Biography of Charles Levi Strauss

Claude Gustav Levi-Strauss is social anthropologist who is best known for his contribution to the development of the theory of Structuralism in modern social anthropology.

Levi-Strauss was born to French Jewish parents in 1908. His father was a painter, and Claude Levi-Strauss was born in Brussels during an assignment there. The family returned to Paris in the early part of Claude’s life and he grew up in France, attending lower school there before continuing his education at the Sorbonne.

At Sorbonne, Levi-Strauss began his educational career studying both law and philosophy but came to a change of heart in the middle of his schooling and decided not to pursue a career in law. He graduated from Sorbonne in 1931, after completing his laureate in philosophy. Claude Levi-Strauss taught secondary school for a few years directly following his college graduation, but left teaching to become part of a French Cultural Mission team headed to Brazil. In Brazil, he taught as a visiting professor at the University of Sao Paolo.

During his four years in Brazil, Levi-Strauss was in a position to begin making trips into the Matto Grasso and the Brazilian Rainforest to study native social structure. He made brief studies of several different Indian tribes, among them the Bororo and Nambikwara societies. These trips marked the beginning of Claude Levi-Strauss’ ethnographic fieldwork, and they are considered to be the official beginning of his career as working social anthropologist.

In 1939, Levi-Strauss returned to Paris to help with the war effort. He served in the army till after the French capitulation, and then began to teach at a school in Montpelier. That job ended when Claude was dismissed due to his Judaic ancestry, and he left France for a job at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was instrumental in forming the Ecole Libre de Haute Estude to serve as a very unique learning experience for French exiles. He served as a cultural attache in the French embassy in Washington, DC in 1946 and 1947 before returning to Paris to receive his doctorate from Sorbonne.

His doctoral thesis, ‘The Elementary Structures of Kinship’ was published a year later. This work was almost instantly granted status as one of the most important papers ever written on the nature of kinship in anthropology. Claude Levi-Strauss continued to research and write through the late 1940’s and 1950’s with a great significant amount of academic and professional success.

Levi-Strauss made the jump from an average academic success to one of France’s premiere intellectuals after the publication of his semi-autobiographical work, ‘Triste Tropiques’, in 1955. In 1959, he accepted the chair in Social Anthropology at College de France. During this period of time, he worked to establish institutions that encouraged the study of anthropology in French higher education.

‘La Pensee Sauvage’, considered by most to be Claude Levi-Strauss’ most important work, was published in 1962. By this point, Levi-Strauss has reached a strong level of success around the world. From the mid 1960’s to 1971, Levi-Strauss worked on his master compilation called ‘Mythologiques’. In this book, Claude followed a single myth from the furthest tip of South America through all of it’s complicated changes and variations from social group to group all the way up to the Arctic Circle.

In 1973, Levi-Strauss received France’s highest intellectual honor and was elected into the Academie Francaise. Since that time, he has been admitted to many notable societies and won an impressive collection of awards. He has received multiple honorary doctorates from some of the world’s most renowned academic establishments, including Oxford and Harvard. Although he is technically retired, he has continued to occasionally publish works about the intellectual arts.

In 2008, Charles Levi-Strauss became the first member of the Academie Francaise to meet the century mark when he celebrated his 100th birthday along with the republication of his main works by the Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, an honor which solidifies his position as a premiere member of the Anthropology community and an author of true classic works in his field.