Claude Lévi-Strauss is the father of structural anthropology, a field which combines the methods and theories of anthropology with those of linguistics and psychoanalysis. His book Structuralism and Ecology is a seminal work in the development of this school of thought. In it, Lévi-Strauss outlines the fundamental tenets of structuralist anthropology, as well as its relationship to ecology.
The work of Lévi-Strauss had a profound impact on anthropology, with several anthropologists developing his concepts further in subsequent years.
The basic tenets of Structuralism
Some of the most important ideas put forth by Lévi-Strauss in Structuralism and Ecology are the following:
- that all cultures are based on a series of binary oppositions;
- that these oppositions are not static, but rather are constantly changing and evolving;
- that culture is best understood as a system of signs and symbols;
- that all cultures are interrelated, and that our understanding of one culture can be enhanced by our understanding of others.
The use of hermeneutics in anthropology
Structuralists believed that folk stories, religious stories, and fairy tales were a good way to identify universal human structures. These stories showed how people thought in terms of binary oppositions. For example, in the story of Cinderella, some of the contrasts include good versus evil, pretty versus ugly, clean versus dirty, etc. This focus led to the use of a particular methodology called hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the study of how to interpret the meaning of written works.
These ideas have been extremely influential in the development of anthropological thought. They have led to further research on the relationships between culture and ecology. Additionally, they have also helped to shape our understandings of the role of culture in human societies.
Criticism of structuralism
That said, there has been considerable criticism of structural anthropology because of the assumptions that structuralism makes about knowledge and theory. The argument is that the explanations offered by structuralists are not valid because their methods are imprecise and rely on the observer’s point of view.
Furthermore, critics argue that structuralism is a way of thinking about people and their minds. It doesn’t focus on how culture changes over time, which is problematic because it does not take into account how individuals act differently at different points in history. In fact, many anthropologists have criticized structuralism for its lack of concern with human individuality. Cultural relativists, in particular, criticize this perspective. They believe that structural “rationality” depicts human thought as being uniform and invariable.
Recommendations for further study
If you’re interested in learning more about Claude Lévi-Strauss and his work, I would highly recommend reading Structuralism and Ecology. It’s a fascinating book that provides a great overview of his ideas and their impact on anthropology. Additionally, there are many other excellent books and articles written by structural anthropologists that are well worth reading.
Other notable structural anthropologists include Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, and Pierre Bourdieu. These thinkers have all made significant contributions to the field of anthropology, and their work is essential reading for anyone interested in this area of study.
So, what do you think? Is structuralism a valuable approach to anthropology and what do you think of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s ideas? Do you think they’re still relevant today? Let me know in the comments!
For Further Reading
- What are the key components of the anthropological perspective?
- “Cultural values are a web of linked concepts, fixed in time and space.”
- Evans-Pritchard and the Religion of the Nuer Tribe
- How do economic and residence practices impact women’s status and power?
- What are the different marriage wealth-exchange practices?
- Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Structuralism and its Influence on Anthropological Thought
- Clifford Geertz and the Thick Description of the Balinese Cockfight
- Bronislaw Malinowski, the Trobriand people and the Kula
- Why did Marxist ideas only start being applied in Anthropology in the last half century, and what are some of the key ideas that influence Materialistic Anthropology?
- Dance as Ritual – an anthropological perspective
- How Residence Customs After Marriage Vary Around the World
- Compare the operations and implications of Bridewealth and Dowry
- The impact of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) on Anthropology
- “The two-gender system is neither innate nor universal” (Towle and Morgan 2006)
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