Structuralism and the Works of Levi Strauss

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  • 0:03 Structuralism Defined
  • 1:21 Binary Opposition
  • 2:31 Marriage & Kinship
  • 4:18 Works and Criticisms
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will give a brief overview of structuralism and the works of Claude Levi-Strauss. In doing this, it will highlight the concept of culture, binary oppositions, and the basic structures of kinship.

Structuralism Defined

Today's lesson on structuralism and the works of Levi-Strauss has the potential to be a doozy. First, structuralism is an approach used to analyze culture that could take an entire semester of study. Second, Claude Levi-Strauss, the guy who many consider the developer of structuralism, has some really outspoken critics.

With this in mind, we're going to try to keep this lesson as simple as possible. When we're finished, there are two things I'd like for you to have learned: first, what structuralism is; second, Levi-Strauss is the guy usually credited with its development. If we can get these two down, I think we can say 'job done.'

Now onto some of the more nebulous subject stuff.

As a means of analyzing culture, or the set of learned behaviors and ideas that characterize a society, structuralism, and of course, Levi-Strauss as its developer, asserts that human culture is just an expression of the underlying structures of the human mind. Trying to state this more plainly, we could say that Strauss's structuralism asserts humans act as we do, not because of where we live or other social factors, but because of the actual structure of the human mind.

Binary Opposition

Adding to this, he'd argue that the mind of the savage - this is Levi-Strauss' term and is definitely not generally accepted today - has the same structure of those who consider themselves civilized.

Using an extremely simple example, he'd say humans like to eat meat cooked, not because our culture tells us to, but because our mind's structure determined that cooked meat is the way to go!

With his belief in structuralism, Levi-Strauss added that there are certain universals that can apply to all human cultures. For example, whether 'savage' or civilized, most will choose cooked over rare.

Levi-Strauss also claimed that the structure of the human mind leads all humans to think in terms of binary opposition, or simply stated, the contrasts between two opposite things. For instance, there is hot and cold. However, in order to understand what hot is, the human mind must experience cold. Similarly, there is dark and light. Again, in order to define dark, the human mind has to understand its opposite, light.

Marriage and Kinship

With much of his work in structuralism focusing on family relationships, Levi-Strauss used the concept of binary opposition to explain marriage and marriage taboos. For instance, almost all, if not all, cultures feel that marriage between blood siblings is a big no-no. To Levi-Strauss, the root of this belief is not found in some sort of ethical system or some Puritanical belief in right or wrong. Instead, it's simply a product of the human mind's propensity to classify things as good or bad.

Taking it a step further, some structuralists, including Levi-Strauss, would argue that the human mind recognizes the need for different cultures to intermarry in order to create cooperation among groups of people. This cooperation will then lead to human life continuing. Stated simply, it might be easy to kill the guy from the neighboring tribe. However, once that guy marries your sister and they have kids, it's much harder to kill your sister's husband and your nephew's dad!

If everyone married their siblings, this cooperation of sorts would not occur. Therefore, the human mind uses binary opposition to structure incestual marriage as bad and marrying outside the brother/sister, mother/father family as good.

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