Sunday, August 1, 2010

“Structure and Infrastructure in Primitive Society: Levi-Strauss and Radcliffe-Brown”

Neville Dyson-Hudson, Structuralist Controversy

So Levi-Strauss has been responsible for making the term structuralism popular. However, anthropologists tend to be intensely ambivalent about him, skeptical of the popular interest in his work, and dubious about the enormity of the questions he tries to ask.

In particular, Dyson-Hudson resents the fact that his own master, Radcliffe-Browne, has been overshadowed by Levi-Strauss. In 1950, Radcliffe-Brown wrote what was meant to be the authoritative statement on kinship, however it was barely reviewed and only recently translated into English. In contrast, L-S received a long review in the Times Literary Supplement, along with even longer debates on his influences, from Leibniz to Durkheim, etc.

Basically, lots of this piece is an extended exercise in whining, but it’s pretty astute whining that seems to anticipate a lot of the trends and problems in contemporary anthropology. Here are the pertinent points of critique re: Levi-Strauss and efforts to explain the hostility he engenders in anthropologists.

  1. Comp Lit Syndrome: Anthropologists are just irritated by people pretending to know something about the discipline, when really they’re just hopping on a new trend and know jackshit about good scholarship or the history of the discipline.
  2. L-S takes the whole field of man’s activities as his subject, which is excruciatingly broad. In doing so, he invokes poorly defined categories like, “the human mind.”
  3. Despite aligning himself with “social anthropology,” which has for a long time identified itself as performing detailed ethnographic studies, L-S increasingly practices armchair anthropology. His actual findings seem slight by contrast, and are often couched such that the observer seems more significant than the objects of study.

Part II: the Stakes
In 1944-45, Radcliffe-Browne was chosen to present at the Royal Anthropological Institute of the UK. In his speech, he corrected some of Durkheim’s findings, but endorsed the general direction he had set for anthropology.

Two years later, Merleau-Ponty wrote an essay critiquing Durkheim, claiming that to identify the sacred with the social was simply to defer the problem, and to avoid all of the awkward questions about the ambivalence inherent in that concept. Instead of trying to define the sacred or the social, sociology should consider both as aspects of the attempt by society to work out the relations between men. It should be seen as a manifestation of the problems and possibilities of intersubjective relations.

Merleau-Ponty’s shift from “collective consciousness” to “intersubjectivity” is the basic challenge set forth for the participants of this conference, and it is one that he believes L-S fails to meet.
Radcliffe-Browne is portrayed as believing that social structures were the empirical, observable relations existing between men. L-S believes that social structures are entities independent of man’s consciousness.

The options are these: “Either the reality that anthropologists should be concerned with is action - often purposive, apparent, repetitive, observable, and subject to demonstration; or it is the idea - often unconscious, immanent, refracted, and its pattern demonstrable only after being stripped down and reassembled.”

In essence, Dyson-Hudson thinks both Radcliffe-Brown and Levi-Strauss are only partial solutions. He thinks it ought to be possible to combine the two options, possibly by a more adequate understanding of the individual, complete with desires and interests.

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