[Eric Olson] Opaque Fecundity: Theories of Lévi-Strauss

This text was produced by Eric Olson 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.

From:¨Eric Olson
Sent: Tuesday, November 02, 2004 8:03 PM
Subject: here’s my crib sheet!
please read this first (after you have voted)

foreward: The title of this work is ironically appropriate: LS wanted to make things as simple as possible under his phrame of reference yet to our perpetual misfortune, it ends up being exactly not that. Please, enjoy.
ps, someone write me back saying you got it

Opaque Fecundity:
Theories of Lévi-Strauss
By Eric Olson

  • He focused on the “underlying patterns of human thought that produced those [peoples’ categorizations of their world] (MW, 345)” and
  • Believed that “the underlying logical processes that structure all human thought operate within different cultural contexts (MW, 345)” then
  • Attempted to construct “a technique for studying the unconscious principles that structure human culture (MW, 345).”

Background on Lévi-Strauss [1]: Born in Brussels, studied (law, philosophy) in Paris, first fieldwork in Brazil- near Amazon, fled from France to New York (not far from Boas) in 1939, then nearly single-handedly founded modern field of structuralism.

One of his germane inclusions for anthropology is the juxtaposition of linguistics__enter Warf and Sapir. This is the ubiquitous thread in the first article, “Structural Analysis in Linguistics and in Anthropology (MW, 347).” Linguistics is composed of phenomes, groups of sounds that are inherently meaningless. They can, however, be combined into morphemes (think more phenomes) to make patterns and thus create meaningful units of speech. An emic perspective remains ignorant to these events but the enlightened linguist can recognize them, simplify them, make a model out of them, then extract a near universal law.

The discussion begins with Troubetzkoy’s unconscious infrastructure, relationships between terms instead of independent entities, and the concept of system, and the pursuit of general laws (Pragian school). These are the tools for the operations of the structural method. In this discussion, the anthropologist espouses the linguist (another example of binary opposites?) in the kinship arena. The drama builds as to how exactly this “marriage” plays out (see MW, 349, #5). The ultimate however elusive goal seems to be tackling the function as well as the system in which the function functions. Here, the anthropologist is assigned the role of determining how the linguistic analysis using phonemes applies to kinship analysis. Lévi-Strauss places a significant emphasis psychology and universal structures while utilizing cross-cultural comparisons.

The discourse concentrates on schematically enhanced bipolarity amongst individuals in various societies: Cherkess, Trobrian, Tonga, Kutubu, Siuai. Here is his simplified unit of structure that will lend itself to our better understanding

Cherkess uncle-nephew: + 2. Trobrian uncle-nephew: –
Brother-sister: + brother-sister: –
Father-son: – father-son: +
Husband-wife: – husband-wife: +

Tonga uncle-nephew: + 4. Kutubu uncle-nephew: –
Brother-sister: – brother-sister: +
Father-son: – father-son: +
Husband-wife: + husband-wife: –

This structured schematic helps to classify similarities in societies and figure out why the functions differ. However, he soon moves to point out that too much generalizations__assigning a matrilineal or patrilineal label__ cannot always be made. A list of taboos that Lévi-Strauss adds to the discussion includes: sons touching father’s heads, foods, and possessions as well interesting aspects of family values: wives finding refuge from abusive husbands in their brothers, husbands perpetually jealous and angry over wives, and spousal fear of witchcraft. He believes patterns found in these elements can add insights into cultures. In concluding his theory, Lévi-Strauss writes, “we must treat it [the avunculate[2]] as one relationship within a system, while the system itself must be considered as a whole in order to grasp its structure (MW, 356).”

Terms for easy recognition: atomist, theory of attitudes, binary opposition, patterns of groups, universal structures of human thought, exaggerated cross-cultural comparisons.

Definition of culture: collection of arbitrary symbols- products of universal patterns of thought

His reflection on Radin’s Winnebago Myths gives an example of Lévi-Strauss’ structural argument in action. Boas’ cultural element of the myth is irrelevant to the meaning behind the myth because humans have unconscious universal elements. Lévi-Strauss believes dialectics can describe the structure of human perception. Here, Lévi-Strauss dissects each myth with his group theory, binary opposition ideas, models for sophisticated understanding, and organizations of structures. Essentially, Lévi-Strauss is defending Radin with a complex discourse of his trademark ideas of structuralism.

A glimpse inside my head:

Social functionalism:
Durkheim~ Radcliff-Brown~ collective function, rules and social order~ internal logic in evolution~ organism, parts of the body
Malinowski~ individual needs, Lévi-Strauss would say that needs are caused by the need for social order.
Boas said there were no cultural patterns, no single history


What gives Lévi-Strauss’ argument the biggest advantage in Anthropological theory? Or, why has it been so influential for so long?

Lévi-Strauss is labeled a suave writer that reflects significantly upon Mauss, Radin, and Boas. Give these later authors a voice. How would they respond to the claims made by Lévi-Strauss? How do you argue with someone who claims to have simplified everything and covers all his bases with self-conscious limitations?

Bonus! How would Boas react to the kinship models? (Clue: page 356, figure 1.)

[1] Taken from
[2] Anthropological inflation of the reference to the uncle.

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