In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Structuralism

  • Introduction
  • Kinship
  • Mythology and Religion
  • Hierarchy and Social Organization
  • Structural Marxism
  • Structural Historiography

Anthropology Structuralism
Liam D. Murphy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0122


Few schools of anthropological theory are as closely identified with the work of one individual as structuralism (or “French structuralism”) is with Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009). Though long out of fashion by the turn of the 21st century, structuralism has remained among the most important theoretical perspectives to originate within the discipline of anthropology, although its roots are deeply intertwined with 19th-century sociology, psychology, and linguistics. The novelty of Lévi-Strauss’s approach derives from its creative synthesis of mid-20th century ethnological and linguistic theory with the science underpinning early computing technologies. Over the course of his lengthy career Lévi-Strauss developed an innovative research perspective that even his detractors acknowledge as revolutionary. To use a term that Lévi-Strauss made famous, structuralism represents a creative bricolage that is more than the sum of its parts. Essentially, it is both a perspective and a method that assumes that culture is a system that can be objectively and empirically analyzed in terms of the meaningful relations and contrasts existing between minimal, paired, or binary mental units. As this implies, structuralism likewise assumes that culture is a cognitive phenomenon. In Lévi-Strauss’s original formulation, a small number of “elementary” structures may be considered pan-human, while “transformations” of these generate ever-more elaborate and diverse patterns and weaves of integrated classificatory categories. These diverse classification systems, the outcomes of innumerable transformations across time and space, create the tapestry of human cultures. It is because human cultures operate according to such different patterns of classificatory logic that we perceive radical difference between human groups; still, for Lévi-Strauss, such differences are ultimately superficial and conceal an underlying symmetry and isomorphism in culture as a universal human phenomenon. As a popular school of theorizing, structuralism enjoyed its disciplinary heyday from the early 1950s through the mid-1970s, by which time it was being largely eclipsed by various interpretive, materialist, and political-economic approaches in the discipline of anthropology. In particular, perspectives that illuminated relations of social power (ultimately indebted to Marx), such as those embraced by anthropological political economy, world systems theory, and an emerging cadre of “post”-structuralists, led by French theorists Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean Baudrillard, among others, had come to the fore. Despite this widespread fall from favor, many anthropologists (e.g., Maurice Godelier, Marshall Sahlins, and Sherry Ortner) sought to integrate and nuance structuralist analysis by making it more politically, culturally, and historically sensitive, as well as by redressing what were felt by some to be significant lacuna in structuralist theory: concern for creative agency and social change—both of which had been as difficult to discern in the work of Lévi-Strauss as they had in that of Emile Durkheim.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009) and Key Works

The outpouring of accolades from world leaders and famous intellectuals following the death of Claude Lévi-Strauss shortly before his 101st birthday are testament to his influence as both a scholar and a humanist, rivaled only by such figures as Mead and Malinowski in the history of anthropology. Raised in an affluent Jewish home in Paris, he conducted extensive ethnographic research in Brazil in the early-mid 1930s before returning to France just before the outbreak of World War II. During the occupation, Lévi-Strauss fled the Vichy Regime and established himself in New York, where he lectured at the New School and engaged leading intellectual figures of the day, including Roman Jakobson and Franz Boas. Following the war, he returned to Paris to begin a career of prolific scholarship as chairman of social anthropology at the Collège de France and member of the prestigious Académie Française. Over the course of fifty years, Lévi-Strauss published dozens of influential books and papers, many of which became widely influential among Anglophone anthropologists only upon translation from French. Lévi-Strauss’s many works have been translated into a number of other languages as well. Not all of his writing is directly related to structuralism as a body of theory, but it can be reasonably inferred that even his nontheoretical writing reveals reflection and insight that informed his theory. In addition to his theoretical and ethnological writings, Lévi-Strauss gave many lengthy interviews and lectures that touched on the personal, as well as the professional. The works listed here are subdivided into four major categories of writing: General Structuralist Theory, Kinship, Mythology, and Reflections on Life and Theory.

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