The Claim of Lévi-Strauss

His work is where observations of anthropology are used to support a rule that is universal, a rule that comes from the very structure of the mind, that works itself as a rule into society, that is seen in structures, and which allows society to function. From anthropological surface observation, one goes back to structures, rules and then fundamentals of mentality - oppositions.

In language, much is made of oppositions. Lévi-Strauss was influenced by Jakobsen and the Prague School (structural linguistics). These structural oppositions are also found in society. Structuralism is about such a fundamental classification of oppositions found in language and society. Society does not throw these up, as such (Radcliffe-Brown's naturalism), but they are put into - make - society. So the cosmology (of oppositions) comes first, and only then a particular social system (not the other way round, as in naturalism).

Durkheim and Mauss are key figures, where for them classifying objectifies the lifeworld and gives social solidarity, but they did not go beyond social institutions - social institutions generate values of the necessary function of keeping these institutions together, and from this classification comes. Lévi-Strauss went further and deeper, that social institutions manifested universals.

Reciprocity is of central interest to Lévi-Strauss because it works with oppositions in society. In this we see parallels with Durkheim (mechanical and organic solidarity) and Mauss (reciprocity of exchanges which bring about alliances). There are strong parallels with Noam Chomsky too (who comes later - he uses langauge, Lévi-Strauss uses kinship).

Even myths are unimportant regarding the particularlity of the stories. What matters is the oppositions they deal with and how the narrative pulls matters together. Stories are a very important way for societies to describe themselves and therefore unite themselves.

With oppositions unworked, society would not exist - anything would fall apart with its oppositional contradictions. Structure though involves reciprocity, and reciprocity binds society. Societies have actual structural properties which vary but tackle the fundamental contraditions through opposites.

One does not have to be aware of the fundamental rules - within structural properties - that guide such manifestations of them as reciprocity. These rules come from a fundamental grammar (like hot/ cold, clean/ dirty - dictionaries define words through other words, and we know what is by what it is not - language is ultimately closed to itself): a structure, which though manifested in society, is followed consciously (we are aware of these) or unconsiously (we are not, we don't realise it, but still follow those same rules within the activities we do).

The Social Anthropological Method
Book: The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1969), first published 1949
Lévi-Strauss says reciprocity can be in goods, services; communication; but especially exchanging women. He uses kinship to show the principle of reciprocity. Also the system of kinship shows the movement from nature to culture, a fundamental opposition that presents itself to people together.
To make the system work, ground rules are needed. Rules are effective through taboos. Taboos carry stigma, and so taboos are avoided. One taboo is not to have sexual and reproductive relations with nearest relatives like brothers and sisters. Levi-Strauss finds this prohibition to be universal, though as a system of rules it is cultural (and in this sense is he states it is a "scandal" to the opposition of nature and culture) (see Levis-Strauss, 1969, 8).
The result is that groups and individuals have to find marriage partners from elsewhere. Patterns of relationships between groups can be set up based on the exchange of women as wives to others. The development of such relationships binds society mutually.
Simple kinship systems have positive (must marry) marriage rules...

A positive rule can be restricted (eg sister-exchange, or more complex). A positive rule can be general, so wives are made around a circle of reciprosity (eg mother's brother's daughter, or other circle, and new can come in). A positive rule may involve delayed reciprocity along to the next generation (father's sister's daughter).
Complex kinship systems have no positive marriage rules.

This varies between simple/ complex societies (said Lévi-Strauss), though this can be done as within evolutionary thought, that simple societies may become more complex, in this case positive rules would give way to no rules, except the taboo.
Simple and delayed reciprocity binds two groups and doesn't help bind societies.

Generalised reciprocity might not be equal and egalitarian.
Doing wider exchanges starts relations and culture beyond the immediate family.
Note that Lévi-Strauss did not consider social and economic systems as such. His view where marriage goes around villages is seen not as a clan but alliance theory of social solidarity between villages. Others stress family relationships or descent theory (summarised in Hann, 2000, 218). But others have further questions and positions
Questions others than Lévi-Strauss-Strauss asked...

  • Is this how the people themselves see the rules and actuality reciprocity?
  • Is there a difference between participant and observer in creating the rules?
  • Does what they do actually differ from what they think (Malinowski)?
  • Should Lévi-Strauss imply that recipocity will always follow the form prescriptive conditions determine (Needham) or, as Lévi-Strauss said, actual societies vary
  • How much is Lévi-Strauss reliant on the theory of the unconscious (Frued)?
  • Can pyschological or even more fundamental (universal mathematical??) universals be so demonstrated from social anthropology?
  • How much is Lévi-Strauss ultimately anti-sociological?
  • Isn't kinship a relationship of production (Worsley, Marxist) or relationships of property (Leach)?


The structuralist position says even in the absensce of awareness of the basis rules, these rules are followed. The pattern indeed applies to complex societies too.

Why is this - because observation of surfaces, and finding out rules, takes one back to fundamentals like oppositions and reciprocity in language, and back even to the mind itself and how it is "wired". Lévi-Strauss wants to discover the unversal principles of the human mind.

It's a circular argument. Institutions (like that of marriage) embody the fundamental principles which then work back into the psyche of people because they so reflect the fundamentals in the psyche.

In fact some social anthropologists following on said that the exchange of wives was the exchange of communication, just as all exchange is ultimately communication (Leach, and Leach's student Yalman stated this, though Leach was interested in who was doing the communicating in specific societies. Leach also placed exchanges in their socio-economic context.). The fundamental is communication, it is in the end about language, linguistic structure, the mind. An indication of binary opposition is in the opposites of nature and culture, though as Derrida states this opposition is rendered somewhat meaningless by introducing a concept of the scandal! (Derrida, 1966).

Of course the question is, how much if any of this is true? Is it not a "fallacy" (Overing, Rapport, 2000, 38) to posit that a classification comes first? Is this in any sense provable? Is it a way of trying to make social anthropology, the most literate and artistic (the researcher's eye view, its essay writing, reducing masses of notes down to a meaningful narrative) of social sciences, scientific? Is it not the case that rather than these fundamentals appearing through various outward manifestations that we rather creatively classify on to various areas of social reality. The act of classifying to make sense comes from our own psychological need and requirement to develop culture and communicate (shared understandings). Furthermore these classifications are many and varied, according to how matters want to be ordered, communicated and sense made.

It is important here to stress that the cognitive aspect is still present as with Lévi-Strauss even if rejecting the causal relationship from fundamental binary oppositions. It is a human psychological need to classify, for the sake of boundaries and identity, and a sociological aspect too, but is not limited to the sociological (like the top-down functionalist Durkheim, where the social level generates functional classification - though functionalism can be an aspect of insitutional meaning and classifying). Rather, "making sense" is a sociological and individual activity that can be analysed from a symbolic interaction/ social psychology viewpoint or at least Weberian complexity. Is Social anthropology in the end about giving a descriptive account with some perhaps comparative and analytical features?

Useful quote:
...Lévi-Strauss (1969a) explored the logical-universal life to which he claimed collective systems of classification could be seen to lead. If Chomsky could argue for underlying grammatical structures of which every language and every speech-act might be said to be transformations, then Lévi-Strauss determined that comparably unconscious, deep structures of symbolic classification, albeit now culturally derived, inhabited the minds of socialized individuals. A structural anthropology might chart the vast network of transformations and variations by which the classificatory systems of different cultures and times were linked and the transformatory principles (such as binary opposition) by which this was effected. (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 35)
In other words, languages and sociological outcomes both are but manifestations of deep binary opposition fundamentals!

Kuper, A. (1983), Anthropology and Anthropologists: the Modern British School, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Derrida, J. (1966), 'Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences', originally a lecture, in Rylance, R. (ed.) (1987), Debating Tests: a Reader in 20th Century Literary Theory and Method, Buckingham: Open University Press, 123-136.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963), Structural Anthropology, New York: Basic Books.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966), The Savage Mind, Chicago, Chicago University Press.

(* - 1969a in Overing, Rapport, 2000) Lévi-Strauss, C. (1969), The Elementary Structures of Kinship, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.

Original of (1969): Lévi-Strauss, C. (1949), Les Structures Élémentaires de la Parenté, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Rapport, N., Overing, J. (2000), Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts, London: Routledge.

Hann, C. (2000), Social Anthropology, London: Teach Yourself Books (Hodder and Stoughton).


Written by Adrian Worsfold