Study Guide

Claude Lévi-Strauss Influences

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Structural Linguistics

It's no secret that I didn't get my ideas from scratch. I had a lot of influences, models, and forebears to help me hone my particular brand of social anthropology. One school of thought that struck me like a welcome bolt from the blue was Structural Linguistics. See, according to Structural Linguistics, all languages share universal qualities or structures, and I found this model of language very useful for studying cultures.

Why is that?

Well, first, languages and cultures are both meant to communicate ideas. Structural Linguistics looks at language for fundamental structures and relationships to other words. We express ourselves through groups of words, just as cultures express themselves through groups of people. Stay with me.

Words have meaning in relation to other words—because words are all different, and they only make sense within the larger system of language. I took this idea and argued that groups of people express themselves through difference, too. So to me, the most important unit of kinship is husband and wife, not parent and child, because husband and wife make meaning by being different—you know, because they're from different families.

Linguistic Anthropology

So just to riff off of some of the firecrackers I let off in the paragraph above, I want to elaborate on how language—and this field we call Linguistic Anthropology—helped me get at some of my juiciest arguments.

You may have noticed by now that I'm really into patterns, and I'm really into social relationships. I took the ideas of language and the relational differences among words to understand family structures. Words have meaning in relation to other words—because words are all different, and they only make sense within the larger system of language. We understand what the word "fast" means only because we have the word "slow" to compare it to.

I say that the same is true of families. Family members are individuals because they are different from one another. The family itself is like a language—all of the individual parts are unique, but they're also all related. I got really clever when I referred to incest in Structural Anthropology as "bad grammar" (Structural Anthropology, London: Allen Lane, 1967, p. 27) implying that it's the family-as-language thing gone very, very wrong. Clever, eh?

Franz Boas

The German refugee had a huge influence on me. Our long chats in the faculty dining hall at The New School were formative for me when I was just a fresh-faced French structuralist.

What exactly did he do for me, you may ask? Well, he introduced me to the idea of cultural relativism. The main idea of that goes something like that: "Guess what? Western culture isn't the end-all, be-all."

Franz helped me see the light that the guy with the bone in his nose is just as important as an iconic guy with the dusty white wig like George Washington. We can't go judging other people's cultures as primitive or inferior just because they aren't like us. We all struggle with death, religion, fear, and survival—just in different ways.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This French Enlightenment thinker was sharp as a cookie. Way back in the 18th century, this guy was talking about how society creates inequality among people through its structures. Social inequality isn't a natural phenomenon.

Rousseau pointed to things like the division of property and resources. If your neighbor has much more than you, that might make you jealous, which could lead to hatred and resentment… and maybe even some crime and bloodshed. So much for civil society, eh?

It might help to know that before Rousseau made these rather disturbing revelations, everyone was happily going along with the idea cooked up by René Descartes 100 years earlier that man was innately reasonable. Not when his neighbor has a lot more, says Rousseau. Then reason goes out the window.

So how did Rousseau influence me? He revealed that the biggest concern of the anthropologist is the transformation of nature to culture. And out in that Brazilian jungle, it occurred to me that the idea that it's natural for one group of people to rule over another group of people is an idea cooked up by the ruling class. Inequality among people isn't natural—but it does seem to be universal.


I spent a lot of time around cannibals. Hey, just because they like to have their friends over for dinner, that doesn't make them a bad bunch. I must confess, though, that after spending enough time in the Amazon rainforest, I did become vegetarian, and I famously said that we would one day look back on our own meat-eating habits in the same way we look upon cannibals:

"A day will come when the thought that to feed themselves, men of the past raised and massacred living beings and complacently exposed their shredded flesh in displays shall no doubt inspire the same repulsion as that of the travellers of the 16th and 17th century facing cannibal meals of savage American primitives in America, Oceania or Africa." (Nous Sommes Tous des Cannibales. Paris: La Librairie du XXIe siècle, 2012)

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