Authors: Claude Lévi-Strauss

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French anthropologist

Identity: Jewish

Author Works


La Vie familiale et sociale des Indiens Nambikwara, 1948

Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, 1949 (The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1969)

Introduction à l’œuvre de Marcel Mauss, 1950 (Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, 1987)

Race et histoire, 1952 (Race and History, 1958)

Tristes tropiques, 1955 (A World on the Wane, 1961; better known as Tristes Tropiques)

Anthropologie structurale, 1958 (Structural Anthropology, 1963)

Leçon inaugurale, 1960 (The Scope of Anthropology, 1967)

Entretiens avec Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1961 (George Charbonnier, editor; Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1969)

Le Totémisme aujourd’hui, 1962 (Totemism, 1963)

La Pensée sauvage, 1962 (The Savage Mind, 1966)

Mythologiques, 1964-1971 (Introduction to a Science of Mythology, 1969-1981; includes Le Cru et le cuit [The Raw and the Cooked], Du miel aux cendres [From Honey to Ashes], L’Origine des manieres de table [The Origin of Table Manners], and L’Homme nu [The Naked Man])

Anthropologie structurale II, 1973 (Structural Anthropology, Volume Two, 1976)

La Voie des masques, 1975 (2 volumes; The Way of the Masks, 1982)

Myth and Meaning: Five Talks for Radio, 1978

Le Regard éloigné, 1983 (The View from Afar, 1985)

Paroles données, 1984 (Anthropology and Myth: Lectures, 1951-1982, 1987)

La Potière jalouse, 1985 (The Jealous Potter, 1988)

De près et de loin, 1988 (with Didier Eribon; interviews)

Histoire de Lynx, 1991 (The Story of Lynx, 1995)

Regarder, écouter, lire, 1993 (Look, Listen, Read, 1997)

Saudades do Brasil, 1994 (Saudades do Brasil: A Photographic Memoir, 1995)


Claude Lévi-Strauss (lay-vee strohs) not only founded structuralism but also affected Western thought as few people have done since World War II. He is one of France’s treasured thinkers, but he is as much a figure belonging to the world as to one country. This universality is appropriate to an anthropologist, and because of the circumstances surrounding Lévi-Strauss’s youth and family, there would seem few people better suited to this occupation. Lévi-Strauss was born in Brussels, Belgium, on November 28, 1908, to Raymond Lévi-Strauss and his wife, Emmy Lévy. In 1914 the family left Belgium and moved to Versailles, France, where they lived with Raymond’s father, a rabbi. The move put Claude into a doubly alien environment, French and Jewish, and he lived with this sense of otherness while he received his education. Lévi-Strauss studied philosophy and law at the Sorbonne in Paris from 1927 to 1932. In 1934, following two years of teaching in a lycée, Lévi-Strauss received an appointment to the University of São Paulo, Brazil, where he taught as a professor of sociology until 1937. Following the end of his appointment, Lévi-Strauss stayed in Brazil until 1939. During this time, Lévi-Strauss decided that he wanted to be an ethnologist and was able to make two trips into the Brazilian interior to do fieldwork. As a result of his studies, Lévi-Strauss not only published his first work but also developed the sense of the binary opposition of “inside-outside” that would lead him into much of his most important work.{$I[AN]9810000948}{$I[A]Lévi-Strauss, Claude[Levi Strauss, Claude]}{$I[geo]BELGIUM;Lévi-Strauss, Claude[Levi Strauss, Claude]}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Lévi-Strauss, Claude[Levi Strauss, Claude]}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Lévi-Strauss, Claude[Levi Strauss, Claude]}{$I[tim]1908;Lévi-Strauss, Claude[Levi Strauss, Claude]}

Lévi-Strauss was forced to flee France during the German occupation and arrived in the United States in 1941 to begin work at the New School for Social Research in New York City. The time spent in New York was crucial to Lévi-Strauss’s founding of structural anthropology, because it was there that he began to work with linguist Roman Jakobson. Jakobson introduced Lévi-Strauss to structural linguistics, in which method Lévi-Strauss recognized a system of analysis that could be applied to the study of human culture at large. Out of this realization came not only the beginnings of a structural approach to anthropology but also the genesis of the entire structuralist movement. The human mind, Lévi-Strauss theorized, worked by regarding the world in terms of binary oppositions, the most famous being the opposition between “raw” and “cooked,” but also between female/male, animal/human, nature/culture, them/us, outside/inside, and so on. Mythology, he argued, works by attempting to propose a mediation between unmediable oppositions: monstrous creatures such as centaurs or werewolves mediate between human and animal by creating a creature that is part animal, part human, or that alternates between human and animal form. Most important for mythological studies, Lévi-Strauss believed that the quest for an “original” form of a mythological narrative that was somehow better or truer due to its age was a false pursuit; all variants of the myth, he stated, must be accounted for in an analysis, and later versions were as significant as early ones. Thus, his analysis of the Oedipus myth encompassed not only Sophocles’ play, written in Greece around 425 b.c.e., but also Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theories, proposed in late nineteenth century Vienna.

Lévi-Strauss lived in the United States until 1947, during which time he taught at Barnard College and then served as cultural attaché to the French embassy in Washington, D.C. This period saw the flowering of Lévi-Strauss’s intellectual relationship with Jakobson, and Lévi-Strauss continued to explore the links between a structural approach to linguistics and a structural approach to anthropology. One of the fruits of this exploration was the article “L’Analyse structurale en linguistique et en anthropologie” (structural analysis in linguistics and in anthropology), in the linguistics journal Word, in 1945. In 1947 Lévi-Strauss became editor of the French anthropology journal L’Homme, also as a result of his explorations.

Lévi-Strauss returned to France in 1948, where he served as adjunct director of the Musée de l’Homme, earned his degree doctorat ès lettres, and published two books, La Vie familiale et sociale des Indiens Nambikwara (the family and social life of the Nambikwara Indians) and The Elementary Structures of Kinship. In 1950 he was appointed to a teaching position in the École des Hautes Études, where he stayed for the next nine years. The publication of Race and History and Tristes Tropiques added to his reputation, but Structural Anthropology, appearing in 1958, established Lévi-Strauss as one of the leading anthropologists of his generation. Lévi-Strauss’s contribution to his discipline was rewarded in 1959 by his appointment to the chair of social anthropology at the Collège de France. There, he continued to publish at a rapid rate, often as a result of debates with his contemporaries, including a protracted debate with Jean-Paul Sartre about structuralism. Lévi-Strauss’s collaboration with Jakobson, “Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Les Chats,’” also provoked controversy, some readers hailing it as a landmark application of structuralist methodology to literary analysis, others dismissing it as a barren exercise.

Between 1962 and 1971, Lévi-Strauss published six major works. Totemism and The Savage Mind were published in 1962. Within these nine years, Lévi-Strauss also completed Introduction to a Science of Mythology, his four-volume study of the myths of American Indian cultures, which includes The Raw and the Cooked, From Honey to Ashes, The Origin of Table Manners, and The Naked Man. Widely translated, these books aroused interest among scholars in many different fields and introduced structural anthropology to the general reader, making Lévi-Strauss one of the most influential intellectual figures of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Lévi-Strauss has continued his anthropological works since Mythologiques (translated as Introduction to a Science of Mythology) with such anthropological treaties as Le Regard éloigné, 1983 (published as The View from Afar in 1985), the textbook Comparative Mythology (1988) and Histoire de Lynx, 1991 (The Story of Lynx, 1995).

In 1973 Lévi-Strauss, who bore honorary degrees from such institutions as the University of Oxford, Yale University, the University of Brussels, and Columbia University, was elected to the French Academy, the most prestigious academic award given by the French government. Such honors did not slow his intellectual activities, though, and in that same year he completed his second volume of Structural Anthropology. Lévi-Strauss’s legacy as a thinker is an ambiguous one. During the period of its greatest influence, structuralism promised to bring rigor to the human sciences. All human symbolic systems, it was said, ranging from kinship systems and creation myths to sophisticated literary works, could be analyzed with methods taken from linguistics. This ambition has largely been discredited. Meanwhile, a growing body of scholarship devoted to Lévi-Strauss’s own work has shown that he was a poet and a moralist in his analysis of non-European cultures at least as much as he was a scientist. Indeed, the strongest impression left by Lévi-Strauss’s later work is his detestation of modern Western civilization and his sorrow over the disappearance of many unique cultures under the onslaught of Western technology. Lévi-Strauss died at age 100 in Paris, France on October 30, 2009.

BibliographyBoon, James A. From Symbolism to Structuralism: Lévi-Strauss in a Literary Tradition. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. Carries the stated approval of Lévi-Strauss himself.Champagne, Roland. Claude Lévi-Strauss. New York: Twayne, 1987. A clear introduction to both Lévi-Strauss and structuralism.Geertz, Clifford. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988. Geertz assesses the life of Lévi-Strauss briefly but decisively in his chapter.Henaff, Marcel. Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Making of Structural Anthropology. Translated by Mary Baker. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. A balanced account of Lévi-Strauss’s theories and anthropological work, presenting both his important insights and drawbacks.Johnson, Christopher. Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. An intellectual biography tracing the academic influences on Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological theories.Leach, Edmund. Claude Lévi-Strauss. 1970. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Leach, also an anthropologist, is a critic of Lévi-Strauss but remains balanced in his analysis of his colleague.Pace, David. Claude Lévi-Strauss: Bearer of Ashes. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983. A useful work, outlining Lévi-Strauss’s influence in disciplines beyond anthropology, such as philosophy and sociology.
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