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Table of Contents




Main Points


Historical Context


Structuralism represents a movement that began in the 1950's and 1960's in France.  Emile Durkheim, a French anthropologist, generated the idea that human thought precedes observation and social and cultural phenomena derives from universal human cognition.[1]  Claude Levi-Strauss, consider the founder of Structuralism, expanded upon Durkheim's basic concepts to generate the main ideas behind Structuralism.  In his definition, there are 3 fundamental properties of the human mind: 1)People follow rules, 2)Reciprocity is the simplest way to create social relationships, and 3) a gift binds both the giver and recipient in a continuing social relationship.[2] Such social structures, according to Levi-Strauss, mirrors cognitive structures, the way in which mankind thinks and understands.[3]


Method of Structuralism


Structuralism focuses on the effects of universal patterns in human thought on cultural phenomena.  Although not attempting to explain these cultural patterns, it rather presents them as a result of the subconscious, of universal human knowledge. This link between societal norms and the mind's thought process is ingrained so deeply within individual cultures, it becomes logical thought, taking specific actions, thoughts and activities and conceptualizing them. The process known as psychic unity, states that the human species, despite differences in race and culture, share the same basic psychological make-up.[4] Even with this universal knowledge, every culture retains its own specific cultural structure. 


Much of Levi-Strauss' work comes from that of Marcel Mauss, who states "these elementary principles are the 'glue' that unifies different social institutions."[5] From this and the workings of Roman Jakobson, Levi-Strauss presented the idea of binary oppositions. This concept coordinates certain ways of thinking. Examples of binary systems studied could be: "life vs. death," "culture vs. nature," or "self vs. other."  Each individual concept has an opposite concept that it is co-dependent on.  This is known as unity of opposites; no one of these ideas can exist without the other. Every community takes these concepts and makes them specific to their individual culture. Presenting universal ideas and oppositions, and uniting them under a unique, cultural stand-point, eventually forming a structured and organized society. These ideas relate to linguistic anthropology, in that all humans have a common base for which we can create complex sounds and develop different languages. Taking the idea of "phonemes," pairs of sounds that create meaning, and bringing the same concept into structuralism, that we, as humans, all share a common base for thought, leading to the development of different cultures that stem from the same unconscious roots. 


Structuralism in Kinship


In the studies of the structure of kinship, the systems derive from deeply rooted patterns of human cognition based on logical oppositions of contrastive categories. For example, a contrasting category of kinship could be the relationship within different cultures of immediate family members and marriage. Universally, studies have shown that in almost all cultures there is an incest taboo, marrying a direct family member is not allowed. The taboo demonstrates a universal logical opposition within kin versus non-kin categories.[6] Although every culture has its own ideals and values on the topic of marriage, some including matrilateral cross-cousin marriage or patrilateral cross-cousin marriages, there are no cultures that allow direct incest. The universal formation of ideas is the very basis of structuralism, allowing individual shifts in rules and structures of a society based on cultural history and tradition, yet still retaining a common base from which the culturally specific idea stems.[7]


 Claude- Levi-Strauss's model of "totemic operator"[8]




Key Figures



(As a young anthropologist)


Claude Lévi-Strauss

Strauss was born November 28, 1908 in Brussels, Belgium and lived to see an entire century, passing on October 30th 2009. He began studying law at the University of Paris in 1927 and after five years started working as a teachers aid.[10] Two years later, in 1934, he served as professor of sociology in Brazil at the University of Sao Paulo and began field work on the Brazilian Indians. Levi-Strauss taught almost all his life, moving to New York in 1941 as a visiting professor of The New School for Social Research till 1945.[11] From 1950 to 1974 he was director of studies at the University of Paris, and in 1959 he was appointed to the chair of social anthropology at the Collège de France.[12]



Levi-Strauss began his career with law and philosophy. In 1935 he left with his wife for Brazil to be the visiting professor of sociology at the Sao Paulo University while his wife, Dina, served as visiting professor of Ethnography. It was during this time that his wife was studying the natives of Mato Grosso and the Amazon Rainforest.[13] More than halfway through the field work Dina sustained an injury preventing her from concluding the research which Strauss now had to complete alone. It was this experience that started Claude Levi Strauss’s career as an anthropologist.[14] As founder of the structuralist school of thought, Claude Lévi-Strauss believed that certain cultural facts are universal due to physical, or structural, factors. For example, all human cultures tend to divide larger concepts into binary oppositions such as left and right, black and white, or hot and cold.[15]


After Strauss' field work in South America concluded in 1939, he chose to teach and learn with a group of other foreign intellectuals called École Libre des Hautes Études which means "Free School for Advanced Studies" and was located within The New School for Social Research as a university-in-exile by the French and Belgium governments.[16] This is where Strauss met Roman Jacobson, a pioneer of the structural analysis of language, who influenced his understanding of Structuralism.[17] He also had the opportunity to study under Franz Boas who unfortunately died in Strauss’s arms after a heart attack.[18] Claude Levi Strauss’s most prominent influence would be the linguistic approach of Ferdinand de Saussure on semiotics.  He also modeled ideas after Marcel Mauss, Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim, as well as the Prague School of Linguistics.[19] Levi Strauss left his legacy to future structural anthropologists such as Edmond Leach, and post-structuralist philosophers Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida.[20]



Key Texts


Myth and Meaning



The main text for structuralism is Myth and Meaning written by Claude Levi-Straussm published in 1995. The short book is divided into 5 parts, structured by questions that were asked by Carole Orr Jerome. Levi-Strauss believes that “myths get thought in man unbeknownst to him” [22]. Although he claims to have experienced this through his own work, he understand that every opinion (even ones criticizing him) is equally valid.


A Closer Look At The First Two Parts


Part 1: Meeting of Myth and Science

In this section of this book, Levi-Strauss discussing the differences between modern science and mythological thought and how they are connected. Using mathematics as an example, he explains that the human mind is able to create a triangle with perfectly straight lines or a circle even though those things don’t exist in nature, they were imprinted on the human mind, being an example of mind versus experience[23]. While exploring the differences of “experience versus mind” he mentions his upbringing. He talks about his various interests in music and painting and writing and explains how each thing is set in a different code, and that the important thing is to find something common between the different “codes”[24]. In this chapter, Levi-Strauss also talks about the two different ways of proceeding with science, reductionist or structuralist. When it’s possible to reduce a very complex phenomena to a simpler level, it’s reductionist[25]. He believes modern science to be very important, but he also believes that basic ‘mythological thought’ is just as important.


Part 2: 'Primitive Thinking' and The 'Civilized Mind'

Claude Levi-Strauss begins with the section by stating that the only distinction between ‘primitive thinking’ and a ‘civilized mind’ is the fact that they don’t write. Because of this, he instead describes these people as “without writing”[26]. He talked about different theories of Anthropology and their take on ‘Primitive’ people, using Malinowski and Levy-Bruhl  as examples. Malinowski believes that the ‘primitive’ people are driven by sexual and other basic urges, and Levy-Bruhl’s belief is that they are driven by emotions[27]. Claude Levi-Strauss’ belief is much different. He thinks that mythology within a culture is proof that people ‘without writing’ have a desire to understand the world around them as well has have disinterested thinking[28].  Levi-Strauss goes on to talk about the differences in culture, how the differentiation evolved, and how progress only comes with differences. He uses the example of a myth from Western Canada where a skate battles the South Wind, the skate being the binary operator and the wind being the binary problem, and why exactly these two subjects were used. Even though this story wasn’t true, it’s still possible to gather cultural information from this myth and should be taken seriously[29]. Levi-Strauss end this chapter with the thought that although scientific and mythological explanation can not provide the same evidence, scientific explanation can be applied mythology and help people understand it better[30].



Levi-Strauss Interviewed, Parts I & II




Levi-Strauss Interviewed Part I

 Levi-Strauss Interviewed Part I focuses on Levi-Strauss' upbringing and the development of his ideas towards Anthropology. We learn that his family was very much involved with the arts, his father and grandfather being Parisian painters. His mother and father were first cousins, and his mother was attracted to his father being of his painting ability[32]. Although his grandfather was a Rabbi and his grandmother was Jewish, he grew up in a non-religious household with some Jewish traditions. Levi-Strauss claims no personal relationship with God[33]. When asked about his work Race et Histoire, published in 1952, Levi-Strauss simply says that it was a commission work for UNESCO and he would not have done if not for that. He mostly wanted to "reconcile the notion of progress within cultural relativism", and to show that cultures are not superior or inferior to one another[34]. When he wrote his follow-up work, Race et culture, he wrote it about the oppositions and this created a scandal because the public thought he was changed his view. Levi-Strauss claimed "it was supposed to make a scandal" and that he was writing a different book and he doesn't like to repeat himself[35]. When asked if he would write another book for UNESCO, he says "There's no danger!" [36]. He ends the first part of the interview with that although he studies many cultures with a certain objectiveness, he prefers his culture and life style[37].


Levi-Strauss Interviews Part II

The second part of the interview starts off with how Levi-Strauss used to go through his day when he taught and wrote his books, which started at the New York Public Library. He says that he learned about social anthropology the most during those years[38]. When asked about fieldwork, he calls it "women's work". He claimed to have lacked care and patience, and this is why women succeed so much within the frame of fieldwork[39]. When asked about Malinowski's diary that was published, Levi-Strauss said that his feelings got in the way of his work and that other anthropologists feel this way as well[40]. Levi-Strauss is then given the chance to explain the myths that he has summarized. He claims that he has been reproached unfairly for his 'poor' summaries, for the details are much too immense to include in a summary. The myths are beautiful, literary texts and can't be given justice when summarized[41]. The interview is concluded when he asked about his last chapter of L'Homme nu, called "The Single Myth." He then reveals that he journey into mythology with that book was different versions of the same theme, nature crossing into culture[42].






While Structuralism was very popular during the 1960's and 70's, it eventually fell to much criticism in the late 1970's and 80's, giving way to Post-Structuralism and other anthropological theories.


Lack of Proof

       The largest source of criticism for Structuralism seems to be the lack of proof. Claude Levi-Strauss did not have proof of his concepts, but rather he assumed the fundamental structures of human thought to be universal.   "Some, such as materialist Marvin Harris, have derided Structuralism for assuming that cultural structures are the empirical reality of any given society." [43] What Harris is implying is that Structuralism denies the impact that the individual or the given culture has on his/her own beliefs; and that the possibility for scientific answers and common sense do not factor into Levi-Strauss' Structuralist theory.[44]  Levi-Strauss' argument that all human brains contain the same psychological ideas was his contention only, and he never fully explained his assumptions.


Ignores Individual Differentiation

     Another criticism of Levi-Strauss and his structuralist theory was the assumption that all human minds were identical. Levi-Strauss' "synchronic approach, which advocates a “psychic unity” of all human minds, has been criticized because it does not account for individual human action historically." [46] This leaves no room for human individuality, since all human minds will eventually come to the same conclusons. However, indivuality does exist in society, especially through time. Which brings us to the next critique of Structuralism, it is ahistorical.     



     Structuralism looks at society in the present without any regard for the past, completely ignoring the historical context of the development of ideas. Structuralism, therefore, does not account for social change which gives a weakness to structuralist claims.  Levi-Strauss' assumptions that the structures of human thought are universal gives room for criticism in that there is no scientific research demonstrating his contentions.  Because of this, there is no empirical evidence showing the development of the human brain.  History, like economies and societies, were completely irrelevant to Claude Levi-Strauss. [47]


Post-Structuralist Critique

     Many regard Post-Structuralism as a reaction or response to the Structuralist theory. Post-Structuralists differed from Structuralists in that they regarded "the study of underlying structures itself a cultural product and therefore subject to myriad biases and misinterpretations. To understand an object, it is necessary to study both the object itself, and the systems of knowledge which were coordinated to produce the object. In this way, post-structuralism positioned itself as a study of how knowledge is produced."[48] Another popular distinction between the two anthropological theories is that Structuralism utilized a descriptive view while Post-Structuralism utilized a Historical view in accordance with their theories and claims. In response to Structuralism, Post-Structuralists imagined it would be more effective to "emphasize history to analyze descriptive concepts"[49]and support their claims. Accoridng to a Jeanett Ehedding-Jones an important post-structuralist critique of Structuralism "is that it presupposes order and structure, and that it silences locality and difference."[50] Post-Structuralism seems to have been built on Structuralist critiques, and while many Post-Structuralists don't label themselves as such, Claude Lev-Strauss is often viewed as a prominent figure in this anthropoligal theory as well as in Structuralism. Post-Structuralism was built out of the Structuralist framework and is viewed as the new and improved version of Structuralism.[51]


Marxist Critique

     Structural Marxism came about in the 1970's and aims to apply Structuralism's theory to modern economies.  "...the central ambition of structural Marxism was to relate the theory of dialectical materialism to a theory of dialectical idealism by demonstrating that the structure of economic transactions derives from the structure of thought." [52]  Claude Levi-Strauss never opposed the theory of Marxism, but rather he, "...describes Marxism as one of 'three mistresses' guiding the development of structuralism from its inchoate beginnings to coherent maturity." [53]  Structural Marxism serves as a complement to the argument that Structuralism puts forth, in applying Levi-Strauss' idea of oppositions to capitalist and non-capitalist systems around the world.  Structuralism ignores binary oppositions as they relate to world economies, and Marxism furthers the argument by showing how, "...the structure of capitalist economies is a fetish for money, while the structures of non-capitalist economies are rooted in social and religious values." [54] Economies differ throughout the world, and are extremely important in the world system, and Marxism clearly illustrates the differences between capitalist and non-capitalist systems. 







  1. Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy, "A History of Anthropological Theory," (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2008), pg.113.
  2. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 06 October 2010.
  3. Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy, "A History of Anthropological Theory," (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2008), pg.113.
  4. "http://www.ncbi.mln.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1139561/?page=1." George W. Stocking, July 1985, accessed 17 Oct. 2010.
  5. Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy, "A History of Anthropological Theory," (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2008), pg.113.
  6. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 06 October 2010.
  7. Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy, "A History of Anthropological Theory," (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2008), pg.113.
  8. Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy, "A History of Anthropological Theory," (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2008), pg.114.
  9. http://www.laurenhasten.com/anthropologists.htm
  10. "Claude Lévi-Strauss." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 11 Oct. 2010 .
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  20. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_L%C3%A9vi-Strauss
  21. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/754174.Myth_and_Meaning Accessed October 10
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  26. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Myth and Meaning. Pg 15
  27. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Myth and Meaning. Pages 15-16
  28. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Myth and Meaning. Page 16
  29. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Myth and Meaning. Page 22.
  30. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Myth and Meaning. Page 24.
  31. http://www.frieze.com/blog/entry/claude_levi_strauss/ Accessed 10 October 2010
  32. Eribon, Didier. "Claude Strauss Interviewed. Page 5-6.
  33. Eribon, Didier. "Claude Levi-Strauss Interviewed." Page 6.
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  38. Eribon, Didier. "Claude Levi-Strauss Interviewed Part II." Page 2.
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  40. Eribon, Didier. "Claude Levi-Strauss Interviewed Part II." Page 1-2.
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  43. Paul A. Erikson and Liam D. Murphy, "A History of Anthropological Theory", (Broadview Press 2008), pg. 121.
  44. Paul A. Erikson and Liam D. Murphy, "A History of Anthropological Theory", (Broadview Press 2008), pg. 122.
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  46. Rachel Briggs and Janelle Meyer. "Anthropological Theories" Thh University of Alabam Department of Anthropology. http://www.as.ua.edu/ant/cultures/cultures.php?culture=Structuralism
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  48. http://american-anthropology.wetpaint.com/page/Structuralism+and+Postructuralism, accessed 18 October 2010.
  49. http://american-anthropology.wetpaint.com/page/Structuralism+and+Postructuralism, accessed 18 October 2010.
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  52. Paul A. Erikson and Liam D. Murphy, "A History of Anthropological Theory", (Broadview Press 2008), pg. 119.
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  54. Paul A. Erikson and Liam D. Murphy, "A History of Anthropological Theory", (Broadview Press 2008), pg. 120.

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