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Feminist Writings$

Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret A. Simons, and Marybeth Timmermann

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780252039003

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252039003.001.0001

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A Review of The Elementary Structures of Kinship

A Review of The Elementary Structures of Kinship

Chapter:
(p.58) A Review of The Elementary Structures of Kinship
Source:
Feminist Writings
Author(s):

Claude Lévi-Strauss

, Véronique Zaytzeff, Frederick Morrison
Publisher:
University of Illinois Press
DOI:10.5406/illinois/9780252039003.003.0007

Abstract and Keywords

French sociology has been dormant for a long time. Lévi-Strauss’s book must be greeted as an event heralding a spectacular awakening. The efforts of the Durkheim school to organize social facts in an intelligible manner proved to be disappointing since they relied on questionable metaphysical hypotheses and on equally doubtful historical postulates....

French sociology has been dormant for a long time. Lévi-Strauss’s book must be greeted as an event heralding a spectacular awakening. The efforts of the Durkheim school to organize social facts in an intelligible manner proved to be disappointing since they relied on questionable metaphysical hypotheses and on equally doubtful historical postulates.1 In reaction, the American school tried to abstain from any speculations; it confined its work to collecting facts without elucidating their apparent absurdity. Heir to the French tradition, but trained in American methods, Lévi-Strauss sought to resume his masters’ attempts while guarding against their flaws. He too assumes that human institutions are endowed with signification; but he seeks the key in their very humanity. He exorcizes the specters of metaphysics, but refuses to accept that this world is only contingence, disorder, and absurdity. His secret will be to try to think the given without introducing [faire intervenir] a thought that would be foreign to it: at the heart of reality he will discover the spirit which inhabits it. Thus he gives us back the picture of a universe that does not need to mirror heaven in order to be a human universe.

(p.59) It is not for me to critique—and thus to assess—this work as a specialist, but it is not aimed solely at specialists. Let not the reader, who opens the volume at random, be intimidated by the mysterious complexity of the diagrams and tables. In truth, even as the author discusses in minute details the matrimonial system of the Murngin or the Kachin,2 it is the mystery of society as a whole, the mystery of man himself that he endeavors to penetrate.

The problem he takes on is the most fascinating and the most disconcerting of all those that have attracted ethnographers and sociologists, namely the enigma posed by the prohibition against incest. The importance of this fact and its obscurity result from the unique situation it occupies in the ensemble of human facts, which are divided into two categories: facts of nature and facts of culture. Certainly, no analysis will permit us to discern the exact point of passage from one category to the other, but a reliable criterion distinguishes them: the first are universal while the second are governed by norms. The incest prohibition is the sole phenomenon escaping this classification for it appears in all societies without exception, but it is nevertheless a rule. Various attempts at its interpretation have all endeavored to conceal this ambiguity. Some scholars have invoked both aspects of the law—the natural and the cultural—, but they have established only an extrinsic3 relation between the two. They assume that a biological interest has engendered the social interdiction. Other scholars have seen in exogamy a purely natural fact, dictated by an instinct. Finally, other scholars, Durkheim among them, consider it exclusively a cultural phenomenon. These three types of explanations result in impossibilities and contradictions. In truth, the incest prohibition is of such great interest because it represents the very moment of the passage from nature to culture. “It is the process by which Nature surpasses itself.”4 This singularity follows from the singular character of sexuality itself; it is normal that the junction between nature and culture is encountered in the field of sexual life, since sexual life, while a matter of biology, immediately involves others [autrui]. This duality is encompassed in the phenomenon of [marital] alliance, for while kinship is given, nature imposes the [marital] alliance but does not determine it. Hence, it is possible to grasp directly from life the manner by which man, assuming his natural condition, defines his humanity. The fundamental structures on which human society as such is founded are expressed and accomplished through the incest prohibition.

First of all, exogamy shows that there could be no society without the acknowledgment of a Rule. Contrary to the myths and lies of liberals, the intervention is not solely linked to certain economic regimes; it is as original (p.60) as humanity itself.5 The distribution of values between members of the collectivity has always been and could only be a cultural phenomenon. As the food with which she is moreover closely associated, the woman is a scarce product that is essential to the life of the group; in many primitive civilizations, the bachelor is a pariah economically and socially. The very first concern of the collectivity will be thus to prevent the establishing of a monopoly of women. This is the underlying meaning of the incest prohibition, which affirms that women should not receive a social usage based on their natural distribution. Men are forbidden from choosing their [marital] allies among their female relatives, and women are “frozen” to the bosom of the family so that the distribution takes place under the control of the group and not in the private sphere. Despite its negative appearance, the Rule really has a positive meaning, for the interdiction immediately implies an organization. In order to renounce his female relatives, the individual must be assured that a symmetrical renunciation by another male promises him female [marital] allies; that is to say, that the Rule is the affirmation of a reciprocity. Now reciprocity is the immediate way of integrating the opposition of self and other: without such an integration, there would be no society. However, such a relation would have no existence if it remained abstract. Its concrete expression is the exchange: the transfer of values from one individual to another makes them partners; a human “mitsein” can only be established under this condition. The fundamental character of these structures clearly emerges from the study of child psychology. The child’s apprenticeship about himself and the world comes in learning to accept the arbitration of others, i.e., the Rule, which reveals reciprocity to him, a discovery to which he immediately reacts with the gift and the demand. This notion of exchange—whose importance Mauss had already established in his essay on the gift and which envelops the notions of rule and reciprocity6—provides us with the key to the mystery of exogamy: to forbid a woman to members of a certain group is to immediately put her at the disposition of another group. The prohibition doubles as an obligation of giving his daughter, his wife to another man. [A man] offers the female relative whom he refuses for himself. The sexual act, instead of closing in on itself, opens a vast system of communication. The incest prohibition merges with the institution of human order. Everywhere men have sought to establish a matrimonial regime in which women figure among the gifts by which the relation of each [man] to the others is expressed and social existence, as such, is affirmed.

An extremely important note is necessary here: relations of reciprocity and exchange do not appear between men and women; they are established (p.61) between men by means of women. A profound asymmetry between the sexes exists and always has existed. The “Reign of women” is an outdated myth. Whatever the mode of filiation may be, whether children are included in the father’s group or the mother’s, women belong to the males and are part of the various prestations they grant each other.7 All matrimonial systems entail that women are given by certain males to other males.

There is one case where the connection between marriage and exchange appears clearly: that of dual organizations. These organizations present such striking analogies with each other that at times one has been tempted to assign them a single origin. According to Lévi-Strauss, their convergence is explained by the identity of their functional character. The dual system does not give rise to reciprocity, but rather it expresses it in a concrete figure. This same perspective will allow us to explain more complex forms of society. They are not the result of historical and geographical chance; they all manifest the same underlying intention: to prevent the group from solidifying in upon itself and to maintain itself in opposition to the other groups with which exchange is possible.

The author seeks the confirmation of his ideas through a thorough analysis of given social realities. This study constitutes the most important part of his work. There is no question in the present review of going back over its complicated twists and turns. I will simply try to indicate the method used, for the fertility of a hypothesis is demonstrated by its methodical application.

The form of marriage providing the true experimentum crucis of the study of matrimonial prohibitions is the marriage between cross-cousins. In a very large number of primitive societies marriage is forbidden between parallel cousins—children of two brothers or two sisters—but it is recommended between cross-cousins—children of a brother and a sister. The extreme interest in this custom comes from the fact that biologically equivalent degrees of kinship are considered, from a social point of view, as being radically dissimilar, making it patently obvious that nature does not dictate its laws to society; and if one understands the origin of this asymmetry, one has the explanation for the prohibition against incest. Marriage between cross-cousins entails a dual organization of the collectivity: they are distributed in fact as if they belonged to two different moieties. However, one must not believe that this division is what defines the rules of exogamy. Primitives do not begin by establishing classes: class is an analytical element, like concept; man thinks before the logician formalizes thought. Thus society is organized prior to defining the separate elements that will appear in this organization. (p.62) Where classes meet—and this is not everywhere—they are conceived less as a group of extended individuals than as a system of positions in which only the structure remains constant and where the individuals can move about as long as the relation is respected. The principle of reciprocity acts in two complementary ways: by constituting classes which delimit the extension of the range of spouses, or by determining a relationship that allows one to say whether the individual in question is or is not a possible spouse. In the case of cross-cousins, these two aspects of the principle overlap; however, their affiliation to two different groups is not what destines them to form alliances between them; on the contrary the possibility of an exchange is the raison d’être of the system that brings them into opposition. Women are automatically seen as destined to be exchanged, and this perspective immediately creates an opposition between two types of women: the sister or daughter who must be handed over, and the spouse who is acquired, i.e., the relative and the [marital] ally. Here it is not a question, as Frazer believed,8 of the solution to an economic problem: economic processes are not isolable. An indivisible act of primitive consciousness recognizes the daughter and the sister as a value that is offered, and the other’s daughter and sister as a value that is due. Even before the thing to be exchanged is present, the relation of exchange is already given: before his daughter’s birth, the father knows that he must give her to the man—or the son of the man—whose sister he received in marriage. Cross-cousins come from families that are in an antagonistic position and in a dynamic imbalance that can be resolved solely by [marital] alliance. On the contrary, two sisters or two brothers, because of the groups to which they belong, find themselves in a static relation and their children will be considered as part of a same set; in relations with each other they do not bear the sign of alterity which is necessary for establishing [marital] alliances.

Yet, if one restricts himself to viewing the exchange in this limited form—that is as long as it establishes a reciprocity between a certain number of pairs of exchanger units, classes, sections, or subsections—one notices that it does not take all the facts into account. This is what emerges, for example, from the analysis of the Australian data. In its generalized form, the idea of exchange can serve as the key to the study of all societies. Generalized exchange is the one that establishes relations of reciprocity among any number of partners. So one is in the presence of a generalized system of exchange if a man in group A must marry a woman from B, while a man in B marries a woman in C, a man in C a woman in D, and a man in D a woman in A. This is what takes place, among other things, in the case where the marriage is (p.63) matrilateral, that is to say where the young man must marry the daughter of his maternal uncle. This rule establishes the course of an open cycle to which each individual must conform. When group A gives a woman away to group B, it is a long-term speculation since it has to bank on the fact that B will give a woman away to C, C to D, and D to A. Such a calculation entails risks and this is why new formulas of [marital] alliance are often superimposed on generalized exchange, such as marriage by purchase, which allows one to integrate irrational factors into the system without destroying it.

The application of these guiding principles allows Lévi-Strauss to bring out the signification of matrimonial systems which up to now appeared both contingent and unintelligible. The conclusion of these analyses which take us to Australia, China, India, and both Americas, is the existence of two essential types of exogamy. Direct exchange corresponds to bilateral marriage, meaning that the individual can marry the daughter of his maternal uncle or of his paternal aunt. Indirect (or generalized) exchange corresponds to the matrilateral marriage that authorizes [marital] alliance exclusively with the daughter of the maternal uncle. The first system is only possible in disharmonic regimes, that is to say where residence follows the lineage of the father and filiation follows the lineage of the mother. The second system appears in harmonic regimes where residence and filiation go together. The first one is very fruitful as to the number of systems it is likely to found, but its functional fecundity is relatively weak. The second one, to the contrary, is a fecund-regulating principle leading to a greater organic solidarity within the group. In the case of restricted exchange, the inclusion within or the exclusion outside the class is the deciding factor. In the case of indirect exchange, the degree of kinship, that is to say the nature of the relation, is of prominent importance. Thus disharmonic systems have evolved toward organizations with matrimonial classes while the contrary has taken place in harmonic systems. The latter constitute an open cycle, a long cycle; the former a short cycle. Bilateral marriage is a more secure operation, but matrilateral marriage offers unlimited potentialities, the length of the cycle being in inverse proportion to its security. This is why a foreign factor is almost always added to the simple forms of generalized exchange. Among the groups that embarked on this great sociological adventure, not one of them could entirely free itself from the anxiety generated by the risks of the system, and they have kept a certain ratio or even a symbol of patrilaterality. No system is pure: it is both simple and coherent and yet beset by other systems.

It should be added that the structure of the exchange is not a binding requirement for a preferred spouse. Among other things, the purchase of (p.64) a wife in substitution for his claim on the [female] cousin allows him to be freed from the elementary forms of the exchange. However, whether indirect or not, global or specific, concrete or symbolic, the exchange is always found at the basis of matrimonial institutions. The idea that exogamy aims to insure a total and continuing circulation of women and girls is thus confirmed. Its value is not negative, but positive. The idea is not that a biological peril is attached to consanguineous marriage, but rather a social benefit results from exogamous marriage. The incest prohibition is the law of the gift par excellence: it is the institution of culture in the heart of nature.

“Any marriage is a dramatic encounter between nature and culture, between [marital] alliance and kinship, … Since one must yield to nature in order that the species may perpetuate itself, and concomitantly for social alliance to endure, the very least one must do is to deny it while yielding to it.”9 In a sense, any marriage is a social incest since the husband absorbs a specific possession into himself instead of escaping toward the other. Society demands that within this selfish act, communication with the group be at least maintained: this is why, even though the woman is something more than a sign, she is still like the word, something to be exchanged.

The relation of the man to the woman is fundamentally also a relationship to other men—and other women. Lovers are never alone in the world. The most intimate event for everyone, the sexual embrace, is also a public event: it calls into question at the same time the individual and the whole society. This is the origin of its dramatic character. Those who are scandalized by the burning interest that today’s men attach to it display a remarkable ignorance: the extreme importance attached to sexual taboos shows us that this concern is as old as the world and it is far from being superfluous, for man defines his humanity by the manner in which he assumes his sexuality.

Certainly, this choice he makes on his own is not the fruit of a well-thought-out deliberation. However, the premier merit of this study by Lévi-Strauss is precisely to challenge the old dilemma: either human acts are intentional or they are devoid of signification. The author defines them as structures whose whole precedes the parts and whose regulating principle possesses a rational value even if it is not rationally conceived. From where do structure and principle come? Lévi-Strauss abstains from venturing into the philosophical field, and he never departs from a rigorous scientific objectivity; his thought, however, obviously belongs to the great humanistic movement which considers that human existence brings with itself its own reason. One can not read his conclusions without remembering young Marx’s words: “The relation of man to woman.”10

(p.65) Yet, the book does not awaken only Marxist echoes; it often gave me the impression of successfully reconciling Engels and Hegel, for man originally appears to us as an antiphysis, and what his intervention realizes is the concrete position in front of me of another self [moi] without which the first would not be able to be defined. I have also been especially impressed by the similarity between certain descriptions and the theses upheld by existentialism: in positing itself, existence posits its laws in a single movement; it does not obey any internal necessity, yet it escapes contingency of fact because it assumes the conditions of its upspringing.11 The incest prohibition is both universal and normative because it reveals an original attitude of the existant: to be man is to choose oneself as a man by defining one’s possibilities on the basis of a reciprocal relationship with the other. The presence of the other is never an accident, and exogamy, far from restricting itself to recognizing this presence, on the contrary, constitutes it. Through the presence of the other, man’s transcendence is expressed and realized: it is the refusal of immanence, the demand for a surpassing. Through communication and exchange, matrimonial regimes provide man with a horizon toward which he can project himself; under their baroque appearance they assure him a human hereafter.

However, attempting to confine such an impartial book to one system of interpretation would betray the book: its fecundity comes specifically from the fact that it invites every reader to think it over in his own way. This is also the reason that no single review can do it justice. A work that delivers facts, establishes a method, and proposes speculations, deserves to be rediscovered individually: it ought to be read.

Notes

This review was published in Les temps modernes in October 1949, VII (49), 943–49; © Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir. Earlier that year, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Les structures élémentaires de la parenté was published by Editions des Presses Universitaires de France; hereafter we refer to this title as SEP. A revised edition with the same title was published in France by Mouton and Co. and Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in 1967. The revised edition was translated into English by James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham, with the title The Elementary Structures of Kinship, hereafter referred to as ESK. It was published in 1969 by Beacon Press, Boston.

(1.) Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) was a French sociologist who pioneered the methodology and theoretical framework of rigorous social science.

(2.) The Murngin are Australian aborigines, and the Kachin are a tribal people occupying parts of northeastern Myanmar and contiguous areas of China and India. (p.66)

(3.) This word is “intrinsèque” in the Les temps modernes article, but should be “extrinsèque,” as is apparent in the following passage from Lévi-Strauss’s SEP, paraphrased in Beauvoir’s review: “[C]ertains ont invoqué le double caractère, naturel et culturel, de la règle, mais se sont bornés à établir entre l’un et l’autre une connexion extrinsèque, constituée par une démarche rationnelle de la pensée” (28). This passage was translated as “Some put forward the natural and cultural duality of the rule, but could only establish a rationally derived and extrinsic connection between the two aspects” in ESK (24).

(4.) Beauvoir quotes Lévi-Strauss’s SEP: “C’est le processus par lequel la Nature se dépasse elle-même” (29), which is translated as “The prohibition of incest is where nature transcends itself” in ESK (25).

(5.) The “intervention” Beauvoir refers to here is the incest prohibition, where society intervenes on the desires of individuals by dictating who is to marry whom.

(6.) Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) was a French sociologist and anthropologist who studied forms of exchange and contract of peoples of Melanesia, Polynesia, and northwestern North America. He authored “Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques” (The gift: The form and reasons for exchange in archaic societies), Année sociologique, n.s., I (1925): 30–186, and, later, Sociologie et anthropologie (Sociology and anthropology) (1950).

(7.) In structural anthropology, “prestations” is a technical term involving social exchanges of goods and money between individuals and groups in the establishment of society.

(8.) Sir James George Frazer (1851–1941) was a Scottish classicist and anthropologist who is especially known for his masterpiece, The Golden Bough (1890).

(9.) Quoted from SEP (561) and ESK (489–90).

(10.) Beauvoir is probably referring to the passage from Marx’s Philosophical Works, volume 6, that she quoted in the conclusion of The Second Sex: “‘Le rapport immediat, naturel, nécessaire, de l’homme à l’homme est le rapport de l’homme à la femme’ a dit Marx” (“The direct, natural, and necessary relation of person to person is the relation of man to woman,” said Marx.) Le deuxième sexe, II (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 526; The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 2010), 766.

(11.) “Upspringing” (jaillissement) comes from Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, trans. A. Mitchell (1907; New York: Modern Library, 1911), 181.

Notes:

(1.) Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) was a French sociologist who pioneered the methodology and theoretical framework of rigorous social science.

(2.) The Murngin are Australian aborigines, and the Kachin are a tribal people occupying parts of northeastern Myanmar and contiguous areas of China and India. (p.66)

(3.) This word is “intrinsèque” in the Les temps modernes article, but should be “extrinsèque,” as is apparent in the following passage from Lévi-Strauss’s SEP, paraphrased in Beauvoir’s review: “[C]ertains ont invoqué le double caractère, naturel et culturel, de la règle, mais se sont bornés à établir entre l’un et l’autre une connexion extrinsèque, constituée par une démarche rationnelle de la pensée” (28). This passage was translated as “Some put forward the natural and cultural duality of the rule, but could only establish a rationally derived and extrinsic connection between the two aspects” in ESK (24).

(4.) Beauvoir quotes Lévi-Strauss’s SEP: “C’est le processus par lequel la Nature se dépasse elle-même” (29), which is translated as “The prohibition of incest is where nature transcends itself” in ESK (25).

(5.) The “intervention” Beauvoir refers to here is the incest prohibition, where society intervenes on the desires of individuals by dictating who is to marry whom.

(6.) Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) was a French sociologist and anthropologist who studied forms of exchange and contract of peoples of Melanesia, Polynesia, and northwestern North America. He authored “Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques” (The gift: The form and reasons for exchange in archaic societies), Année sociologique, n.s., I (1925): 30–186, and, later, Sociologie et anthropologie (Sociology and anthropology) (1950).

(7.) In structural anthropology, “prestations” is a technical term involving social exchanges of goods and money between individuals and groups in the establishment of society.

(8.) Sir James George Frazer (1851–1941) was a Scottish classicist and anthropologist who is especially known for his masterpiece, The Golden Bough (1890).

(9.) Quoted from SEP (561) and ESK (489–90).

(10.) Beauvoir is probably referring to the passage from Marx’s Philosophical Works, volume 6, that she quoted in the conclusion of The Second Sex: “‘Le rapport immediat, naturel, nécessaire, de l’homme à l’homme est le rapport de l’homme à la femme’ a dit Marx” (“The direct, natural, and necessary relation of person to person is the relation of man to woman,” said Marx.) Le deuxième sexe, II (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 526; The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 2010), 766.

(11.) “Upspringing” (jaillissement) comes from Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, trans. A. Mitchell (1907; New York: Modern Library, 1911), 181.