Literary and Critical Theory Claude Levi-Strauss
by
Robert Deliège
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0037

Introduction

Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908–d. 2009) was the most influential French anthropologist of the 20th century and is widely regarded as a major thinker of our times. He is known as the father of “structuralism” in social anthropology and has set up a major theoretical contribution to the subject, which includes works on kinship, myth, totemism, and symbolism. His influence goes far beyond the field of anthropology.

General Overview

Of all the contemporary anthropologists, Lévi-Strauss is without doubt the best known and the one who has left the deepest mark on the discipline. If his theoretical positions do not really make headlines today, his prestige and authority are still widely recognized. Permeating every one of the human sciences, from linguistics to psychology, structuralism has become somewhat of a discipline in itself. The hope of a true science of man and society never materialized but on the contrary turned out to be a mirage, as structuralism faded into the history of the social sciences. The work of Lévi-Strauss is thus no longer read with the scarcely contained excitement with which it was once greeted. Now that passions have abated, it can be approached with the requisite serenity. To be sure, the intellectual method it sets involves a way of “thinking” the world and society that remains original. As Edmund Leach aptly pointed out, Lévi-Strauss’s brand of structuralism is not a method; it is “a way of looking at things.” Not only does Lévi-Strauss deserve our attention for having left an indelible stamp on the history of the social sciences, he remains a source of inspiration and figures among the great thinkers of the past century. Lévi-Strauss was a prolific author of books and articles. Of all contemporary thinkers, he is certainly the one most written about, and countless works have been devoted to him. These range from pure hagiography to the harshest criticism.

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