Study Guide

Claude Lévi-Strauss Quotes

If we judge the achievements of other social groups in relation to the kind of objectives we set ourselves, we have at times to acknowledge their superiority; but in doing so we acquire the right to judge them, and hence to condemn all their other objectives which do not coincide with those we approve of. We implicitly acknowledge that our society with its customs and norms enjoys a privileged position, since an observer belonging to another social group would pass different verdicts on the same examples. [From Tristes Tropiques]

Ah… cultural relativism. So many anthropologists spent their entire careers judging other cultures from their ivory towers, thinking that their own Western civilization was somehow way superior. I say that's no way to run a cultural study. If you come into the bush or the rainforest or whatever to observe a tribe, leave your prejudices at the arched entry of the grass hut.

We cannot say that the way they do everything is inferior to the way we do everything. Each culture will do some things differently and other things not so differently. Some achievements may seem better and others worse, but it's all pretty relative. How a culture is judged all depends on the person doing the judging. What do you think the Ajurú people of Roraima would think of strip malls? 'Nuff said.

Natural man did not precede society, nor is he outside it. [From Tristes Tropiques]

As a cultural anthropologist, I study the ways people live, including their rituals and customs, their bonds and relations. You probably know this already, but it's not like humans just arrived on Earth, and culture was waiting for us like a movie set. People made culture through decisions, actions, customs, and structures over time. In short, society is manmade, and as it changes and evolves, it continues to reflect the way people live over time. Culture would not exist without people, nor would people exist without culture.

On the one hand it would seem that in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen. […] But on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions. Therefore the problem: If the content of myth is contingent [i.e., arbitrary], how are we to explain the fact that myths throughout the world are so similar? [From Structural Anthropology]

One of my big things is universalism. I see universal qualities—or "structures"—across cultures from the four corners of the globe. What gives? Shouldn't anything be able to happen in a myth? Aren't there an infinite variety of stories to tell? How does this repetition occur?

Without getting into conspiracy theories, I argue that even though "anything" can happen in a myth or story, many of the same things happen in myths from San José to the Upper Volta. Things are just not as random as they should be given all of the differences among the people of the world.

If you looked at myths from vastly cultures, you would find the same structures: the hero and the villain; the punishment of evil; the happy ending. To quote the famous cartoonist and theme park mogul, Walt Disney, "It's a small world, after all."

The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited […] Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual "bricolage" [...] Like "bricolage" on the technical plane, mythical reflection can reach brilliant unforeseen results on the intellectual plane. [From The Savage Mind]

Before you run to get some Advil, hear me out. The gist of this discussion is that the mind works by bringing together ideas from many different sources. A "bricoleur" (one who makes bricolage) is what you may call a "tinkerer" or an "artisan." So this bricoleur conducts manual labor, drawing upon the materials at his disposal—you know, plastic parts or twigs, mold cavities or pebbles.

Whatever the materials, the bricoleur is a manufacturer, working on the "technical plane." Then you have the engineer or designer who works on the "intellectual plane." The tinkerer is more closely associated with "the savage mind," and is just more of a simple, hands-on person.

Cooking is a language — sometimes it seems that so much of the work we do as consumers is to read and translate it. But as with cooking itself, decoding food discourse is better — easier to digest — with the right tools. [From The Raw and the Cooked]

Studying people means studying food, amirite? People get hungry out in that moist tangly jungle. For simplicity's sake, I divided food up into the categories of "raw" and "cooked" as a way of designating nature versus culture.

All cultures have to manage this struggle between nature and culture. Nature ("raw") is associated with instinct and the body, while culture ("cooked") is associated with reason and the mind, among other things.

I use the tools of structuralism to understand what food means in culture. So here's the cute and useful metaphor that comes out of all of this: when I refer to "cooking," I am referring to the process of socialization or culture-making. So I'm not saying all cultures eat the same things; I'm saying all cultures transform raw materials into cultural matter.