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Posinsky, S.H. (1970). The Elementary Structures of Kinship: By Claude Lévi-Strauss. Edited, with introduction, by Rodney Needham. Translated by James Harle Bell, Rodney Needham, and John Richard von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969. 541 pp.. Psychoanal Q., 39:331-332.

(1970). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 39:331-332

The Elementary Structures of Kinship: By Claude Lévi-Strauss. Edited, with introduction, by Rodney Needham. Translated by James Harle Bell, Rodney Needham, and John Richard von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969. 541 pp.

Review by:
S. H. Posinsky

This modern classic of anthropological thought was first published in France in 1947; the translation is based on the revised French edition of 1967. The book is heavily technical in places and addressed primarily to anthropologists, but a careful reading will reward any student of human behavior.

Primitive systems of kinship are so diverse and complex, and so different from our own, that their study has been described as the anthropologists' chess game. Building on the achievements of the great French sociologists Durkheim and Mauss, and refining the anthropological methods of Lewis H. Morgan and Sir E. B. Tylor, Lévi-Strauss has brought a rare lucidity into the jungle of kinship studies.

A brief summary can hardly do justice to this important book. Lévi-Strauss addresses himself to the kinship systems of scores of primitive societies, and also to those of China and India. Everywhere he finds structure, symmetry, and logic; and these, in turn, he relates to the underlying principles of exchange, reciprocity, alliance, and communication. As he sees it, the social recognition of descent and filiation, rather than incest avoidance, prevents the kinship systems (and other social structures) from returning to a prehuman state of nature. Since incest avoidance plays only a subsidiary and negative role in the author's thesis, the argument proceeds along the lines of a para-Marxism: woman is a 'scarce commodity', and the need for marriageable women touches off a series of reciprocal exchanges. (An emphasis on the means of production—in this instance, reproduction, child rearing, and mythopoesis—would restore incest avoidance to a central position, even if incest avoidance cannot be put into a one-to-one correspondence with the various and changing systems of kinship.)

The numerous kinship systems are differentiated by two basic methods of exchange. The direct exchange of woman for woman takes place between two social units, which may in turn subdivide into four or eight units.

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