Anthropology Essays - British Strauss Reaction

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British Strauss Reaction

What was the reaction of British social anthropologists to Levi Strauss’ work? Discuss with reference to either Leach or Douglas.

To focus on Levi-Strauss’ work and the British reaction is to understand a dominant aspect of British Anthropology in the 1950s and 60s. Levi-Strauss’ influence was in respects a welcome contribution and in others, an attempt to simplify diverse cultures into a universal model. This essay places his contribution in an historical context regarding the existing British anthropological tradition and illuminates the framework of his method. Levi-Strauss’ work is broken down into three main topics and observed in the above context.

Mary Douglas’ work is analysed as a response to Levi-Strauss, and atypical of the mainstream British reaction. She at first adopts his work, questions it and then finally develops an individual direction. Her work is observed, not only as a singular response, but also to other influences such as Victor Turner.

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Finally showing Levi-Strauss as an enduring influence in shaping the British field. British Anthropology progressed into a multi-facetted discipline dissimilar to the universal scope of Levi-Strauss’ work. He has however achieved recognition for elements of his method and analysis in helping to underpin British Anthropology’s critiques.

British anthropology before Levi-Strauss was concerned with three major themes. British colonialism was coming to an end and the anthropologists were becoming aware of its limitations and heritage. The 1950s were a time of reconstruction after World War II. Nazi racism had stimulated a moral reaction. Japanese victories created a disillusionment that the notion of western superiority as fallible.

Imperialism in its traditional form was disbanding, and therefore Levi-Strauss’ formula provided a mere reflection. The British anthropologists were rejecting the evolutionary perspective, which was not scientifically rigorous in its methods. Finally, the British field had been dominated by two leading figures: Malinowski with his theory of functionalism, and Radcliffe-Brown, associated to an idea of structural functionalism. Both concentrated on the analysis of empirical data.

Levi-Strauss based his writings on the idea that structural analysis holds the key to understanding a universal human nature. This overarching theme was developed with reference to three main areas of influence: structural linguistics, Durkheimian sociology and the Boasian school of American cultural anthropology. His three main areas of study were: kinship as a basis for social organisation, the study of the human mind, and myth analysis.

Although they are presented here in chronological order, the essence to his work was the study of the human mind. He perceived kinship as an expression of the mind in social formation. However, he came to believe it was not an adequate representation, as it “…was perhaps too embedded in social action to provide a sure guide to mental processes.” (Kuper 1997: 169). He thus turned to the idea of myth as its purest expression.

After Levi-Strauss’ structuralism appeared on the British field of anthropology it was appropriated by various anthropologists. As mentioned above, his first topic of discussion was on kinship, an area already much talked of in Britain. Thus Levi-Strauss’ contribution was welcomed to shed new light on the existing debate.

British anthropology was largely dominated by specific African ethnography and the associated ‘descent theory’ from Radcliffe-Brown, through E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes utilised to understand basic social formation. Levi-Strauss however, focused on an idea of ‘alliance theory’ to analyse the same. This he believed constitutes the exchange of women by groups of men as a form of communication in terms of expression from an abstract model.

As both theories stemmed from elements within Durkheimian thought, British anthropologists were familiar with the underlying logic of Levi-Strauss’ work. Both theories, worked from the idea of social structure: ‘Descent theory’ deals with actual relations enduring over time, whereas ‘Alliance theory’ concentrates on an abstract structural model, to which the norms of social organisations are the concrete expressions (Schneider 1965:26). At this time, Levi-Strauss’ work was not received positively in general, yet his ideas were not dismissed as of little importance.

Having discussed Levi-Strauss’ method, why it entered into the British field and how it was incorporated, we now follow the progress of the British reaction. The spreading of his work was undertaken by a few anthropologists, including Edmund Leach, Rodney Needham and Mary Douglas. This development, as Adam Kuper states, “…was facilitated by the almost religious enthusiasm of some of the proponents of Levi-Strauss’ ideas.”(Kuper 1997:161). However, in regards to the early work of Levi-Strauss, there was much misinterpretation and misuse of his ideas. Both David Schneider and Kuper highlight Needham’s orthodox interpretation of ‘Alliance theory’ (Schneider 1965: 37 & Kuper 1997: 166).

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In 1962, Levi-Strauss released two books (Totemism & La Pensee Sauvage). Levi-Strauss believed in the ‘psychic unity of mankind’, and used a structuralist approach to uncovering the workings of the human mind. To this end, he utilised ethnographic evidence. As Dan Sperber states, “the structures of such symbolic systems as totemic classification is determined by a universal human ability rather than by the inabilities of ‘primitives’, or by practical need, whether individual or social.” (Sperber 1985: 33). The British reaction was at its most positive to this analysis, as the underlying logic had been derived from Durkheim. Levi-Strauss offered a new way of looking at the world and its formations that according to some could help British anthropology achieve a forward-looking perspective.