Claude Lévi-Strauss

Question: What was the reaction of British anthropologists to Lévi-Strauss's work?

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908) was and is the pope of structuralism, to quote Marcel Hénaff. (1998:2) As my account of his contribution to the shaping of this ‘method' or ‘tool' - as he himself insisted on calling it (Kuper 1996:175, Hénaff 1998:6) - later in this essay illustrates, that is something that can hardly be disputed. It is not so self-evident, however, what the overall importance of his work for social anthropology was, and how well-received his ideas were at the time of their emergence. In this essay, I will focus on the latter question in the context of Britain, in particular with reference to Edmund Leach (1910-1989).

To come to an answer to this question, I will first briefly describe the British anthropological landscape before the introduction of Lévi-Strauss's concept of structuralism. Then I will give an outline of Lévi-Strauss's ideas and his applications thereof, and assess of every aspect of Lévi-Strauss's work to what extent it was valued, adopted and applied by British anthropologists such as Leach.

It is hereby necessary that I pay attention to the positive reactions as well as the substantial criticism Lévi-Strauss received from British anthropologists. Finally, by summarizing previously made points, I will hopefully be able to assess whether the reaction of Leach and others to Lévi-Strauss's structuralism and the ideas it brought forward was predominantly positive or negative and what the overall impact of Lévi-Strauss on Leach's anthropology was.

Needless to say, Lévi-Strauss was not the first French theorist whose ideas would have noticeable influence in British anthropology. In the first half of the 20th century, after the ‘fall' of Frazer's evolutionism that aimed to compare the details of human culture on a worldwide scale, Durkheim's sociological theories were a major inspiration for one of the central figures in British social anthropology: Radcliffe-Brown. (Leach 1970:7)

His focus was on coherence within groups in (primitive) societies; put very simply, the dominant view was that all institutions and ‘aspects of cosmology' such as religion served primarily to maintain the group structure, by functioning as tools for the recreation of appropriate sentiments and the enforcement of norms. (Kuper 1996:160) Radcliffe-Brown's anthropology was clearly naturalist, in the sense that Radcliffe-Brown and his followers tended to assume that the associations and oppositions which people seized upon were somehow presented to them by their environment. (Ibid:170)

Another important aspect of British anthropology, introduced by its ‘founding father', Malinowski, was the fact that it was thoroughly empiricist. The belief reigned that theories had to be distilled from empirical facts obtained through fieldwork. (Ibid:170) Malinowski and those in his tradition can be classified as functionalists, for the purpose of their research was to show how a community functioned as a social system, and how its individual members lived their lives. (Leach 1970:7)

Lévi-Strauss was not the first anthropologist to be concerned with structure either. In fact, the Oxford school in the 1940's, led by Radcliffe-Brown, were already looking into the explicit code of social behaviour. However, they did not pay much attention to ‘psychological problems', that is to say, processes of thought, which was a result of their sociological orientation characterized by neglect of the tradition of Tylor and the culture concept. (Kuper 1996:159-160)

It is worth noting that Lévi-Strauss entered anthropology from philosophy, for this explains the choice of many of his focal points. (Hénaff 1998:2) Lévi-Strauss, too, was inspired by Durkheim - particularly by his later work on a model of society built up of segments integrated by force of mechanical or organic solidarity - as well as by Mauss's work on exchange, yet he came to different conclusions than Radcliffe-Brown and other British anthropologists, as we will see. (Kuper 1996:160,162)

Other sources of inspiration for Lévi-Strauss were American cultural anthropologists from the tradition of Boas, as well as trends in psycho-analysis (notably Freud), mathematics and communication. (Leach 1967:XVI) But the most determinative influence on his work came from Roman Jakobson and his De Saussure-inspired linguistic theory, based on the distinction between ‘parole' (code, utterances) and ‘langue' (message, grammar). (Kuper 1996:160, Leach 1970:45-46)

In the following section of my essay I will give an outline of the conclusions Lévi-Strauss came to through his research inspired by the abovementioned. I will first explain the goal of his work and his definitions of and views on certain concepts, and then discuss how he applied his method of structuralist analysis to the major themes in his work (in chronological order): kinship, primary classification, and myth.

At the same time, I will shed light on the reactions of British anthropologists to these ideas, with specific reference to Leach. The interest of British social anthropologists in structuralism arose in the 1950s and 1960. British imperialism was falling into decay, and partly because of these circumstances British anthropology became more open to new, foreign ideas. (Kuper 1996:161)

The goal of Lévi-Strauss's anthropology was a fundamentally different one from that of functionalists. His ultimate concern was to understand social relations by uncovering the social structure and, in that way, to establish facts which are true about ‘the human mind'. To achieve this, he reasoned, one should use models. (Hénaff 1998:14, Leach 1970:7)

“In anthropology as in linguistics […], it is not comparison that supports generalization, but the other way around. If, as we believe to be the case, 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 institution and each custom, in order to obtain a principle of interpretation valid for other institutions and other customs, provided of course that the analysis is carried far enough.”

(Lévi-Strauss 1963:21)

In order to understand his work, it is important to determine what Lévi-Strauss understood when using the term ‘social structure'. He went further than Radcliffe-Brown, who defined social structure as the set of social relations organized in a system, by arguing that a structure was in fact a model of which social relations are just the “raw materials” and that therefore “social structure can, by no means, be reduced to the ensemble of the social relations to be described in a given society”. (Hénaff 1998:13-14)

According to Lévi-Strauss, a structure was conceivable only where there was a sufficient degree of internal motivation (as opposed to arbitrariness). Therefore, certain objects only were receptive to the structural approach; their nature had to be closed and finite, and their function had to be to differentiate and order positions and statuses and to link groups through individuals. Lévi-Strauss focused primarily on primitive societies, for their forms of organization were stable and tending toward stability, and their activities limited and integrated. (Ibid:8-9)

This groundwork of structuralism became a source of inspiration and guidance for various social anthropologists in Britain, such as Douglas, Needham, and most notably Leach, who Kuper described as “the most enthusiastic and original of the British social anthropologists who experimented with structuralism” and who was responsible for extending its range of applications. (Kuper 1996:173) Lévi-Strauss revived their interest in the study of systems of thought and encouraged them to apply linguistic methods onto their anthropological research, as I will illustrate when discussing individual themes in Lévi-Strauss's work.

Leach and other British structuralists adopted his notion of an ‘underlying grammar', that was based upon a series of binary oppositions which were related to form a system. (Ibid:172) Moreover, Leach always praised Lévi-Strauss for causing innovation in anthropology, in the sense that the latter was responsible for applying an original method to categories of orthodox ethnography and directing anthropologists' attention towards problems that earlier British anthropologists scarcely considered. (Leach 1967:XVI-XVII)

However, this is not to say that Leach was a ‘slavish imitator' of Lévi-Strauss. (Leach 1967:XV) In fact, he challenged or in some cases even set aside some of the very foundations of Lévi-Strauss's approach. (Hénaff 1998:70)

First of all, the goal of Leach's research was different from Lévi-Strauss's. Leach did not aim to identify psychological universals, but rather to elucidate particular social systems. (Kuper 1996:167) This different viewpoint on the purpose of structuralist analysis was caused by Leach's non-belief in the universality of the mind; he saw it as Lévi-Strauss's own ‘invention', meant to create a philosophical extension of ethnological results. (Hénaff 1998:113)

Besides, Leach considered the linguistic model Lévi-Strauss employed too simplistic for the purpose of reaching into ‘the human mind'. (Leach 1970:112) Rather than displaying the structure of the human mind, Lévi-Strauss had “ended up by telling us something about the structure of aesthetic perception.” (Ibid:113) Through ‘verbal juggling', as Leach called it, Lévi-Strauss tried to convince his readers of this theory that was generalized and paradoxical, for what is universally true must be natural while Lévi-Strauss held the humanity of man to be non-natural by definition (as I will explain in the section on primary classification). (Ibid:82,112) Leach, for one, never came to understand Lévi-Strauss's notion of the mind fully. (Hénaff 1998:262)

But perhaps the most important point of criticism from Leach and other structuralists and critics of Lévi-Strauss was that the initial model - revolving around ‘universally true, basic meaningful principles' - which Lévi-Strauss relied on was in fact a product of the observer's own prejudiced presuppositions and rarely corresponded closely to an ethnographic reality. (Leach 1970:19,110)

This point is related to the different stances on empiricism that Lévi-Strauss and most contemporaneous Anglo-American anthropologists held. Lévi-Strauss did value and indeed conduct observation, but as he believed in an underlying social structure and universality of the human mind, he saw ethnographic facts as displays of a theoretical model at work; mere examples of what is possible. (Ibid:42) As Hénaff put it:

“In fact, he asked anthropology to proceed just like any science of observation: to be very empirical and meticulous regarding data gathering and very conceptual regarding the theorization of the set of such data.” (Hénaff 1998:15)

Not surprisingly, this position caused significant resistance among British social anthropologists, even those who viewed structuralism positively. According to Leach, among others, it led to Lévi-Strauss treating his topics too theoretically and systematically and ignoring time, space, emotion and taboo throughout his research. (Leach 1970:87,60) In other words, he criticised Lévi-Strauss's reductionism.

Lévi-Strauss generally provided too little ethnographical evidence, and if he did, he seemed to select this ethnographical evidence to fit his theories. (Ibid:87,90,98,117) A consequence of this is that the contrary is difficult to demonstrate, and therefore Lévi-Strauss's theories can not be critically tested. (Ibid:50,117)

Kinship was the first object that Lévi-Strauss regarded receptive to the structural approach, and this is the field where the influence of Mauss was most perceptible.

Lévi-Strauss came to the conclusion that reciprocity was the key for understanding kinship. He went as far as to say that marriage was the primary exchange system and that the system of exchanges of women formed the basis for the organization of all societies with any ideology of unilineal descent. (Ibid:104) A central position in his theory about kinship was occupied by the incest taboo, which provided certain prohibitions and in ‘simple' kinship systems also a positive marriage rule as to who one can/cannot/should marry.

In the case of the latter he drew an additional distinction between generalized and restricted exchange, and created a third ‘bastard form': delayed reciprocity, which is basically a generalized exchange system where the next rather than the same generation returns a woman. Lévi-Strauss identified the problem that generalized exchange was speculative and led to differences between groups in terms of their ‘richness in wives' despite its egalitarian and integrative nature, an idea that Leach agreed with. (Kuper 1996:162-164)

While studying kinship, Lévi-Strauss assumed that both the marriage rules and the actual marriage choices were more or less independent refractions of the single underlying, unconscious grammar of reciprocity and opposition. Therefore, he believed that the way to discover this grammar was either through an analysis of the people's model, or of the statistical distribution of marriage choices, with a preference for the first method because of the influence political, economic and demographic factors have in practice.

Lévi-Strauss was convinced that analysis of simple kinship systems could also illuminate complex kinship systems, for his research had shown that even in the absence of explicit rules a pattern of choices could be discovered. (Kuper 1996:164-165)

Leach and his students adopted Lévi-Strauss's view of society as a system of communication in which women were the ‘message'. He made Lévi-Strauss's analysis more specific by defining the units that exchanged women: local groups of adult males recruited by descent. (Kuper 1996:166-167) Leach did however reveal ambiguities in Lévi-Strauss's ideas about kinship: Lévi-Strauss's confusion of ‘marriage' and ‘exogamy', the unclear meaning of ‘elementary structures' and the mistaken presumption that unilineal descent systems were universal. (Leach 1970:102-105) Most importantly, Leach argued against Lévi-Strauss by pointing out that forms of exchange were adapted to political and economic circumstances. (Kuper 1996:167)

In the 1960s, after having published several books on kinship systems, Lévi-Strauss himself too noticed that kinship was too embedded in social action to provide a sure guide to mental processes, which is why he shifted his scope to ‘purer expressions of social thought' that did not deal with objects: primary classification and myth. (Ibid:169)

In his works La Pensée Sauvage and Le Totémisme aujourd'hui, among others, Lévi-Strauss studied the way in which the social and natural environment was ordered by verbal categories. The human mind, he argued, imposed patterns on its world by classifying objects using terms that were arbitrary, yet the relationships between these terms had a more universal character. In this way, our process of thought created a set of binary oppositions that formed a system that could be applied to other kinds of relationships, for example between social groups. (Ibid:169-170)

The most important oppositions in the structural conceptual system, and therefore in Lévi-Strauss's work, were Culture/Nature and - closely related - Humanity/Animality. (Ibid:172, Leach 1970:36) Totemism, the application of transformations of the animal level categories to the social classification of human beings, is a method for members of a society to distinguish their fellow humans according to their mutual social status. (Leach 1970:39-40)

Lévi-Strauss saw distinguishing between ‘two poles' as necessary in the analysis of primitive thought and manifestations thereof, such as myth, language, colours, and foodstuffs and their modes of preparation:

“Where Barthes opposes system and syntagm, the corresponding contrasts in Lévi-Strauss are metaphor and metonym or sometimes paradigmatic series and syntagmatic chain […]. Although the jargon is exasperating the principles are simple. As Jakobson put it, metaphor (system, paradigm) relies on the recognition of similarity, and metonymy (syntagm) on the recognition of contiguity.” (Ibid:48)

The final conclusion Lévi-Strauss came to on the topic of the human mind, was that its ‘algebra' could be represented as a rectangular matrix that could be read horizontally and vertically, and that this principle was universal.(Ibid:52)

Lévi-Strauss's works on primary classification belonged to his most Durkheimian, and they therefore became the ‘entry' for many British social anthropologists to structuralism. (Kuper 1996:169) As I have made clear earlier, British structuralists were extremely critical of Lévi-Strauss's use of mathematical models.

Despite the fact that he did not take all of Lévi-Strauss' applications of structuralist analysis in the field of primary classification seriously (as was the case with Lévi-Strauss's study on food preparation), Leach applied his less reductionist version of structuralist analysis in ‘new' fields, for example on animals.

Leach, as well as Douglas, had a particular interest in anomaly, and the taboos originating from it. Douglas was more critical than Leach on this point: she rejected Lévi-Strauss's system of categories of thought for it failed to take into account the emotive force of symbolic action, and she also suggested the addition of a third term to binary oppositions. (Ibid:173)

More or less simultaneously with studying primary classification, Lévi-Strauss started looking into myth. According to Lévi-Strauss, the aim of myths was to provide logical models capable of resolving some of the contradictions and problems people faced in their lives. (Ibid:172) Many of the myths he analysed had by that time already become divorced from their religious context, but in Lévi-Strauss's eyes this did not make them any less valid for they still possessed their essential structural characteristics. (Leach 1970:56)

Put very simply, Lévi-Strauss believed that the real message of myth was contained in a system of relationships (often binary oppositions) with which the myth concerned itself. (Kuper 1996:172) To identify these relationships, the myth should be broken up into incidents. (Leach 1970:62) Lévi-Strauss already referred to the importance of taking all versions of one myth into account in order to compare them. He saw the mythology of a given society as a whole as a ‘system', and each individual story as a syntagm of that system. (Ibid:67-69)

Leach developed this latter notion further. According to him, the existence of multiple myths was a matter of ‘redundancy in communication' and an intrinsic and necessary feature of mythic tradition, for it ensured that the message, determining the myth's social and political value by being a system of concepts and categories in terms of which a claim for power or status may be made, got through.

The combination of several versions of one myth formed a structured system of categories organised in local relations of identification, opposition and mediation, which blurred the otherwise stark paradoxes and mysteries that arose. Therefore myth had a cognitive function. Only structuralist analysis could reveal abovementioned system, Leach argued, and thus discover the real message of a myth. (Hugh-Jones and Laidlaw 2000:14-15)

While clearly using his method, Leach criticized Lévi-Strauss's own research on myth for using sources that ‘normal' people could not consult, and for considering predominantly myths about animals endowed with human attributes, thereby supporting Lévi-Strauss's - from Rousseau derived - thesis that the Humanity/Animality (or Culture/Nature) opposition was a primary concern in human thought. (Ibid:15, Leach 1967:IX)

Finally, Leach disagreed with Lévi-Strauss's belief that structuralist analysis could not be applied to the traditions of the world traditions as it was ‘sacred history' rather than myth. Leach proved his point by conducting structuralist analysis on the Bible. (Hugh-Jones and Laidlaw 2000:16)

Now I have described both the praise and criticism of Leach and some of his fellow British anthropologists that Lévi-Strauss's structuralist analysis and his applications thereof received, the moment has come to return to the central question of this essay: what was the reaction of British anthropologists, specifically Leach, to Lévi-Strauss's work?

As I have shown, Lévi-Strauss's structuralism was a departure from the functionalism and empiricism that reigned British anthropology in the middle of the 20th century. The reductionism and the supposed universality of the human mind that Lévi-Strauss advocated were generally rejected, and his cavalier use of ethnographic evidence was disapproved of.

Leach definitely was a fierce critic of the errors in Lévi-Strauss's analysis, but at the same time he considered the ‘study of fallacies' rewarding, and the complexity of Lévi-Strauss's work revealing. (Leach 1970:111,118) Moreover, he and most other British ‘reviewers' of Lévi-Strauss's work could not deny that Lévi-Strauss had made significant theoretical observations and was responsible for creating a ‘new anthropology'.

Leach, like Douglas and Needham, drew a great deal of inspiration from Lévi-Strauss structuralism as abovementioned examples from the fields of myth, primary classification and to a lesser extent kinship have demonstrated. By taking both positive and negative aspects of Lévi-Strauss's method into account, Leach developed a less generalized, more empirical form of structuralist analysis, with a more realistic goal in mind, which he used come to improved conclusions on topics Lévi-Strauss had already looked into as well as to study other phenomena.

“He has provided us with a new set of hypotheses about familiar materials. We can look again at what we thought was understood and begin to gain entirely new insights. It is not a question of Lévi-Strauss being right or Lévi-Strauss being wrong; it is more like literary or dramatic criticism. Faced with the challenge of a new point of view one is suddenly able to see the familiar in quite a different way and to understand something which was previously invisible.” (Leach 1967:XVIII)


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Hugh-Jones, S. and Laidlaw, J. 2000. “On Scholastic Nonsense: Myth and History”. In The essential Edmund Leach, Volume II: Culture and Human Nature (ed.) S. Hugh-Jones and J. Laidlaw, 13-18. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.

Kuper, A. 1996. “Lévi-Strauss and British neo-structuralism”. In Anthropology and Anthropologists: The modern British school, 3rd edition, 159-175. London: Routledge.

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