Intellectual history Think Piece

Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Political Paradoxes of Structural Anthropology

By Hugo Lopes Williams

By Hugo Lopes Williams

In 1952, Claude Lévi-Strauss, then a respected but by no means famous anthropologist, published the short book Race and History, commissioned by UNESCO as part of its drive to present arguments against racial prejudice from a variety of social-scientific perspectives. Apart from sparking an acrimonious exchange in French intellectual circles between Lévi-Strauss and the colonial apologist Roger Caillois, the book was largely a non-event for Lévi-Strauss’s career, which would only blossom into its maturity later that decade. The book’s argument centered around the premise that evolutionist frameworks in cultural history and anthropology were overly convenient and politically suspect ways of interpreting the fact of cultural diversity, which were by then, comfortably situated in the ethical paradigm of cultural relativism developed by Franz Boas forty years earlier.

But returning to the arguments in Race and History with the perspective afforded by the future development of Lévi-Strauss’s thought raises an interesting question: Why was the explicit attention to historical interactions between societies in this book such a rarity in the anthropologist’s œuvre? By answering it, we will be able to better understand the fundamental tension in Lévi-Strauss’s theoretical ambitions, which were torn between liberating social anthropology from the evolutionist commitments that betrayed its disavowed relationship with colonialism on the one hand, and exorcizing political and historical concerns from anthropology altogether, on the other.

The main polemical strategy used by Lévi-Strauss in Race and History is to position all the discrete human cultures that history and anthropology have identified across a flat, ahistorical continuum. Any attempt to distinguish more “progressive” or “advanced” cultures from others along this continuum is fundamentally a reflection of their similarities to the culture of the observer, rather than an independent insight into the cultures themselves. He then claims we can identify cultures that, at particular moments, managed to accumulate and synthesize a wide range of technological and sociological resources and explain these instances of transformation on probabilistic, rather than evolutionist, grounds.

The problem of explaining how a relatively small number of cultures were able to synthesize various technological and sociological resources into durable and complex social forms subsequently becomes a “problem of determining the relative probability of a complex combination [of disparate social and technical elements], as compared with other similar but less complex combinations.” In other words, theories of cultural evolution mistakenly posit a cross-cultural telos unifying an arbitrarily selected set of historical instances, wherein cultures have successfully concatenated various technological and sociological innovations. What Lévi-Strauss has provided us here is not only an effective critique of evolutionism (and any justifications for racism that might emerge from it), but also the kernel of an alternative philosophy of culture that promises to integrate a wealth of anthropological and historical studies of cultural transformation into a probabilistic framework.

However, Lévi-Strauss does not stop at outlining such a framework. He offers a key explanatory principle: that a “culture’s chance of uniting the complex body of inventions of all sorts which we describe as a civilization depends on the number and diversity of the other cultures with which it is working out, generally involuntarily, a common strategy.” He illustrates this point with a gambling analogy: a coalition of roulette players at different tables gambling for the same series of numbers who agree to pool their results will be more likely to achieve a certain combination of numbers than someone playing alone. The implication is that cultures can improve their odds of synthesizing a large number of innovations by expanding their repertoire of discrete social and technical resources through cross-cultural interaction, whether that be war, trade, colonialism, or otherwise.

Lévi-Strauss therefore moves from a purely random framework of cultural transformation to one of transformation through the combination of random innovations driven by cross-cultural collaboration. In other words, he acknowledges that most significant historical and anthropological examples of cultural transformation have required an interplay between chance coincidences in sociological and technological innovations, and actions intended to increase and maintain the cross-cultural interactions, in a given culture. Once we give up the analytically incoherent task of organizing masses of historical and anthropological data into pathways of supposed cultural evolution, we see that each instance of significant cultural transformation observable in the data occurred as the result of both chance and agency through cross-cultural collaboration.

The fact that Lévi-Strauss offers chance and cultural collaboration as the two key explanatory principles of his philosophy of culture is important because of what it implies concerning the role of historical analysis in social anthropology. If most processes of widespread cultural transformation across history were almost exclusively the product of chance concatenations of various sociological and technological innovations, then inquiries into political and socioeconomic interactions in the relevant cultures at the point of their transformations would be largely unnecessary for explaining them. What would be necessary would be categorizing all the types of social structures and technologies that existed prior to and following the transformations, so as to discover the absolute historical limits of an otherwise random process. In other words, social anthropology would concern itself almost exclusively with identifying the most elementary social and technological structures underlying the various forms of social life across the world. Of course, this is the attitude that is present in most of Lévi-Strauss’s major works, which rarely concern themselves with the historical environment in which any of the structures he uncovered were situated.

However, the necessary role played by cultural collaboration in processes of societal transformation means that these underlying structures, and the random products of their interactions, can never fully explain how various cultures are similar or different. Collaboration introduces an agential dimension into the emergence and demise of social forms. It enables certain powerful actors, whether they be states, aristocracies, or roving armies, to pursue strategies that deliberately induce particular interactions between underlying structures. The results of these interactions are no longer chance cultural products, even if they were not explicitly intended by any one of the actors involved. And to explain this manipulation of chance, reference to the political and socioeconomic conditions under which the actors operated becomes necessary for anthropology.

These methodological implications for anthropology from Race and History might surprise those who have engaged with Lévi-Strauss’s most famous works. In them, he frequently proceeds as if the element of cultural collaboration was barely worth considering in ethnographic analysis. For example, in the introduction to his landmark anthology Anthropologie structurale, he writes that instances of cultural transformation are anthropologically useful because they allow us “to abstract the structure which…remains permanent throughout a succession of events.” Any particular interactions driving these transformations are of secondary importance. The most basic of these permanent structures, such as the three forms of marital exchange to which Lévi-Strauss reduces all kinship systems in Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, are then identified as social expressions of the human cognitive apparatus.

What interests him in this later work is not the particular historical pathway that one kinship system might have developed in response to various social and environmental pressures, but that its laws can in principle be reduced to universal cognitive processes. By extending this structural approach from the study of kinship to mythology, Lévi-Strauss produced a dazzling array of original insights concerning the universal foundations of human creativity and its cultural expressions, and largely succeeded in sounding the death knell for perverse distinctions between “civilized” cultures capable of the highest intellectual activity and “uncivilized” cultures governed by need that had provided the ideological bedrock of evolutionist anthropology.

But the conclusions of Race and History should make clear that this approach to anthropological explanation produced a severely skewed picture of the societies studied by Lévi-Strauss. While his typologies of kinship systems and mythological narratives presented each culture as a contingent combination of social structures drawn from a finite set of sociological possibilities, it neglected to explain the actual political, socioeconomic, or environmental conditions in which particular combinations emerged. As a result, he systematically ignored one of the most important instances of (involuntary) cultural “collaboration” of his time, one that played a foundational part in the academic development of anthropology: European and American colonialism. Given that most of the cultures that Lévi-Strauss referred to in his work were in periods of acute socioeconomic and demographic crisis due to the effects of consistent colonial expansion in the Americas, this omission presented a serious flaw in any attempt to explain the social functions of the exchange structures he observed, or of the myths he recorded.

Let us take an example: Lévi-Strauss’s observations and analysis of kinship customs among the Nambikwara people, a group of indigenous societies in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. The anthropologist’s time with the Nambikwara in 1938, recounted in his 1955 memoir Tristes tropiques, was part of his only ever venture into ethnographic fieldwork. His encounters with them would provide a lifelong source of nostalgia and inspiration. In fact, in the gradual development of his theoretical claim that exchange relations provided the universal foundations of social stability Lévi-Strauss would repeatedly pepper his arguments with references to a particular occurrence from his fieldwork, when he witnessed an encounter between two Nambikwara bands that involved gift-giving, marriage promises, and a near-descent into warfare.

Lévi-Strauss was particularly interested in the marital exchanges, which were enabled by a procedure whereby men of each band would confer a particular kinship status on one another, which he approximated to the Western term “brother-in-law.” Because the Nambikwara kinship system required individuals to marry their cross-cousins, this procedure meant that the children of these newly-established brothers-in-law would intermarry, thereby fusing the two bands into one over the course of one generation. Lévi-Strauss would continuously use this example as evidence that even the simplest kinship conventions were capable of performing sophisticated sociological functions owing to their logical nature.

But what was the context in which this instance of economic and marital exchange occurred? When Lévi-Strauss recounts the story in Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, he presents the encounter as a common and unremarkable feature in the lives of the Nambikwara, which revealed sophisticated sociological mechanisms in the specificities of their culture. It is only by turning to the first article in which he reported it, written in 1943, that we learn that group fusions such as the one observed were necessitated by a series of epidemics that had decimated the Nambikwara ever since their first sustained contact with Brazilian soldiers and missionaries twenty years earlier.

Although Lévi-Strauss makes a compelling case regarding the sociological utility of the brother-in-law relationship as a longstanding feature of Nambikwara life, it is unlikely that the function of such kinship customs in the maintenance and expansion of group relations would have been unaffected by such demographic collapse. Whereas Lévi-Strauss purposely overlooks this historical context to identify a free-floating logical operation contained within the kinship custom (group fusion in one generation through artificial fraternity), it is quite simple to propose an alternative interpretive approach, based on the methodological implications of Race and History. Let’s consider the forms of cultural collaboration forced upon the Nambikwara through Brazilian colonialism. We realize that this particular custom indicates the increased sociological and political significance of kinship relations as a response to demographic collapse. Rather than an abstract structural relationship, we are left with the picture of a culture undergoing immense sociological transformation.

This does not disqualify Lévi-Strauss’s abstract structural interpretation of the brother-in-law relation among the Nambikwara. But it reveals the extent to which such analysis necessarily precludes consideration of political and historical factors affecting the cultures under consideration. Lévi-Strauss used the conclusions of this structural analysis to reveal the sophistication of the intellectual operations at the heart of sociological mechanisms across all cultures, thereby severing any connection between social anthropology and ideological justifications of colonialism. But this strategy went beyond dismantling such connections; it removed all but the most abstract political considerations from anthropological investigation. Coming back to Race and History with this perspective in mind demonstrates that Lévi-Strauss himself was, at least implicitly, aware that this had debilitating effects on anthropology, preventing a proper understanding of how cultures underwent profound social transformations upon coming into contact with each other in various ways. In fact, I would argue that this problem explains why Lévi-Strauss’s concerns shifted further and further away from political and socioeconomic life towards aesthetic and intellectual activity the more he refined his structural method. Confusingly, his vision of a politically and ethically mature anthropology required renouncing serious interest in some of the most pressing political issues and debates of his time.

Hugo Lopes Williams holds a Master’s degree in Political Thought and Intellectual History from the University of Cambridge. His research primarily focuses on French social and political thought in the period 1945-1984, with additional interests in economic anthropology, kinship, and Marxist value theory. His Master’s dissertation interrogated the intellectual connections between Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault in the mid-1960s.

Edited by Alec Israeli

Featured Image: Levi-Strauss photographing a Nambikwara person – Luiz de Castro Faria Archive.