Study Guide

Claude Lévi-Strauss Buzzwords

Myth

The quick definition: I saw myth as a language that expresses all sorts of cool cultural information. I got deep in my study of myths and am here to tell you that myths all over the world have crazy similarities. I liked to break down myths like a preschooler with a tower of blocks.

In my own words, myths function like language: "Myth cannot simply be treated as language if its specific problems are to be solved; myth is language: to be known, myth has to be told; it is a part of human speech" (source). That means that all myths have their basic building blocks in common, and they're arranged with a universal kind of logic.

Mythography

I liked to think of myself as an anthropologist, structuralist, and mythographer—that's someone who's into mythography, the study of myths and rituals. To me, myths are all about opposites, which we then try to resolve—like turning black and white into gray. Myths help cultures overcome oppositions; just take a look at how many I mentioned in my great read The Raw and the Cooked.

Some of my fave oppositions were East and West; Upper World and Lower World; Land-hunting and Sea-hunting; and Patrilocal cultures (male-oriented) and Matrilocal cultures (female-oriented). Central to my idea about mythology was that you could only understand the myth of one culture by comparing it to the myth of another culture.Throughout the world, cultures are made up of binaries, and these binaries are for the most part universal. It's only by studying things in a global context that we can hope to understand these universals.

Binary Oppositions

Structuralism—and for me, specifically Structural Anthropology—is all about binary oppositions, so you have to get this one down. I'm gonna shoot straight here. What is culture made of? Culture is full of oppositions that eventually have to come to terms with each other. So, all cultures are made up of the same oppositions: good and evil, young and old, male and female, nature and culture, raw and cooked (one of my favorites).

Not only do all cultures have these oppositions, but all cultures also see one opposite as better than the other (like good is better than bad). We can understand one half of the binary only by understanding the other half. We understand ideas through contrast. "Good" doesn't mean anything if it there's no "bad" to compare it to.

My job as a Structural Anthropologist is to understand exactly what meanings come out of these oppositions—and what happens when they break down.

Kinship

My first bestseller (sort of) was The Elementary Structures of Kinship, which laid out the observations I had made during my fieldwork. It started as a doctoral thesis, so there's hope for everyone fighting the good fight.

Anyway, rules of kinship were crucial to my study of culture. I looked at how family members (kin) interacted, what their roles where, and what those roles told me about that particular culture. My focus was on father, brother (and son), and sister. Forget Mom—she doesn't usually have any power.

Here's what matters: How fathers or brothers chose to marry off daughters/sisters determined how families made connections with other families, and it also determined how political bonds formed within the culture in a sort of dynasty-like fashion. So in kinship structures women were really important— to the extent that they served to connect different families and allow favorable mergers to happen.

(Oh, and what sister/daughter wanted didn't matter—this was a business transaction. You get the idea.)

Incest Taboo

Nobody is doing it. Got it? Incest is against the rules in every single culture. Anthropologists had long argued that incest would eventually drive the human species into the ground, because the offspring of incest isn't usually all that healthy. So they thought that cultures banned incest because of its bad physical results.

Characteristically, I had my own theory. Here's my idea: people don't commit incest, because they just feel in their guts that it's wrong, wrong, wrong. (And here I would recommend that you read a Faulkner novel if you don't believe me—start with The Sound and the Fury.) I claimed that this innate disgust was just a universal feeling. It wasn't based on conscious interest in good breeding.

On top of that, you have to marry outside of the family, or you can't build your clan. So there's a double-whammy for you.

Taboo

Look, Sigmund Freud is your real go-to guy for the study of taboos, but I was into this topic, too. Back in the day, we couldn't get enough of the idea that all cultures shared an aversion to certain things—like killing and eating people (especially family members), incest (my favorite taboo), murdering your parents, and stuff like that. It's all about those universals for me.