In Our Time: Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss is a name I was vaguely aware of, but I couldn’t bring to mind why. And as we listened to this In Our Time programme about him I realised I’d also heard of some of his ideas, at least in passing, but never attached them to the name. The three experts who were discussing him were Adam Kuper (Boston University), Christina Howells (Oxford University) and Vincent Debaene (Columbia University).

Lévi-Strauss was born in France in 1908 to secular Jewish parents. Kuper described him as being part of the French “bohemian bourgeois” intellectual elite of the time. Lévi-Strauss went on to study philosophy at university in Paris, where he had such notable figures as Satre as classmates (Satre was specifically mentioned because of later debates between the two men). After graduating Lévi-Strauss initially became a teacher but hated it, and so took an opportunity that opened up in Brazil as a Professor of Sociology. This is despite not liking travel and not liking fieldwork – clearly it was better than being a schoolteacher. In 1939 he returned to France, but not long after had to flee to the US.

At this point in the programme they also talked a bit about Lévi-Strauss’s politics – he was very active in the socialist movement as a student. He later said something about discovering politics was not for him, and the experts on the programme were suggesting this was due to disappointment over not being called back to France to take part in government during the 1930s. His political opinions became more conservative over the years, and by the 1968 Student Revolution in France it wasn’t something he was interested in participating in.

It was during his time in New York that Lévi-Strauss began to write the first of the books that would make his name. He did a survey of what was known about the kinship rules of every society in the world. What he was interested in was applying the ideas of structuralism to this sort of anthropological data. Structuralism originated in linguistics, looking at the grammatical rules that underlie language and Lévi-Strauss was looking for the underlying structures that determine kinship. His premise was that the big difference between animals and humans is the incest taboo (which is now shown not to be the case – other primates also appear to have the equivalent of the incest taboos when not in captivity). So he saw the whole of the development of human society as growing out of the need to exchange wives with other tribes, and by comparing all the different societies he distilled out of the data a set of three possible models for kinship rules and for how this exchange was achieved. The impact of this book was huge within anthropology, although not so much outside the field. And it’s one of the works that has lead to him being considered one of the fathers of modern anthropology, and the father of structural anthropology.

The book that brought him to public attention outside the field of anthropology was Tristes Tropiques – a memoir of his time in Brazil. But the most famous of his books was La Pensée Sauvage (the title is often translated as “The Savage Mind”, but Debeane was pretty scathing about the accuracy of that translation, preferring (if I remember right) “The Primitive Thought”). In that his thesis was that there is no fundamental difference between the thoughts and thinking processes of “civilised” and “primitive” people; it’s their culture that shapes how their thoughts are expressed rather than underlying differences. He also set out the idea that given modern Western scientific thought is such a small part of the spectrum of human thinking we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to only examining it. Instead we should try to understand the whole range. It was this book that lead to fierce debates between Lévi-Strauss and Satre about the nature of freedom. I think it was Satre on the side of people being completely free to act as they chose, and Lévi-Strauss who felt they were constrained by the underlying rules of society. Which the discussion in this programme tied into the increasing conservativeness of Lévi-Strauss’s politics.

The last of Lévi-Strauss’s works that they discussed on the programme was his four volume book on mythology. This compared the myths of all the indigenous peoples across the Americas and looked at the underlying links and structures. There wasn’t time for them to go into much details, but I think the gist of it was that Lévi-Strauss came to the conclusion that the whole continent shared a common structure of myth and that many of these myths were in conversation with each other.

In some ways I felt like this was a bit of an odd programme – in that it felt like it was made a few decades too soon. Lévi-Strauss only died in 2009 (even if most of his important work was published by the 1980s) and I’m not sure there’s been enough time to get the necessary distance to look back on his contributions. J disagrees with me here, he thinks that would be a different programme and this one was fine as it was.

In Our Time: Pitt-Rivers

The Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford is one of my favourite museums, because it’s so crammed full of things to see. So I was pleased there was an In Our Time programme about the man behind it – Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers. The experts who discussed him were Adam Kuper, (Boston University), Richard Bradley (University of Reading) and Dan Hicks (Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford).

Pitt-Rivers was born Augustus Henry Lane-Fox in 1827, a younger son of a younger son. His father died when he was very young, and his mother moved them to London & then there’s not much sign that he had any formal education at all apart from a brief enrolment at Sandhurst (which was a public school at the time not a post-graduate military academy). He had a career in the military, where he was put in charge of musketry and his obsession with collecting objects started during that time – possibly after visiting the Great Exhibition in 1851. He married “above his station”, and it was his wife’s family & social connections that got him contacts in the scientific circles of the time. When he was about 50 he unexpectedly inherited a large estate & a fortune – they said in today’s money it would be on the order of £2 million per year to spend. This was the Rivers estate, I think they said it was the largest estate outside the aristocracy. As a condition of this inheritance he had to take the surname Pitt-Rivers.

Pitt-Rivers was interested in collecting everyday objects, and in comparing them between cultures. A large amount of his collection was donated to Oxford University in the 1880s, forming the Pitt-Rivers Museum. Inspired by Darwin he was interested in figuring out the evolutionary path of the objects we use – like sticks -> spears -> muskets. So he grouped his objects by type and tried to order them from primitive to sophisticated. And as well as ordering the objects this way he (and Western society in general at the time) ordered cultures in a similar fashion. He & others believed that “primitive” cultures in the modern world corresponded to the ancestral cultures of nations like Britain. Towards the end of the programme the experts were talking about Pitt-Rivers’ legacy and all agreed that his anthropological ideas were considered out-of-date (possibly even by the man himself) before his death.

As well as his collection Pitt-Rivers is remembered for his contributions to archaeology. They were joking that once he inherited the Pitt-Rivers estates he didn’t have to travel outside his estates to excavate prehistoric sites. He did, but also did a lot of excavations on his own lands. He kept his focus on everyday items as opposed to the antiquarian’s desire to find treasure or monuments from the Classical world. His contribution to archaeology is more long lasting than that to anthropology, because he was a very methodological excavator. One of the experts (and I forget which) said that a Bronze Age settlement that Pitt-Rivers had excavated was returned to in modern times because the documentation meant that they knew where to look to extend their knowledge of the site.

Pitt-Rivers saw himself as a scientist, but the experts on the programme were fairly dismissive of his theoretical achievements. Where he excelled was in the practical and organisational sides of things. And his wife’s social connections meant that he was involved in the scientific societies of the day, often in a organisational role. This included becoming the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments, which involved both the sort of cataloguing that he was so good at and the prevention of damage to the monuments.

Somehow a very Victorian story – both in the collection and the details like the unexpected inheritance of a fortune.