Claude Levi Strauss: Biography, Theory & Structuralism

In this article, we would look into the life and contribution of Claude Levi-Strauss in the field of Anthropology and Philosophy. Along with Franz Boas and James G. Frazer, he is considered to be the ‘Father of modern Anthropology’. He is accredited for changing the perception of the Western world about culture and civilization. To understand the man, we need to trace his lifeline, his education, influences, principles, works, and criticisms (he is a mortal, after all!).

Claude Levi Strauss

Education and Sociology

The philosopher and anthropologist were born in Brussels, Belgium in the year 1908. Like many Belgians at the time, he studied in France and attended college at the Sorbonne in Paris studying the subjects of Law and Philosophy. Interestingly as time passed, his interest moved away from law and he swayed towards philosophy solely.

He became a secondary school teacher but his affairs with anthropology and sociology bloomed when he traveled to Sao Paulo University in Brazil as a visiting professor. His wife, Dina, was a professor of ethnology at the university. It was at this point, Claude traveled to the Amazon forest and studied the indigenous tribes of the area.

World War 2 forced him to take arms up to protect his country of France. However, after the capitulation of France in 1941, freed him of his service and moved to New York, USA. There, he taught at the New School for Social Research and at the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes which he co-founded with other French emigrates in New York including Henri Focillon, Jacques Maritain and Roman Jacobson.

In the year 1948, he returned to Paris to receive his doctorate. Professor Claude rose to prominence the next year when he published, ‘The Elementary Structures of Kinship’. This work turned out to be his magnum opus and was revered in the circles of Anthropology (More about the work later).

Influences On His Work: A Prerequisite To His Principles

In order to understand his work, we need to dive into his thinking mechanism. As a student of Philosophy, he went against the contemporary thinking lines of  French philosophers of those times such as Neo-Kantianism, Bergsonism, phenomenology, and existentialism. This propelled him towards sociology and anthropology.

He also rejected Durkheim’s study in a conventional form although, he used Durkheim’s finding in his own study. In the aforementioned study of kinship and exchange in his publication, ‘The Elementary Structures of Kinship’ where he gives an example of inexpensive French restaurants in which low-quality wine is served in equal quantity but not consumed by the person receiving it or the host, interestingly, they fill the glass of the neighbor. This process goes on until everyone has their glasses filled. He referred to this as a ‘social contract’ among the people.

While keeping the concept of a social contract in mind, one can elucidate on two important principles in his work. The first one states that social and cultural life cannot be uniquely explained as a version of functionalism.  In simpler terms, he does not believe that empirical studies prove the intricate nature of the phenomenon being studied and hence, is not an empiricist.

Rather he was a structural anthropologist first, inspired by the ideas of Saussure, which focuses on the elements of a system combine together in contradiction to the intrinsic nature earlier mentioned. Telescoping the concept, it can be worked out to the two notions of ‘difference’ and ‘relation’. Corroboratively, he states that these two notions work in opposite and contradict each other which provides dynamism in the realm of the society.

A controversial aspect of his work has been the scope of his study. Whilst most anthropologists study and limit their studies to their own working area, Strauss applies it universally. This is a caveat in his armor metaphorically speaking. The main criticisms come from the English speaking society.

Notions on Structure, Myth, and Art

Structuralism– Strauss pioneered a branch of anthropology called cultural anthropology. According to this, a culture, which can be viewed as a society, can be better understood in terms of relations within the structure. In this case, i.e., society. Therefore, one should look at the elements making this society to understand it. Some of these elements could be viewed in light with reference to the contours of kinships, patterns in mythology, art, etc.

The study that brought prominence to him as mentioned earlier was regarding Kinship. Strauss elucidated on the fact that the essential structure of kinship, on which all the systems are discovered are the set of four types of organically linked relationships: brother-sister, husband-wife, father-son, and mother’s brother-sister’s son.

According to him, it was not decency or empathy which formed these elements but mere consciousness. Hence, human nature forces us to take the actions we do. He believed that all societies followed these structures but his critics never agreed with him sighting his work is less empirical than required.

Myth Amongst one of his most salient work is his study of Myths. Strauss compares or rather declares Myth to be a separate logic. He states that though Myths are usually are absurd logically, they are very similar and persistent in almost every culture.

Another important thing to note about Myths is that, unlike jokes or fables, a myth’s meaning does not completely get lost in translation. Strauss provides the argument through the structuralism concept by saying that it is the difference and relation concept which plays a part in this.

His primary interest was in these structures present in the myths itself. It is a language itself and is similar to them. According to Levi-Strauss a myth also has its langue which is the synchronous structure which enables the specific parole of a certain myth. While details may vary from myth to myth, the structure remains the same.

He illustrated this by throwing light to binary relations or binary opposites in the Greek play, ‘Oedipus’. The son marrying his mother is one binary event and when Oedipus kills his father is another one. This is the structure he referred to for all myths bringing in the concept of kinship too. The great psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud took inspiration from the play and gave the theory of ‘Oedipus complex’.

Understanding Myths and Rituals in a Structural Context

Myth and ritual have been considered by many to have a strong relationship with each other. Few consider myth to be the theoretical foundation from which rituals originated, while others view rituals as the illustration practices from which myths were born. This correlation has been termed as ‘homology’. However, this relationship which is said to be cause and effect is not evident in a majority of if not all the cases. Thus, the author through examples of rites and myths from North American tribes establishes that such a homology does not necessarily hold in practice. In addition, he also holds that there might exist between rites and myths or even among different rites of other societies, a generalized relationship.

By employing the method used by Roman Jakobson in structural linguistics on analyzing the Pawnee Indian traditions described by G.A.Dorsey, the author analyses the relationship between myth and rituals practiced among the tribes. This method stresses the importance of considering the structure of the society being studied.

For his analysis, the author uses the myth of a pregnant boy. It is a story of a young boy with magical powers to cure diseases and treat people who are visited frequently by an old jealous medicine man accompanied by his wife to learn the secrets of his powers. When the medicine man discovers that he would not obtain any information about the boy’s magic, he eventually tricks the boy to become pregnant by serving some medicinal herbs. The boy, ashamed of being pregnant, leaves the village to a forest to end his life. There, he is pitied by the wild animals who help him by extracting the fetus and teach him their magical powers. Later, the boy comes back with those learned magic powers to kill the evil medicine man and becomes a man of repute in the field of medicine in his village.

The author quotes the oppositions of elements in the myth proposed in Dorsey’s work. The major differences are based on age and sex differentiation. For example, the boy being young represents fertility whereas the medicine man represents sterility given his old age.  Also, differences in magic – whether innate or acquired as well as whether of plant or animal origin – have been made.

By citing the absence of age-based divisions among the tribes, the author tries to explain that there is no link to the myth in real-life of the tribes. Also, unlike the myth, where there seems to be a competition between the medicine man and the boy, the traditions of the Pawnee Indians are in such a way that any master recognizes the abilities of his successors and let them succeed after his death. To further expand the scope of the analysis, the study as includes tribal societies such as Mandan, Hidatsa, etc. where there is an evident age-based division. In such societies, the relations are reversed. For example, the son instead of the father is commonly seen to be accompanied by his wife.

By describing one of the rituals of the Hidatsa tribe where women pay the fertilizing fathers of their child as well as to animals in the different forms of meat. This represents a sign of gratitude towards the fathers, to produce the child and towards the animals (who have powers to destroy the fetus according to the myth) not to cause harm to the child.

The author also suggests the example of a ritual practiced by the Hako tribes to give a new life to children i.e. to recognize the life of the new-born. According to the practice, the child is consecrated by the group through anointings and made to place his feet on a circle drawn on the ground. This is a symbolic practice that the child is the egg inside a nest represented by the circle on the ground. This rite is a representation of the function of fertilization of the child by the couples.

Thus, through the given examples of rites and rituals practiced by the Pawnee Indians as well as the tribes closely located or related to them, the author has established the importance of structural components of the groups in establishing the relationship between myth and rituals.

Art and MasksStrauss also provided an innate view on masks and arts in his study of tribal masks. He states that even masks are an illustration of structural phenomena containing the dynamic and ternary features.

The purpose of the mask is similar to the task of the European cards which play the dual role of contingency, which works as an element in the play whilst also playing a synchronic function as a separate card. This was also the same in the case of masks which played a similar dual role.


Strauss is and was well respected by his peers. However, there were his critics. He was often blamed to state all events in his own structure, being staunch about it. In some of his later works, one can notice that he almost devilishly reasoned the sequences in his structural understanding. This seemed unnatural.

Also, his view of society in singularity also made the academic world question his theories. It is a well-known fact that society is diverse all around the world and to decipher it in such a staunch and rigid scientific method without using empirical evidence as a base did irk a few questions or two.

In the end, we should not look into these criticisms as an attack on his intellect but rather, the evolution of his idea and taking these ideas as a base for further studies. The man is considered a legend and the many theory on masks, societies, structures can be credited to him.


Levi Stauss, C. 1993. “Structure and Dialectics”, in Structural Anthropology
Volume I. Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp. 232-242

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