Lévi-Strauss, Claude

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Lévi-Strauss, Claude

(klōd lā`vē-strous), 1908–2009, French anthropologist, b. Brussels, Belgium, Ph.D Univ. of Paris, 1948. He carried out research in Brazil from 1935 to 1939. From 1942 to 1945 he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York City, and during this period met and was influenced by Franz BoasBoas, Franz
, 1858–1942, German-American anthropologist, b. Minden, Germany, Ph.D. Univ. of Kiel, 1881. He joined an expedition to Baffin Island in 1883 and initiated his fieldwork with observations of the Central Eskimos.
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 and Roman JakobsonJakobson, Roman
, 1896–1982, Russian-American linguist and literary critic, b. Moscow. He coined the term structural linguistics and stressed that the aim of historical linguistics is the study not of isolated changes within a language but of systematic change.
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. In 1948 he was appointed professor at the Institut d'Ethnologie, Univ. of Paris, and research associate at the National Science Research Fund, Paris. After 1959 he was professor of anthropology at the Collège de France. He was elected to the French Academy in 1973.

One of France's foremost 20th-century thinkers, he revolutionized the study of anthropology, changing the Western world's understanding of civilization and culture. Influenced by developments in linguistics (see structuralismstructuralism,
theory that uses culturally interconnected signs to reconstruct systems of relationships rather than studying isolated, material things in themselves. This method found wide use from the early 20th cent.
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), he founded structural anthropology, a theory that views culture as a system united by reason in which common structures underlie the activities of all societies despite their apparent differences. Analyzing the structure of myths in various cultures, he found universal patterns of thought, behavior, motifs, and structures across the spectrum of human societies. Lévi-Strauss also revealed the intelligence, subtlety, and sophistication of so-called "primitive" societies while refusing to romanticize tribal culture. He noted the disappearance of many of the world's tribal cultures and languages, and warned of the dangers of a modern Western "monoculture." His views greatly influenced such French thinkers as Roland BarthesBarthes, Roland
, 1915–80, French critic. Barthes was one of the founding figures in the theoretical movement centered around the journal Tel Quel. In his earlier works, such as Writing Degree Zero (tr. 1953) and Mythologies (1957, tr.
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, Jacques LacanLacan, Jacques
, 1901–81, French psychoanalyst. After receiving a medical degree, he became a psychoanalyst in Paris. Lacan was infamous for his unorthodox methods of treatment, such as the truncated therapy session, which often lasted only several minutes.
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, and Michel FoucaultFoucault, Michel,
1926–84, French philosopher and historian. He was professor at the Collège de France (1970–84). He is renowned for historical studies that reveal the sometimes morally disturbing power relations inherent in social practices.
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His memoir, Tristes Tropiques (1955, tr. 1961), was both a critical and popular success. His other works include his first book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949, tr. 1969), which established his scholarly reputation, and such volumes as Race and History (1952), The Savage Mind (1962, tr. 1966), Totemism (1962, tr. 1964), Structural Anthropology, (2 vol., 1958–73, tr. 1963–76), The View from Afar (1983, tr. 1985), The Jealous Potter (1985, tr. 1988), and The Story of Lynx (1991, tr. 1995). Mythologiques, often hailed as his masterpiece, is a structural analysis of native mythology in the Americas and consists of The Raw and the Cooked (1964, tr. 1969), From Honey to Ashes (1967, tr. 1973), The Origin of Table Manners (1968, tr. 1978), and The Naked Man (1971, tr. 1981).


See D. Eribon, Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss (1991); intellectual biography by P. Wilcken (2010); studies by E. N. Hayes, ed. (1970), E. R. Leach (1970), O. Paz (tr. 1970), H. Gardner (1972), C. Geertz (1988), and B. Wiseman (2007); B. Wiseman, ed., Cambridge Companion to Lévi-Strauss (2009).

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Lévi-Strauss, Claude

(1908-) Belgian-born, French social anthropologist, who is usually seen as an intellectual descendant of DURKHEIM and MAUSS, although also strongly influenced by MARX, FREUD and JACOBSON. A major figure in modern STRUCTURALISM, Lévi-Strauss claimed that Marx and Freud advanced the structuralist method of analysis by seeking to comprehend surface reality by reference to a deeper structural level. The central concerns in Lévi-Strauss's work are primitive classification and the study of KINSHIP and MYTHOLOGIES in TRIBAL SOCIETIES (see also TOTEMISM). His major translated works include Structural Anthropology (1963), The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1969), The Savage Mind (1969), Totemism (1963), and Mythologies (4 vols.) (1969-78). The distinctive feature of his work is the attempt to discover universal rules that underlie everyday activities and customs. Culture is held to embody principles which mirror essential features of the human mind – ‘binary classificatory systems’. The influence of LINGUISTICS, particularly phonology, led Lévi-Strauss to formulate the main task of anthropology as the discovery of semiotic, and hence cognitive, structures, deeply underlying the surfaces of social activity. It is in these terms that he locates neat systems of ‘contrastive classes’ underlying marriage systems and beneath myths. These structures are layered, and the same structures can underlie different surface patterns in different societies, so that one may illuminate another. It is the deepest layers which Lévi-Strauss sees as ‘cognitive’, and which permit the reconstruction of universals of the human mind. Although the layers of structure are systematic and ordered, they are not directly available to the consciousness that is constituted by them: they are unconscious structures, reconstructable in scientific logics. The existence of these logical systems has been challenged by recent thinkers, e.g. poststructuralists, who insist on the fragmentary, open, evasive and sliding character of semiotic underpinnings (see DECONSTRUCTION). But, in their critique of rational consciousness, and their ‘decentring’ of the subject, such critics continue a critique of the transparency of action, communication, institutions and history which sociology owes to Lévi-Strauss.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude


Born Nov. 28, 1908, in Brussels. French anthropologist and sociologist. One of the main proponents of structuralism.

In 1932, Lévi-Strauss graduated from the University of Paris, and from 1935 to 1938 was a professor in Säo Paulo, Brazil. From 1942 to 1947 he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York, and was a cultural attache at the French embassy in the USA. In 1950 he became a professor at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris and head of the laboratory of social anthropology. In 1959 he became a professor at the Collège de France.

Lévi-Strauss is a student of the French sociological school of E. Durkheim and M. Mauss. He has been influenced by the American school of cultural anthropology, by linguistic structuralism (R. Jakobson), and by information theory. He worked out the principles of structural anthropology.

Lévi-Strauss considers small, ethnologically vestigial societies with a stable social structure to be the ideal object of a scientific study of employing structural analysis. He interprets marriage rules, kinship terminology, totemistic designations, and mythological concepts as semiotic (sign-employing) simulation systems. Lévi-Strauss created an original and profound theory of primitive thought, which in many ways is opposed to the theories of L. Lévy-Bruhl, and applied it to the study of the semantic structure of American Indian myths. He showed the peculiarities of mythological thought as concrete and metaphorical thought on the level of sense perception. Mythological thought is capable of generalizations, classifications, and logical analysis; in Lévi-Strauss’ opinion, it served as the intellectual basis for technological progress in the Neolithic period.

In his evaluation of primitive society, Lévi-Strauss characteristically idealizes it, in the spirit of Rousseau. Examining mythological thought in the context of its ability to generate symbolic systems, Lévi-Strauss analyzes the role of binary oppositions (such as upper and lower, male and female, raw and cooked) and of mediation between them. The aim of mediation is to overcome the fundamental contradictions fixed in human consciousness (such as life and death). Inasmuch as Lévi-Strauss treats mythological thought as collective and subconscious thought that is relatively independent of other forms of tribal life, he views the analysis of myths as a means of revealing the primary structures of consciousness, the primordial human “anatomy of the mind.” Beginning with the analysis of myth as an analogue of natural language, the ideal medium of communication, Lévi-Strauss gradually arrived at the comparison of myth with music; according to Lévi-Strauss, music is the ideal model for artistic structure. Therefore, he concentrates on the study of semantics rather than on the plot of the narrative itself. Emphasis on the metaphorical nature of myth makes Lévi-Strauss’ method applicable to the analysis of art as well, although enthusiasm for structural analysis may lead to the neglect of content.

Lévi-Strauss’ method, like the structuralist method in general, applies itself to the analysis of stable cultures and to determining their structure while neglecting the dynamics of their development. The problem of the historical replacement of some social structures by others is left unexplained, as has been justly noted by Lévi-Strauss’ critics. Although Lévi-Strauss has repeatedly called himself a follower of K. Marx and has severely criticized existentialism and phenomenologism, the influence of phenomenology is undoubtedly present in his epistemological concepts. Lévi-Strauss emphatically rejects the view of structuralism as a separate philosophical system.


La Vie familiale et sociale des Indiens Nambikwara. Paris, 1948.
Tristes tropiques. Paris, 1955.
Anthropologie structurale. Paris, 1958.
Le Totémisme aujourd’hui. Paris, 1962.
La Pensée sauvage. Paris, 1962.
Mythologiques, vols. 1–4. Paris, 1964–71.
Les Structures elementaires de la parenté, 2nd ed. Paris-La Haye, 1967.
Charbonnier, G. Les Entretiens avec Cl. Lévi-Strauss. Paris, 1969.


Meletinskii, E. M. “Klod Levi-Stros i strukturnaia tipologiia mifa.” Voprosy filosofii, 1970, no. 7.
Meletinskii, E. M. “Klod Levi-Stros: Tol’ko etnologiia?” Voprosy literatury, 1971, no. 4.
Merleau-Ponty, M. “De Mauss à Lévi-Strauss.” In Signes. Paris, 1960.
Leach, E., ed. Structural Study of Myth and Totemism. London, 1967.
Simonis, Y. Claude Lévi-Strauss, ou “la passion de l’inceste.” Paris, 1968.
Leach, E. Lévi-Strauss. New York, 1970.
Kirk, G. S. Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures. Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1970. Pages 42–83.
Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Anthropologist as Hero. Cambridge-London [1970].
Cressant, P. Lévi-Strauss. Paris [1970].
Remotti, F. Lévi-Strauss: Struttura e storia. Turin, 1971.
Esprit, November 1963.
L’Arc, 1965, no. 26.
Aut-Aut, July 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.