Claude Lévi-Strauss: biography of this French anthropologist and philosopher

Claude Lévi-Strauss he was a French anthropologist and one of the foremost social scientists of the twentieth century.

He is best known for being the founder of structural anthropology and for his theory of structuralism. In addition, he has been a key figure in the development of modern social and cultural anthropology and has had a great influence outside his discipline.

In this article, we present the figure of Claude Lévi-Strauss, his life and his career, as well as his main theoretical and philosophical contributions.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: life and career

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 – 2009) was born into a French Jewish family in Brussels and then grew up in Paris. He studied philosophy at the historic University of the Sorbonne. Several years after graduating, the French Ministry of Culture invited him to teach as a visiting professor of sociology at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, a position he held as a teacher, after to have settled in this country until 1939.

In 1939, Lévi-Strauss resigned to conduct anthropological field work in indigenous communities in Mato Grosso and the Brazilian Amazon, beginning the beginning of his research on indigenous groups in the Americas. The experience would have a profound effect on his future, paving the way for an innovative career as a researcher and intellectual. He gained literary fame for his 1955 book “Sad Tropics”, in which he recounted part of his stay in Brazil.

Lévi-Strauss’s academic career began to take off when World War II broke out and he was fortunate enough to escape from France to the United States, thanks to a chair at the New School of Research in 1941. To New York, he joined a community. of French intellectuals who found refuge in the United States, amid the collapse of their home country and the growing wave of anti-Semitism in Europe.

Lévi-Strauss remained in the United States until 1948, joining a community of Jewish scholars and artists who escaped persecution that included linguist Roman Jakobson and surrealist painter André Breton. He also helped found the École libre d’études supérieure (French School of Free Studies) with other refugees, and then worked as a cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Washington DC.

Lévi-Strauss returned to France in 1948, where he obtained his doctorate from the Sorbonne. He quickly established himself in the ranks of French intellectuals and was director of studies at the School of Free Studies at the University of Paris from 1950 to 1974. He became president of Social Anthropology at the famous Collège de France in 1959 and held the position until 1982.


Claude Lévi-Strauss formulated his famous concept of structural anthropology during his stay in the United States. In fact, this theory is unusual in anthropology because it is inextricably linked to the writing and thinking of a scholar. Structuralism offered a new and distinctive way of approaching the study of culture, and was based on academic and methodological approaches to cultural anthropology and structural linguistics.

Lévi-Strauss argued that the human brain is connected to organize the world in terms of key organizational structures, allowing people to order and interpret experience. Because these structures are universal, all cultural systems are inherently logical. Different systems of understanding are simply used to explain the world around them, resulting in an astonishing diversity of myths, beliefs and practices. According to Lévi-Strauss, the task of the anthropologist is to explore and explain the logic within a particular cultural system.

Structuralism has used the analysis of cultural practices and beliefs, as well as the fundamental structures of language and linguistic classification, to identify the basic universal elements of human thought and culture. This philosophical stream offered a fundamentally unifying and egalitarian interpretation of people from all over the world and of all cultural backgrounds. Lévi-Strauss argued that everyone uses the same basic categories and systems of organization to make sense of human experience.

Lévi-Strauss’s concept of structural anthropology aimed to unify, at the level of thought and interpretation, the experiences of cultural groups living in widely varying contexts and systems, from the indigenous community he studied to Brazil to the intelligentsia. The egalitarian principles of structuralism were an important intervention because they recognized that all human beings were fundamentally equal, regardless of culture, ethnicity, or other socially constructed categories.

The theory of myth

Lévi-Strauss developed a deep interest in the beliefs and oral traditions of Native Americans during their stay in the United States. Anthropologist Franz Boas and his students pioneered ethnographic studies of indigenous groups in North America, compiling vast collections of myths. Levi-Strauss, in turn, sought to synthesize them in a study that covers myths from the Arctic to the tip of South America..

These investigations culminated in his work “Mythological,” a four-volume study in which Lévi-Strauss argued that myths could be studied to reveal universal oppositions such as death versus life or nature versus culture.) Who organized human interpretations and beliefs about the world. .

Lévi-Strauss presented structuralism as an innovative approach to the study of myths. One of his key concepts in this regard was “DIY”, a concept he borrowed from the French to denote a creation based on a wide variety of pieces. The “handyman,” or the individual involved in this creative act, uses what is available. For structuralism, the two concepts are used to show the parallelism between Western scientific thought and indigenous approaches; both are fundamentally strategic and logical, and simply use different parts.

The theory of kinship

Claude Lévi-Strauss’s earlier work focused on kinship and social organization, as described in his 1949 book, “The Elementary Structures of Kinship”. In this sense, Lévi-Strauss tried to understand how the categories specific to social organization, such as kinship and class, were formed. He understood these concepts as social and cultural phenomena, and not as natural (or preconceived) categories; however, the question was: what caused them?

Lévi-Strauss’s writings have focused on the role of exchange and reciprocity in human relationships.. He was also interested in the power of the incest taboo to push people to marry outside of their families, and the subsequent alliances that emerge from these situations.

Instead of grappling with the taboo of incest as a product with some biological basis or assuming that lineages should be attributed to the offspring of the family, Levi-Strauss focused on the power of marriage to create powerful and lasting alliances between families.

Criticisms of Lévi-Strauss Structuralism

Like any other social theory, structuralism was not without criticism. Later scholars broke with the rigidity of Lévi-Strauss’ universal structures to take a more interpretive (or hermeneutical) approach to cultural analysis.

Likewise, the emphasis on the underlying structures has potentially obscured the nuances and complexity of lived experience and everyday life. Marxist thinkers also criticized the lack of attention to material conditions, such as economic resources, property and class.

Another critique of structuralism by Lévi-Strauss came from the hand of Clifford Geertz, one of the foremost representatives of symbolic anthropology. Geertz criticized that his doctrine did not take into account historical factors and that he underestimated the emotional dimension of the human being., And wonders about the very possibility of submitting to a closed systematic analysis and in accordance with a few rules the guidelines of conduct and human beliefs of a polymorphic character.

In short, Geertz’s proposal was to deepen local knowledge, which he said helps us connect with each other. According to him, the important thing was not to study whether or not culture has a grammatical meaning or a structure in which man can act, but to know its semiotic meaning.

For Geertz, the human being is an animal embedded in meaningful plots and therefore the question of whether culture is structured behavior or a structure of the mind, or even the two things mixed together, makes no sense.

Bibliographical references:

  • Alexander, JC (2008). Clifford Geertz and the strong program: humanities and cultural sociology. Cultural sociology, 2 (2), 157-168.

  • Lévi-Strauss, C. (1984a): structural anthropology. Editorial Eudeba. Buenos Aires.

  • Lévi-Strauss, C. (1984b): Wild thought. Fund for economic culture. Mexico.

  • Lévi-Strauss, C. (1991a): The elementary structures of kinship. Paidós. Barcelona.

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