Claude Lévi-Strauss

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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.


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His time among the Bororo, Caduveo, and Nambikwara made an anthropologist out of the visiting professor of sociology, but Levi-Strauss would not devise the tools for comprehending his fieldwork until he found himself facing the potential eradication of his own cultural inheritance--both French and Jewish--after the Germans took Paris at the onset of the Second World War.
Levi-Strauss makes a distinction between language and cultural/social phenomena and never implies a reduction of society to language.