Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908) was and is the pope of structuralism, to quote Marcel Hénaff. (1998:2) As my account of his contribution to the shaping of this ‘method’ or ‘tool’ – as he himself insisted on calling it (Kuper 1996:175, Hénaff 1998:6) – later in this essay illustrates, that is something that can hardly be disputed. It is not so self-evident, however, what the overall importance of his work for social anthropology was, and how well-received his ideas were at the time of their emergence. In this essay, I will focus on the latter question in the context of Britain, in particular with reference to Edmund Leach (1910-1989). To come to an answer to this question, I will first briefly describe the British anthropological landscape before the introduction of Lévi-Strauss’s concept of structuralism. Then I will give an outline of Lévi-Strauss’s ideas and his applications thereof, and assess of every aspect of Lévi-Strauss’s work to what extent it was valued, adopted and applied by British anthropologists such as Leach. It is hereby necessary that I pay attention to the positive reactions as well as the substantial criticism Lévi-Strauss received from British anthropologists. Finally, by summarizing previously made points, I will hopefully be able to assess whether the reaction of Leach and others to Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism and the ideas it brought forward was predominantly positive or negative and what the overall impact of Lévi-Strauss on Leach’s anthropology was. Needless to say, Lévi-Strauss was not the first French theorist whose ideas would have noticeable influence in British anthropology. In the first half of the 20th century, after the ‘fall’ of Frazer’s evolutionism that aimed to compare the details of human culture on a worldwide scale, Durkheim’s sociological theories were a major inspiration for one of the central figures in British social anthropology: Radcliffe-Brown. (Leach 1970:7) His focus was on coherence within groups in (primitive) societies; put very simply, the dominant view was that all institutions and ‘aspects of cosmology’ such as religion served primarily to maintain the group structure, by functioning as tools for the recreation of appropriate sentiments and the enforcement of norms. (Kuper 1996:160) Radcliffe-Brown’s anthropology was clearly naturalist, in the sense that Radcliffe-Brown and his followers tended to assume that the associations and oppositions which people seized upon were somehow presented to them by their environment. (Ibid:170) Another important aspect of British anthropology, introduced by its ‘founding father’, Malinowski, was the fact that it was thoroughly empiricist. The belief reigned that theories had to be distilled from empirical facts obtained through fieldwork. (Ibid:170) Malinowski and those in his tradition can be classified as functionalists, for the purpose of their research was to show how a community functioned as a social system, and how its individual members lived their lives. (Leach 1970:7) Lévi-Strauss was not the first anthropologist to be concerned with structure either. In fact, the Oxford school in the 1940’s, led by Radcliffe-Brown, were already looking into the explicit code of social behaviour.
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