French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss dies at age 100

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

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Claude Lévi-Strauss, French anthropologist who developed structuralism as a method of understanding human society and culture, has died in Paris at the age of 100.

Lévi-Strauss was born on November 28, 1908 in Brussels, Belgium. Lévi-Strauss studied law and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Lévi-Strauss lived in Brazil from 1935 to 1939. It was during this time that he undertook his first ethnographic fieldwork, conducting periodic research forays into the Mato Grosso and the Amazon Rainforest. He studied first the Guaycuru and Bororo Indian tribes, actually living among them for a while. Several years later, he returned for a second, year-long expedition to study the Nambikwara and Tupi-Kawahib societies. It was this experience that cemented Lévi-Strauss’s professional identity as an anthropologist. Edmund Leach suggests, from Lévi-Strauss’s own accounts in Tristes-Tropiques, that he could not have spent more than a few weeks with any place and was never able to converse easily with any of his native informants in their native language.

The war years in New York were formative for Lévi-Strauss in several ways. His relationship with Roman Jakobson helped shape his theoretical outlook (Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss are considered to be two of the central figures on which structuralist thought is based). In addition, Lévi-Strauss was also exposed to the American anthropology espoused by Franz Boas, who taught at Columbia University on New York’s Upper West Side. In 1942 in fact, while having dinner at the Faculty House at Columbia, Boas died of a heart attack in Lévi-Strauss’s arms. This intimate association with Boas gave his early work a distinctive American tilt that helped facilitate its acceptance in the U.S. After a brief stint from 1946 to 1947 as a cultural attaché to the French embassy in Washington, DC, Lévi-Strauss returned to Paris in 1948. It was at this time that he received his doctorate from the Sorbonne by submitting, in the French tradition, both a “major” and a “minor” thesis. These were The Family and Social Life of the Nambikwara Indians and The Elementary Structures of Kinship.

Lévi-Strauss’ later works are more controversial, in part because they impinge on the subject matter of other scholars. He believed that modern life and all history was founded on the same categories and transformations that he had discovered in the Brazilian back country – The Raw and the Cooked, From Honey to Ashes, The Naked Man (to borrow some titles from the Mythologiques). For instance he compares anthropology to musical serialism and defends his “philosophical” approach. He also pointed out that the modern view of primitive cultures was simplistic in denying them a history. The categories of myth did not persist among them because nothing had happened – it was easy to find the evidence of defeat, migration, exile, repeated displacements of all the kinds known to recorded history. Instead, the mythic categories had encompassed these changes.

Lévi-Strauss is survived by his wife Monique Roman and two sons.