International Encyclopaedia
of the Histories of Anthropology

Born in 1908 in Brussels, Claude Lévi-Strauss was one of the great French anthropologists of the second half of the twentieth century. He came from a Jewish family, and in his youth gained an “agrégation” in philosophy and was active in the socialist movement, before turning to ethnology in the mid-1930s. Accompanied by his first wife Dina, he joined the University of São Paulo in 1935 where he taught sociology for three years. During his years in Brazil, he led two ethnographic expeditions among the Caduveo, Bororo Indians on the Mato Grosso plateau. He went into exile in New York during the Second World War, teaching ethnology at the New School for Social Research. He met Alfred Kroeber, Robert Lowie, Franz Boas and many other American anthropologists. He worked on his PhD from the New York Public Library. Thanks to Alfred Métraux, he collaborated on the Handbook of South American Indians project led by Julian Steward. His meeting with Roman Jakobson, who introduced him to linguistic structuralism, the structural method, was decisive. Returning to France in 1948, he was appointed Senior Research Fellow at the CNRS and Deputy Director of the Musée de l’Homme until 1949. The publication of his thesis in 1949, Les structures élémentaires de la parenté, was highly noteworthy. After two failures at the Collège de France, he was elected Director of Studies at the EPHE in 1950 (the chair occupied at the time by Marcel Mauss) and Secretary General of the International Social Science Council of UNESCO in 1953. Publications followed one after another: the “Introduction” to Marcel Mauss’ work appeared in 1950, Race et Histoire in 1952, Tristes Tropiques in 1955, Anthropologie structurale (a collection of articles) in 1958 ‒ and also intellectual disputes with Georges Gurvitch, Roger Caillois, Jean-Paul Sartre, etc. The doors of the Collège de France opened in 1959 and Claude Lévi-Strauss was elected professor holding the new chair of social anthropology. In 1960, with Isac Chiva, he founded the Laboratory of Social Anthropology (without trying to found a school and train disciples, which he did not care about) and, in 1961, L’Homme. Revue française d’anthropologie, with Émile Benveniste and Pierre Gourou (though he in no way sought to make it his exclusive tool for promoting anthropological structuralism). Years of intense scientific fertility followed from teaching at the EPHE and the Collège de France, with his books receiving considerable recognition and influence: Le totémisme aujourd’hui (1962), La pensée sauvage (1962), the four Mythologiques (1964-1971), Anthropologie structurale deux (1973), and La voie des masques (1975). To the bafflement of his fellow anthropologists, he ran for and was elected to the Académie française in 1974. He retired in October 1982. Then followed Le Regard éloigné (1983), La potière jealouse (1985), Histoire de lynx (1991), Regarder écouter lire (1993) and Saudades do Brasil (1994). He died in 2009 in Paris, aged 100. Levi-Strauss was the author of an ambitious theoretical work that questions anew the relationship between nature and culture and affirms the singularity of the anthropological approach towards other social sciences; he sought to identify the invariants of human societies, the symbolic logics at work in the functioning of the human mind in society. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ extreme attention to the infinite constellation of ethnographic diversity, originally strongly rooted in Americanist materials, is notable in many fields of research: kinship, mythology, art, the savage mind, etc. Although he never dominated the French anthropological field in the 1950s and 1980s, deeply plural and composed of strong personalities as it was, he inspired many anthropologists in very different directions, in France and abroad, and his work lent itself to multiple readings, extensions ‒ and critiques.

Keywords: Linguistics | Social and cultural anthropology | French Ethnology | Structuralism | 20th century | France | Brazil | Amazonia | Australia | Amerindian studies | Americanism | Bororo | Kadiwéu | Nambikwara | Kinship anthropology | Myths | Symbolic Anthropology | Art | Franz Boas | Marcel Mauss | Collège de France | Alfred Kroeber

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