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STRUCTURALISM AND LEVI-STRAUSS: A SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION IN ANTHROPOLOGICAL PARADIGM

Published Feb 13, 2008

According to structural theory in anthropology and social anthropology, meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture through various practices, phenomena and activities which serve as systems of signification. A structuralism studies activities as diverse as food preparation and serving rituals, religious rites, games, literary and non-literary texts, and other forms of entertainment to discover the deep structures by which meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture.

For example, an early and prominent practitioner of structuralism, anthropologist and ethnographer Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1950s, analyzed cultural phenomena including mythology, kinship (the Alliance theory and the incest taboo), and food preparation  In addition to these studies, he produced more linguistically-focused writings where he applied Saussure's distinction between langue and parole in his search for the fundamental mental structures of the human mind, arguing that the structures that form the "deep grammar" of society originate in the mind and operate in us unconsciously. Levi-Strauss was inspired by information theory and mathematics.

Like any other systematic branch of knowledge, anthropology has the tradition of revolutionizing the search for the principles of operation of society and culture. Thomas Kuhn termed general laws as 'paradigm', accepted and shared by a scientific society at a given point of time. In the long history of anthropology several paradigms successively dominated for a reasonable period, competing with one another and eventually one triumphed over others.

In the very beginning of anthropology, the theorists believed in the universality of cultural stages stemming from the psychic unity of mankind. When anthropology developed as an empirical science, evolutionism was replaced by functionalism negating the prior assumption. Later in the mid-twentieth century French anthropologist as well as philosopher Levi-Strauss introduced a new and different theoretical model in the study of culture named ‘Structuralism’.

Levi-Strauss analyzes cultural phenomena such as languages, myths and kinship systems to discover what ordered patterns, or structures, they seemed to display. These, he suggested, could reveal the structure of the human mind. He reasoned that behind the surface of individual cultures there must exist natural properties (universals) common to us all. Levi-Strauss focused his attention on the patterns or structures existing beneath the customs and beliefs of all cultures.

The new school emphasized on psychic structure as a replacement for social structure and withdrew increasingly from the tradition of pervasive empirical fieldwork and cultural relativism. This theoretical orientation searched for universalism and physic unity of mankind which is also innate in human life and in fact brought a revolutionary change what may be called a ‘Scientific Revolution’( Kuhn. 1970) in anthropology.

Although structuralism searches universal laws of human mind but the inquiry and its analysis is fundamentally distinctive from the evolutionary point of view. He believed in mental structure on the basis of universal mental thought process, emphasizing on the perception, 'mental thought process is universal and innate'.

From the study of oral traditions, myths, kinship system, he emphatically revealed the dichotomous opposition the human mental structure, what he calls 'binary opposition'. Such a psychic state is truly operative in all human societies—death/life, savage/civilized, raw/cooked, human/animal, culture/nature, love/ hatred, etc. Levi-Straussian interpretation provided new impetus to the understanding of human mind as well as the cultural world that diffused beyond the frontier of contemporary anthropology.

This article focuses mainly on unfolding the recent paradigmatic shift in anthropology triggered by Levi-Strauss in terms of the doctrinal development which has crossed over to other areas of knowledge, such as, history, literature, folk lore, and sociology beyond the frontier of anthropology.