Claude Lévi-Strauss was a notorious, internationally recognized French anthropologist and ethnologist who has had a decisive influence on the humanities in the second half of the twentieth century, including being one of the founding figures of structuralist thought. He was born on November 28, 1908 in Brussels (but from French parents) and died in Paris on October 31, 2009 at the age of 100. He has been called, along with James George Frazer and Franz Boas, the “father of modern anthropology.
In the field of social anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss became a leading exponent of structuralism. In this approach to the analysis of human cultures, the assumption is that all human societies develop and order themselves in similar ways. Elements that are common to all cultures are identified and studied. These structural similarities are explored through analysis of elements in various societies including myths, rituals, kinship, and languages.
Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism was an effort to reduce the enormous amount of information about cultural systems to what he believed were the essentials, the formal relationships among their elements. He viewed cultures as systems of communication, and he constructed models based on structural linguistics, information theory, and cybernetics to interpret them.
Lévi-Strauss sought to apply the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure to anthropology. At the time, the family was traditionally considered the fundamental object of analysis, but was seen primarily as a self-contained unit consisting of a husband, a wife, and their children. Nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents all were treated as secondary. Lévi-Strauss argued that, however, akin to Saussure’s notion of linguistic value, families acquire determinate identities only through relations with one another. Thus he inverted the classical view of anthropology, putting the secondary family members first and insisting on analyzing the relations between units instead of the units themselves.
In his own analysis of the formation of the identities that arise through marriages between tribes, Lévi-Strauss noted that the relation between the uncle and the nephew was to the relation between brother and sister, as the relation between father and son is to that between husband and wife, that is, A is to B as C is to D. Therefore if we know A, B, and C, we can predict D, just as if we know A and D, we can predict B and C. The goal of Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, then, was to simplify the masses of empirical data into generalized, comprehensible relations between units, which allow for predictive laws to be identified, such as A is to B as C is to D.
Similarly, Lévi-Strauss identified myths as a type of speech through which a language could be discovered. His work is a structuralist theory of mythology which attempted to explain how seemingly fantastical and arbitrary tales, could be so similar across cultures. Because he believed there was not one “authentic” version of a myth, rather that they were all manifestations of the same language, he sought to find the fundamental units of myth, namely, the mytheme. Lévi-Strauss broke each of the versions of a myth down into a series of sentences, consisting of a relation between a function and a subject. Sentences with the same function were given the same number and bundled together. These are mythemes.
What Lévi-Strauss believed he had discovered when he examined the relations between mythemes was that a myth consists of juxtaposed binary oppositions. Oedipus, for example, consists of the overrating of blood relations and the underrating of blood relations, the autochthonous origin of humans and the denial of their autochthonous origin. Influenced by Hegel, Lévi-Strauss believed that the human mind thinks fundamentally in these binary oppositions and their unification (the thesis, antithesis, synthesis triad), and that these are what make meaning possible. Furthermore, he considered the job of myth to be a sleight of hand, an association of an irreconcilable binary opposition with a reconcilable binary opposition, creating the illusion, or belief, that the former had been resolved.