Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Graduated in Philosophy, the thinker Claude Lévi-Strauss was an exponent of ethnological studies and contributed decisively to the consolidation of anthropological studies.


Claude Lévi-Strauss, born in 1909 in Brussels to French parents, is undoubtedly the anthropologist whose work had the greatest influence in the 20th century. He received his doctorate in 1931 and, in 1935, accepted the chair of Sociology at the University of São Paulo. In Brazil, he completed his training as an anthropologist with several ethnological expeditions.

At first, Lévi-Strauss wished to escape the academicism that marked much of French thought at the beginning of the 20th century. His intention was to seek new theoretical references applicable to the understanding of the human being and his condition.

This information is important as it allows the understanding of the researcher’s career interested in postulating a rationality inherent to men’s forms of relationship. From this philosophical background, an interest in thinking about human societies was born, not only in historical or biological terms, but also in their human condition in universal terms.

Its name is inseparable from what was called, after it, structural anthropology . Structural anthropology is, first of all, a method of original knowledge, forged in the treatment of particular problems of a discipline, but whose object is, in principle, so vast and its fruitfulness so remarkable that this method soon exerted an influence far beyond the field of research that saw him born.

Anthropologies and structural anthropology

At first, this scholar turned to Malinowski’s functionalist anthropology, imagining finding there a form of generalizing systematization about human behavior. The idea of ​​function in the cultural elaborations of men, in the need to understand the cultural values ​​arising from the practical survival needs of human groups, animated the young Lévi-Strauss.

However, his reading of psychoanalysis and linguistic texts led him to question the idea that all cultural elaboration obeyed concrete interests – as believed in functional anthropology. For Lévi-Strauss, unconscious elements could also operate in the universe of culture and act as a conditioning structure of social life.

With that, he questioned the hierarchies elaborated so far regarding the advanced and primitive societies. For this intellectual, the classifications used biological and historical criteria to point out a sense of evolution of the human being that, perhaps, was not the most intelligent for a broader understanding of the human condition.

The “primitive” societies and the so-called “advanced” societies could be studied as long as it was understood that the differences in the forms of cultural expression hid common structures. Thus, there would be no hierarchy of human communities pointed out by the anthropology of the time, but different ways of expressing the same structure.

In this respect, the anthropology proposed by Lévi-Strauss moves away from the “empiricism” that had characterized the functionalist proposal and rejects the idea that culture would be a simple act of conscience that aimed at performing a specific function. He criticizes Malinowski’s assertion that deals with the functions of cultural elements corresponding to the “organic needs for food, protection and reproduction”. The fundamental notion adopted by Lévi-Strauss expresses that unconscious purposes are as relevant as the conscious ones. The way open for the understanding of this unconscious universe and for the opening of the unconscious structures common to men would be in the study of language, in its structuring.

Claude Lévi-Strauss had already pointed out notions developed by the American scholar Kroeber, who affirmed unconscious origins of human activities and behaviors as structuring operations of social life observable in language.

In his structural anthropological theory, he points out the value of this language and its study for understanding the structures underlying the varied cultural expressions that, altered in shape, varying from human community to human community, express a common content.

In other words, Lévi-Strauss puts the structure as a kind of substance common to men, regardless of their belonging to this or that community. The variations of this common substrate (specific cultural expressions) would represent “adjectives”, qualifications that would not, at any time, lose sight of the structural substance to which they are linked.

A concrete study

These theoretical propositions by Lévi-Strauss were accompanied by ethnography and ethnological studies and the fundamental work produced in this regard is known as The elementary structures of kinship . His working hypothesis was not restricted to establishing a case study, on the contrary, it encompassed several studies and instituted comparisons so that “patterns” could be verified. Such “standards” would inform the common structure of functioning of the studied societies. Thus, Lévi-Strauss carried out comparative analyzes of various kinship systems, interested in finding possible constants, regardless of specific (particular) socio-cultural contexts.

In Brazil, the anthropologist carried out ethnological studies, although his main interest was to trace a speculative anthropology with the comparison of case studies, also taking advantage of other field works not produced by himself. Thus, his work, however philosophical, was anchored in solid work with human groups.

Comparative observation led Lévi-Strauss to consider that the prohibition of incest, a practically universal norm among human communities, concerned a structure linked not to a moral or biological issue, but to a character of “exchange” (concept borrowed from French anthropologist Marcel Mauss) in which family clans would not remain closed in on themselves, but could establish kinship relationships that would prevent dangerous isolation. This regulatory prohibition of marriages would be the first element in the transition from the natural (instinctive) dimension to the cultural dimension and, in this, there would be no guiding conscience, but an unconscious intentionality.

For Lévi-Strauss, the circulation of women through marriage represented a form of communication, like language itself. Both marriage and language were considered a communication system for the integration of groups. In this sense, they acted as a complex, with a homology between two orders of phenomena.

According to Lévi-Strauss, on page 73 of the same work: “By extending the notion of communication to include exogamy and the rules that result from the prohibition of incest, we can shed some light on a still mysterious issue, that of the origin of language. Compared to language, the rules of marriage form a complex system of the same type as it, but more crude, and in which a good number of archaic features, common to both, are preserved ”.

Anthropology, structure and history

For this anthropologist, logical structures would represent the human being’s ontological condition. In that sense, reality would not be in history, but in that structure, an undifferentiated background of mental structures, an innate psyche of men on the basis of which different cultures developed following the requirements of each human social organization. This was called “conceptual realism” in the work of Lévi-Strauss.

Thus, while a historian could favor the study of processes of transformation, of change in history, highlighting the idea of ​​a rupture, an anthropologist should pay attention to relations of continuity, of structure, of conditions that could be expressed historically in different ways, but which, fundamentally, would keep constant revealing of structural permanence.

The basic difference was in focus, since, for the historian, historical processes would configure a transforming meaning of human life, whereas, for a structuralist anthropologist, history would serve to show not the transformation, but the constancy of certain structures in human life. It is as if there is a “human spirit” that remains unchanged throughout history.

The wild thought

For Lévi-Strauss, wild thinking was not pre-logical and “primitive” in the sense of being less evolved. Its structuralist notion puts wild thinking endowed with logical meaning in the place where the “human spirit” is already expressed. In this way, he made a strong criticism of classificatory criteria related to the rationality of certain peoples. Wild thinking refers to non-domesticated thinking, but it is not for that reason inferior. It concerns human nature, its ontological character, based on a basic psyche and common to all human beings, informing an essential character that, despite the historical variations of externalization, is fundamentally the same.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

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