Claude Lévi-Strauss

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Lévi-Strauss in 2005 Claude Levi-Strauss signature.svg

Claude Lévi-Strauss [ kloːd leviˈstʀoːs ] (born November 28, 1908 in Brussels , † October 30, 2009 in Paris ) was a French ethnologist . He is considered the founder of ethnological structuralism . During his academic career, he was primarily associated with the elite university École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) and the Collège de France in Paris.


Childhood and youth

Claude Lévi-Strauss - son of Jewish parents, his father was a portrait painter - lived with his grandfather, a rabbi of the synagogue in Versailles , during the First World War . The parents then moved to Paris. There he attended the Lycée Janson de Sailly and studied law and philosophy at the Sorbonne . In 1931 he obtained an agrégation in philosophy, a legal licentiate and a Docteur des lettres. After teaching at high schools in Mont-de-Marsan (1932/1933) and in Laon (1933/1934), he was sent as a visiting professor of sociology to the University of São Paulo as part of a French cultural mission from 1934 to 1937 .

Time in brazil

His first wife, Dina Dreyfus , a trained ethnologist, gave the first ethnology lectures in Brazil at the same time. Between 1935 and 1939 Dina and Claude undertook several ethnographic research trips to Mato Grosso and the Amazon region . The exchanged collection items were shared between Brazil and France. The first exhibition in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris was entitled “Expédition Dina et Claude Lévi-Strauss”. Later, Dina's contribution was almost completely forgotten, to which Claude, who subsequently married twice, actively contributed: In his travel report “Tristes Tropiques” he mentioned his wife, colleague and travel companion only in one place.

The second World War

He returned to France shortly before the Second World War . At the beginning of the war he did military service as a liaison officer on the Maginot Line . However, due to the racial laws of the Vichy regime, he was discharged from the army in 1940, separated from his wife and emigrated from France. In the spring of 1941 he arrived in New York - after several stops and complications; a first ship had brought him from Marseilles to Martinique; On board were Anna Seghers , André Breton and Victor Serge ; Only with the support of Jacques Soustelle did the American authorities accept his onward journey. The Rockefeller Foundation supported the escape of numerous intellectuals and financed the French wing of the New School for Social Research in New York . At the request of the faculty, he shortened his name to L.-Strauss, because: "Lévi-Strauss - those were jeans, the students would laugh about it." There he taught from 1942 to 1945 and met Roman Jakobson , one of the most important representatives a structuralist linguistics . Together with Henri Focillon , Jacques Maritain and a few others, he founded the École libre des hautes études de New York , a kind of university in exile.

After the war

In 1944 he was recalled to France by the French Foreign Ministry and sent back to New York in 1945 as cultural advisor to the French embassy. In 1948 he quit in order to be able to devote himself to his research again. He became sub-director of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris and traveled to East Pakistan in 1949 . He then became director of the École pratique des hautes études (the later École des hautes études en sciences sociales), which he remained until 1974, responsible for the chair and the study program in comparative religious studies.

In 1955 the travelogue Sad Tropics appeared , at the same time a structuralist program publication . The poetic work develops a critique of Western civilization from the perspective of the "savages": everything foreign is leveled out, the West has "gambled away twenty thousand years of history". In 1958 the "Anthropologie Structurale" appeared, in 1962 "The wild thinking". From 1959 until his retirement in 1982, Lévi-Strauss taught as a professor of social anthropology at the renowned Collège de France . The “Mythologiques” appeared in four volumes in quick succession: “Das Rohe und das Gekochte” (1964); "From Honey to Ashes" (1967); “The Origin of Table Manners” (1968); "The naked man" (1971). 1973 Lévi-Strauss became a member of the Académie française and received the Erasmus Prize . After his retirement, he published several volumes containing short sketches of individual examples: “The View from a Distance” (1983); "Promises Delivered" (1984); "The Jealous Pottery" (1985); "Lynx story" (1991); “Seeing, Hearing, Reading” (1993).

Lévi-Strauss died on October 30th, 2009 at the age of 100 of complications from a heart attack. The burial took place on November 4, 2009 in the immediate family circle in the cemetery of the parish of Lignerolles in the Côte-d'Or (Burgundy) department .



The foundation of French ethnological structuralism is often dated to the appearance of Lévi-Strauss' analysis of kinship systems in 1949. The basic idea is: an exchange system controlled by marriage rules replaces natural relationships with social alliances by means of reciprocal obligations. Marriage rules are divided into marriage commands (the society recommends which group to marry from) and marriage bans (it is only prescribed from which group it is not allowed to marry). The significantly most frequent occurrence of a certain form of "woman swap" can, according to the thesis, be explained by their preferred systematic position. It is about the cross cousin marriage , the marriage of a man with the matrilateral cross cousin (the daughter of the mother brother). This creates the most stable social conditions. Marriage is close enough for duty to work socially, but far enough away so that the incest taboo is preserved. This makes the Avunculus, the mother-brother ( uncle ), particularly significant. This point was u. a. criticized by Pierre Bourdieu , who empirically identified this marriage case in North Africa as just one of many. So came z. B. the marriage with the matrilateral parallel cousin (the daughter of the mother sister) in his sample. The orientation towards social exchange processes has a forerunner in Marcel Mauss .

See also positive and negative, as well as preferential and prescriptive rules of marriage ; Lévi-Strauss on the prohibition of incest

Anthropology and cultural studies

Lévi-Strauss compared the relationship between linguistics and language with the relationship between ethnology and culture and postulated the transferability of linguistic constructs to ethnology. Culture behaves like language: only an outsider can recognize and interpret the underlying rules and structures. In 1958 Lévi-Strauss published his collection of articles on “Structural Anthropology”. As in his study on marriage relationships, he uses the method of orienting oneself on systematic structures that depend on the structure of the relationships so that they can also be transferred to completely different elements. Similarly, the Prague structuralism of Jakobson and others had argued that the elements which phonology studies do not derive their meaning from themselves but from the system that orders them. The aim of the anthropologist is to indirectly understand the cognitive structures of human thought by analyzing cultural phenomena and to work out the universal thought principles in the classifications and systems of meaning used.

His anthropological studies made him one of the most vehement critics of religious totemism : he only saw social aspects in the diverse forms of mythical human-animal relationships. The various spiritual "guardian spirit" ideas must be viewed separately from totemic concepts.

Criticism of reason (the "wild thinking")

While he expressed a fascination for cultures without writing - or in his sense - alternatives to western civilization in the travelogue “Sad Tropics” from 1955 , he clearly developed these ideas with the program publication “Das wilde Denk” (French: pensée sauvage ) published in 1962 further. Lévi-Strauss used this term to describe the ways of thinking of indigenous, nature-adapted cultures , which are based on traditionally holistic and mythically explained world views .

In no way is our culture mentally and cognitively superior, but both are variants of those similar procedures for which he introduced the term “wild thinking” as a label. The "primitive" is not driven by instincts instead of reason, but is not processing less "sensible" - but simply different - more concrete material, but with different goals and more in the mode of bricolage ("tinkering"). The perspective on the structures of this thinking enables a “translation” of both forms. A classification of the environment is made in both cultures, whereby the individual schemes are also interculturally transferable. This proves that the structures of human thought are universal and uniform. For example, thinking always takes place by juxtaposing two concepts, i.e. by means of a binary opposition (complementary dichotomy ). Such pairs of opposites are for example hot-cold, up-down, etc. Only the manifestations are different depending on the culture. The fundamental contrast is the opposition between "nature" and "culture".

In connection with dichotomous thinking, Lévi-Strauss introduced the distinction between “cold” and “hot” cultures . With these terms he compared the modern and traditional (nature-adapted) cultures.

He called “cold cultures” societies in which all thinking and acting consciously and unconsciously aim to prevent any changes in traditionally fixed structures (provided that there is no imperative or external influences). The trust is in nature; human activity is generally considered imperfect. The so-called isolated peoples , who mostly deliberately avoid contact with the western world, are today's representatives of cold societies.

“Hot cultures” are the exact opposite: They trust people's ability to innovate and are optimistic that they can adapt nature to their needs. Hence, all of their striving is directed towards progress and change. Even if this primarily improves the living conditions of the privileged, the lower classes are often the mainspring of development. The modern, western-oriented consumer society is the prototype of hot culture.

Myth analysis

Claude Lévi-Strauss' analysis of myths is mainly presented in the first volume of Mythologiques (German Mythologica I. The raw and the cooked ). In the work he shows that the structural analysis can also be used successfully in the field of myth research. His research shows that the models built according to the myths of primitive societies are formed as conversions or transformations of other myth models and that these models as a whole form a structure. In the Mythologiques Lévi-Strauss tries to explain the totality of the pre-Columbian myths starting from a certain myth of Bororos.

According to Lévi-Strauss, myths consist of units (mythems) that are arranged according to as yet undefined rules. These units can enter into opposing relationships, which in turn represent the basis of thought structures. The analysis of myths aims to understand the basic structures of human thought. Since myths are themselves a product of their culture, they first represent those laws of thought that shape their culture. But these are also indirectly determined by the structure and mode of operation of the human brain, since these thought structures shape all forms of human expression . Specifically, Lévi-Strauss examined various myths from North and South America, compared them with one another and formed hypotheses about their “internal order”. His analyzes suggest various “shortscripts” as basic patterns, “types” of the structure of stories that occur repeatedly in different ways.


Honorary / memberships

Honorary doctorates

Prizes and awards


  • 1949: Structures élémentaires de la parenté. (German by Eva Moldenhauer : The elementary structures of kinship. 1981)
  • 1952: Race et histoire. (German v. Traugott König : Race and History. In: Structural Anthropology II. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1975)
  • 1955: Tristes Tropiques. (German by Eva Moldenhauer: Sad tropics. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1978)
  • 1958: Anthropologie structurale. (German by Hans Naumann: Structural Anthropology I. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1967)
  • 1962: Le Totémisme aujourd'hui. (German by Hans Naumann: The end of totemism. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1965)
  • 1962: La pensée sauvage. (German by Hans Naumann: The wild thinking. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1968)
  • 1964: Mythologiques. Volume I: Le cru et le cuit. (German by Eva Moldenhauer: Mythologica I. The raw and the cooked. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1971)
  • 1966: Mythologiques. Volume II: You miel au cendres. (German by Eva Moldenhauer: Mythologica II. From honey to ashes. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1972)
  • 1968: Mythologiques. Volume III: L'Origine des manières de tables. (German by Eva Moldenhauer: Mythologica III, From the origin of table manners. 1973)
  • 1971: Mythologiques. Volume IV: L'homme nu (German by Eva Moldenhauer: Mythologica IV. The naked man. 2 volumes. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1975)
  • 1973: Anthropologie structurale deux. (German by Eva Moldenhauer, Hans Henning Ritter, Traugott König: Structural Anthropology II. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1975)
  • 1975: La Voie des masques. (German by Eva Moldenhauer: The way of the masks. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1977)
  • 1979: Myth and Meaning. (German myth and meaning. Five radio lectures. Conversations with C. Lévi-Strauss. Ed. by A. Reif, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1980)
  • 1983: Le Regard éloigné. (Ger. by Hans-Horst Henschen , Joseph Vogl: The view from afar. Wilhelm Fink, Munich 1985)
  • 1985: La Potière jalouse.
  • 1988: De près et de loin. with Didier Eribon
    • Übers. Hans-Horst Henschen: The near and the far. An autobiography in conversation. Frankfurt am Main 1989. ISBN 3-10-021405-6 .
  • 1991: Histoire de lynx. (German by Hans-Horst Henschen: The lynx story. 1993)
  • 1993: Regarder, écouter, lire ( Ger. By Hans-Horst Henschen: Seeing, Hearing, Reading. Hanser, Munich 1995)
  • 1995: Brazilian album (German by Hans-Horst Henschen)
  • 2011: L'autre face de la lune. Écrits sur le Japon . Seuil, Paris
    • Übers. Eva Moldenhauer: The other side of the moon: writings about Japan. Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2012; TB ibid. 2017
  • 2011: L'anthropologie face auxproblemèmes du monde moderne . Éditions du Seuil, Paris (German by Eva Moldenhauer: Anthropology in the modern world. Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2012)
  • 2013: Nous sommes tous des cannibales . Seuil, Paris
    • Übers. Eva Moldenhauer: We are all cannibals. with the essay The Martyred Santa Claus . Vorw. Maurice Olender. Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2014 ISBN 978-3-518-58613-6 TB ibid. 2017


  • Johannes Angermüller: After structuralism. Theoretical discourse and intellectual field in France. Bielefeld 2007, ISBN 978-3-89942-810-0 .
  • Gottfried Korff : Lévi-Strauss, Claude. In: Encyclopedia of Fairy Tales . Volume 8. De Gruyter, Berlin 1996, ISBN 3-11-014339-9 , pp. 1000-1002.
  • Arie de Ruijter: Claude Lévi-Strauss. Frankfurt am Main 1991.
  • Marcus Dick: world, structure, thinking . Philosophical research on Claude Lévi-Strauss. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-8260-4018-4 .
  • Marcus Dick: Between materialistic semiotics and semiotic materialism. From Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Ferdinand de Saussure to Claude Lévi-Strauss. In: TOPOS. No. 31 (Mythology), Naples 2009, pp. 79-95.
  • Ulrich Enderwitz: Shamanism and Psychoanalysis. On the problem of mythological rationality in the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Wiesbaden 1977.
  • Dan Sperber : Claude Lévi-Strauss today. In: Dan Sperber: The knowledge of the ethnologist. Frankfurt am Main 1989.
  • Till R. Kuhnle: The cultural pessimism in Lévi-Strauss. In: Till R. Kuhnle: The trauma of progress. Four studies on the pathogenesis of literary discourses. Stauffenburg, Tübingen 2005, ISBN 3-86057-162-1 , pp. 420-444.
  • Translated from Lutz-W. Wolff: Edmund Leach , Claude Lévi-Strauss for an introduction . 3rd ed. Series: To the introduction , 327, Junius, Hamburg 2006, ISBN 3-88506-627-0 . Afterword by Karl-Heinz Kohl ; Selected bibliography Klaus Zinniel.
  • Michael Walitschke: Forest of the characters linguistics and anthropology. The work of Claude Levi-Strauss. Tubingen 1994.
  • Thomas Reinhardt: Claude Lévi-Strauss for an introduction. (= Introduction. Volume 358). Junius, Hamburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-88506-658-3 .
  • Hans Magnus Strehler: Profile of a Rehabilitation of the Culturally Foreign. Echographies of Lévi-Strauss'schen humanism (= Philosophical Writings. Volume 74). Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 2009, ISBN 978-3-428-12932-4 .
  • Patrick Wilcken: Claude Lévi-Strauss: the poet in the laboratory. Bloomsbury, London 2010 ISBN 978-0-7475-8362-2 .
  • Emmanuelle Loyer : Claude Lévi-Strauss. Flammarion, Paris 2015.
  • Anton Fischer: Studies on Thought by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Leipziger Universitätsverlag, Leipzig:


  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, the self-portrait of the ethnologist. Documentation, France, 2008, 93 min., Director: Pierre-André Boutang , production: Les Films Du Bouloi, Arte France, German first broadcast: November 4, 2009, summary by arte.
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss. Documentary, France, 2004, 59 min., Script and director: Pierre Beuchot, production: arte France, film information from arte.
    An interview from 1972 about his influences and views is supplemented with archive images.
  • Sad tropics. Documentation, France 1990, 46 min., Directors: Alain Salomon, Jorge Bodansky, production: Arte France, summary by arte.

Web links

Commons : Claude Lévi-Strauss  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wikibooks: Sociological Classics / Levi-Strauss, Claude  - learning and teaching materials

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Edmund Leach: Claude Levi-Strauss. Introduction . 3. Edition. Junius Verlag, Hamburg, ISBN 3-88506-627-0 .
  2. Levi Strauss expelled his wife from the jungle. In: Die Welt , January 25, 2015
  3. See e.g. B. David Pace: Claude Lévi-Strauss, the bearer of ashes. Routledge, London 1983, ISBN 0-7100-9297-0 ; Marcel Hénaff: Claude Lévi-Strauss and the making of structural anthropology. University of Minnesota Press, 1998, ISBN 0-8166-2761-4 , pp. 250ff.
  4. Wolf Lepenies : Obituary Claude Lévi-Strauss - The savage among the thinkers. In: The world. November 3, 2009.
  5. Julius Morel, Eva Bauer and others: Sociological theory - outline of the approaches of their main representatives. 7th edition. Verlag Oldenbourg, 2001, p. 133 ff.
  6. Elke Mader: Anthropology of Myths. Facultas Verlags- und Buchhandels AG, Vienna 2008, p. 166.
  7. ^ Horst Südkamp: Cultural-historical studies. Totemism: Institution or Illusion? . In:, online pdf document, accessed on January 23, 2015, p. 41.
  8. Julius Morel, Eva Bauer and others: Sociological theory - outline of the approaches of their main representatives. 7th edition. Verlag Oldenbourg, 2001, p. 132.
  9. ^ Honorary Members: Claude Lévi-Strauss. Americsn Academy of Arts and Letters, accessed March 14, 2019 .
  10. Member History: Claude Lévi-Strauss. American Philosophical Society, accessed December 14, 2018 .
  11. ↑ On this Jens Uthoff: biography of Claude Lévi-Strauss: There are no primitives. In: taz , April 24, 2018, p. 17