Claude Lévi-Strauss

Selected Excerpts from October 14, 1981, “Kinship and Social Organization”

Editors note: This is the first appearance in English of a seminar hosted by the Academy of Korean Studies in 1981. These are excerpts from the seminar’s first day. The full seminar transcript with appendices is also available.


Appendix 2, Figure 4: Seminar Kinship and Social Organization (October 14, 1981).

Kang, Shin-pyo: Now it’s my honor to introduce Professor Lévi-Strauss. Surely you all know that Professor Lévi-Strauss escaped from philosophy to anthropology, that his most extensive field research was with Brazilian Indians during the period 1935 to 1939 when he was professor of sociology at São Paolo University, and that after a wartime period in New York he returned to Paris, where since 1960 he has been Professor of Social Anthropology and Director of the Laboratory of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France. Surely you all also know that in the course of his career, Professor Lévi-Strauss has written a series of books and articles, perhaps most notably Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, Anthropologie structurale, Le Totémisme aujourd’hui, La Pensée sauvage and Mythologiques, which have shown him to be one of the eminent minds not just of 20th– century anthropology, but of the intellectual life of the 20th century.

His structural anthropological approach to kinship and marriage, totemism, primitive classification, myths, and a variety of other topics has brought new perspectives and stimulated creative debates not only amongst anthropologists but throughout the social sciences and the humanities everywhere. The movement called structuralism which traces its ancestry largely to the ideas of Lévi-Strauss, even though he might well disavow some of its manifestations, is one of only a small handful of intellectual currents in the latter half of the 20th century which have generated new insights and creativity. Much of Lévi-Strauss’ thought reflects a deep awareness of process as an ongoing interplay between opposed and complementary poles. His structuralism at its most basic levels has a fundamental compatibility with traditional Asian world views. It’s therefore highly appropriate that his work with us leads off our research project on Symbol and Society in Korea.

In the interplay between data and theory, between structuralism and practical reason, between East and West, between North and South, we may hope and expect that there will be created new perspectives and insights into Korean culture, Asian culture, and human culture.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: I cannot start this presentation without first of all expressing my wife’s and my own feelings of gratitude to the Academy of Korean Studies, to President Koh, and to Professor Kang, for having made our trip possible and for the marvelous welcome they have given us. And listening a moment ago to President Koh’s words, I was also a little bit confused and ashamed that you should expect me to bring you anything new in the matter of social anthropology.

For it seems to me it’s a very old tradition in Korea to be interested in this kind of studies and even older perhaps than in the Western world. I’ve been told that Korean scholars consider that anthropological studies about Korean people and culture go back to the 18th century, when a group of people, belonging to the school of Silhak if I am not mistaken, published books on rural life, folk customs, and agricultural technology. And it so happens that, by a piece of luck, last night I was given the opportunity of reading a French student’s master thesis which is an annotated French translation of an 18th-century Korean book, which I don’t dare to pronounce, Kyongdo Chapchi, and I was really amazed at the details of ethnographical information, the precision of the details it’s possible to find in your old literature. And at the same time I was wondering if the tradition of anthropological studies in Korea doesn’t go back even earlier. When I read your great book, the Samguk Yusa, I noticed that in the seventh century King Munmu wished to appoint his half brother Prime Minister and that the latter accepted on the condition that he first be allowed to travel incognito throughout the country to observe the living conditions of the people, their labor and leisure, that is, doing anthropological fieldwork.

He said that at that time, each family of informants gave him a very pretty concubine to spend the night with, something which does not very often happen to contemporary anthropologists. But I noticed too that (also in the seventh century) a monk called Wonhyo had a son, very intelligent, who, it is said, composed books on folk customs and the place names of China and Silla. This son was considered one of the sages of Silla, which really puts anthropological research on a very high level.

And I have another reason to be confused and a little bit ashamed because we have to carry out our exchange in a language which, except for a few distinguished colleagues from the USA and Canada, is not our native tongue, and as you may have noticed already, my English is rather poor and I have a very strong French accent which makes it even more difficult for you to understand. Besides, when I try to express myself in English, I feel exhausted pretty soon, so I shall ask you as a favor not to hesitate to interrupt me if you don’t understand what I say, to ask me to repeat it, and if you disagree with what I am saying, to object. Really this will be a great help to me, because it will give me some relief when I’m trying to speak to all of you.

Today we are expected to discuss problems of kinship and social organization, and it’s not particularly, or it’s not exclusively, about my own work that I wish to talk, but about the kind of research which is being carried on nowadays in France, not only by me, but also by my associates and some younger colleagues. But since this research is always in the line of structural analysis, it is perhaps suitable that I should first of all begin by explaining what I understand, what I mean, by structure. The main distinction to be made in this respect would be between two notions: system and structure. What is a system? It is a grouping of elements and relations between those elements which fit together and which brings about a certain result. Let’s say for instance that an automobile engine is a system, so that if any element is modified or breaks down, the engine will not function anymore.

Structure is something rather different, or I would say it’s a special case of a system. It is made up of elements and relations like a system but also of the whole group of their transformations. By this I mean that in a structure, if an element or relation is changed, another change or several other changes will occur in the other elements or relations, while certain propositions will remain true about the structure.

It seems to me that this idea of a structure should be very easily grasped by people like you who have been brought up in the tradition of Confucian thought, because, really, I couldn’t find a better example of structural thought than ancient Chinese tradition. In that tradition, there are different systems. There is a cosmological system which is ruled, so to speak, by the Yin-Yang opposition. But this opposition can be transformed into many other oppositions, so that it can be said that Yang is to Yin as light is to darkness, as male is to female, as sky is to Earth, as the emperor is to his subjects, as ancestors are to the living, as a father is to a son, a husband to a wife, a master to a disciple or to the servants, and so on.

So we have different systems: cosmological, sociological, political, religious, but there is a close correspondence between all these systems, and when we shift from one to the others, there is a basic relationship or several basic relationships which remain the same. And what appears to me to be a characteristic of traditional Chinese thought is also a characteristic of many other kinds of thought all over the world; for instance, in ancient Greece, we find practically the same way of thinking. It has also struck me quite often that the reason, or one of the reasons why anthropological structuralism (which contrary to what is usually believed, did not really originate in France, but was first of all expressed in the Netherlands through the work of men like Russell, Van Wouden, Josselin de Jong and several others some years before we tried to do the same in France) developed among our Dutch colleagues first is that they were studying Indonesia and that Indonesian thought is itself structural. Really, structuralism is not a creation of the Western world, impressed with technology, pseudo-scientific minds, etc. It’s a kind of thought which we received from the people whom we study. When we try to make structural analyses, what we are actually doing is to borrow the thought of the people we study, either in the distant past or in the present, and use it in order to better understand them, as if in this kind of thought, there was a kind of common denominator, a kind of common ground which extends to all mankind including ancient thinkers and contemporary native thinkers, but a real mode of thought which is best able to help us translate one way of thinking into another way of thinking.

Appendix 2, Figure 6: At National Museum of Korea; Claude Lévi-Strauss with his wife [Monique Roman] at Sungkyunkwan University.

Special Focus: Structures

In the course of the twentieth century, structure became a central category of thought across a wide array of sciences. From linguistics to anthropology, psychoanalysis and history, the epistemic aim of analyzing structures guided a diverse range of research programs. And yet, the quest for immaterial or timeless structures that might underlie, order, organize—let alone determine—more readily perceptible domains of reality today appears strange, even suspicious, to most cultural anthropologists and historians of science. To grapple with these changes in the epistemic virtues guiding the work of anthropologists and their historians, as well as structures’ many afterlives outside of the academy, this Special Focus Section aims to adopt a broader historical view of the phenomenon by shifting analytic attention away from specific structuralist texts, intellectuals, and institutions toward structures as epistemic things in the history of anthropology and adjacent domains of inquiry.

Table of Contents