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Lévi-Strauss, Claude

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Portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss taken in 2005

Portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss taken in 2005 by UNESCO/Michel Ravassard via Wikipedia

Claude Lévi-Strauss  (1908- ) was a Brussels-born French social anthropologist who was influenced by the pioneering sociologist, Emile Durkheim.

Levi-Strauss studied the kinship, ritual and myths of so-called primitive societies from the perspective of structuralism. He observed that the human mind uses language to classify cultural objects. And he believed that it does this in a series of binary classifications (e.g. black vs. white, hot vs. cold, raw vs. cooked, dead vs. alive).

All objects are understood in relation to other objects. For Lévi-Strauss this way of understanding outer reality mirrors fundamental structures within the the human mind.

Lévi-Strauss generalized a theory, one originally based on specific groups, to try to explain universal cultural patterns. This theory suggested that the so-called savage and civilized mind were essentially the same.

During his intellectual development he also asked whether the tendency to structure the environment came from inside (i.e. inherited brain structures) or outside (i.e. arbitrary social and cultural structures).

In contrast to John Locke’s tabula rasa, Lévi-Strauss came to see the external environment as an object classified according to innate mental structures. Lévi-Strauss believed that Freud’s theories contributed to a structuralist perspective because Freud tried to explain human history and psychology according to underlying laws.

In The Raw and the Cooked (1966) Lévi-Strauss suggests that music behaves like a mythology because both “appeal to mental structures that the different listeners have in common.”

His Mythologiques (1964-72) forwards the notion that a systematic order lies behind all forms of cultural expression. He has been critiqued for generalizing his own way of structuring data onto others. Also, contemporary psychiatry notes that individuals brains can differ significantly by the degree of differentiation for a given area or areas of the brain. Einstein, for instance, apparently had an unusually high degree of differentiation in the areas associated with abstract thinking.

So although Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist theories may be attractive to some who wish to simplify our complex world to simple binary oppositions, they’re really yesterday’s news, at best.

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