Structural anthropology is based on Claude Lévi-Strauss' idea that people think about the world in terms of binary opposites—such as high and low, inside and outside, person and animal, life and death—and that every culture can be understood in terms of these opposites. "From the very start," he wrote, "the process of visual perception makes use of binary oppositions."
Lévi-Strauss' approach arose, fundamentally, from the philosophy of Hegel who explains that in every situation there can be found two opposing things and their resolution; he called these "thesis, antithesis, and synthesis." Lévi-Strauss argued that, in fact, cultures have this structure. He showed, for example, how opposing ideas would fight and also be resolved in the rules of marriage, in mythology, and in ritual. This approach, he felt, made for fresh new ideas. He stated:
- Only those who practice structural analysis are made aware by their daily work of what they are actually trying to do: that is, to reunite perspectives which the narrow scientific outlook of the last centuries has for too long believed to be mutually exclusive: sensibility and intellect, quality and quantity, the concrete and the geometrical, or as we say today, the "etic" and the "emic."
His work in South America is his best known. Early on he showed there are "dual organizations" throughout Amazon rainforest cultures, and these "dual organizations" represent opposites and their synthesis. For instance, Gê tribes of the Amazon were found to divide their villages into two halves, which were rivals; however, the members of opposite halves married each other. This illustrated two opposites in conflict and also resolved; that is, it was the classical Hegelian trio of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. (See below for more detail.)
Such was the case in many aspects of life. Culture, he said, for example, has to take into account both life and death and needs to have a way of mediating between the two. Mythology (see his several-volume Mythologies) unites opposites in diverse ways.
Three of the most prominent structural anthropologists are Lévi-Strauss himself and the British neo-structuralists Rodney Needham and Edmund Leach, the latter being the author of such essays as "Time and False Noses" . In this essay, Edmund Leach sought an explanation of why human societies have solemn or sacred occasions, such as the Christian celebration of Christmas, followed in a short time by their opposite: a taboo-breaking and "profane" celebration such as New Year's.
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Famous quotes containing the words anthropology and/or structural:
“History is, strictly speaking, the study of questions; the study of answers belongs to anthropology and sociology.”
—W.H. (Wystan Hugh)
“The reader uses his eyes as well as or instead of his ears and is in every way encouraged to take a more abstract view of the language he sees. The written or printed sentence lends itself to structural analysis as the spoken does not because the readers eye can play back and forth over the words, giving him time to divide the sentence into visually appreciated parts and to reflect on the grammatical function.”
—J. David Bolter (b. 1951)