Structural anthropology is a school of anthropology based on Claude Lévi-Strauss’ idea that immutable deep structures exist in all cultures, and consequently, that all cultural practices have homologous counterparts in other cultures, essentially that all cultures are equitable.
Lévi-Strauss’ approach arose in large part from dialectics expounded on by Marx and Hegel, though dialectics (as a concept) dates back to Ancient Greek philosophy. Hegel explains that every situation presents two opposing things and their resolution; Fichte had termed these “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.” Lévi-Strauss argued that cultures also have this structure. He showed, for example, how opposing ideas would fight and were resolved to establish the rules of marriage, mythology and ritual. This approach, he felt, made for fresh new ideas. He stated:
people think about the world in terms of binary opposites—such as high and low, inside and outside, person and animal, life and death—and that every culture can be understood in terms of these opposites. “From the very start,” he wrote, “the process of visual perception makes use of binary oppositions.
Only those who practice structural analysis are aware of what they are actually trying to do: that is, to reunite perspectives that the “narrow” scientific outlook of recent centuries believed to be mutually exclusive: sensibility and intellect, quality and quantity, the concrete and the geometrical, or as we say today, the “etic” and the “emic.”
In South America he showed that there are “dual organizations” throughout Amazon rainforest cultures, and that these “dual organizations” represent opposites and their synthesis. For instance, Gê tribes of the Amazon were found to divide their villages into two rival halves; however, the members of opposite halves married each other. This illustrated two opposites in conflict and then resolved.
Culture, he claimed, has to take into account both life and death and needs to have a way of mediating between the two. Mythology (see his several-volume Mythologies) unites opposites in diverse ways.
Three of the most prominent structural anthropologists are Lévi-Strauss himself and the British neo-structuralists Rodney Needham and Edmund Leach. The latter was the author of such essays as “Time and False Noses” [in Rethinking Anthropology].
Lévi-Strauss applied this distinction in his search for mental structures that underlie all acts of human behavior: Just as speakers can talk without awareness of grammar, he argued, humans are unaware of the workings of social structures in daily life. The structures that form the “deep grammar” of society originate in the mind and operate unconsciously (albeit not in a Freudian sense).
Another concept was borrowed from the Prague school of linguistics, which employed so-called binary oppositions in their research. Roman Jakobson and others analysed sounds based on the presence or absence of certain features, such as “voiceless” vs. “voiced”. Lévi-Strauss included this in his conceptualization of the mind’s universal structures. For him, opposites formed the basis of social structure and culture.
- Lévi-Strauss 1972.
- Leach 1966.
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