Guide The Social Theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss

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In part because Levi-Strauss writes with a style that relies heavily on nuance, and in part because structuralism operates at so many different levels, it is difficult to sift out a central theme. Leach tries to clear the jumble by interpreting structurally, step by step, the Ocdipus myth and examples of kinship terminology. But finally he confuses his own idea of what structuralism means with Levi-Strauss's and one is left anxious to dive back into The Raw and the Cooked.

Leach is best at pulling together the different kinds of criticism that have been directed at Levi-Strauss.

He puts into perspective the often repeated attack on structuralism's shaky ethnographic evidence while at the same time outlining his own belief that Levi-Strauss may indeed have fudged in certain cases. But Leach's primary objection to structuralism is more profound. In Levi-Strauss's eagerness to find the universal determinants of human society Leach fears he has "over-looked the plain, matter-of-fact world we see all around us.


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In a sense, Leach is correct. Levi-Strauss did not spend long years in field work and received most of his ethnographic information secondhand. He never lived in any one primitive society long enough to form intimate associations.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude

But maybe this kind of distance is necessary to an examination that insists on finding unconscious structures. It was always necessary to supplement information about a society with information about others. So some idea of a common human nature was implicit in each approach. The critical distinction, then, remained: does a social fact exist because it is functional for the social order or because it is functional for the person?

Do uniformities across cultures occur because of organizational needs that must be met everywhere or because of the uniform needs of human personality? He had no difficulty bringing out the inconsistencies and triviality of individualistic accounts. Malinowski said, for example, that magic beliefs come into being when people need to feel a sense of control over events where the outcome was uncertain.

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In the Trobriand Islands, he found the proof of this claim in the rites surrounding abortions and weaving skirts. But in the same tribes, there is no magic attached to making clay pots even though it is no more certain a business than weaving.

Claude Lévi-Strauss - New World Encyclopedia

So the explanation is not consistent. Furthermore, these explanations tend to be used in an ad hoc, superficial way — you just postulate a trait of personality when you need it. But the accepted way of discussing organizational function didn't work either.

Different societies might have institutions that were similar in many obvious ways and yet served different functions. Many tribal cultures divide the tribe into two groups and have elaborate rules about how the two groups can interact. But exactly what they can do — trade, intermarry — is different in different tribes; for that matter, so are the criteria for distinguishing the groups. Nor will it do to say that dividing-in-two is a universal need of organizations, because there are a lot of tribes that thrive without it.

His analogies are usually from phonology though also later from music, mathematics, chaos theory, cybernetics and so on. Phonemic analysis reveals features that are real, in the sense that users of the language can recognize and respond to them. At the same time, a phoneme is an abstraction from language — not a sound, but a category of sound defined by the way it is distinguished from other categories through rules unique to the language. The entire sound-structure of a language can be generated from a relatively small number of rules.

In the study of the kinship systems that first concerned him, this ideal of explanation allowed a comprehensive organization of data that had been partly ordered by other researchers. The overall goal was to find out why family relations differed in different South American cultures. The father might have great authority over the son in one group, for example, with the relationship rigidly restricted by taboos.

In another group, the mother's brother would have that kind of relationship with the son, while the father's relationship was relaxed and playful.

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A number of partial patterns had been noted. Relations between the mother and father, for example, had some sort of reciprocity with those of father and son — if the mother had a dominant social status and was formal with the father, for example, then the father usually had close relations with the son. But these smaller patterns joined together in inconsistent ways. One possible way of finding a master order was to rate all the positions in a kinship system along several dimensions. For example, the father was older than the son, the father produced the son, the father had the same sex as the son, and so on; the matrilineal uncle was older and of the same sex but did not produce the son, and so on.

An exhaustive collection of such observations might cause an overall pattern to emerge. Furthermore, it doesn't explain anything. The explanation it offers is tautological — if age is crucial, then age explains a relationship. Surely, cognitive anthropology would have developed in more interesting ways. Only twelve people or so attended the talk, but one of them was Roman Jakobson himself for whom, I hasten to say, I had and have an immense admiration. Well, we had a friendly and lively discussion.

To answer Mads Solberg, first minor historical rectifications. Neither Chomsky nor Piaget attended. Around that time, Scott Atran, then still a student, had had the great idea of a Piaget-Chomsky confrontation, and had taken the initative and got a nod from both of them. The conference took place in October So I imagine that he has been aware of the new developments we are talking about. Does someone here know whether he has ever privately or publicly expressed his views on these new developments?

I would be very interested to read more about that. Many thanks for this fascinating discussion! My point here is about mutually manifest perceptions of intellectual affiliation be it real or not and goes in the direction of an interesting discussion that Nicola raised the other day, but is still connected to Levi-Strauss. When I was doing my undergraduate and master studies of anthropology in Brazil , everyone identified Dan Sperber as a French cognitive anthropologist who was a student of Levi-Strauss.

I always thought that this was more than a third world perception. One recent and great history of ideas of anthropology Eriksen and Nielsen, finishes saying that cognitive anthropology or the anthropology tied to the cognitive sciences is one tradition of anthropology that will be growing in the coming years And, if I remember correctly, it mentions Sperber as a cognitive anthropologist who was a student of Levi-Strauss.

I certainly often get described or introduced as a cognitive anthropologist and find this quite appropriate, and I too use the label, in many situations, to describe what I do. It is a good and useful book and an excellent history of an important American anthropological school, but the incredibly parochial title made my heart sink: So, they are cognitive anthropology, cognitive anthropology is them, and we are off the map?

The impression I have is that there was, before Levi Strauss, a thriving debate in anthropology about the psychic unity of man. Anthropologists were truly concerned with the mind and they were constantly questioning the relations between cultural and psychic phenomena. For them, the relations between mind and culture constituted a central research programme see, e.

Claude Lévi-Strauss and Structural Anthropology

If no, what other factors account for the disinterest in relations between mind and culture which seems to occur with structuralism in anthropology? And if yes, why? Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. In a nuanced discussion of the correspondence between Levi-Strauss and Leach regarding the translation of the French term espirit, Tambiah illustrates the major conceptual chasm between the two thinkers.

Leach remained skeptical of this aspect of the structuralist approach and had difficulties accepting the brain as a hard-wired, computer-like device that directly mediated a natural order. But certainly, as Dan states, Levi-Strauss can certainly be considered one of the pioneers of cognitive anthropology as it exists today.

This is because my articles were met with such resistance, that a couple of the editors came as close as they could to apologizing for their having to reject my submission. There were other ideological resistances as well Upon inquiring of a graduate student who had written a piece on the history of anthropology why Levi-Strauss was not mentioned, she said it would not be wise for her to do so.


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The editor informed that he received so many objections from his reviewers and senior editors that the issue was cancelled. The editor then advertized a special issue on Post-Structuralism. He received no submissions for this special issue, so it too was cancelled.