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Structuralism and Poststructuralism: Anthropology

Structuralism and Poststructuralism: Anthropology

Structuralism in anthropology is inextricably linked with its founder, Claude Lévi-Strauss. His principal contributions have been in the field of kinship and in the analysis of symbolism, particularly of myths. The characteristic approach of structuralist analysis is to categorize systems, not in terms of the composition or content of their component elements, but in terms of the structure of relationships between these elements.

Lévi-Strauss's first major work, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), begins with the premise that exogamy, the obligation to marry outside one's own group, is a corollary of the incest taboo, a defining criterion of "culture" as opposed to "nature." If complex kinship structures are characterized by negative rulesprohibitions on marrying certain categories of relativesthen elementary structures are defined by positive rules that indicate marriage with specific kinds of relatives. Bilateral cross-cousin marriage, in which a man marries either a father's sister's or a mother's brother's daughter, can be conceived of as a system of symmetrical exchange of women between two groups. Matrilateral cross-cousin marriage, where a man marries his mother's brother's daughter but never his father's sister's daughter, involves asymmetrical exchange, whereby a man takes a wife from one group and marries off his sister to another.

In 1962, Lévi-Strauss published The Savage Mind, a work on symbolism that characterized primitive thought as bricolage, a term that translates roughly as "handy work," working with whatever is readily available rather than using a specific tool adapted to a certain task. The primary tool of such thought is metaphor, grounded in analogical reasoning. In other words, if the members of one clan are "bears" and their neighbors "foxes," this has nothing to do with intrinsic resemblances; rather, the difference between human groups is considered to be analogous to the difference between species of animals.

Lévi-Strauss applied this approach in his magnum opus, a four-volume series on mythology: The Raw and the Cooked (1964), From Honey to Ashes (1966), The Origin of Table Manners (1968), and The Naked Man (1971). The aim of his analysis is "to show how empirical categoriessuch as the categories of the raw and the cooked, the fresh and the decayed, the moistened and the burned, etc., which can only be accurately defined by ethnographic observation and, in each instance, by adopting the standpoint of a particular culturecan nonetheless be used as conceptual tools with which to elaborate abstract ideas and combine them in the form of propositions."

Lévi-Strauss begins with a myth from the Bororo culture in Brazil, initially comparing it to other Bororo myths, then to myths from neighboring populations, until by the end of the fourth volume, he discusses no fewer than 813 myths from across North as well as South America. The mythology of the Americas is depicted as a single vast system in which individual myths can be interpreted as transformations of other myths and where relationships between elements from different codessocial categories, animal and plant species, modes of food preparation, parts of the body, celestial and meteorological phenomena, among otherscan always be expressed as analogical to other codes.

Followers and Critics

Lévi-Strauss's work on kinship gave rise in Britain to "alliance theory," whose leading practitioners were Edmund Leach and Rodney Needham. They challenged the prevalent classification of kinship systems in terms of matrilineal and patrilineal descent and suggested instead a classification based on patterns of marriage. Needham attempted to distinguish between "preferred" and "prescriptive" cousin, but Lévi-Strauss himself refused to admit the pertinence of such a distinction, and Needham encouraged one of his students, Francis Korn, to publish a case-by-case refutation of Elementary Structures of Kinship. The work of Abraham Rosman and Paula Rubel in the United States and of Françoise Héritier in France represents other applications of structuralism to kinship theory.

Lévi-Strauss's influence has been even more pervasive, if more diffuse, in the study of symbolism. Edmund Leach and Dan Sperber have published important general works on the subject. Numerous ethnographies have incorporated structural approaches in their analyses of the symbolic systems of specific cultures, including Stephen Hugh-Jones's discussion of Amazonian cosmology, Sherry Ortner's analyses of Sherpa rituals, Louis Dumont's account of caste and pollution in India, and Luc de Heusch's comparative study of Central African myths of kingship. Although Mary Douglas has remained persistently critical of Lévi-Strauss's work, her work on purity and pollution shows definite affinities with structuralist approaches.

Certain Marxists and materialists such as Claude Meillassoux and Marvin Harris criticized Lévi-Strauss for his radical idealism, his interest in mental structures rather in the material circumstances underpinning them; other Marxists, however, notably Maurice Godelier, sought to reconcile Marxism and structuralism. In addition, critics such as Pierre Bourdieu have pointed out that Lévi-Strauss's concern with abstract thought rather than with the process of thinking leaves no room for human agency.

Poststructuralism and Anthropology: Foucault and his Impact

Poststructuralism is a term loosely applied to members of the next generation of French thinkers after Lévi-Strauss who also concerned themselves with texts and discourses. Of these, Michel Foucault had the greatest impact on anthropology. Foucault's work is specifically concerned with the relationship between knowledge and power. Knowledge, for Foucault, is not primarily a collection of facts or even ideas, but only takes on significance within what he calls an episteme, an overarching framework situated in time, within which such ideas emerge as relevant and indeed possible. Though Foucault avoids Marxist terminology, one might characterize his epistemes as "modes of thinking" as opposed to "modes of production." In a similar manner, he situates "power" within a framework of possibilities determined by an overall system rather than as a property of individual actors. In Discipline and Punish (1975), he uses the modern prison system as a central example of how these two systems, of knowledge and of power, are fused in contemporary society. Discipline is, he argues, a central feature of modern institutionsprison, army, schoolinscribing power relations on the bodies of subjects who must conform but must also be constantly monitored; this monitoring of subjects is the intellectual task of modern "disciplines"psychology, sociology, anthropology, and others.

Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) argued in a similar vein that European and American expert knowledge of the "Orient" and particularly the Middle East was inextricably connected with the exercise of Western hegemony over the region. Such critiques have made anthropologists much more self-conscious about the implications of their own representations of "other," non-European peoples. James Clifford and George Marcus have been concerned with the ways in which such representations are constructed through writing, and the rhetorical means by which anthropologists lay claim to "authority." Talal Asad has suggested that anthropologists' attempts to arrive at ahistoricized definitions of such phenomena as religion serve to naturalize (that is, make cultural concepts and thought systems appear timeless, natural, and universal) post-Enlightenment systems of European thought while simultaneously problematizing other systems of practice, even in European history. Paul Rabinow has been perhaps the most adamant disciple of Foucault within the discipline, both as an exegete and as an ethnographer of modern France.

Derrida and Deconstruction

At first sight, Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology (1967), which makes the provocative claim for the logical priority of writing (or at least "archè -writing") over speech, might not seem a likely candidate for a work that would influence anthropological thinking. Derrida's point is, first of all, that writing reveals the spaces, silences, and erasures that speech conceals; second, that there is an apparent gap in time and space, a différance, between the enunciation and reception of a written text, whereas speech gives the illusion of immediacy. Derrida's purpose is to radically call into question the relevance of authorial intention and the possibility of any fixed meaning. Texts, written or spoken, must be interpreted not only in terms of what they "say" but of what they keep silent, and with respect to other texts before and after. Derrida's approach to texts, "deconstruction," lays bare the internal contradictions of any text, precluding the attribution of definitive meaning, intentional or otherwise.

The term deconstruction has been used so loosely by many anthropologists that it has lost any clear referentan ironic fate for a concept intended to challenge the fixity of meaning. More specifically, Derrida's skepticism about intentionality in the interpretation of texts has fueled "postmodern" critiques of anthropological representations of the "other." Derrida's wordplay and elliptical style have inspired new forms of anthropological writing, best exemplified by the work of Michael Taussig.

Ultimately, both structuralism and poststructuralism have contributed to tendencies on the part of many (but by no means all) anthropologists to call into question the characterization of their discipline as "science" and to reposition themselves more centrally in the humanitiesstructuralism through its emphasis on the decoding of symbols, a domain often considered antithetical to strictly "scientific" approaches; and poststructuralism by forcing anthropologists to call into question their own practices of representation. Critics from within the humanist camp, however, have pointed out that both structuralism and poststructuralism are theoretically de-humanizing (that is, ignoring or minimizing the impact and importance of human agency), most obviously in Derrida's critique of human intentionality but also, at least implicitly, in the work of Lévi-Strauss and Foucault. At best, such theories make any consideration of human agency problematic; at worst, they leave no place for it at all.

See also Anthropology ; Cultural Studies ; Postmodernism ; Text/Textuality .


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Robert Launay

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