Monday, 19 March 2012 08:30

Claude Levi-Strauss: Men of Ideas

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Claude Levi-Strauss (1908- ) is a French anthropologist noted for developing the concept of structuralism and functionalism for understanding so-called primitive societies.

In so-called primitive societies many of the structures we take for granted in the Western world do not seem to exist. In the West, for example, when we talk of governance we talk of legislative bodies, executive bodies and judicial bodies. We talk of the legislature making laws, the executive implementing them and judges adjudicating disputes on the basis of the law.

When we go to preliterate societies we might not see structures specifically called legislative, executive and judicial. Nevertheless, these functions are somehow performed.

When the village elders gather and deliberate on village matters, though they gather as a whole, they are making laws; they are acting as a legislature. They somehow implement the laws and policies they made through mechanisms that may not seem like executive bodies and finally they adjudicate disputes arising between village members in meetings that act as the judiciary. These various political functions are inferred from the group’s meeting. 

If Observers merely looked for bodies that perform those functions they would not see them.  What Lévi-Strauss and other structural-functionalists did was to encourage anthropologists to infer who performs the functions normally expected in organized societies when they do not seem apparent. For example, in the West folk send their children to school where they are taught about the culture and how to adapt to the land. In preliterate societies there may be no formal schooling yet in the evenings the elders talk to their children about their societies and what to do to survive in them.

A ten year old boy in a preliterate society may know more about medicinal herbs that cure diseases than an adult in the West knows about medications.

Claude Levi Strauss and other anthropologists developed the structural- functionalist methodology for understanding “primitive and savage societies”. One wonders whether, in fact, they can understand societies that they called savage societies.

Could Levi-Straus know anything about the so-called primitive and savage societies he allegedly studied? I doubt it. Let us then say that one feels comfortable if Mr. Levi Strauss talked about his French culture. One dismisses his finding about primitive societies for one does not know of any primitive society.

Certainly, those Western anthropologists called primitive societies did not refer to themselves as primitive. Are we supposed to take the assessment of the West over preliterate peoples self assessment? If we did that what would we be called, colonized minds? Let us then say that the truth of so-called primitive societies is yet to be known. Let the studies continue, this time by the natives.


Claude Levi-Strauss. Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 1963.

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176