Claude Lévi-Strauss studied philosophy; he was meant to teach it. He studied with illustrious names in the French philosophy scene, namely Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, of whom he became very close, both theoretically and personally.
His interest for anthropology, a discipline in which he was to be one of the most outstanding names, came later, when the opportunity came to set off to Brazil, where, around 1932, the University of São Paulo (USP) was starting.
His short experience – compared to other great historical names in anthropology – developed from his stay in São Paulo, which enabled him to explore the Brazilian sertão backlands and devote himself to studying some “savage” social groups such as the Nambikwara, who still survived in those days, on which he wrote his first truly anthropological study.
Lévi-Strauss was forever linked to structuralism, a current of thought which dominated in social and human sciences at a certain time. Actually, he was one of the few that voluntarily took that name, which is part of the title of some of his best-known works, such as Anthropologie structurale I e II . In this essay he defined the methodological procedures that frame what he named the structural analysis method. Lévi-Strauss applied this method in two fundamental domains of anthropology: kinship and mythology.
His most fundamental works are three: the first one is Les structures élémentaires de la parentée , structuralism’s founding book, published in 1945. In it he applies the structural analysis method to understanding the issue of kinship in those societies he called «savages». His other work (monumental, in this case) are the four volumes of Mythologiques, which were published along several years. Here, he applies structural analysis to deciphering the hidden meanings of an immense corpus made of the enthusing creation of mythical narratives, especially among South American native cultures.
Finally, Lévi-Strauss’s third decisive essay, published in 1961, is La pensée sauvage . This systematisation work aims to demonstrate and describe the mental procedures involved in the cultural creations made evident by his other essays.
What is ultimately this method of structural analysis which is at the core of all Lévi-Strauss’s work, and of which he was possibly the most important inventor? Lévi-Strauss named it structural analysis and came to it through two convergent ways that even coincide in their initial moment, which evolves around the notion of social fact as defined by Durkheim: “Social facts are all kinds of performance, either fixed or not, which may exert an external imposition upon the individual.”  . One good example, as F. de Saussure (another source of the Lévi-Straussian thought, who he met especially through the linguist R. Jakobson) noticed from the start is language.
Kinship systems and their wedding rules are a good example of social facts “liable to exert an external imposition on the individual”, such as language, for instance, whose rules we abide to even if we are not immediately aware of.
At a second level of theoretical mediation, Lévi-Strauss was influenced by the anthropologist M. Mauss, whose theoretical contributions allowed Lévi-Strauss to stand at the precise junction of both genealogies of his anthropological labour, the linguistic one (from Saussure) and the sociological, which comes from Durkheim. The moment of this intersection is the notion of exchange and of its reciprocity. The reciprocal exchange is what can be found in language, as in kinship, and is also an undeniable social fact. This allowed Lévi-Strauss to approach the (elementary) structures of kinship as mainly dynamised by the notion of reciprocal exchange, which, as in language, establishes a means of communication between groups that exchange human signs through kinship relationships established between them, rather than between individuals.
Paris, Plon, 1958 and 1973.