Structuralism: Levi-Strauss and Ortner

Structuralism (from Josh Liggett)

Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1908-2009)

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.

Sherry Beth Ortner (b. 1941 –)

Sherry Beth Ortner is currently a distinguished professor of Anthropology at the University of California Los Angeles. Ortner grew up in Newark, New Jersey and was raised in a Jewish family. She was awarded her A.B. from Bryn Mawr College in 1962 and received her Ph. D in Anthropology from the University of Chicago while working with Clifford Geertz in the year 1970. She was awarded her Ph. D for her fieldwork dealing with the Sherpa people of Nepal. Most of her known contributions within the field of Anthropology deal with the feminist theory and feminist Anthropology.

Sherry Beth Ortner’s essay, within the section, is a structural analysis of gender inequality amongst the various cultures around the Earth. Entitled, “Is Female to Male as Nature is To Culture?” Ortner suggests that gender stratification is based on the fundamental opposition between nature and culture. Ortner proposes that women, because of the natural ability to create life through pregnancy and birth, are associated with nature. Thus, the males of the species are associated with the creation of culture due to their inability to create offspring, this would allow males to award themselves higher status compared to females. Within her essay she compared cultures form across the globe and found that amongst the various cultures there is similar gender roles played between males and females awarding males higher status in most cultures. Ortner attempts to expose this underlying logic of cultural thinking that subjects women to inferior status amongst their male counterparts.

Ortner discusses and addresses the problem with three different levels:

  1. The universal fact of culturally attributed second class status of women in nearly every society. What is the evidence that allows for women to contain inferior status against their male counterparts and how does one explain this fact, once having established it?
  2. Specific ideologies, symbolizations, and socio-structural arrangements pertaining to women that varies widely from culture to culture. The problem at this level is to account for any particular cultural complex in terms of factors specific to that group-the standard level of Anthropological analysis.
  3. Observable on the grounds details of women’s activities, contributions, powers, influence, etc., often at variance with cultural ideology (although always constrained within the assumption that women may never be officially preeminent in the total system). This is the level of direct observation, often adopted now by feminist-oriented Anthropologists. (CITATION MISSING)
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  • Martha T.  On March 12, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    Levi-Strauss’s examination of the Four Winnedbago Myths highlight commmon themes found in many cultures all over the world. Buddhists believe that if they live their lives to the best of their abilities, they will be reincarnated at a higher level to a better life, until they reach Nirvana. Christians believe that if they have been dealt a crummy deck of cards in this life, they should make the best of it and that they are “putting jewels in their crowns in heaven” for the future through their trials. The idea that doing something heroic for others through sacrifice is noble and will gain the hero reward in the long run is not an idea unique to the Winnebago. I think it is common because people genuinely want to believe that the world is fair, and that everyone will be paid their dues in the end in one form or another. The reincarnation aspect of the myths highlights this; a character might have to make a great sacrifice for the good of their people, but they will by duely rewarded for it through reincarnation. I think this idea speaks volumes to everyone.

  • jesteenburns  On March 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    I have to say I was not very impressed with the selection from Levi-Strauss. Perhaps I just did not understand the point, but the case is just that : I simply did not understand the point. The idea of structuralism, and the concept of analyzing the structures of cultures is something I can get onboard with, but this whole essay meant nothing to me. I mean comparing four essays of from the same culture and saying there is a consistent structure to this (something I do not even think was executed well) is completely subjective to story choice, time period, version, number evaluated, and bias of how well it fits. Let us say that there is in fact a ‘’structure’’ shared by all these stories, what about all the other stories that are not in here? I mean it is not too incomprehensible to assume that a culture would place emphasis on the same things in different ways as reinforcing core cultural beliefs, actually it seems almost common sense that such a thing would occur, but if it’s only 4 out of 100 is it really significant?
    I also feel like this excerpt really did not get at what was hinted at in the intro. If were looking for a fundamental structure of human cognition would it not be better to compare stories of different cultures instead of comparing one to itself?
    I do not mean to bash on this guy, so if anyone would like to enlighten me, i am completely open to being pointed in the right direction.

  • Fiona  On March 13, 2012 at 7:01 am

    This semester I’m taking a world mythology class, and we were introduced to Levi-Strauss’ structuralist interpretation of myth. Apparently, it’s been widely criticized and debunked or at least heavily modified. Of course, I believe that there are some common structures to myth — after all the human mind is finite and we can only do so much. Regarding myth, people use what they know and what they’re familiar with. It only makes sense that myths would reflect the culture in which they were invented. Conversely, these myths can also be used to maintain a culture’s beliefs.

    In the end, I kind of agree with Jesteen. There’s just not enough evidence to make believing this theory worth it. Then again, he was an expert on myth of this sort, making it a little easier to believe what he’s saying. He just needs a bit more evidence to convince people.

  • Dale H.  On March 13, 2012 at 8:05 am

    I agree with the first two paragraphs of the introduction to these articles. The way Claude Levi-Strauss’ ideas about how culture is described, transmitted, and changed is exactly how I picture cultural evolution in my mind. I think though that Claude should have done better than handpicking four Native American myths to support his ideas. Of course, once again, my limited knowledge could be my problem since maybe his article is just one of thousands in support of these ideas. But another difficulty I have is in the idea that from reading somebody else’s stuff, a person can uncover the unconscious meaning of a myth’s characters to the extent that they can interpret motives and correlate underlying significance regardless of the storyline, especially when using religious myths. “Of course, once again, my limited knowledge . . .”

    Note 5, page 324 seems to be presenting the same argument I am attempting, but the note does so in a much more eloquent fashion than I ever could!

    In conclusion, note 11, the last part of which is on page 329, I will quote as if they were my words: “I am ready to concede that the structures which he displays are products of an unconscious mental process, but I can see no reason to believe that they are human universals.”

  • Elizabeth L.  On March 13, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    Levi-Strauss (1908-2009)
    Levi-Strauss interprets Paul Radins’ four Winnebags myths. I personally think that Levi-Strauss structured Radin’s myths into a way where Levi-Strauss was able to understand fully and I can say that the way Levi-Strauss interprets the myths are in simple terms to understand. I was able to fully absorb the structure that Levi-Strauss has drawn out in his article. For example, Levi-Strauss drew the structure of a triangle in the first Myth, about living full life and living full deaths and the ability to determine if the individual wanted a half-life. The way how I interpreted Levi-Strauss’ theory of structuralism is by allowing myself to see Radin’s four myths and creating a notion of structure in the human thought which at that point I was able to analyze the kinship or the way of a cultural life. I looked up what is Structuralism and the definition states: “Structuralism is a theoretical paradigm which emphasizes that elements of culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or “structure.” In other words, Structuralism posits that discrete cultural elements are not explanatory in and of themselves, but rather form part of a meaningful system and are best understood with respect to their location within (and relationship to) the structure as a whole.” With this definition, in my opinion, Levi-Strauss portrayed the Structuralism in Radin’s four myths.

  • James Mullooly  On March 14, 2012 at 7:12 am

    Wow; bash Levi-Strauss day!; all good points; maybe we can take more general claims from L-S regarding language and culture and leave the myth stuff aside.

  • Arlynedonna  On March 14, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    After the ethno science/new ethnography era of the 1950s and 1960s, structuralism had a rather big impact on American anthropology and later influenced the symbolic anthropology of the 1970s, as well as the cognitive and post-modernism theories in the 1980s. Given these are the days of my youth, I wanted to get to the bigger anthropological picture; I want to understand the importance of structuralism in the evolution of anthropology, as it happened, in my lifetime.
    I want to understand why Levi-Straus is synonymous with structuralism. I don’t want to challenge his process, nor do I want to analyze why he thought what he thought, back in the day when he thought it… those days are just a slice of bygone times and I am not here to judge the thoughts of yesterday.
    I am looking to get a grasp on why it is important. It helps me understand why I think the way I do, and why I approach archaeology and ethnographic fieldwork the way I do. Plus, it is nice when I find myself aligned with some of these big theory thinkers. I am part of the bigger picture.

    So this is what feels important to me about structuralism:

    – Claude Levi-Straus’ main concern – the nature of human thinking.

    – He spent his career doing cross-cultural studies of kinship, mythology and religion

    – His view on the purpose of structuralism – to examine the relationships among elements of culture and describe the nature of the human mind. All culture and languages are products of human thinking (I agree). Each culture is the product of its own history and its technology (I agree, again).

    – Levi-Straus outlined a methodology for sorting through anthroplogical data, and as an analytical method, he thought structuralism could lead to valuable interpretive insights

    – Binary contrasts was his foundation of structuralism. He used the binary structure of human thought to analyze kinship while applying the concept of reciprocity to marriage (women are commodities and can be exchanged – this forms the kin networks of societies)

    – Structuralists don’t consider the meaning of symbols to be as important as their pattern, which is critical. They believe culture is a mental thing so they are concerned with what people think, rather than what people do.

    And that’s what I think about that.

    • Arlyne Boyer  On March 18, 2012 at 4:19 pm

      Oh NOW it shows up…

  • Arlyne Boyer  On March 15, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    what the heck happened to my post! It was here, I swear…….

  • Arlyne Boyer  On March 15, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    It seems structuralism had a rather big impact on American anthropology and coming out of the ethno-science era of the 1950s and 1960s, Claude Levi-Straus’s structuralism was a strong stepping stone which later influenced the symbolic anthropology of the 1970s, as well as cognitive and post-modernism in the 1980s. Given these are the days of my youth, I want to understand the way people were thinking back then (because it wasn‘t THAT long ago). I want to see the bigger anthropological picture and learn why Levi-Straus is synonymous with structuralism.

    These are the points that feel important to me :

    – Language is the means through which culture is transmitted.
    – All cultures and languages are products of human thinking.
    – Claude Levi-Straus’ main concern was the nature of human thinking
    – Levi-Straus outlined a methodology to sort through data.
    – Binary oppositions are the basis of human cognition
    – He used the binary structure of human thought to analyze kinship
    – structuralism examines the relationships among elements of culture
    – Levi-Straus spent his career doing cross-cultural studies of kinship, myth, and religion.
    – He thought structuralism (and its methodology) would lead to valuable interpretive insights.

  • Britty  On March 20, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Structuralism seeks to find the underlying pattern throughout all culture. It tries to understand culture in terms of the overall system vs the individua way people catagorize their world. It searches for the “underlying logical process that structure all human throught opperates with in different cultural context.” This allows us to infer a common pattern in which humans behave even if it is explained differently through culture. Using Mauss’s theory that primitive societies are motived by reciprication and not econimics, Levi -Strauss suggests that women are seen as a commodity to exchange when it comes to marriage. He explains also that first we make the distinction between ones self and the other and then between kin and nonkin.
    These pattern of human ideation are very noticable when say you take any given creationism story. There are many different stories about how people and earth came to be and they all have commonalities. The fact that creation stories exsist is a perfect example of the patterns in human behavior. A need to explain where we came from shows a common behavior.
    Ortner looks at gender stratification and how it relates to nature. She suggests “gender stratification is based on fundamental opposition between nature and culture. Women are universally associated with nature. Men…are culture creators and are thus accorded high status.” This in reality is just a construct of culture and not actually fact. This is a pattern associated with all cultures.

  • CorrinaC  On April 7, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    While reading Ortners paper, I do share the same sentiments that women are physiologically structured different than men and are perhaps even “enslaved” to the species than male are, but that would mean that the functions of being a woman is a sort of imprisonment.

    On the contrary, I do find it interesting that women who are carriers of descendents are regarded to be inferior than men. Ortner points out that often men activities usually involve with the “destruction of life”, but are given more prestige than women who are “creators of life”. I think this shows that humans are a bloodthirsty lot in a sense showing humanities ability to also self destroy. It doesn’t show how unique humans are compared to various other animals species when primal instincts kick when threatened.

    It seems to me men are given prestige in a constructed output because of their social activities. Nothing they do is remarkably biologically noting, but woman carry offspring and are creating a new life naturally subjecting their bodies to pain and alteration. Their worth value should be seen to be higher if not equal to men, but they are viewed prestigious from a biologically standpoint. Even the aesthetic beauty of a female is designed to attract a mate and increase the fitness of their future (just like chimps!). It also seems because social behavior of men can be seen in a destructive light it might also show that they can protect their kin and resources thus protecting their “culture” and ensuring its survival. Apparently, women giving birth is regarded as a normal enough state of “womanhood,” maybe perhaps the thought is that women can’t stop having children so it is not such a remarkable function? Hmm, I assure you, my friend, that women can indeed stop having babies if they choose to. Simultaneously , that is improbable

  • kQ  On March 11, 2014 at 11:35 am

    This was such a difficult reading and it had a moth full of words, so in order for me to have a better understanding of Claude Levi-Strauss ideas I had to dissect some of his words. So for what I understand Structuralism rejects the idea that the real source of meaning and truth of things are neither celestial or from within us, like it was believed before and during the 19th century, but rather it comes from deep structures like language and kinship among others. Strauss’ developed the idea that if you study the culture, then you have a more intimate knowledge of the language (his work was heavily influenced Saussure, Durkheim and Mass), then he went on with his work in kinship and myths. What is really interesting is that by denying the influence of the divine and our own source of consciousness, structuralism develops a new focus on structures that at the end uncover the non-so radical ideas of the structuralist.

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