Claude Lévi-Strauss, a towering figure in 20th century anthropology, died in Paris on 31 October, a few weeks shy of his 101st birthday.
Lévi-Strauss introduced "structuralism" to anthropology--the concept that all societies follow certain universal patterns of thought and behavior, as exemplified in their myths. Anthropologists say his way of looking at human culture did away with conceptions of indigenous groups as having "savage" or "primitive" minds--as well as the corollary view that Western civilization is uniquely advanced. Lévi-Strauss's way of re-conceptualizing anthropology--informed by what he called the "three mistresses" of geology, psychoanalysis, and Marxism--helped shape trends in social sciences and literary theory, and influenced intellectuals such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Born in Belgium, Lévi-Strauss studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and taught sociology in Brazil in the 1930s. His theories were based in large part on 3 years he spent studying tribes in the Brazilian interior. When the Nazis occupied France, Lévi-Strauss, a Jew, fled to the United States, where he taught for a time at the New School for Social Research in New York City. There he became friends with another of anthropology's icons, Franz Boaz. In 1959, Lévi-Strauss was named to a chair in social anthropology at Paris's College de France, where he remained until his 1982 retirement.
In interviews several years ago, according to National Public Radio, Lévi-Strauss offered a gloomy view of the human prospect. "There is today a frightful disappearance of living species, be they plants or animal," he said. "And it's clear that the density of human beings has become so great ... that they have begun to poison themselves. And the world on which I am finishing my existence is no longer a world that I like."
The prestigious Académie Française, to which Lévi-Strauss belonged, is planning to honor him on Thursday. Writer Jean d'Ormesson, a fellow member, called him "France's greatest scientist," according to Reuters. Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, perpetual secretary of the Académie Française, praised Lévi-Strauss's "extraordinary openness of spirit". Speaking on French radio, she said, "He was a thinker, a philosopher. ... We will not find another like him."
Married three times, Lévi Strauss leaves two sons, one of whom is UNESCO's chief of the section of museums and cultural objects in Paris.