Friday, November 21, 2008

Claude Lévi-Strauss One Hundredth Birthday - Post 5: Criticism

[All the Lévi-Strauss Birthday posts are here.]

An anthropologist friend of mine with whom I shared a quote from Levi-Strauss wrote the following in an email:
I have never been a fan of Claude Levi-Strauss in spite of his nice quote. His work has little credibility among most anthropologists who understand cultures as being bound to place. His universalism has little relationship to meaning as understood by the people he writes about.
Critiques of Lévi-Strauss certainly belong in this series of pre-birthday posts on the anthropologist, but I'm having trouble finding them on line. When I got this message I called another anthropologist and while he was more receptive to Lévi-Strauss, he agreed with the general message of this criticism. I'm a little wary of trying to paraphrase him, but what I understood him to say was that Lévi-Strauss was more interested in using information about various cultures to develop his theory of universalism and that he wasn't focused on understanding the meaning of things in a culture as the culture itself interpreted that.

So I'm digesting this. Basically, I'm a strong proponent of the necessity of understanding the what words, actions, etc. mean to the actors themselves, so I should basically be of the same view as these two anthropologists towards Lévi-Strauss. But what I've read so far doesn't seem to be at odds to the perspective they say he doesn't have. I respect both these people's professionalism so I have to ponder on this. I'm trying to find critiques that will help me see what they are pointing at.

My basic response is to resist - but... are these two mutually exclusive? But he writes with intelligence and sensitivity that makes me believe that he had to understand this issue. But maybe his intent - to create this universalist theory, to extract commonalities among people around the world - is simply different from anthropologists who work with people. Certainly the 'binary opposition' that is clearly a part of Lévi-Strauss' work at first raised questions for me. But, he seems to understand the dangers of binary choices.

As I looked for something critical of Lévi-Strauss I found The Ethnological Imagination
by Fuyuki Kurasawa which talks a little about some of these topics, but the writer is supportive, not critical. I'll see if I can nail down some of the criticism. My second source did point out that some people were pointing to Lévi Strauss as an early forerunner of Chaos theory and fractals and pointed me to On the Order of Chaos by Mark S. Mosko, Frederick H. Damon - particularly Chapter 2: From Lévi-Strauss to Chaos and Complexity by Jack Morava - but I'm not even going to try to get into that here.

So, here's part of the Kurasawa book, which seems to me to be an attempt to address Lévy-Strauss' detractors, but I obviously need to do some more work here. If you can read these screen captures, fine, otherwise you can go to the link for The Ethnological Imagination above.

1 comment:

  1. Well, Rousseau's theories were really successful in France during the Jacobin dictatorship but later it was found out that his theories have flaws and at parts it is impossible to fulfill.


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