A Critical Reanalysis of the link between Levi-Strauss and the Interpretivist School

In my prior anthropological theory classes from undergrad, Levi-Strauss was always juxtaposed against Geertz, with Geertz reacting against Levi-Straussian structuralism in an attempt to indicate the value of thick description - looking at bits of ethnographic data as chunks of information ripe for analysis. As we've talked about in class, his work, however, fails to really assess political issues and historical issues, which play a crucial role in anthropology, as evidenced by Michael Scott's work in Melanesia (at least, that would be my assessment).

The one thing that confuses me about Geertz, however, is if he is deploying emic or etic categories of analysis in his fieldwork. Also, are Boasian and Geertzian schools of thought essentially the same or different? I have read "Patterns of Culture" by Ruth Benedict in the past, and although she follows Geertz, I feel as if her argument is slightly different.

In "Common Sense as a Cultural System," could it be said that his discussion of intersexuality, which is some form of 'inversion' across the societies he mentions, be linked to Levi-Strauss's discussion of the Asdiwal myth? I see some sort of affinity here that I had not previously noticed between these theorists. Although they are essentially at odds with one another methodologically, it seems that some of the conclusions they're reaching are relatively similar in character, and, to some extent, totalizing of the 'native' perspective. I can see how Geertzian ideas influenced the postmodern theorists like James Clifford, however, I think that postmodernists were also reacting against Geertz in some ways. Maybe this is just my interpretation, but I feel as if Geertz truly contradicts himself in "Common Sense as a Cultural System" because he insists that the notion of 'common sense' is so cross-culturally variable that universals can't be specified, however, he goes on to identify some broad categories that ideas about common sense are linked to - including 'naturalness' and 'practicalness,' just to name two of them.

Does anyone have any input on my reading of this? I know it's fundamentally a reversal of everything I have been taught in anthropology classes, but I had never really seen this linkage before and it has been preoccupying me during my revision.

I suppose because Geertz is essentially writing against structuralism, he draws upon some metaphors from it at least and tries to revise them according to his own approach.

Any thoughts?

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Comment by John McCreery on May 6, 2012 at 12:43pm

Allow me to add, too, what may not be evident from the contrasts I've drawn between Lévi-Strauss and Geertz. Logically speaking their approaches are not contradictory. The negation of one does not imply the other. The affirmation of both is possible. Here I take a hint from James Fernandez (1986), who proposed in his work on metaphor that culture be conceived as a n-dimensional manifold in which pronouns that point to people or objects are pushed around by metaphors. Consider, for example, the two statements, "He's a lion" and "He's no lion, he's a turkey." In the cultural manifold to which these metaphorical assertions allude, lion and turkey occupy distinct positions and how the individual to whom "He" points is positioned in that space determines the meaning attached to him.

It occurred to me while writing a small piece on Chinese offerings that the binary oppositions sketched by Lévi-Strauss, for example the raw and the cooked, could be taken as defining the dimensions of Fernandez's n-dimensional manifold, allowing one to see how choices of offerings, raw, cooked, cooked and cut up, ready to eat  position the spirits to whom the offerings are made. This turned out to be a useful way to compare Chinese rituals and unpack their significance. 

Here, I would add, that the basic idea, treating Lévi-Strauss's binary oppositions in this way offers both a way to conceptualize how all cultures are permutations and combinations of the same basic elements, in effect particular clusters of positions within the (very large n) n-dimensional space that defines the set of all possible cultures while leaving open Geertzian questions about how particular people and objects wind up in the positions we find them and how the context defined by those positions affects the way we see them. Lévi-Strauss defines the space; Geertz considers the contexts defined by elements that cluster near each other  within that space. 

This approach remains, of course, only a speculative cartoon, a sketch of another possible anthropology, without the enormous amount of work required to flesh it out. Any one who would like to take it and run with it has my blessing. A footnote will suffice to say where the rudiments of the idea came from.

Comment by John McCreery on May 6, 2012 at 12:15pm

Keith, allow me to return the compliment. Your approach to teaching theory is one I wish I'd learned much earlier than I did. C'est magnifique.

Comment by Keith Hart on May 6, 2012 at 11:06am

Chelsea, thanks for bringing up this topic in a form that generates much food for thought at several levels, not least how anthropology is taught and the relationship between the two men who have shaped it more than any others since WW2. John's response is magnificent. I am sorry that I had to go to your respective home pages for a follow up, but that is your choice. The OAC offers many possibilities for interaction, not just one.

The habit of training students by criticizing theoretical objects is not just British. A friend of mine recalls that his graduate seminar in anthropological theory at Chicago consisted of tossing an article into the class for it to be mauled by all and sundry until it lay on the table like a piece of dead meat.

My aim as a teacher of the history of theory was always first to show the person behind the text and if possible the historical circumstances that motivated that person to write what s/he did. The main point was to encourage the students to imagine that they too could think creatively about anthropological objects. In this respect, it was essential to recognize that, however important a text, we are not always in the best position to receive it. This can often depend on what else we have read and on what our own intellectual purposes and priorities are.

For example, I read Marx Capital Volume 1 and Mauss The Gift as an undergraduate, but neither made much sense to me. I tried Marx several more times and gave up until, in my mid-30s, I devoured the book in less than a week. The following weekend I read Mauss's essay and made 25 pages of notes on it. Ever since Marx and Mauss have been locked together in my theoretical imagination. I am not alone in this: David Graeber would probably say the same, although his history of reading was different. Nor am I saying that we should pick and choose what we like from our great ancestors in a purely subjective way: the writers deserve to be read for what they meant to say. But the point is that theory is what each of us makes of it and the combination of authors and texts that become canonical for us is idiosyncratic.

Levi-Strauss left us his monstrous and exciting memoir, Tristes Tropiques, as a guide to his own historical subjectivity. Geertz reveals his own interest in the relationship between text and author in Works and Lives. Fortunately, he left us a wonderful autobiographical essay, A life of learning (1999). It is hard not to be moved by his origins as a frightened working class teenager waiting in a ship to invade Japan, only to be spared by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, nor to be inspired by his lifetime goal of becoming a writer. Knowing him personally as an actor in history helps us to understand his chief texts, not so that we can "get them right", but to draw on them in building our own working repertoire.

Our education systems seek to detach us from our personal purposes in society and history. Nothing does this more effectively than telling students to reproduce the contents of dead texts separated from the living persons who wrote them and their historical contexts. History is important not for its own sake, but as an aid to defining our own subjective priorities.

Comment by Alice C. Linsley on May 6, 2012 at 2:33am

Chelsea,  You might be interested in this:


It gives another viewpoint on Levi-Strauss.

Comment by John McCreery on May 6, 2012 at 2:29am

Chelsea, your description of your theory class is to me a familiar reminder with what is still wrong with theory classes in anthropology. Squeezed for time, they juxtapose exemplary figures as if they were debating only each other, then proceed to tell you what was wrong with both positions. With no historical context or sense of the larger conversations in which both were involved, what students are left with is caricatures of what the figures in question were actually up to. They offer no clue as to why others were excited about what the two now-demonized ancestors were writing, which in the case of Geertz and Lévi-Strauss led to both being celebrated, discussed, and critiqued by scholars in a wide range of fields. 

Let me offer a different view, still only the briefest sketch, but, I believe, a more accurate one. Let me begin with a text that has continued to inspire me ever since I first read it, from Geertz "The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man" in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). Geertz writes,

Toward the end of his recent study of the ideas used by tribal peoples, La Pensée Sauvage, the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss remarks that scientific explanation does not consist, as we have been led to imagine, in the reduction of the complex to the simple. Rather, it consists, he says, in a substitution of a complexity more intelligible for one which is less. So far as the study of man is concerned, one may go even further, I think, and argue that explanation often consists of substituting complex pictures for simple ones while striving somehow to retain the persuasive clarity that went with the simple ones.

First, I direct your attention to the form of this remark. Geertz does not reject Lévi-Strauss; he builds on what Lévi-Strauss has said, situating both himself and Lévi-Strauss in relation to an ongoing debate about the nature of scientific explanation. He is allied with Lévi-Strauss in regarding a conventional view of science, that science consists in isolating key variables from what is regarded as the superficial clutter of other, irrelevant information, to develop and test models that describe what are taken to be natural laws, as too simplistic for understanding humanity. The challenge he poses to his reader is in the last line, "substituting complex pictures for simple ones while striving somehow to retain the persuasive clarity that went with the simple ones."

Let us follow Geertz's advice while considering other contrasts between the work of Geertz and Levi-Strauss. The proper place to begin, I suggest, is to consider the intellectual worlds in which both became prominent and the sorts of debates in which they were both engaged. One large debate turned on the questions "Where is language? Where is culture?" On one side were those for whom the answer was "Mind," where Mind consists of invisible models concealed in human heads. Here Lévi-Strauss was on common ground with Noam Chomsky. Like Chomsky he was inspired by Roman Jakobson's phonology, the basis of the phonetic alphabet still used by linguists to describe languages today. What struck them both was Jakobson's demonstration that phonemic differences specific to particular languages could all be described in terms of a small set of basic phonetic features, suggesting the possibility that the same might be true of language (Chomsky's deep structures) or culture (Lévi-Strauss' Mendelevian table of the mind, whose construction he was pursuing throughout the Mythologigues). That is, that other features of language and culture more broadly conceived might be conceived as permutations and combinations of a finite set of elements. From a different perspective, Lévi-Strauss also shared common ground with Ward Goodenough and other cognitive anthropologists who drew inspiration from another strain of linguistics, exemplified in Kenneth Pike's phonemics. What all these scholars had in common, however, was the point with which I began, that language/culture are located in Mind and thus invisible to direct observation. Here is where Geertz disagreed. He asserted that culture is a public phenomenon, visible for all to see. The problem is how to interpret what we see correctly — a goal which, he claimed, could never be achieved by any simple explanation, however elegantly formalized that explanation might be. Instead of the work of linguists who were trying to formalize the rules of language, Geertz drew inspiration from the work of German philosophers, in particular Georg Gadamer, who had developed ideas about hermeneutics, while pursuing questions that were, originally, theological—how to interpret scripture. From a perspective informed by hermeneutical thinking, culture would be like the Protestant vernacular Bible, a text that all could read but a difficult text about whose proper reading all sorts of debates might arise. 

Thus, where Lévi-Strauss saw ethnographic data as input for theorizing about universal features of Mind, Geertz saw it, instead, as difficult and ambiguous text whose always debatable meaning could only be approximated by careful attention to context. 

And, yes, one more thing. In thinking about the history of ideas, keeping the order straight is vital. Ruth Benedict was a student of Boas and belongs to a generation earlier than Geertz. Geertz read Benedict, not vice-versa. A curious thing about these intellectual genealogies is that both Geertz and Lévi-Strauss could legitimately claim to be intellectual heirs of Boas. Boas was trained as a physicist and in his writing on language and culture argues persuasively that the native does not know the implicit rules that the linguist extracts from the native's language. How this all fits with Marx, Freud, geology and the notion that the truth is buried somewhere else than what is in front of our eyes is another history to be considered. Here it suffices to note that he spelled out clearly the notion that what the anthropologists seeks to uncover is concealed from public view and not to be found on the surface of things, a view that Lévi-Strauss would find entirely congenial. At the same time, Boas was acutely attuned to cultural difference in a way that Benedict and later Geertz would share, a stream of thinking that leads to Geertz' conclusion that culture is both public and particular, in contrast to Lévi-Strauss' view that Culture is both private and universal, the native is Me.

Please excuse the length and tenor of this rant. I have had these thoughts on my chest for quite a long time and the opportunity to vent them was irresistible. I have, undoubtedly, working from memory, got much of this history wrong. Please correct and question as needed.


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