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The structuralist paradigm in anthropology suggests that the structure of human thought processes is the same in all cultures, and that these mental processes exist in the form of binary oppositions (Winthrop 1991). Some of these oppositions include hot-cold, male-female, culture-nature, and raw-cooked. Structuralists argue that binary oppositions are reflected in various cultural institutions (Lett 1987:80). Anthropologists may discover underlying thought processes by examining such things as kinship, myth, and language. It is proposed, then, that a hidden reality exists beneath all cultural expressions. Structuralists aim to understand the underlying meaning involved in human thought as expressed in cultural acts.

Further, the theoretical approach offered by structuralism emphasizes that elements of culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to the entire system (Rubel and Rosman 1996:1263). This notion, that the whole is greater than the parts, appeals to the Gestalt school of psychology. Essentially, elements of culture are not explanatory in and of themselves, but rather form part of a meaningful system. As an analytical model, structuralism assumes the universality of human thought processes in efforts to explain the “deep structure” or underlying meaning existing in cultural phenomena. “…structuralism is a set of principles for studying the mental superstructure” (Harris 1979:166, from Lett 1987:101).

Structuralism has been influential, especially in the analysis of kinship and marriage, and that of myth and symbolism. It also helped the emergence of contemporary theoretical schools, such as Symbolic Anthropology, Cognitive Anthropology, and Postmodernism. However, Structuralism has not been applied to other fields of anthropology. In order to claim that Structuralism constitutes a general science of communication and sociocultural behavior, it would be necessary to apply this approach to other areas, such as economic or political anthropology.

Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-Present, France)

Claude Levi-Strauss is credited with Structural Anthropology, which assumes that cultural forms are based on common underlying properties of the human mind. Levi-Strauss believed that human minds have certain characteristics which stem from the functions of the brain. These common mental structures lead people to think similarly, regardless of their society or cultural background. Since culture is formulated by human minds, which follows the same pattern of functions, all cultures are based on common general rules.According to Levi-Strauss, among these universal mental characteristics is the need to classify: to impose order on aspects of nature, on people’s relationships with nature, and on relations between people. Levi-Strauss argued that a universal aspect of classification is opposition, or contrast. Furthermore, he discovered that one of the most common means of classifying is by using binary opposition, such as good and evil, white and black, old and young, high and low. He argued that a fundamental characteristic of the human mind is the desire to find a midpoint between such oppositions.

19th-century Evolutionism | Historical Particularism | Functionalism | Culture and Personality | Neoevolutionism | Materialism and NeoMaterialism | Structuralism | Symbolic Anthropology | Postmodernism