Thinking through Claude Lévi-Strauss


Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1908-2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the true giants of anthropology, passed away this past week on 30 October, just shy of 101 years old.

As Maurice Bloch writes, Lévi-Strauss was ‘the last survivor of these great beasts such as Sartre, Foucault and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu,’ the theorists who have given contemporary anthropology, and social theory around the world, a French accent and Gallic cadence.

Excellent obituaries appeared in a number of places, two of my favourites being the one by Bloch in The Guardian, and another by Edward Rothstein in The New York Times (thanks, Jovan!).

I’m not going to retread the substance of these obituaries, nor will I repeat what was better (and more quickly) written by other commentators online such as Rex at Savage Minds, Marshall Sahlins at the AAA website (for the 100th birthday), Richard Price, a student of Lévi-Strauss, and Robert Mackey at the NYTimes website, The influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss (a piece that links to a number of video clips in English and French, including interviews with other scholars). Instead, I’m going to write briefly about the relation of Lévi-Strauss to the study of brain and culture from my perspective.

I’ve been wanting to write a post on Lévi-Strauss for a while, and even started it once, because I’ve been grappling with the question about how neuroanthropology aspires to produce theoretical and empirical projects that are distinct from what is typically called ‘cognitive anthropology.’ Lévi-Strauss’ work is crucial to the foundation of cognitive anthropology, as a range of authors have argued (see Sperber 2008, for example), so he’s a critical point of departure for neuroanthropology.

Although I admire Lévi-Strauss, and I’m perfectly content to be considered close classificatory kin to cognitive anthropology, there are some characteristics of Lévi-Strauss’s thought, structuralism (the theoretical school Lévi-Strauss dominated, but which did not encompass all of his work [see Doja 2008]), and contemporary cognitive anthropology with which I fundamentally disagree. So although this post is written in respect, it has elements of opposition, perhaps even the false binarism that arises whenever one is trying to highlight distinctiveness in the midst of significant overlap. Beware the theoretical belligerence of small difference!
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