Structuralism and comparativism

Yesterday one of anthropology’s most influential and controversial figures, Claude Levi-Strauss, celebrated his one hundredth birthday. Virtually no one is an unalloyed structuralist these days, but Levi-Strauss is nonetheless a figure of unparalleled influence on world anthropology and indeed on much of the humanities and social sciences, more broadly construed. In anthropology, his influence has centrally been in the study of religion and myth, but ranges across fields, from Ian Hodder’s archaeological account of Balkan agricultural origins in The Domestication of Europe (Hodder 1990) to Charles Laughlin’s neurologically-informed biogenetic structuralism (Laughlin and d’Aquili 1974).

I’ve never been much of a fan of Levi-Strauss’ work, which I find too arcane to be of much use to me personally (Levi-Strauss 1963, 1966). I do have a background in structuralism, but it’s the British-influenced structuralism of Rodney Needham, which is more accessible to the novice (Needham 1980, 1983). And I’ve also taken to heart the (equally controversial) criticisms of Dan Sperber, who argues forcefully in Rethinking Symbolism (Sperber 1975) that the patterns Levi-Strauss observes are understandable within a cognitive science of religion and myth, one that seeks to transcend simple issues of ‘culture’ and ‘meaning’ and to understand how human beings process information. No one has ever demonstrated to my satisfaction that the ‘structures’ that Levi-Strauss proposes actually exist in the mind or anywhere else.

But, for me, the real value of Levi-Strauss’ work, one that is too often ignored by structuralists and non-structuralists alike, is that it is an attempt (however imperfect) to build anthropological theory through the comparative use of anthropological data. It is neither a narrow particularism, focused solely on single social contexts, nor does it relegate anthropology to be a constant borrower of grand theory in order to explain its evidence. Instead it takes as a foundational assumption the idea that anthropology is a comparative science, and understanding systematically the similarities and differences among human myths can tell us something about the human condition that cannot be learned otherwise. The (literally) hopeless particularism of much of contemporary anthropology leaves us little to contribute to other disciplines, if we have no use for our data except as part of a general enterprise of data collection.

I am an unapologetic comparativist, and in that fact I feel a real kinship (pun intended) with Levi-Strauss and his work. I believe that it is imperative that anthropologists systematically develop a set of comparative methods to allow us to draw reasonable conclusions about patterns of human behaviour, past and present. Until we do such comparisons, we have no way to judge whether such patterns are common or rare; the retreat into particularism is unjustified, absent the sort of work that Levi-Strauss and others have undertaken. For my part, in my own little realm of number systems, I have, I think, put together good evidence that there are patterns, even (dare I say it?) cultural laws, and if these are not in any sense structuralist laws, they nonetheless bear a great debt to the man whose centenary we are celebrating.

Works cited

Hodder, I. 1990. The domestication of Europe. Blackwell.
Laughlin, C. D., and d’Aquili, E.G. 1974. Biogenetic structuralism. Columbia University Press.
Lévi-Strauss, C. 1966. The Savage Mind. University Of Chicago Press.
Lévi-Strauss, C. 1963. Structural Anthropology. Basic Books.
Needham, R. 1980. Reconnaissances. University of Toronto Press.
Needham, R. 1983. Structure and sentiment. University of Chicago Press.
Sperber, D. 1975. Rethinking symbolism. Cambridge University Press.



  1. Nikos: Yes, I am of Greek origin ultimately, although my family has been in Canada for four generations now so it’s a fairly distant connection.

    Finding analogies among various cultures is part of what I mean by comparativism, but also, it is necessary to compare in order to find differences.

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