anthropology · culture

Claude Levi-Strauss dies at 100

I hope I live that long…no, really.

AP Story By Angela Doland

PARIS – Claude Levi-Strauss, widely considered the father of modern anthropology for work that included theories about commonalities between tribal and industrial societies, has died. He was 100.

The French intellectual was regarded as having reshaped the field of anthropology, introducing structuralism — concepts about common patterns of behavior and thought, especially myths, in a wide range of human societies. Defined as the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity, structuralism compared the formal relationships among elements in any given system.

During his six-decade career, Levi-Strauss authored literary and anthropological classics including “Tristes Tropiques” (1955), “The Savage Mind” (1963) and “The Raw and the Cooked” (1964).

Jean-Mathieu Pasqualini, chief of staff at the Academie Francaise, said an homage to Levi-Strauss was planned for Thursday, with members of the society — of which Levi-Strauss was a member — standing during a speech to honor his memory.

France reacted emotionally to Levi-Strauss’ weekend death, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy joining government officials, politicians and ordinary citizens populating blogs with heartfelt tributes.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner praised his emphasis on a dialogue between cultures and said that France had lost a “visionary.” Sarkozy honored the “indefatigable humanist.”

Born on Nov. 28, 1908, in Brussels, Belgium, Levi-Strauss was the son of French parents of Jewish origin. He studied in Paris and went on to teach in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and conduct much of the research that led to his breakthrough books in the South American giant.

Beatriz Perrone Moises, an anthropology professor at the University of Sao Paulo, said “given his age, we were almost expecting this, but still I feel a kind of emptiness.”

“The Brazil he described in “Tristes Tropiques” is a very particular world of the senses and as he himself said there, it was a bit like rediscovering Americans, like the explorers of the 17th century. He often spoke about this emotion, this feeling. (For him,) Brazil that was less about the county itself than about the Brazil of the Indians and the feeling of walking in the footsteps of the 17th century explorers,” Perrone Moises told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Sao Paulo.

Levi-Strauss left France during as a result of the anti-Jewish laws of the collaborationist Vichy regime and during World War II joined the Free French Forces.

Levi-Strauss also won worldwide acclaim and was awarded honorary doctorates at universities, including Harvard, Yale and Oxford, as well as universities in Sweden, Mexico and Canada.

A skilled handyman who believed in the virtues of manual labor and outdoor life, Levi-Strauss was also an ardent music-lover who once said he would have liked to have been a composer had he not become an ethnologist.

He was married three times and had two sons, Matthieu and Laurent.


Malinowski: a forgotten proponent of biological anthropology?

I’ve been taking an anthropological theory class this quarter, and with all the instrumental and influential theorists we’ve looked at so far, I was amazed by one theorist’ take on human society and wondered why I didn’t hear about this stuff in the undergrad theory classes.
He is a strong proponent of the idea of man as an individual and biological creature, and promotes the idea that culture is a construct defined by his biological needs, and in turn man can only be shaped to a certain degree by his culture. This was a a somewhat left-field stance for his time, and it would be considered practically sacreligious to the same cultural anthropologists who swear by his methods (or at least the ones I’m being instructed by this quarter) The theorist: Bronislaw Malinowski.
I was assigned Malinowski as my theorist to present on for the class. He is well known as a landmark ethnographer, and for advocating participant research. He is also considered a leading founder, if not the founder, of functionalism and cultural determinism theories.
Functionalism is pretty much how it sounds: the idea that culture is a social system developed to fill in the biological needs of the individual (these days it refers more to social constructs that fill social needs).
Cultural determinism, however, has come to stand for the “nature” half of the, at least in my opinion, ridiculous argument of nature vs. nurture; the idea that culture solely defines who one is.
Malinowski, however, if you actually read his work, does not go to this extreme. He definitely believes that culture shapes a human, and if you take someone out of their culture they will flounder (Malinowski, 1943:649). But he did not believe that humans were empty jars that culture simply filled up.
“Culture, however, primitive and developed alike, is subject to the laws of physics since human bodies are first and foremost lumps of matter. Hence culture is also largely determined by the biological process within the human body and by the organic needs of man.” (Malinowski 1942:1293)
“We see, thus, that the actual concrete organization of human activities does not follow slavishly or exclusively the functional principles of type activities.” (Malinowski, 1939:946-947).
I think this aspect of Malinowski’s theories has been lost over time, and it is something which should be recognized. Yes, his main point in all of his papers and books and monographs and reviews was that culture shapes humans. Absolutely. But he also acknowledged that humans are humans and will act on their own accord with their own biological will, and even chided Durkheim for recording humans as automatons (Malinowski 1926:4), and Freud for thinking that humans are purely influenced by their culture (Malinowski, 1927:viii).
Hopefully this will make it into my official essay, but if not I at least felt it should get out there.

B. Malinowski, Crime and Custom in Savage Society, Rowman & Littlefield, London (1926).
B. Malinowski, Sex and Repression in Savage Society, Routledge, London (1927).
B. Malinowski, “The Group and the Individual in Functional Analysis,” The American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 44, No. 6 p. 938 (May, 1939).
Bronislaw Malinowski, “A New Instrument for the Interpretation of Law. Especially Primitive,” The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 51, No. 8, p. 1237 (Jun., 1942).
B. Malinowski, “The Pan-African Problem of Culture Contact,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 48, No. 6, p. 649 (1943).