Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World is the first English translation of a series of lectures Claude Lévi-Strauss delivered in Tokyo in 1986. Written with an eye toward the future as his own distinguished career was drawing to a close, this volume presents a synthesis of the author’s major ideas about structural anthropology, a field he helped establish. Critiquing insights of his earlier writings on the relationship between race, history, and civilization, Lévi-Strauss revisits the social issues that never ceased to fascinate him.
He begins with the observation that the cultural supremacy enjoyed by the West for over two centuries is at an end. Global wars and genocides in the twentieth century have fatally undermined Western faith in humanity’s improvement through scientific progress. Anthropology, however, can be the vehicle of a new “democratic humanism,” broadening traditional frameworks that have restricted cross-cultural understandings of the human condition, and providing a basis for inquiries into what other civilizations, such as those of Asia, can teach.
Surveying a world on the brink of the twenty-first century, Lévi-Strauss assesses some of the dilemmas of cultural and moral relativism a globalized society facesethical dimensions of economic inequality, the rise of different forms of religious fundamentalism, the promise and peril of genetic and reproductive engineering. A laboratory of thought opening onto the future, Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World is an important addition to the canon of one of the twentieth-century’s most influential theorists.
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About the Author
Claude Lévi-Strauss was chair of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France (1959–1982).
Maurice Olender is Maître de Conférences at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 2: Three Great Contemporary Problems
Sexuality, Economic Development and Mythic Thought
In my first lecture, I said I would try to define and focus on a few problems that arise for modern humankind, and for which the study of societies without writing can contribute part of the solution. To do so, I shall have to consider these societies from three angles: their familial and social organization, their economic life, and their religious thought.
On considering from a very general standpoint the characteristics common to the societies that anthropologists study, we are led to observe that these societies rely on kinship much more systematically than is the case in our own societies.
In the first place, they use kinship and marriage relations to determine whether a person belongs to the group. Many of these societies deny foreign peoples their humanity. And even as humanity ends at the group’s boundaries, inside that group it is reinforced by an additional quality. Indeed, the members of the group are not just the only true humans, the only excellent ones; they are not only fellow citizens, they are relations, de facto and de jure.
In the second place, these societies hold kinship and the notions connected to it to be prior and external to biological relationships, filiation by blood, to which we ourselves tend to reduce them. Biological ties provide the model on which kinship relations are conceived, but these relations also provide a logical classification system, a mental framework. That framework, once conceived, makes it possible to sort individuals into preestablished categories, assigning to each his or her place within the family and society.
And finally, these relations and notions pervade the entire field of life and social activities. Real, postulated, or inferred, they entail rights and duties that are well defined and different for each type of related individual. More generally, we can say that, in these societies, kinship and marriage constitute a common language capable of expressing every social relationship: not only familial but also economic, political, religious, and, so forth.