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The author of the book: Claude Lévi-Strauss
Edition: Beacon Press
Date of issue: 1969
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Language: English
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Lévi-Strauss’s mammoth study of kinship, originally published in 1947, is a major tour-de-force, an encyclopaedic work of great theoretical insight, and perhaps the best work ever written on the topic. I decided to return to it, oddly, not because I was interested particularly in the marriage-rules which constitute its topic, but because I was interested in exchange, for it is perhaps the book that establishes the phenomenon of exchange as being at the heart of human life.

The inspiration for the book is L’Essai sur le Don written by Emile Durkheim’s nephew, Marcel Mauss. Lévi-Strauss devotes his excellent Chapter 5 to this book, but Mauss’s spirit permeates his entire whole work. If, like me, one was first impressed Lévi-Strauss primarily because of his later work on myth, it is important to note that this too was inspired by Mauss.

According to Lévi-Strauss, marriage, in all its multifarious forms, consists of exchange. Specifically, it consists in the exchange of women. Lest feminists should throw up their hands at this point and indicate that this implies that women are mere chattels, one could reply with two points. First, women actually have been chattels in most historically known societies, and there is not much point in denying it. But second, one could just as easily show that men are everywhere being exchanged between women, but this would require another book of the same length which would be a mirror image of the first (p132).

The introduction to Lévi-Strauss’s argument has to do with the near-universality of the incest taboo which he hopes to explain. Monkeys and apes, he claims, do not have an incest taboo, while human beings almost always do. The famous exceptions (ancient Egypt, Peru and Hawaii) and less famous ones (the Azande and in parts of Madagascar and Burma) are few and are indeed exceptional and they should not should not distract the theorist from the much more general rule P9-10.

The impact of the incest taboo is considerable. If a man may not have sex with his mother, his daughter or his sister, then he must mate with somebody else’s female relatives. “Like exogamy, the prohibition of incest is a rule of reciprocity, for I will give up my daughter or my sister only on condition that my neighbour does the same.” p62. To prohibit a man from committing incest is therefore to create an exchange of women between men. And indeed, he points out that marriage usually forms only one moment in a more general exchange of gifts of which our own "wedding presents" are only one rather simple example p63ff

After this introduction, the first major section of the book deals with what he calls “restricted exchange”. He explains, “The term ‘restricted exchange’ includes any system which effectively or functionally divides the group into a certain number of pairs of exchange-units so that, for any one pair X-Y there is a reciprocal exchange relationship. In other words, where an X man marries a Y woman, a Y man must always be able to marry an X woman.” P146

The argument therefore becomes more complex as he explains how different peoples make the simple notion of exchange found in the introduction more complicated. In Chapter 4, he considers the notion of exogamy (marrying out of the group) which is the most basic elaboration of the incest taboo. And he looks too at endogamy, for just as exogamy creates a wider society beyond the family, so endogamy (prohibition on marriage) serves to indicate and create the external boundary of community and society. And indeed, in my home in Northern Ireland, where a rule of endogamy roams free, it serves to divide society into hostile groups just as Lévi-Strauss suggests.

Kinship is one of the more difficult areas of social anthropology, and from Chapter 6 onwards, we see why this is. In that chapter, the discussion turns first to “dual organization” where (in Australia, but also elsewhere) society is divided into two marriage classes (moieties)whose members must take spouses only from the opposite moiety.

Beyond this, we become concerned here with the common and often important distinction made between parallel-cousins (the children of two brothers or two sisters) and cross-cousins (the children of a brother and sister). And as every anthropologist knows, there is a very common preference in many parts of the world for cross-cousin marriage, and a corresponding hostility to marriage between parallel-cousins.

The difficulty for the newcomer (or even an old-comer) to this discussion arises not least from the tangle of relationships that cross-cousin marriage involves. “For example, there is nothing to prevent the father’s sister from being at one and the same time the mother’s brother’s wife, if she marries her cross-cousin; a grandmother (if the mother-in-law (if someone marries the father’s sister’s daughter); and a wife (if somebody has a marriage claim to the maternal uncle’s widow)”p120

Lévi-Strauss points out the fairly obvious fact (once you have put down your slide-rule) that a parallel cousin, in a dual organization system (whether these be organized patrilineally or matrilineally), is part of one’s own exogamous moiety, while cross-cousins are in different moieties. Cross-cousin marriage, however, is not at all confined to those societies which possess dual organization, and it seems likely that dual organization only occasionally coincides with cross-cousin marriage. Lévi-Strauss argues that there is, in fact, a great deal of similarity between dual organization and cross-cousin marriage. But while the former indicates a whole class of individuals whom one may marry, the latter designates one or a very few individuals. In fact, the two ideas may be regarded as variations on a theme of reciprocity, where in each case women are exchanged between, in one case, moieties and, in the other case, a more narrowly defined kinship group.

His discussion of cross-cousin marriage however, is at the heart of his discussion of exogamy and the prohibition of incest. “It is precisely because cross-cousin marriage disregards the biological factor that it should be able to establish that the origin of the incest prohibition is purely social, and furthermore to reveal what its real nature is. It is not enough to repeat that the prohibition of incest is not based on biological grounds. What then is its basis?” In general, the prohibited degrees of kinship, taken as a whole, are biologically closer than the permitted degrees. But this is not so in the case of cross-cousin marriage “for if we can understand why degrees of kinship which are equivalent from a biological point of view are nevertheless considered completely dissimilar from the social point of view, we can claim to have discovered the principle, not only of cross-cousin marriage, but of the incest prohibition itself”.p122

He concludes that “cross-cousin marriage is seen as the elementary formula for marriage by exchange,” p129 “It does express the law that a man cannot receive a wife except from the group from which a woman can be claimed, because in the previous generation a sister of a daughter was lost, while a brother owes a sister (or a father a daughter) to the outside world if a woman was gained in the previous generation. P130”

He now continues to pursue this heavy-duty anthropology, looking specifically at Australian kinship. Australian kinship is organized most simply into matrilineal moieties (i.e. involving dual organization), but some tribes, however, divide these further so that they have four sections and even eight subsections (or classes) in all.

Lévi-Strauss quotes Kroeber with approval. Kroeber believes that land occupation is primary, and therefore that the patrilineal horde, the land-holding group, is the most important unit in the system. This means that the whole paraphernalia of exogamy, dual organization, and clans are epiphenomena, secondary to the basic structures, the most important of which he sees as the rule of residence.

Kroeber writes “I submit that, in addition to unilateral descent reckoning, much of the formalized social organization of primitive peoples is in the nature of unconscious experiment and play of fashion rather than the core of substance of their culture. In certain cases, as in Australia, it may well represent the pinnacle of their achievement, just as experiment and play with abstractions, word and plastic forms resulted in the pinnacles of Greek civilization, while science technology, and the control or exploitation of nature are those of our own. But pinnacles are end products, not bases.” (Kroeber 1938 p 309 qutd pp 150-151) And Kroeber elsewhere describes the complex forms of social organization in certain primitive societies with “the play of earnest children”. (1942, 215 qtd p151).

Lévi-Strauss uses this idea to consider the manner in which Australian kinship fluctuates and adjusts itself over time, with one group improvising ideas and practices about kinship and marriage in part by borrowing from another. 152ff

He describes several systems, but, to give an idea of what is involved, here is his abstraction of a four class system (the Keriera system):

If a man: marries a woman: the children are

Durand of Paris Dupont of Bordeaux Dupont of Paris
Durand of Bordeaux Dupont of Paris Dupont of Bordeaux
Dupont of Paris Durand of Bordeaux Durand of Paris
Dupont of Bordeaux Durand of Paris Durand of Bordeaux

The book goes on at very great length to look beyond the “restricted” forms of exchange (which Australian systems of kinship typify) towards marriages involving more and more complex, “generalized”, forms of exchange, where the exchange is not between specified individuals or groups.

Between the often difficult and highly technical arguments about specific kinship systems found (as well as in Australia) in China, India and elsewhere, there are occasional and, by comparison, lighter chapters dealing with side issues.

The book’s title self-consciously echoes that of Durkheim’s celebrated study of religion, for Levi Strauss sees kinship and marriage rules (rather than the religion) of “primitive peoples” as the clue to kinship more generally. However, though Lévi-Strauss clearly regards “primitive peoples” as a distinct body of peoples who have features in common, he was also one of those who helped dig anthropology and western culture generally out of that particular racist hole.

In the 7th chapter, entitled “The Archaic Illusion”, he shows that primitive people do not in fact resemble modern children. Here, with great perception, he shows why, the world over, the practices of foreigners do appear to resemble childishness. “Every newborn child”, he says, “provides in embryonic form the sum total of possibilities, but each culture and period of history will retain and develop only a chosen few of them” p93. And he gives an example of Johnny, a four-year-old Egyptian boy, who imagined he lived in two worlds, one occupied by his father, the other by his mother; one where he went when the sea was calm and he could swim; the other where he went when the sea was rough and swimming was forbidden. As he grew up, Johnny dropped his vision of these two worlds, and was embarrassed if asked to talk about it. Lévi-Strauss notes that there was, in Johnny’s imagination, the basis of a world view appropriate to a dual descent system. He comments: “If Johnny had been a little Australian aborigine he could have elaborated the same fantasy, but he would not have been ashamed of it later. It would have progressively found basis in the official dualism of his society”. p96

The Elementary Structures of Kinship is not a book for the faint-hearted. Not only does Lévi-Strauss compare the kinship systems themselves, but he also assesses the alternative views of other writers found in relation to each of the societies he discusses. Those who do not want to plough through a 500+ page volume devoted to detailed analysis of the marital practices of distant peoples, will find the concluding chapter a great relief. Comparatively easy to read, this Conclusion sums up the overall argument in a lucid manner.

Lévi-Strauss became a cult figure much later in his life, not least because of his work on mythology and totemism, but the ground for this later work, and the respect he gained from fellow professionals comes largely from his early work on kinship. The man simply was a giant, and this book is his masterpiece.

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Ebook The Elementary Structures of Kinship read Online! Claude Lévi-Strauss was a French anthropologist, well-known for his development of structural anthropology. He was born in Belgium to French parents who were living in Brussels at the time, but he grew up in Paris. His father was an artist, and a member of an intellectual French Jewish family. Lévi-Strauss studied at the University of Paris. From 1935-9 he was Professor at the University of Sao Paulo making several expeditions to central Brazil. Between 1942-1945 he was Professor at the New School for Social Research. In 1950 he became Director of Studies at the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes. In 1959 Lévi-Strauss assumed the Chair of Social Anthroplogy at the College de France. His books include The Raw and the Cooked, The Savage Mind, Structural Anthropology and Totemism (Encyclopedia of World Biography).

Some of the reasons for his popularity are in his rejection of history and humanism, in his refusal to see Western civilization as privileged and unique, in his emphasis on form over content and in his insistence that the savage mind is equal to the civilized mind.

Lévi-Strauss did many things in his life including studying Law and Philosophy. He also did considerable reading among literary masterpieces, and was deeply immersed in classical and contemporary music.

Lévi-Strauss was awarded the Wenner-Gren Foundation's Viking Fund Medal for 1966 and the Erasmus Prize in 1975. He was also awarded four honorary degrees from Oxford, Yale, Havard and Columbia. Strauss held several memberships in institutions including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society (Encyclopedia of World Biography).

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