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Structuralism and Poststructuralism

AnthropologyFollowers And Critics, Poststructuralism And Anthropology: Foucault And His Impact, Derrida And Deconstruction, Bibliography

Structuralism in anthropology is inextricably linked with its founder, Claude Lévi-Strauss. His principal contributions have been in the field of kinship and in the analysis of symbolism, particularly of myths. The characteristic approach of structuralist analysis is to categorize systems, not in terms of the composition or content of their component elements, but in terms of the structure of relationships between these elements.

Lévi-Strauss's first major work, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), begins with the premise that exogamy, the obligation to marry outside one's own group, is a corollary of the incest taboo, a defining criterion of "culture" as opposed to "nature." If complex kinship structures are characterized by negative rules—prohibitions on marrying certain categories of relatives—then elementary structures are defined by positive rules that indicate marriage with specific kinds of relatives. Bilateral cross-cousin marriage, in which a man marries either a father's sister's or a mother's brother's daughter, can be conceived of as a system of symmetrical exchange of women between two groups. Matrilateral cross-cousin marriage, where a man marries his mother's brother's daughter but never his father's sister's daughter, involves asymmetrical exchange, whereby a man takes a wife from one group and marries off his sister to another.

In 1962, Lévi-Strauss published The Savage Mind, a work on symbolism that characterized primitive thought as bricolage, a term that translates roughly as "handy work," working with whatever is readily available rather than using a specific tool adapted to a certain task. The primary tool of such thought is metaphor, grounded in analogical reasoning. In other words, if the members of one clan are "bears" and their neighbors "foxes," this has nothing to do with intrinsic resemblances; rather, the difference between human groups is considered to be analogous to the difference between species of animals.

Lévi-Strauss applied this approach in his magnum opus, a four-volume series on mythology: The Raw and the Cooked (1964), From Honey to Ashes (1966), The Origin of Table Manners (1968), and The Naked Man (1971). The aim of his analysis is "to show how empirical categories—such as the categories of the raw and the cooked, the fresh and the decayed, the moistened and the burned, etc., which can only be accurately defined by ethnographic observation and, in each instance, by adopting the standpoint of a particular culture—can nonetheless be used as conceptual tools with which to elaborate abstract ideas and combine them in the form of propositions."

Lévi-Strauss begins with a myth from the Bororo culture in Brazil, initially comparing it to other Bororo myths, then to myths from neighboring populations, until by the end of the fourth volume, he discusses no fewer than 813 myths from across North as well as South America. The mythology of the Americas is depicted as a single vast system in which individual myths can be interpreted as transformations of other myths and where relationships between elements from different codes—social categories, animal and plant species, modes of food preparation, parts of the body, celestial and meteorological phenomena, among others—can always be expressed as analogical to other codes.

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