‘think’ about things in realms which do not present
themselves as organized, e.g. the division of society
into groups
e.g. organization of a society into four totemic
phratries… essentially the layering of one moiety
upon another:
Moiety 1
Moiety 2
opposition EAGLEHAWK/WOLF opposition simultaneously
expresses difference (land vs. sky) and similarity (both are
opposition EAGLEHAWK/CROW = likewise expresses
equality-and-difference, but cross-cuts the first opposition
 in totemism (totemic thought), we see distinctions
taken from one realm of experience and applied to
 contra earlier theorists who saw totemism as a
fuzzy or imprecise form of thought, L-S stresses in
highly analogical and intellectual character…
 totems are not “good to eat”…
 they are “good to think”…
 and we are all bricoleurs and we are all ‘totemists’
Human Culture is inherently in tension with nature…
 Culture is quintessentially an intellectual
achievement — a form of reasoning (albeit
 humans appropriate aspects of nature and turn
them to human-defined ends
 they ‘cook’ the raw materials of nature, organizing
them into structures of ever-increasing complexity
 using simple binary oppositions
 layered, one upon another
 all human Culture is an intellectual/symbolic
reflection on the Nature-Culture boundary
In Lévi-Strauss’ conceptualization, the Nature/Culture
boundary never disappears…
 because Culture is essentially a human creation — a sort of
rebellion against Nature — it never becomes totally
 but must continually confront the fact of its own
arbitrariness and self-authorship (continually looks for
“Laws” outside of itself but they keep crumbling in the
face of further struggles with Nature)
 hence, all of Culture is a set of reflections on its own nature
 the Nature/Culture boundary, then, is the meta-narrative
encoded in all Cultural discourse (e.g. myths)
Illustration: the invention of exogamy — the “origin” of
human society:
State 1: complete RANDOM MATING:
no organization save domination by strongest
constant disruption of life by quarrels induced by
State 2: institution of RECIPROCAL EXOGAMY
between at least two groups (which, note, only become
groups as a consequence of this institution):
• all human Culture develops out of the same basic
elements, modeled in the human mind by mechanical
models which can be reconstructed…
• this reconstruction is the job, par excellence, of
• but these structural elements and their underlying
reasoning processes tend to be obscured — hidden by
multiple layering — in highly complex social
• while they are most easily discerned in structurally
simple societies where the organization of society
tends to be congruent with the mechanical models
Few social roles, but
these are multiplex
Many social roles, but
these tend to be
Best described by
mechanical models
Best described by
statistical models
a model the elements of
which are on the same scale
as the phenomena
a model the elements of which
are on a different scale as the
MECHANICAL MODEL: an entire social system can be
generated from a single conscious rule (e.g. everyone
must marry a cross-cousin)…
here, a single conscious norm structures the entire society and
“predicts” the behavior
STATISTICAL MODEL: marriage system requires to be
described as a set of probabilities, derived empirically
(i.e. no conscious rule(s) can generate the system):
e.g. 85% of persons marry a person who resides within 25 km.;
66% of persons marry a spouse who resides within 8 km.; 89%
marry within the same race; 78% marry within the same
religion; 88% marry within the same social class…
here choice can only be described probabilistically
Anthropology is, of course, ‘about’ all human Culture,
but simple societies have an especial place in it, in that
their relative organizational simplicity allows the
constructional principles to be deduced…
particularly because their myths have been less
completely ‘cooked’ (transmuted) than the mythology
of complex societies
and more readily explain “how things have become as
they are”
observed regularities in
actual behavior…
• are empirical things, “out
there” in the world
• to find them: observe; note
regularities or tendencies;
and deduce the rules that
must be producing them
• look for positive or negative
sanctions that support them
• STRUCTURES exist in the
human mind…
• are mental things which exist
first in human agreement
before they are enacted in the
outside world
• derive from the universal
human capacity to reason in
similarly structured ways
• hence they are intelligible
empirical, inductive
rationalist, deductive
Pierre Bourdeau
“The Berber House” in Mary Douglas’s Rules and
Meanings: The Anthropology of Everyday Meaning, 1973.
theories are often very abstract and untestable.
structuralist methods are imprecise and dependent upon the
As it is primarily concerned with the structure of the human
psyche, it does not address historical aspects or change in culture
a “psychic unity” of all human minds does not account for
individual human action historically.
lack of concern with human individuality.
Cultural relativists are especially critical of this because they
believe structural “rationality” depicts human thought as uniform
and invariable
Materialists object to structural explanations in favor of more
observable or practical explanations
“poststructuralism.” Although poststructuralists are influenced by the
structuralist ideas put forth by Lévi-Strauss, their work has more of a
reflexive quality.
Pierre Bourdieu is a poststructuralist who “…sees structure as a product
of human creation, even though the participants may not be conscious of
the structure” (Rubel and Rosman 1996:1270).
Instead of the structuralist notion of the universality of human thought
processes found in the structure of the human mind, Bourdieu proposes
that dominant thought processes are a product of society and determine
how people act (Rubel and Rosman 1996).
However, in poststructuralist methods, the person describing the thought
processes of people of another culture may be reduced to just that—
description—as interpretation imposes the observer’s perceptions onto
the analysis at hand (Rubel and Rosman 1996).
Poststructuralism is much like postmodernism in this sense.
 Impact
Impact on the way we think about culture and consciousness.
Structuralism has had a profound effect on American
anthropology in particular it influenced symbolic
anthropology popular in the 1970s
And cognitive anthropology
And post-modernism
Major Premises:
1. humans are compelled to classify the world, through myth conflict is
2. fundamental oppositions encoded in myths, the motifs appear around
the world because we all observe the world in the same way, determined
by the fundamental structures of the brain;
3. not an emphasis on how people categorize the world (cognitive
anthropology.), but on the underlying patterns of human thought that
produce these categories;
4. cross-cultural studies of myth and religion used to understand the
fundamental structure of human cognition;
5. this fundamental structure operates within all different cultural
contexts, not, like Freud, that psychological structure determines culture;
6. binary contrasts: a major notion (hot/cold; self/other, etc.);
There are integration of schema such as water/land, and sea
hunting/land hunting which cross geographic and cosmological schema
There are sociological schema, such as the changes in postmarital
residence patterns from patrilocal to neolocal to matrilocal.
Structural analysis clarifies the multiple levels of meanings in the story
of Asdiwal.
“Asdiwal’s two journeys – from east to west and from west to east –
were correlated with types of residence, matrilocal and patrilocal
respectively. But in fact the Tsmshian have patrilocal residence and
from this we can …draw the conclusion that one of the orientations
corresponds to the direction implicit in a real-life reading to their
institutions, the other to the opposite direction.
The oppositions (east west, land sea, heave-earth) do not exist in
Tsimshian society, but rather with its inherent possibilities and its latent
Such speculations do not seek to depict what is real but to justify the
LEFT: Costume used in ceremony of Frog
totem of Imanda
RIGHT: Costume used in ceremony of the
Water Totem
Spencer and Gillen:
The Northern Tribes of Central Australia
Iruntarinia ceremony of the
Eaglehawk totem
Spencer and Gillen:
The Northern Tribes of Central Australia
William Baldwin Spencer and Francis J. Gillen
Incident in dreamtime legend being recreated
Spencer and Gillen:
The Northern Tribes
of Central Australia
Spencer and Gillen:
The Northern Tribes of Central Australia
Elders lower the pole containing the
totemic emblem
Spencer and Gillen:
The Northern Tribes of Central Australia
LEFT: Costume representing horned
dreamtime figure (oruncha)
RIGHT: Pair of orunchas performing
Venda: Python Dance
“The term ‘social structure’ has nothing to do with
empirical reality but with models which are built up
after it. This should help one to clarify the difference
between two concepts which are so close to each
other that they have often been confused, namely
those of social structure and social relations…
social relations consist of the raw material out of
which the models making up the social structure are
built, while social structure can by no means be
reduced to the ensemble of the social relations to be
described in a given society.
“Social structure” in Anthropology today, p. 324
“A structural model may be conscious or
… conscious models, which are usually known as
‘norms,’ are by definition very poor ones [for
purposes of analysis], since they are not intended to
explain the phenomena but to perpetuate them.
Therefore structural analysis is confronted with a
stran ge paradox… that is, the more obvious
structural organization is, the more difficult it
becomes to reach it because of the inaccurate
conscious models lying across the path which leads to
“Social structure”, p. 324
Hence, the project of “Mythologiques”…
• using corpus of (mainly) South American mythology,
collected over a period of 60 years, mainly with a
view to tracing diffusion of South American
• Lévi-Strauss little interested in the details of the
diffusion per se…
• rather, numerous variants of myths and legends
provide a way of ascertaining their structures (as
opposed to incidental details)
• … taken together, they seem, indeed, to be a
prolonged discourse on Nature-and-Culture…