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- Lévi-Strauss’s great gift was the gift of imagination

The passing of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) marks the end of an era in the study of human culture. He was in his time the most renowned anthropologist in the world, and perhaps more renowned than any other anthropologist at any time or in any place. But he was much more than that. He was a pioneer of a whole intellectual movement that came to be known as ‘structuralism’, and his thought influenced scholars and writers in many different fields. My sense is that his standing as a man of letters in France will outlive his technical innovations as an anthropologist.

Lévi-Strauss’s first major contribution to anthropology was a work on kinship published originally in 1949. That work, entitled The Elementary Structures of Kinship, took time to secure worldwide attention since an English translation did not appear until twenty years later. To the English-speaking anthropologists who read it in the original, the arguments of the book appeared strange and unfamiliar, and its theoretical claims too sweeping. But it did secure a commanding position in course of time, and came to be much admired even by those who had little knowledge of the literature on kinship.

The Elementary Structures propounded a new approach to the study of kinship that came to be known as ‘alliance theory’ as against the ‘descent theory’ favoured by the British anthropologists who had dominated the field until then. Descent theory focuses on the transmission of rights and obligations across the generations, whereas alliance theory dwells on the chains of relations established by matrimonial exchange between bride-givers and bride-takers. An early proponent of alliance theory in the study of Indian kinship was Louis Dumont, the author of a magisterial work on caste.

Like other anthropologists before him, Lévi-Strauss assigned great significance to the incest rule, but gave a new twist to the interpretation of that rule. He argued that it should not be viewed only negatively, but also positively; not just as a prohibition, but, above all, as a prescription. A man is not told simply that he must not marry his own sister, he is asked to give his sister in marriage to another man and, in turn, to receive someone else’s sister as his wife. In his own words, “the prohibition of incest is a rule of reciprocity”. Exchange and reciprocity, which constitute the core of social life, follow directly from the incest rule, hence its great social significance. Lévi-Strauss would go so far as to say that it was that rule that provided the first foundation of social life among human beings.

Lévi-Strauss’s great gift was the gift of imagination, and he was a master of the art of interpreting symbols. As such, his best work was not his work on kinship, but his work on mythology. It was through a series of studies of the myths of primitive people that he gave free rein to his talent for demonstrating unsuspected, not to say startling, connections among symbols, and established his position as a structuralist. He was a rationalist who took a lofty, not to say disdainful, view of the empiricist bias in most of Anglo-American anthropology. If such a distinction is permissible, he always chose ideas over facts, and symbolic, as against utilitarian, interpretations.

Shortly before he launched on his massive enterprise on the study of myths, he published a brief study of totemism, which had been a favourite subject among anthropologists since the end of the 19th century. Earlier anthropologists, particularly in Britain, had been inclined to argue that among primitive people totemism fulfilled the function of ensuring the maintenance and reproduction of plant and animal species. Lévi-Strauss insisted that its primary significance was to provide symbolic markers for the differentiation of human groups through the differentiation of the natural world.

Lévi-Strauss saw himself not just as a rationalist but also as an explorer in far-away places among little-known people. Not long after his work on kinship, he published a book called Tristes tropiques in French and A World on the Wane in English. It is a fascinating and tantalizing book, part travelogue, part ethnography and part philosophical speculation. Because that book was translated into English before the book on kinship, and because of its richly evocative literary style, it received more attention than The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Lévi-Strauss’s many admirers in India should know that he has not always been well served by his English translators.

If his studies of kinship and myth bring out the rationalist in Lévi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques brings out the romantic in him. In it, he gives us glimpses into the lives of some of the forest-dwelling communities of the Amazon basin: the Bororo, the Caduveo, the Nambikwara and others. Their technological equipment might not be much to boast of, but their tattoos, their folk tales and their mythology show a richness and variety that is almost inexhaustible. Lévi-Strauss has done more than any other anthropologist to show that the poverty of material technology need not be an impediment to the proliferation of an exuberant symbolic life.

The standard method of fieldwork established by Malinowski and his followers came to be known as the method of ‘participant-observation’. It is respected, though not always faithfully followed, by anthropologist in most countries, including India. Lévi-Strauss has insisted on the maintenance of distance between the observer and the observed as an essential part of the work of the anthropologist. There is little place in this scheme of things for the anthropologist to go native. Perhaps this was his way of showing respect for the communities about which he wrote. On the other hand, the British anthropologists of his generation whom I knew, such as Meyer Fortes and Max Gluckman, had little praise for the quality and reliability of his empirical material.

The relationship between anthropology and sociology has been a subject of debate and discussion among students of society and culture throughout the world, and particularly in India. Few scholars have expressed themselves more clearly and consistently on the subject than Lévi-Strauss. For him, sociology is the study of one’s own society, in his case French (or European) society, whereas anthropology is the study of other cultures. As he sees it, what is distinctive of anthropology as a discipline is not any peculiarity of the communities it studies but the relationship of the investigator to the object of his investigation. In his own striking words, “The anthropologist is the astronomer of the social sciences.”

The natural tendency among students of society and culture in India has been to stress not the separation between sociology and anthropology, but their unity. This is as true of G.S. Ghurye as of M.N. Srinivas or S.C. Dube. N.K. Bose began his career by studying a small tribe of shifting cultivators in Orissa, and later made a masterful study of the social structure of his own city, Calcutta. For him, the unity of sociology and social anthropology followed directly from the belief in the unity of India. This presents a paradox to the Indian followers of Lévi-Strauss who have sometimes adopted the subterfuge of being sociologists at home and anthropologists abroad, where the study of Indian society, no matter by whom, is a part of anthropology, not sociology.

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