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Deconstructions, Changing Perspectives and Improved Knowledge of Social Phenomena

An anthropologist's point of view

By Maurice Godelier

In the present lecture, Maurice Godelier will discuss some of the theoretical shifts that have taken place in French social anthropology since the 1950s. En 1949, Claude Lévi-Strauss published his Structures Élémentaires de la Parenté (Elementary Structures of Kinship), and in 1950 he announced his structuralist manifesto in Introduction à l'Œuvre de Marcel Mauss (Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss). A few years later, France and Europe were swept by a Marxist currant, which died out rather abruptly in the 1980s. Structuralism and Marxism seemed to share the fact that both set aside the subject and the subjectivity of the social actors. Parallel to these approaches and either radically opposed to or simply claiming to supersede them would come the work of first Sartre, then Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze and of course Jacques Derrida.

This philosophical and theoretical production was clearly related to the position of French society in Europe and in the world at the moment, and with subsequent historical transformations, it evolved. But it is not the Maurice Godelier's intention to show the links or to reconstruct the evolution. Instead he will try to isolate a number of theses and theoretical approaches that have triggered major debates and stimulated research since the Second World War, and to assess the changes of perspective that can be observed today.

One of the theses that shaped modern anthropology was Lévi-Strauss' claim that kinship is primarily exchange, exchange of women by men and between men, which presumes that all kinship relations are rooted in the universal dominion of men over women. But Lévi-Strauss went even further, for he presupposed that all social life is built on exchange: exchange of women (kinship), exchange of wealth (economy), exchange of words and ideas (culture). Today can we still say that social life is based entirely on exchange? This thesis must be tested against facts that Lévi-Strauss and Mauss did not take into consideration. For example, the fact that, in every society, there exist realities, "objects" which must be neither sold nor given, but which, on the contrary, must be withheld from exchange so as to keep them and to pass them on. This is the case of sacred objects, for instance.

Another of Lévi-Strauss' famous theses was his affirmation of the primacy of the symbolic over the imaginary and the real, an idea that was adopted and elaborated in turn by the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. If the attribution of primacy is an approach that still makes sense today, it should instead be the primacy of the imaginary over the symbolic, based on the results of analyses of forms of political or religious power that have developed in the various cultural areas over the course of history. It also has be come clearer that, while the symbolic and the imaginary are inseparable, nothing justifies either conflating the two or reducing one to the other. These new outlooks on the imaginary, the symbolic, the gift, sacred objects point to a formerly neglected aspect of reality: the fact that a certain degree of opacity is necessary to both the constitution of individuals - something Freud had recognized - and the production of social relations and the working of societies - which Marx had glimpsed. Today we have become more aware of the processes of the repression, displacement or transmutation of meaning involved in the production of social actors and relations.

Althusser's brand of Marxism, if not Marx's own, argued that the different components that make a society work - kinship, religion, political power - should ultimately be explained by the effects of way in which the means of subsistence of this particular society are produced, by their mode of production. In other words, the infrastructure should explain the superstructures. This thesis was illustrated by the writings of Louis Althusser and his disciples.

Where do we stand today, after the fall of communism and the globalization of capitalism, of the market?

Last of all, if today history seems to be resolutely devoid in finality, it is nevertheless the site of irreversible transformations and therefore, it produces evolution. This irreversible evolution still needs to "be thought", even if it is no longer amenable to the former evolutionist doctrines. In short, Maurice Godelier would like to show that, at the end of our century, the deconstructions performed on the social sciences and anthropology have not led to the dissolution of these disciplines. Instead, they have been accompanied by progress and by a number of positive reconstructions. The major paradigms of the mid-twentieth century have shown their limitations; yet anthropology as well as the other social sciences are all the stronger for having discovered this. The social sciences are not in crisis, then. Rather, we have entered an era of "reasonable pragmatism", which is proving to be more effective at analyzing social phenomena, or social "facts" (as Marcel Mauss called them), better at combining several approaches, each of which contributes an element of explanation. A type of self critical pragmatism, then, but one that is just the opposite of eclecticism or skepticism.