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[Grace Awantang] Influences of Structuralism

This text was produced by Grace Awantang while the person was a student at Macalester. It was distributed for in-class review. Any use of this text necessitates you to contact the person directly for copyright purposes.

Influences of Structuralism
Grace Awantang


Levi-Strauss, the founder of structuralism, was influenced by other theorists who concentrated on illuminating the process of human thought, including Durkheim, Mauss, and Evans-Pritchard. Levi-Strauss was also heavily influenced by the Prague school of structural linguistics and Boasian cultural anthropology. Levi-Strauss studied kinship and proposed the existence of a positive marriage rule or a simple kinship system within most societies (rule in which a man must marry a woman in a particular kinship category). Simple kinship systems have three forms: generalized (long indirect circle of giving, efficient integration), restricted (between two groups, symmetrical, and less efficient in establishing relationships ), and one of delayed reciprocity (symmetrical over generations). He found that this grammar of exchange can be studied by looking at actual models used by the people for making marriage decisions, or by collecting statistical info. on the distribution of marriage choices. The former is easier because actual marriage choices are influenced by a variety of other external factors. By studying kinship, and myths later on, L-S hoped to discover the “universal principles of human mentality.”

In later life, Levi-Struass moved on to find purer form of thought because he thought the principles he isolated from his kinship work may have been of external, and not of internal origin. He spent much time analyzing myths, which existed in opposing sets, to find the pattern that organizes human thought. L-S developed idea that humans impose pattern on the world by classifying the things around him. These categories were grouped as opposing pairs, which could then be compared to other pairs, which was borrowed from structural linguistics (you have the vowel/constant in language, you also have the right hand/ left hand in culture). In this way, a system of oppositions provides a way to talk about relationships between social groups (or pairs). Levis-Strauss also used it to deduce the pattern behind the totemic caste model. Levi-Strauss revived the interest in the study of systems of thought among British anthropologists. The principles that give structure to thought are based on a system of binary oppositions. L-S argued that myths should be de-coded by looking at the relationships between contrasting pairs of categories.


A neo-structuralist, Needham modified Levis-Strauss’s “alliance theory” of simple marriage systems and called it prescriptive alliance, meaning that societies with the simple qualities must have prescriptive marriage rules, not just preferential tendencies as L-S had included. His ideal model greatly limited the applications of prescriptive theory. He was criticized for dismissing ethnography that did not support his concept of preferential and prescriptive marriage systems. L-S supported him saying that his model was an ideal model in the mind, the actual world would always differ, model had greater relevance than for just prescriptive marriage societies.

Edmund Leach.

One of the most enthusiastic about Levi-Straus’s work, Leach found that information is ordered in a pattern from which meaning is created by metonymy, the representation of the whole by a part. Meaning is extracted by two types of association: association by contiguity (sequence, syntagmatic chains of data) and metaphor (paradigmatic links, similarity). Forms of exchange were adapted to political and economic context. He was interested more in social systems, and man in specific societies, not look for human universals. He used Levi-Strauss’s model in his analysis of kinship relations and found that it was helpful for understanding overall social society. Leach argues that marriage and affinity are manifestations of alliances and social associations as they form and change. Leach used alliance theory to illuminate his Kachin research data. Leach proposed a third term should be included in series of contrasts, not just two. For ex. someone thinks of an animal in several ways, in terms of pets, food, leisure, etc. Leach argued that homology exists between these sets of categories. Most interested in anomalies that do not quite fit into any category (ie. Bunny), because these are reacted to with ambivalence and may be tabooed (ie. Bunny -improper sexual behavior). Leach moved on to argue that symbolism is not units or objects in themselves but relations between organized pairs of units. So the units of structure can not be seen as units but as relations between groups of units. Vagina/Penis pair has same structure as round/straight or female/male. Leach applied this to who his own study of kinship systems with the Kachin and Garo. Leach attempts to apply the structural method by showing that the stories of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ are based on the same pattern. Message of this story is the structure which can be justified without extra fluff, without the particular characters, without historical context.

Sherry B. Ortner

Ortner is a symbolist that used structuralism to explain the underlying reasons for universal secondary status of women and their subordination by using a structuralist approach to feminism. Ortner borrows the idea of the universal binary set, nature and culture, as first described by Levi-Strauss. Like him she assumes that ritual is part of culture that imposes order on human existence and nature. Ortner argues that women are identified as closer to nature than are men, who are associated with culture, and this is her structuralist explanation for why women are subordinate. She proves that woman are closer to nature by looking at 1.) woman’s body and functions, 2.) women’s social roles, 3.) and women’s psyche. A woman is not entirely natural because she is a participant is a conscious human being and so participates in the cultural process. Women’s association with food preparation and her role in socializing and acculturating children gives her an intermediate status between nature and culture. Ortner used her argument in the context of political change. To change a social institution, she said that you must change the cultural view of a society and change its social reality. Has political agenda put social change is not a concern of structuralism as a way of understanding human tendency.

Levi-Strauss and Neo-Structuralism

According to Leach, the difference between Levi-Strauss and his neo-structuralist followers was that L-S was concerned with discovering facts that described the human minds thought process, whereas his followers focused on getting information about the organization of particular societies or groups of societies.


1.) Levi-Strauss moved on from studying kinship systems because he thought the myth would embody a more pure from of human thought. He was concerned that the principles gathered from his kinship research could be of external, not internal origin (Kuper, pg. 177). How does the shift to studying myths address this concern? How does Levi-Strauss strengthen this potential weakness in his later work?

2.) Can the binary system of structural linguistics be accurately applied to social anthropology? How is Leach’s idea of relations between relations of units applied to actual structural analysis in the case of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. How useful is the structuralist method at extracting the universals of human thought. Does Leach or Ortner demonstrate an meaningful use of structural methodology?

3.) How did he each structuralist draw on or differ from Durkheim and Malinowski? Leach was a student of Malinowski and was also heavily influenced by Durkheim. How can we trace the legacy of these to philosophers in the work of different neo-structuralists?

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