American Philosophical Society
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301. Anthropology, Demography, Psychology, and Sociology[X]
1Name:  Professor Claude Levi-Strauss
 Institution:  Collège de France
 Year Elected:  1960
 Class:  3. Social Sciences
 Subdivision:  301. Anthropology, Demography, Psychology, and Sociology
 Residency:  International
 Living? :   Deceased
 Birth Date:  1908
 Death Date:  October 30, 2009
French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss is best known for his development of structural anthropology. Born in Brussels in 1908, he studied law and philosophy at the Sorbonne, and after a few years of teaching secondary school, in 1935 he became part of a French cultural mission to Brazil during which he served as a visiting professor at the University of Sao Paulo. During this time he carried out his first ethnographic fieldwork, conducting periodic research forays into the Mato Grosso and the Amazon rainforest, studying the indigineous Guaycuru and Bororo tribes and living among them for a while. Several years later, he returned to study the Nambikwara and Tupi-Kawahib societies, an experience that cemented Lévi-Strauss's professional identity as an anthropologist. He returned to France in 1939 but moved soon after to New York City to escape the Nazis. The war years in New York were formative for Lévi-Strauss in several ways, as his relationship with Roman Jakobson helped shape his theoretical outlook, and he was also exposed to the American anthropology espoused by Franz Boas. Levi-Strauss returned to Paris in 1948, receiving his doctorate from the Sorbonne and submitting both a "major" and a "minor" thesis: The Family and Social Life of the Nambikwara Indians and The Elementary Structures of Kinship. The latter was soon published and instantly came to be regarded as one of the most important works of anthropological kinship. Examining the logical structures that underlay relationships rather than their contents, Levi-Strauss argued that kinship was based on the alliance between two families that formed when women from one group married men from the other. Simone de Beauvoir gave the work a favorable review and saw it as an important statement on the position of women in non-Western cultures. Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lévi-Strauss continued to publish and became involved with the administration of the CNRS and the Musee de l'Homme before finally becoming chair of fifth section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, which he renamed "Comparative Religion of Non-Literate Peoples". While Lévi-Strauss was well-known in academic circles, it was in 1955 that he became one of France's best known intellectuals by publishing Tristes Tropiques. Essentially a travel novel, the book detailed his time as a French expatriate throughout the 1930s, combining exquisitely beautiful prose, dazzling philosophical meditation and ethnographic analysis of Amazonian peoples. In 1959 Lévi-Strauss was named to a chair in Social Anthropology at the Collège de France, and at roughly the same time he published Structural Anthropology, a collection of essays which provided both examples and programmatic statements about structuralism. At the same time as he was laying the groundwork for an intellectual program, he began a series of institutions for establishing anthropology as a discipline in France, including the Laboratory for Social Anthropology where new students could be trained, and a new journal, l'Homme, for publishing the results of their research. In 1962 Lévi-Strauss published what is for many people his most important work, La Pensée Sauvage, which concerns primitive thought, forms of thought we all use. The first half of the book lays out Lévi-Strauss's theory of culture and mind, while the second half expands this account into a theory of history and social change. This part of the book engaged Lévi-Strauss in a heated debate with Jean-Paul Sartre over the nature of human freedom. Now a world-wide celebrity, Lévi-Strauss spent the second half of the 1960s working on his master project, a four-volume study called Mythologiques. In it, Lévi-Strauss took a single myth from the tip of South America and followed all of its variations from group to group up through Central America and eventually into the Arctic Circle, thus tracing the myth's spread from one end of the American continent to the other. He accomplished this in a typically structuralist way, examining the underlying structure of relationships between the elements of the story rather than by focusing on the content of the story itself. After completing the final volume of Mythologique in 1971 Lévi-Strauss was elected to the Academie Française, France's highest honor for an intellectual, in 1973. He was also a member of other notable academies, including the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He has received the Erasmus Prize and the Meister-Eckhart-Prize for Philosophy and was a recipient of the Grand-croix de la Legion d'honneur. Claude Lévi-Strauss died in Paris on October 30, 2009, at age 100. He was Professor Emeritus at the Collège de France.
Election Year
1960 (1)