Claude Levi-Strauss: Biography, Theory & Structuralism

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  • 0:04 Who Is Claude Levi-Strauss?
  • 0:28 Biography
  • 1:32 Structural Anthropology
  • 2:53 Myth and Kinship
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
Claude Levi-Strauss is one of the most famous anthropologists who ever lived. In this lesson, we'll talk about his life and legacy as well as his contributions to the theory of structuralism, the idea that human thought and culture are made up of universal patterns.

Who Is Claude Levi-Strauss?

When you think about all the people in the world and how different we all seem, do ever wonder about the similarities? What a Londoner, a tribal person from the Amazon, and a person from Nepal might have in common as far as their culture? Claude Levi-Strauss was interested in this very notion.

Claude Levi-Strauss was a French philosopher, social scientist, and one of the founding fathers of anthropology. Let's take a look at his life and legacy.

Biography

Born in Belgium in 1908, Levi-Strauss was moved to France and grew up there. He received his graduate training at the Sorbonne in Paris. Originally a student of philosophy, Levi-Strauss grew more interested in anthropology.

While studying in France, he traveled to the Brazilian Amazon, where he became fascinated by culture, one of anthropology's most abiding interests. His interest in culture would lead to publications that ultimately made him one of the most famous academics of the twentieth century.

However, upon returning to France, Levi-Strauss took a break from anthropology to fight with the French Army during World War II. Following the end of the war and France's defeat, there was increasing discrimination against Jewish people in France, which ultimately prompted Levi-Strauss to flee to the U.S., where he ended up in New York City.

Levi-Strauss held academic positions at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He returned to France in the late 1940s and held positions at some of France's most prestigious institutions. He died in France at the age of 100.

Let's talk more about his legacy and intellectual contributions.

Structural Anthropology

Levi-Strauss was very influenced by linguistics, or the study of language, and wondered how this might be useful for understanding culture and society. He saw culture as a pattern, very similar to language. Just like language is a collections of words, culture is like a collection of different symbols.

Levi-Strauss was interested in how these different symbols are related to one another. These symbols don't mean very much individually, but when combined, they form a pattern that is meaningful.

Levi-Strauss became one of the most prominent figures in structuralism, which suggests that there are universal patterns to human thought and culture; that there are universal structures that basically underlie all human actions and social life.

Levi-Strauss felt that culture is composed of hidden rules that give it meaning. The job of an anthropologist is to uncover these rules. How do we do this? According to Levi-Strauss, it's through the concept of binary oppositions. He believed that all human thought works by thinking through binaries, or opposites. Take a few examples:

  • man, woman
  • death, life
  • morning, night
  • raw, cooked

These oppositional structures are universal patterns that make up human thought. Levi-Strauss thought that all cultures think like this. And, these binaries only make sense in relation to one another. In other words, 'morning' only has meaning to us when we think about its opposite, 'night'.

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