Claude Levi-Strauss and Maurice Bloch: Conjunctions and Disjunctions in the Theories of Language, Cognition and Anthropology

In the study of myths, their language and representations, Claude Levi-Strauss occupies a most honored status as being on the forefront of multi- and trans- disciplinary approaches to its study. His encyclopedic treatment of linguistics, ethnology and even philosophy of language, and his “taste for formal logic” (Bernard and Spencer, 1992) in his structural approach provide a staggering source of information and a fundamental foundation for cognitive and psychological anthropology. Although there have been dissidents in the field of structuralism and especially Levi-Strauss’ “Structural Study of Myths”, it nevertheless opened a dam of academic interests both to anthropologists and non-anthropologists ranging from the disciplines of Literature, Philosophy, Culture Studies and Psychology.

Maurice Bloch acknowledged this great debt of academia to Levi-Strauss in his obituary to the latter:

“The fame of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who has died aged 100, extended well beyond his own subject of anthropology. He was without doubt the anthropologist best known to non-specialists. This is mainly because he is usually considered to be the founder of the intellectual movement known as structuralism, which was to have such influence, especially in the 1970s. He was one of those French intellectuals – like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Paul Ricoeur – whose influence spread to many other disciplines because they were philosophers in a much broader sense of the word than the academic philosophers of the British and American tradition.” (Bloch, Claude Levi-Strauss Obituary, The Guardian)

Maurice Bloch himself is a product of this structuralist and post-structuralist ethos proposing a new approach to cognitive anthropology. He challenged the views of Levi-Strauss and Structuralism, which asserted that myths (a form of thinking) follow the same logic of language. Bloch argues “we tend to imagine thinking as a kind of silent soliloquizing wherein the building blocks are words of their definitions and the process itself involves linking propositions by logical inferences in a single lineal sequence.” (Bloch, 1998) He proposed instead, that “everyday thought is not ‘language-like’, that it does not involve linking propositions in a single sequence in the way language represents reasoning. Rather it relies on clumped networks of signification which require that they be organized in ways which are not lineal but multi-stranded…” (Bloch, 1998) Both thinkers are spurred by the idea that “Anthropology draws its originality from the unconscious nature of collective phenomena” (Levi-Strauss, 1963) – a notion that has for its core the mind-brain stuff which is also the realm of the discipline of Psychology.

This paper then seeks to uncover the conjunctions and disjunctions between Levi-Strauss and Bloch in their theories of cognitive anthropology to determine the best approach in the study of risk perception and the influence of narratives to cognition as employed in the study of climate change risk perceptions and the effects of narratives (myths and folklore) on these perceptions.

Among the anthropological theories, Structuralism is one method of analysis that is concerned first and foremost with language and the problems of languages (Ehrmann, 1970). As applied to anthropological inquiries, it developed into an “analysis of myths which are of the nature of language” (Ehrmann, 1970). Structuralism attempts to uncover these internal relationships which give different languages their form and function and which extends to the structures of the unconscious.

Edmund Leach gives us the argument for Structuralism:

“[W]hat we know about the external world we apprehend through our senses. The phenomena which we perceive have the characteristics which we attribute to them because of the way our senses operate and the way the human brain is designed to order and interpret the stimuli which are fed into it. One very important feature of this ordering process is that we cut the continua of space and time with which we are surrounded into segments so that we are predisposed to think of the environment as consisting of vast numbers of separate things belonging to named classes, and to think of the passage of time as consisting of sequences of separate events. Correspondingly, when, as men, we construct artificial things (artifacts of all kinds), or devise ceremonials, or write histories of the past, we imitate our apprehension of Nature: the products of our Culture are segmented and ordered in the same way as we suppose the products of Nature to be segmented and ordered.” (2009)

This apparent segmenting of nature by the mind, reflected by the segmentation of culture, is what structuralism attempts to understand through analyses of the products of culture i.e. kinship, narratives, religion. Levi-Strauss developed this approach in his structural study of myths and kinship.

Structuralism arose out of the concept in Linguistics that there lie “covert rules in language that users of that language know but are unable to articulate” (Briggs and Meyer, 2012). These hidden rules, somewhere in the mind of the speaker, ensures mutual intelligibility among users of that language. The absence of “grammar” or explicit set of rules in indigenous languages suggested that humans based language on models and structures in the mind – abstractions in the sense that it cannot be perceived directly by the senses. Linguistics suggests that a concept, in the realm of the mind, is given a signifier, and different signifiers are strung to form sentences with a complete thought: from words to sentences, to paragraphs, to stories. Different cultures arbitrarily assign what word suggests what concept; then we have language. But all these sprung from concepts in the mind and how that mind views the world it perceives. These interactions of the world and mind, as vividly explained by Linguistics, were used as an analogy jump-off point in Structural Anthropology.

If linguistics exhibited the presence of structures in the mind, cultures can then be studied by analyzing the language, not the grammar or rules of that language, but its various expressions which includes myths. Claude Levi-Strauss pointed this out when he said that “myth is language: to be known, myth has to be told; it is part of human speech.” (1963, p. 209) Culture, according to him is also composed of hidden rules that govern social behavior, very much like language. Structural anthropology asserts that “the underlying patterns of human thought that produce cultural categories that organize worldviews” (Briggs and Meyer, 2012) operated within culture and that its analysis will help us understand a particular society’s worldview and how they conceive the world in their mind. In Levi-Strauss’ study of kinship among the Brazilian and Papuan tribes, he used the same rules of linguistics and the breaking down of the language to its smallest units (i.e. phonemes) to analyze these structures also present in the mind. He asserted: “Linguistics teaches us precisely that structural analysis cannot be applied to words directly, but only to words previously broken down into phonemes. There are no necessary relationships at the vocabulary level. This applies to all vocabulary elements, including kinship terms” (Levi-Strauss, 1963, p. 32). In this multi-disciplinary approach between Linguistics and Anthropology, Levi-Strauss argues that linguists provides the anthropologist with etymologies which permit him to establish between certain kinship terms relationships that were not immediately apparent. The anthropologist, on the other hand, can bring to the attention of the linguist customs, prescriptions and prohibitions that help him to understand the persistence of certain features of language or the instability of terms or groups of terms (1963, p. 32).

In his structural study of myths, Claude Levi-Strauss noted that myths worldwide have similar and general themes/motifs because of the same human needs and aspirations, yet strikingly dissimilar because of the different social and environmental phenomena of a given people. This also suggests that human thought processes are the same in different cultures and these can be proven by the binary oppositions (between light and dark, man and woman etc.) present in myths worldwide, as Levi-Strauss posited. He further remarked about the universal quality of myths, “Whatever our ignorance of the language and the culture of the people where it originated, a myth is still felt as a myth by any reader anywhere in the world. Its substance does not lie in its style, its original music or its syntax, but in the story which it tells.” (Levi-Strauss, 1963)

Myths are indeed, powerful. They are, in the words of Carl Jung, collective dreams, which also open up to private meanings. They have the power to yoke communities under one mythos yet also have the transformative energy that stirs individuals. Claude Levi-Strauss noted this power yet he was also conscious of another significance of myths in the study of Anthropology and Sociology – that of the underlying social structures that those myths, he thought, contain. He explained his method in an essay The Structural Study of Myth and postulated that “If there is a meaning to be found in mythology, it cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter in to the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined” (p. 210) and that “the true constituent units of a myth are not the isolated relations but bundles of such relations, and it is only as bundles that these relations can be put to use and combined so as to produce a meaning” (p. 214).

These characteristics of myths, of the general patterns of mythic themes and specific roles of myths in different societies suggest its functional importance to cultures and how it influences thought-processes. But for the study of risk perceptions effected by narratives, I am not interested in those general patterns so obvious in world mythologies. These general patterns are more in the realm of Psychology in what Carl Jung would include in his discussions of archetypes. As a thesis, I am more interested in those combinations of mythic elements that hide in their texts, social structures (kinship, gender relations etc.), perceptions of risk, experience of severe weather disturbance embodied in their mythos, value systems, and meanings for a given people. One must extricate, not unlike an archeologist, amidst the seemingly non-important rubble of mythic language, all the while avoiding the sins of generalizations and being too subjective in our interpretations.

Maurice Bloch, in his many articles and books, encouraged the same interface between cognition (in the realm of Psychology) and social and cultural life (Anthropology) that is also helpful in the study of risk perceptions and how narratives, as one part of a culture, influences perceptions and cognition. What he has written on this subject faces two ways: “on the one hand, he criticises anthropologists for exaggerating the particularity of specific cultures; on the other hand, he criticises cognitive scientists for underestimating it.” ( He further developed Levi-Strauss’ structural approach by criticizing the lineal notion of language as used in the study of culture. He asserted that “language is an inappropriate medium for evoking the non-lineal organization of everyday cognition.” (Bloch, 1998) This assertion stems from the fundamental problem of the etic and emic point of views – in which the anthropologist has no way of fully knowing the thoughts (including deepest aspirations, and ways of knowing) of the people in a particular culture. Even through interviews and other methods usually employed by anthropologists, information is still gathered in a ‘lineal’ language in which informants give a retrospective account of their thought processes. In this sense, no true etic information may be acquired through language as it passes through the different life-world, system of organization and grammar of the anthropologist. Bloch explains this problem:

“[…] anthropologists naturally attempt to produce accounts of intellectual processes which will prove persuasive to their readers, and readers, along with the anthropologist’s informants, expect account of the thought of the people studied to match the folk theory of thought. As a result, a kind of double complicity is all to easily established between anthropologists and their readers and between anthropologists and their readers and between anthropologists and their informants – a double complicity which leads to representations of thought in logic-sentential terms.” (Bloch, 1998)

To answer this problem, Bloch suggested a new approach in which actors’ concepts of society are represented not as strings of terms and proposition but as “governed by lived-in models, that is, models based as much in experience, practice, sight, and sensation as in language.” (Bloch, 1998) He explains these approach and mental models in What Goes Without Saying, a chapter in How We Think They Think:

“The core of the approach, usually known as connectionism, is the idea that most knowledge, especially the knowledge involved in everyday practice, does not take a linear, logic-sentential form but rather is organized into highly complex and integrated networks or mental models most elements of which are connected to each other in a great variety of ways. The models form conceptual clumps which are not language-like precisely because of the simultaneous multiplicity of ways in which information is integrated in them. These mental models are, what is more, only partly linguistic; they also integrate visual imagery, other sensory cognition, the cognitive aspects of learned practices, evaluation, memories of sensations and memories of typical examples. Not only are these mental models not lineal in their internal organization but information from them can be accessed simultaneously from many different part of the model through ‘multiple parallel processing’. This is what enables people to cope with information as rapidly as they, and probably other animals, do in normal, everyday situation.” (p. 24)

Though both stemming from the problem of language in their development of theories on cognizing and thought processes, Bloch departed from Levi-Strauss’ concept of a lineal, rigid and logical interpretation of narratives, to a more holistic understanding of mental models that includes other sensory perceptions. Language for Bloch is just one of the many ways to understand a certain culture. For him, culture and social organizations in particular, may be understood through mental models. One example is his study of the Zafimaniry conceptualizations of maturation, marriage and women and men. He asks: (1) the mental model of what people are like and how they mature, (2) the mental model of the differences and similarities between women and men, (3) the mental model of what a good marriage is like. This approach departed from the solely linguistic interpretation as asserted by the Structuralists to an interpretation of thought processes that includes the interaction of “biological processes to other biological and physical processes” – into a picture of culture integrated and not just superimposed on material facts gathered by the anthropologist.

Levi-Strauss and structuralism argued that human beings naturally and unconsciously classify (binary) concepts as shown by his study of the myth of Orpheus and Native American myths, yet Bloch suggested that these concepts are formed through “vague and provisional ‘prototypes’ which anchor loosely-formed ‘families of specific instances.” (Bloch, 1991) He uses the concept of the ‘house’ to drive at his point:

“… The concept of a house is not a list of essential features (roof, door, walls, and so on) which have to be checked off before deciding whether or not the thing is a house. If that were so we would have no idea that a house which has lost its roof is still house. It is rather that we consider something as a ‘house’ by comparing it to a loosely associated group of ‘houselike’ feature, no one of which is essential, but which are linked by a general idea of what a typical house is.” (Bloch, 1991)

In this case, then, the best way to proceed with the study of risk perceptions is not to be tied up with the logical and rigid formulation of Levi-Strauss but also to employ the holistic approach of Bloch that advocates for the extrication and understanding of the people’s mental models in the writing of ethnography. Levi-Strauss’ structural study of myths may be employed in understanding the representations of units of myths that may be able to help in understanding how the researcher partners understand, cognize and perceive the risk of climate change. Bloch’s connectionism, on the other hand, is a helpful tool in connecting these units of the myth and their representations to the over-all study of climate change risks. Through the use of sensory images and concepts, representations extricated from the myths may in turn present a fuller meaning or representation and may be better communicated to the research partners.

Sources Cited:

Bernard , Alan and Spencer, Jonathan eds. Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. New York: Routledge (1992). 504.

Bloch, Maurice (1991 June). Language, Anthropology and Cognitive Science. Man, 185, 183-198.

_________________. How We Think They Think. Colorado: Westviews Press (1998). 23

_________________. Claude Levi-Strauss Obituary. Posted in November 3, 2009. Retrieved July 26, 2013.

Briggs, Rachel and Meyer, Janelle. Structuralism., retrieved August 30, 2012.

Ehrmann, Jacques. Structuralism. New York: Anchor Books (1970). ix

Leach, Edmund quoted in Moore, Jerry. Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. UK: AltaMira Press (2009).  237.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology 1. New York: Penguin Books (1963). 18.

http://www.wikipedia. Maurice Bloch. Retrieved July 27, 2013.


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