Structuralism – Levi-Strauss, Ortner


Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1908)

Linguistics and Anthropology

A Breakdown of the Reading

 In this article, Levi-Strauss discusses at length the multi-tiered nature of the notions of the relationship between language and culture. And it it his premise that if you study the Culture, than you will have an intimate knowledge of the  Language. This is the opposite of what is known as linguistic determinism as defined by the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. Instead of Language determining the culture, the culture determins the language. I see both as hard to prove empirically, but linguistic determinism seems harder to swallow. That each may influence the other ro a greater or lesser degree would appear more plausible to me.

According to Levi-Strauss, the relationship between language and culture can be broken down into three categories.

1.) The degree to which a language and culture are separable,

2.) The Relationship between Language and Culture as global concepts, rather than singular entities like English, French or Spanish and their respective cultures, and

3.) The Relationship between the studies of Linguistics and Anthropology.

He goes on to state that there are individual cultural ramifications of this relationship, which is particularly notes in cultural attitudes towards silence.

Another concept to note is that Language is the means by which Culture is transmitted, but both are visible manifestations of the same underlying mental processes, therefore Linguistics can be used as a tool to analyse culture.

This notion was particularly seductive to anthropology at the time of this publication, because it was before the widespread use of ethnographic work, and Linguistics had long since been steeped in empirical methods of fields concidered to be “more scientific”.

An example of this is the apparent disparity between the kinship systems of the areas considered Sino-Tibetan and Indo-European. The result is a seemingly dichotomous arrangement of terms for kin, the clan type of Sino-Tibetan cultures having many terms differentiating the maternal and paternal side of ego’s family( Paternal Grandfather: JOO-foo, Maternal Grandfather:wai-JOO-foo); whereas, the extended family type of Indo-European cultures that lack that level of differentiation, and maternal and paternal sides are only differentiated by gender (e.g. Aunt, Uncle, Grandfather, Grandmother).

Four Winnebago Myths: A Structural Sketch

A Breakdown of the Reading

This article is based on myths collected by Radin during his ethnography of the Winnebago. The myths that Levi-Strauss chose are all of the same genre, in that the protagonist must experience death in some form, but they each differ slightly from each other.

The first myth introduces us to the concept of  the the “capital of life” and that all people are entitled to a specific “quota of years” of life and experience. When someone dies before that quota has been fulfilled, the remaining life returns to the tribe. Additionally, Levi-Strauss dichotomizes the heroic and ordinary with regard to lives; the former being renewable, but short lived; whereas, an ordinary full life is non-renewable. A hellenistic example of this concept is found with the story of Achilles, embodies by Brad Pitt in 2004 box office hit Troy, when his mother told him he could live a full life and die known only to his children, who would after many generations forget his name; or,

Sherry Ortner (b.)

Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture

A Breakdown of the Reading

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  • Leslie Sipat  On April 20, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    I find it interesting that Levi-Strauss puts a limit to the worth of a person because would that render that useless in the grand scheme of things because it’s going to take away once we’re gone?

    We read so much how the idea of afterlife is revered to many people and to have it be disposable makes one wonder the afterlife does exist. If it does, can we get whatever we lost and get it back?

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