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Agenda Schedule of Classes Claude Lévi-strauss and French Structuralism Language and Culture The Elementary Unit of Kinship Alliance Theory The Avunculate: The Tsimshian Myth of Asdiwal Basic Principles Totemism Pierre Bourdeau: The Berber House Critique. Schedule of Classes

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  • Schedule of Classes
  • Claude Lévi-strauss and French Structuralism
    • Language and Culture
    • The Elementary Unit of Kinship
    • Alliance Theory
    • The Avunculate:
    • TheTsimshian Myth of Asdiwal
    • Basic Principles
    • Totemism
  • Pierre Bourdeau: The Berber House
  • Critique

Schedule of Classes

April 1 Structuralism

April 3 Marxist Anthropology

April 8: Symbolic Anthropology

April 10: Interpretative Anthropology

April 15th: Post Modernism

April 17th: The Future of Anthropology (term paper due)

April 28th 8: am Final Exam



Claude Lévi-Strauss



  • born Belgium 1908
  • 1927-1932 studied law and philosophy at the University of Sorbonne in Paris.
  • 1932-35 studied Sociology under Marcel Mauss

Brazil 1938

  • 1935-9 taught at the University of Sao Paulo
  • made several expeditions to Matto Grosso area in Western Brazil
  • 1939 returned to Paris, but because he was Jewish unable to get work and escaped to New York City in 1942
  • 1942-1945 he was Professor at the New School for Social Research. In New York

1947 returned to France presented Elementary Structures of Kinship as his doctoral theses at Sorbonne

  • 1950 Director of Studies at the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes.
  • 1959 –82 assumed the Chair of Social Anthropology at the College de France.


1949 The elementary structures of kinship

1955 A world on the wane (Tristes tropiques)

1958ff Structural anthropology (collected essays) (I, II, III)

1962 The savage mind

1964 The raw and the cooked

1966 From honey to ashes

1968 The origin of table manners

1971 The naked man

1974 Totemism

1979 Myth and meaning

1982 The way of the masks

1985 The view from afar

1987 Anthropology and myth (collected lectures, 1951-82)

* English titles shown, but arranged by original dates of publication in French

Mythologiques, (logics of myth)




Steward & Faron

  • compare dozens of variant versions of the ‘same’ basic narrative collected over a wide area — e.g. the origin of the sexes; the origin of initiation
  • look for basic structures, typically expressed as oppositions — upstream/downstream; sky/earth; dark/light
  • relate particular oppositions to wider and universal ones (e.g. nature/culture)





He proposed that the proper study for anthropologists is not how people categorize the world but the underlying patterns of human thought that produce those categories

  • The segmentation and imposition of form on inherently formless phenomena (like space and time) reflect deeply held structure from our humanness.
  • Conducted cross-cultural analysis of kinship, myths and religion in an attempt to understand the fundamental structure of human cognition
  • L-S believes that the underlying logical processes that structure all human thought operate within different cultural contexts
  • Consequently, cultural phenomena are not identical but they are the products of an underlying universal pattern of thought.
  • His anthropology centres on the search to uncover this pattern.

for Lévi-Strauss anthropology is not so much a means to investigate and understand the richness of content of cultures as it is a means of using the variability of cultures as a means of gaining insight into the unconscious workings of the humanmind…

  • particular cultures are like so many projections of human thinking, from the study of which it should be possible to deducethemechanisms which led to those projections…
  • for Lévi-Strauss, the subject matter of anthropology is “Culture”, not “cultures (although the fact that there are cultures is useful as a method to investigate Culture)

Language and Culture

  • All languages are composed of arbitrary groups of sounds called phonemes.
  • Phonemes are the minimal units of sound which a group of speakers consider distinct and which can create a difference in meaning
  • Phonemes themselves are meaningless
  • It is only when they are combined into larger units (morphemes, words, phrases etc) according to certain patterns (rules of syntax and grammar) that phonemes form meaningful units or speech
  • Most speakers of a language cannot articulate the underlying rules that structure their use of phonemes and create meaningful communication yet all are able to use language to communicate
  • Therefore at a subconscious level we must “know” the rules that structure our use of language.

Ferdinand de Saussure

  • The job of the linguist is to go beyond the outward use of language and discover these unconscious principles
  • This was the great achievement of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist
  • Saussure's conception of language was based on the premise that the meanings that words are associated with are arbitrary and are maintained only through cultural conventions
  • Also, that as such, these meanings are relational in that no word can be defined in isolation from other words within the same system.
  • A key insight was that words were built upon contrasts (binary oppositions) between phonemes rather than simply being groups of sounds.


  • English distinguishes between the bilabial plosives /b/ and /p/
  • cf. the minimal pair bat, pat…
  • Arabic makes no such distinction and an Arabic speaker untrained in another language does not “hear” the difference
  • What in one language is a significant difference is ignored in another language
  • Eg. The aspirated t in top and the unaspirated t in stop are considered to be the same sound t. in English
  • But they are different sounds in Thai

Arabic on the other hand has pairs of non-palatalized and “palatalized” consonants (palatalization being represented in transcription by a dot under the consonant)

  • unless specifically trained in Arabic, an English speaker would not “hear” these distinctions, although one could not speak proper Arabic without them

d t s z

d t s z






The important aspects of linguistics for Levi-Strauss were:

  • The shift of linguistic focus from conscious behaviour to unconscious structure
  • The new focus on the relations between terms rather than on terms.
  • The idea of binary contrasts which was fundamental to structuralism
  • The importance of discovering the concrete existence of systems relationships of meaning
  • The goal of discovering general laws.

Major life’s work:

    • reorienting anthropology away from the extreme cultural particularism of the Boasians and back to the French Enlightenment focus on human universals …
    • working out the possibilities of a rationalist form of structuralism distinct from the empiricist structuralism of Radcliffe-Brown …
    • rescuing ‘armchair anthropology’ from the disrespect into which it had fallen (thanks to Malinowski and Boas) through a series of works which mined ‘gold’ out of half-forgotten collections of Amerind myths, by applying structuralist theories and methods

“In any society, communication operates on three different levels: communication of women, communication of goods and services, communication of messages. Therefore kinship studies, economics, and linguistics approach the same kinds of problems on different strategic [i.e. methodological] levels and really pertain to the same field.” 1963: 296).


For L-S, culture like language is essentially a collection of arbitrary symbols.

  • He is not interested in the meanings of the symbols, any more than a linguist is interested in the phonemes
  • He is concerned with the patterning of the elements
  • The way the cultural elements relate to one another to form the overall system.
  • L-S tried to design a technique for studying the unconscious principles that structure human culture.
  • following the linguistic model of binary oppositionsLS proposed that the fundamental pattern of human thought also uses binary contrasts such as black and white, night and day, and hot and cold.

The Elementary Unit of Kinship

  • A kinship system like a language exists only in human consciousness; it is an arbitrary system of representations, but representations whose organizations reflect unconscious structures.

“the unconscious activity of the mind consists in imposing forms upon content, and if these forms are fundamentally the same for all minds – ancient and modern -, primitive and civilized – it is necessary and sufficient to grasp the unconscious structure underlying each institutions and custom” 1963: 21).

  • LS argued that phonemes and kinship terms are both elements of meaning although meaningful only in reference to systems which are building on the mind on the level of unconscious thought

the linguistic model of binary oppositionsdovetailed nicely with Durkheim’s distinction such as sacred and profane, and Hertz’s proposition that right and left were fundamental part of the collective conscious.

  • Analyzed kinship based on his notion of the binary structure of human thought.
  • Based on the work of Marcel Mauss
  • Mauss tried to demonstrate that exchange in primitive societies was not motivated by economic motives but instead by rules of reciprocity upon which the solidarity of the society depended.
  • LS took Mauss’s concept of reciprocity and applied it to marriage in “primitive” societies.

LS argued that women are a commodity that could be exchanged, and kinship systems are about the exchange of women

  • LS argued that one of the most important distinctions a human makes is between self and others.
  • Defining the categories of potential spouses and prohibited mates.
  • This natural binary distinction then leads to the formation of the incest taboo, which necessitates choosing spouses from outside your family
  • In this way the binary distinction between kin and non-kin is resolved by the reciprocal exchange of women and formation of kin networks in primitive societies.

Alliance Theory

  • based on an initial direct exchange between two men who marry each others sisters.

Bilateral Cross Cousin MarriageDirect or Restricted Exchange


A rule which specifies that bilateral cross cousin must marry, will establish a permanent marriage exchange between descent groups that take their ancestry from the original couples, in this case patrilineages A and B.

  • The lineages are paired into moieties which in principle form a narrowly closed intermarrying social system, which Levi-Strauss terms "restricted".

Matrilateral Cross Cousin MarriageIndirect or Generalized Exchange

In this case men and women marry without any regard to mutual obligations to provide wives for each other. Integration of the system is provided by the application of a matrilateral cross cousin rule, in which a man marries his mother's brother's daughter.


This arrangement generates a system in which the groupings (patrilineages in this case) that form according to descent from the original couples always exchange women in the same manner as their founders.

  • The resulting system assume the form of circle of intermarrying groups that unlike the bilateral system can involve any number of units.
  • Because of the openness of this pattern it is considered to constitute "generalized" rather than "restricted" exchange.

The Avunculate:

The Elementary Unit of Kinship

  • The relationship between Ego and his maternal uncle fits into a set of relationships in which the relationships between Ego and father (eg.formal or hostile relationship) and Ego and Maternal uncle (eg.familiar relationship) are inversely correlated
  • The relationships between Father and Mother (husband and wife) and Mother and Mother’s Brother (or brother and sister) are always inverse.
  • The avunculate only makes sense as one relationship within a system
  • A structure in which there are attitudinal oppositions between generations and between husband and wife and brother and sister, constitute the “most elementary for of kinship that can exist

“In both groups, the relation between maternal uncle and nephew is to the relation between brother and sister as the relation between father and son is to that between husband and wife. Thus if we know one pair of relations then it is always possible to infer the other”. (SA 42)


The Structural Analysis of Myth

  • Expanded the notion that human cognition was structured into binary oppositions.
  • myths are arbitrary, imaginative, not linked with reality, not a representation of facts.
  • Therefore there are laws operating a deeper level and since our brains are pre-programmed to work in the same ways the structure of all cultural elements is the same, even if the content varies.
  • It is in a sense reduced too imitating the mind itself as object.
  • L-S Believed that studying the mythologies of primitive people allows him to examine the unconscious universal patterning of human thought in its uncontaminated form
  • LS thought the mythology of primitive people is closer to these universal principles than Western beliefs because the training we receive in Western society buries the logical structure he seeks under layers of cultural interferences created by our social environment.

LS believes that the elements of myth, like the phonemes of language, acquire meaning only when arranged according to certain structural relations

  • Consequently the structuralist examines the rules that govern the relationships between myth elements
  • The task of the structural analysis is to break the myth into its constituent elements – mythemes - and uncover the unconscious meaning found in the binary relationships between them
  • Uncovering this hidden structural core will reveal the essential elements of human thought.

theTsimshian myth of Asdiwal

Edwin Curtis:

Kwakiutl: Hamatsa



LS identifies four levels of representation within this myth: geographic, techno-economic, sociological and cosmological.

  • The myth describes rivers, place names, famines post marital residence patterns, and relations between affinal kin; these descriptions are not distorted reflections of reality; but a multilayered model of structural relationships.
  • LS proposes that there are two aspects in the construction of the myth: the sequence of events which form the apparent content of what happened.
  • And the Schemata of the myth which represent the different planes of abstraction on which the sequence is organized.
  • On the geographic level, there is the basic opposition between east and west, while on the cosmological level, there are oppositions of highest heaven and the subterranean world

French Structuralism

  • Basic principles:
    • all humans think identically, through mechanisms of binary oppositions (the most ‘elementary structures’)
    • that being so, structural analysis — essentially, decoding the oppositions in an exotic cultural artifact — is capable of ‘understanding’ the meanings encoded in them:
      • in a perfectly ‘scientific’ way — transparently reasoned from the evidence
      • with no claims to special subjective insight

Basic principles (cont.)

    • Culture is first reasoned andthen enacted
  • Culture is in Nature but not of it — i.e. it has its own economy, which is often in tension with nature…
  • Culture appropriates matter from nature and reorganizes it…
      • Culture : Nature : : Raw : Cooked
  • but it does this according to a pre-established mental template or “structure”
  • therefore all human constructions (material, narrative, ideological) contain the marks of the tools which made then — the human mind
  • I.e.binary oppositions are reflected in various cultural institutions

Ahidden reality exists beneath all cultural expressions and the Structuralist anthropologist aims thus to understand the underlying meaning involved in human thought as expressed in cultural acts

  • The Culture is the thought that guides the hand which fashions raw materials and ‘cooks’ them into cultural artifacts…
  • The thought is in effect a code composed of oppositions, analogies, categories (‘columns’) and layers (‘rows’)…

Dan mask (Côte d’Ivoire)


Humans do not simply fashion non-human materials, they also fashion “themselves”:

    • by arranging themselves into various categories
    • by altering their physical appearance
  • All of culture is manifest in human exchanges of three categories of commodities:
    • goods (dried fish and figurines)
    • messages (news and status-confirmation)
    • persons (kinship and marriage systems)

In La pensée sauvage and Le totémisme aujourd’hui, elaboration of the notion of bricolage…

BRICOLEUR (Fr.) —Repair man, to whose shop broken objects can be taken for to be repaired, and which is stacked floor-to-ceiling with broken and discarded objects and parts, which the repair-man ‘cannibalizes’ and puts to new uses in fixing objects brought in.

For L-S, all human thought is bricolage — appropriating objects from one context and putting them to use in another, e.g. totemism, in which likenesses and differences in human groups is conceived by analogy with likenesses and differences in the environment…



  • Definition: various descent groups in a society claim a special or mystical relationship with natural species in the environment
      • e.g. name themselves after animal species (crocodile clan, eagle people)
      • in ceremonial rituals, dress up in costumes to appear like their ‘totems’ & act out the role of the totemic species
      • often abstain from eating the totemic animal and carry out increase rites to enhance its fertility


  • Evolutionists:
    • (a.) early ‘childlike’ stage of human understanding
    • (b.) primitive form of more abstract religious concepts — diagnostic marker of ‘primitive mentality’
  • Functionalists:
    • (a.) a means of protecting species in the natural environment (i.e. by tabooing the eating of them)
    • (b.) a way of symbolically recognizing the priority of the group over the individual (i.e. the group is ‘sacred’)


Totemism is everywhere a use of thinking in one familiar realm (the part of the natural world accessible to members of a culture) to ‘think’ about things in realms which do not present themselves as organized, e.g. the division of society into groups

e.g. organization of a society into four totemic phratries… essentially the layering of one moiety upon another:


Moiety 1

Moiety 2







opposition EAGLEHAWK/WOLF opposition simultaneously expresses difference (land vs. sky) and similarity (both are predators)

opposition EAGLEHAWK/CROW = likewise expresses equality-and-difference, but cross-cuts the first opposition


in totemism (totemic thought), we see distinctions taken from one realm of experience and applied to another…

  • contra earlier theorists who saw totemism as a fuzzy or imprecise form of thought, L-S stresses in highly analogical and intellectual character…
      • totems are not “good to eat”…
      • they are “good to think”…
  • and we are all bricoleurs and we are all ‘totemists’

Human Culture is inherently in tension with nature…

    • Culture is quintessentially an intellectual achievement — a form of reasoning (albeit bricolage)
    • humans appropriate aspects of nature and turn them to human-defined ends
    • they ‘cook’ the raw materials of nature, organizing them into structures of ever-increasing complexity ...
        • using simple binary oppositions
        • layered, one upon another
    • all human Culture is an intellectual/symbolic reflection on the Nature-Culture boundary

In Lévi-Strauss’ conceptualization, the Nature/Culture boundary never disappears…

    • because Culture is essentially a human creation — a sort of rebellion against Nature — it never becomes totally autonomous…
    • but must continually confront the fact of its own arbitrariness and self-authorship (continually looks for “Laws” outside of itself but they keep crumbling in the face of further struggles with Nature)
    • hence, all of Culture is a set of reflections on its own nature
    • the Nature/Culture boundary, then, is the meta-narrative encoded in all Cultural discourse (e.g. myths)

Illustration: the invention of exogamy — the “origin” of human society:

  • State 1: complete RANDOM MATING:
    • no organization save domination by strongest
    • constant disruption of life by quarrels induced by sex-drive
  • State 2: institution of RECIPROCAL EXOGAMY between at least two groups (which, note, only become groups as a consequence of this institution):




all human Culture develops out of the same basic elements, modeled in the human mind by mechanical models which can be reconstructed…

  • this reconstruction is the job, par excellence, of anthropology…
  • but these structural elements and their underlying reasoning processes tend to be obscured — hidden by multiple layering — in highly complex social formations…
  • while they are most easily discerned in structurally simple societies where the organization of society tends to be congruent with the mechanical models themselves



Many social roles, but these tend to be simplex

Few social roles, but these are multiplex

Best described by mechanical models

Best described by statistical models

a model the elements of which are on the same scale as the phenomena

a model the elements of which are on a different scale as the phenomena


MECHANICAL MODEL: an entire social system can be generated from a single conscious rule (e.g. everyone must marry a cross-cousin)…

    • here, a single conscious norm structures the entire society and “predicts” the behavior
  • STATISTICAL MODEL: marriage system requires to be described as a set of probabilities, derived empirically (i.e. no conscious rule(s) can generate the system):
    • e.g. 85% of persons marry a person who resides within 25 km.; 66% of persons marry a spouse who resides within 8 km.; 89% marry within the same race; 78% marry within the same religion; 88% marry within the same social class…
    • here choice can only be described probabilistically

Anthropology is, of course, ‘about’ all human Culture, but simple societies have an especial place in it, in that their relative organizational simplicity allows the constructional principles to be deduced…

particularly because their myths have been less completely ‘cooked’ (transmuted) than the mythology of complex societies

and more readily explain “how things have become as they are”



  • STRUCTURES are observed regularities in actual behavior…
  • are empirical things, “out there” in the world
  • to find them: observe; note regularities or tendencies; and deduce the rules that must be producing them
  • look for positive or negative sanctions that support them
  • ANTHROPOLOGY: empirical, inductive
  • STRUCTURES exist in the human mind…
  • are mental things which exist first in human agreement before they are enacted in the outside world
  • derive from the universal human capacity to reason in similarly structured ways
  • hence they are intelligible cross-culturally
  • ANTHROPOLOGY: rationalist, deductive

Pierre Bourdeau

“The Berber House” in Mary Douglas’s Rules and Meanings: The Anthropology of Everyday Meaning, 1973.



  • theories are often very abstract and untestable.
  • structuralist methods are imprecise and dependent upon the observer
  • As it is primarily concerned with the structure of the human psyche, it does not address historical aspects or change in culture
  • a “psychic unity” of all human minds does not account for individual human action historically.
  • lack of concern with human individuality.
  • Cultural relativists are especially critical of this because they believe structural “rationality” depicts human thought as uniform and invariable
  • Materialists object to structural explanations in favor of more observable or practical explanations

“poststructuralism.” Although poststructuralists are influenced by the structuralist ideas put forth by Lévi-Strauss, their work has more of a reflexive quality.

Pierre Bourdieu is a poststructuralist who “…sees structure as a product of human creation, even though the participants may not be conscious of the structure” (Rubel and Rosman 1996:1270).

Instead of the structuralist notion of the universality of human thought processes found in the structure of the human mind, Bourdieu proposes that dominant thought processes are a product of society and determine how people act (Rubel and Rosman 1996).

However, in poststructuralist methods, the person describing the thought processes of people of another culture may be reduced to just that—description—as interpretation imposes the observer’s perceptions onto the analysis at hand (Rubel and Rosman 1996).

Poststructuralism is much like postmodernism in this sense.



Impact on the way we think about culture and consciousness.

Structuralism has had a profound effect on American anthropology in particular it influenced symbolic anthropology popular in the 1970s

·        And cognitive anthropology

And post-modernism


Major Premises:

1. humans are compelled to classify the world, through myth conflict is resolved;

2. fundamental oppositions encoded in myths, the motifs appear around the world because we all observe the world in the same way, determined by the fundamental structures of the brain;

3. not an emphasis on how people categorize the world (cognitive anthropology.), but on the underlying patterns of human thought that produce these categories;

4. cross-cultural studies of myth and religion used to understand the fundamental structure of human cognition;

5. this fundamental structure operates within all different cultural contexts, not, like Freud, that psychological structure determines culture;

6. binary contrasts: a major notion (hot/cold; self/other, etc.);

7. looking for rules that structure language, for example, one finds that such rules are subconscious; it is the task of the structuralist to determine the structure of language (thought) and thus uncover the subconscious patterns(c) Problems and/or Critiques: 1. assumes universalism in terms of human thought; 2. does not account for cultural or individual variation; 3. is deterministic(d) Examples/Major Figures: Claude Levi-Strauss, Mythologies; one of the major intellectual thinkers of the twentieth-century(e) Related to: cognitive anthropology


There are integration of schema such as water/land, and sea hunting/land hunting which cross geographic and cosmological schema

There are sociological schema, such as the changes in postmarital residence patterns from patrilocal to neolocal to matrilocal.

Structural analysis clarifies the multiple levels of meanings in the story of Asdiwal.

“Asdiwal’s two journeys – from east to west and from west to east – were correlated with types of residence, matrilocal and patrilocal respectively. But in fact the Tsmshian have patrilocal residence and from this we can …draw the conclusion that one of the orientations corresponds to the direction implicit in a real-life reading to their institutions, the other to the opposite direction.

The oppositions (east west, land sea, heave-earth) do not exist in Tsimshian society, but rather with its inherent possibilities and its latent potentialities.

Such speculations do not seek to depict what is real but to justify the shortcomings if reality, since the extreme positions are only imagined in order to show that they are untenable.


LEFT: Costume used in ceremony of Frog totem of Imanda

RIGHT: Costume used in ceremony of the Water Totem

Spencer and Gillen:

The Northern Tribes of Central Australia


Iruntarinia ceremony of the Eaglehawk totem

Spencer and Gillen:

The Northern Tribes of Central Australia


William Baldwin Spencer and Francis J. Gillen

Spencer and Gillen:

The Northern Tribes

of Central Australia

Incident in dreamtime legend being recreated


Spencer and Gillen:

The Northern Tribes of Central Australia

Elders lower the pole containing the totemic emblem


Spencer and Gillen:

The Northern Tribes of Central Australia

LEFT: Costume representing horned dreamtime figure (oruncha)

RIGHT: Pair of orunchas performing





























“The term ‘social structure’ has nothing to do with empirical reality but with models which are built up after it. This should help one to clarify the difference between two concepts which are so close to each other that they have often been confused, namely those of social structure and social relations…

social relations consist of the raw material out of which the models making up the social structure are built, while social structure can by no means be reduced to the ensemble of the social relations to be described in a given society.

“Social structure” in Anthropology today, p. 324


“A structural model may be conscious or unconscious…

… conscious models, which are usually known as ‘norms,’ are by definition very poor ones [for purposes of analysis], since they are not intended to explain the phenomena but to perpetuate them. Therefore structural analysis is confronted with a stran ge paradox… that is, the more obvious structural organization is, the more difficult it becomes to reach it because of the inaccurate conscious models lying across the path which leads to it.”

“Social structure”, p. 324


Hence, the project of “Mythologiques”…

    • using corpus of (mainly) South American mythology, collected over a period of 60 years, mainly with a view to tracing diffusion of South American cultures…
    • Lévi-Strauss little interested in the details of the diffusion per se…
    • rather, numerous variants of myths and legends provide a way of ascertaining their structures (as opposed to incidental details)
    • … taken together, they seem, indeed, to be a prolonged discourse on Nature-and-Culture…