Last week, Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of my favorite anthropologists, died in Paris at age 100. Lévi-Strauss was a true giant of French and worldwide intellectual life, and his impact was felt far beyond anthropology.
Among his deepest interests were language and the role of storytelling, particularly in primitive societies. Building on the work of pioneering linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Lévi-Strauss became a central figure in the ‘structuralist’ movement. The structuralists believed that there are universal mental structures which underlie all behaviors, all relationships, and all beliefs; in all societies in all eras.
When he entered the field of anthropology in the 1930s, ‘primitive peoples’ were regarded as mindless and crude. Lévi-Strauss studied in great depth the myths and cultural practices of these ‘primitives’, and he found that traditional tribal peoples were in fact quite sophisticated and intellectually curious. In his four-volume Mythologies, he explained the immense complexity behind the stories tribal people use to explain the world.
Storytelling is universal. Lévi-Strauss put forward the theory that all narrative (every story ever told) consists of basic elementary structures, (which he called ‘mythèmes’ in French) that are always combined in defined patterns, much as the basic units of language are combined according to grammatical systems. Even apparently different myths and legends were therefore expressions of a small number of basic forms, which remained the same in all times and across all cultures.
The ‘elementary functions’ of Lévi-Strauss were seen as inherent in the mind itself. In his view, universal story forms and patterns were the necessary structuring mechanisms, pre-wired into the brain, to make sense of stories, legends and myths…and even of life itself.
Thus, the work of Lévi-Strauss supports the assertion that the human mind is essentially narrative. In other words, man is simply a storytelling animal. From an anthropological point of view, we are pre-wired to tell stories, and to understand the world in story form.
I re-read Lévi-Strauss when I began studying the power of storytelling in leadership communication. One of the principal reasons that story is such an effective communication tool is that it is indeed a universal form of expression, crossing all times and cultures.