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CLAUDE LEVI-STRAUSS

1908 -

Claude Levi-Strauss was a popular French anthropologist most well known for his
development of structural anthropology. He was born on November 28, 1908 in Belgium
as the son of an artist, and a member of an intellectual French Jewish family. Levi-Strauss
studied at the University of Paris. From 1935-9 he was Professor at the University of Sao
Paulo making several expeditions to central Brazil. Between 1942-1945 he was Professor
at the New School for Social Research. In 1950 he became Director of Studies at the Ecole
Practique des Hautes Etudes. In 1959 Levi-Strauss assumed the Chair of Social
Anthroplogy at the College de France. His books include The Raw and the Cooked, The
Savage Mind, Structural Anthropology and Totemism.

Some reasons for his extreme popularity are identified in his rejection of history and
humanism, in his refusal to see Western civilization as privileged and unique, in his
emphasis on form over content and in his insistence that the savage mind is equal to the
civilized mind. Levi-Strauss appeals to the deepest feelings among the alienated
intellectuals of our society.

Levi-Strauss did a plethora of things in his life including studying Law and Philosophy
both of which bored him. He also did considerable reading among literary masterpieces,
and was deeply immersed in classical and contemporary music.

His three "mistresses" in life were said to be Marxism, psychoanalysis and geology, but
anthropology gave the scholar the opportunity to come into contact with the lives of men
of different cultures, rather than just Western cultures. His belief that the characteristics of
man are everywhere identical was found after countless travels to Brazil and visits to North
and South American Indian tribes. In fact, Levi-Strauss spent more than half his 59 years
studying the behavior of the North and South American Indian tribes. The method he used
to study the social organization of these tribes is called structuralism. "Structuralism," says
Levi-Strauss, "is the search for unsuspected harmonies..."

Levi-Strauss derived structuralism from a school of linguistics whose focus was not on the
meaning of the word, but the patterns that the words form. Levi-Strauss's contribution gave
us a theory of how the human mind works. Man passes from a natural to a cultural state as
he uses language, learns to cook, etc... Structuralism considers that in the passage from
natural to cultural, man obeys laws he does not invent it's a mechanism of the human brain.
Levi-Strauss views man not as a privileged inhabitant of the universe, but as a passing
species which will leave only a few faint traces of its passage when it becomes extinct.

Levi Strauss is also known for his structural analysis of mythology. He was interested in
explaining why myths from different cultures from around the globe seem so similar. He
answers this question not by the content of myths, but by their structure. To make this
argument Levi-Strauss insists that myth is a language because myth has to be told in order
to exist. A myth is almost always set some time long ago, with a timeless story. He says
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myth is actually on a more complex level than language. Myth shares with language the
following characteristics:

1. It's made of units that are put together according to certain rules.
2. These units form relationships with each other, based on opposites which provide the
basis of the structure.

He concludes that the structural method of myth analysis brings order out of a mess. It
provides a means to account for widespread variations on a basic myth structure, and is
logical and scientific. This was important for the scientist in Levi-Strauss. He says that
repetition, in myth as in oral literature, is necessary to reveal the structure of the myth.
Because of this need for repetition, the myth is told in layer after layer. However, the layers
aren't the same, and it's eventually shown that the myth "grows" as it is told, but the
structure of the myth does not grow.

References:
Written by Sarah Schmitt, 1999