Why should Levi-Strauss’ structuralism, Amazonian ontologies, and Jaguars matter to me?  Language use as a socially transitive verb

A few Blogs ago, I dealt with getting rid of free-floating, laissez-faire cognitive ideas in psychology to make them more material and observable. There are some puzzles in recent and older social anthropology that can also make more sense if we truly consider language use, whether talking, writing or thinking, as a socially transitive verb.

I will pitch this here in terms of an important Levi-Strauss (1972) paper and one summary of some more recent challenges in ‘ontologies’ of the lowland South American societies (Costa & Fausto, 2010), but it applies to many of the disputes within social anthropology.


 My main claims, in all my language stuff (Guerin, 2003, 2004, 2016), are that:

  • language use is maintained only by affecting people—it does nothing to anything else in the universe
  • language use only affects people if they are also trained in your language, but such training takes a long time and is hidden or forgotten about as a precondition afterwards
  • the power of language to get stuff done only comes from material resources which are organized through (are consequences of) talking to people, it is not from the words themselves
  • thinking and consciousness are just normal discourses but not said out loud, and they are not ‘talking to ourselves’
  • because language use is materially based in practical social outcomes, and not what is talked about, we can talk about anything—even imaginary things—and still get real material outcomes (whatever listeners do)
  • humans are very social and need constant organizing of relationships, and so they talk a lot, and talk about almost anything and everything, including things which do not need talking about and things which do not exist otherwise
  • talk in different types of social relationships will therefore differ, such as between kin-based communities and stranger-based communities (western societies)

For analyses, therefore, we need to observe and document:

  • what language use does to people, how they respond
  • in what contexts does it do different things to people
  • what outcomes or changes from the listeners or readers then affect the speaker or writer into the future

Some tricks for analysis are that:

  • the material outcomes for language use are only ever changes in the social behaviour of other people, not the production or distribution of resources more directly
  • we rarely can observe these effects of language use directly
  • which means that the ‘power’ of causing changes when using language and ‘thinking’ always gets attributed to something else—typically brain processes, ‘cultural’ processes, mental processes, ‘mind’, cognitive information processing, the soul, the gods or spirits, or charisma (Weber).

Levi-Strauss (1972)

In this 1972 lecture, Levi-Strauss aimed to give some examples of his structural methods in analysing mythological stories, and to defend his structuralism against the charge that it was ‘mentalistic’ and implied a dualism divorced from material reality and ecology.  So, he is trying to show how he analyses the structure of myths and then show how this is related to material events.

Levi-Strauss used myths from nearby kin-based groups (societies, communities) in parts of Canada, who have similar myths but they are structured with different, obviously related stories, and Levi-Strauss skillfully shows how they are structural variations.  He first shows through these fascinating examples that the structural differences in myths between the groups he analyses depend upon the material ecological context of the groups involved.  Very much simplifying, one myth dealing with both food from the water and food from the land are reversed between a group living in the wooded parts and a group living by the sea.  He relates these differences in their consequential ecologies and their actual physical practices (“techno-economic activities”).  So, one grounding, as it were, of these myth structures into material processes is through the physical activities within their ecologies. (Although it is not clear why they have to talk about this as myths)

The second way, however, he grounds these changes in myth structures into material processes follo ws up his analyses elsewhere (1966, translated as The Savage Mind).  Here and elsewhere he shows that the changes do not occur randomly but follow patterns.  The main patterns he looks at are to do with switching the categories used in the myths.  So, in the different myths given in 1972, a sea animal becomes a land animal, and going up becomes going down, etc.  In other myths, cooked food becomes raw food, fresh food becomes rotten food, etc.  The changes are often symmetrical or triangulated and almost always involve switching category use.

[There are some queries that could be raised here.  In looking and comparing across myths, does Levi-Strauss only notice and analyse the categorical changes? Are there other (perhaps more random) changes that are just missed or ignored, since it is probably easier to notice category swaps than graduated or random changes?  Or is this because he is not observing the full social context but just reading written accounts, and category use is exaggerated in written accounts?  And why are people bothering to tell myths at all, what is the social function since I do not agree with the “people need to explain their worlds” argument (Guerin, 2001)?  But I will leave these points for another day.]

But here is where the problem occurs. To ground the categorical switches in material events with his second way, Levi-Strauss appeals to the human mind, and “constraints specific to the human mind” (p. 10).  That is, he has always said that there are ways the mind works that force us into certain patterns of responding, such as the uses of categories.  This is exactly where, just like cognitive psychology in fact, he has been accused of dualism and appealing to non-material events, because he appeals to a human ‘mind’ and its workings to account for the changes in myth structures.

In the 1972 paper, sadly, to defend this appeal to ‘mind’ as being material, Levi-Strauss unfortunately spends a number of pages presenting ‘evidence’ from physiological and brain studies that the ‘mind’ is a physical thing, thereby trying to show a material basis to his use of ‘mind’.  This is identical to both the oldest and the most recent forms of psychological parallelism and does not help us at all since it ends up circular.

But in defense of Levi-Strauss, and a way out of this conundrum, I would point out that he has indeed accumulated a lot of evidence that such uses of categorical switching are widespread and not just prevalent in the systematic changes to myths (Levi-Strauss, 1966).  That is not what I am disputing here, and I have myself amassed evidence (from others) that category use is extremely important in human language use (Guerin, 2004, pp. 217ff).

I am disputing the material origins of this category use since it is not forced on us by a ‘mind’.  If we think instead of category use and change as arising from the effects they have on listeners, there are two main differences to Levi-Strauss:

  • The uses and abuses of categories and switching categories arise to do things to listeners or audiences (Edwards, 1998): for example, categories are especially persuasive to get people to agree (even a vacuous category use such as “Women are from Venus and men are from Mars” is very persuasive); and categories are very difficult to argue against (you have to change the categories—like the myths—or try and edge out the use of categories altogether from the conversation, which is very difficult)
  • Category use is only one way to do all these things to people using language, there are many other ways (Guerin, 2016, Chapter 8); and perhaps more social contextual data from the communities with the myths would show this (it would need a full discursive and social analysis of story-telling and what happens to people and their relationships during story-telling, rather than just an account of the myth itself).

As two examples of the effects of category use:

  • if you are telling a story about yourself and your spouse/partner to a group of people and you switch the pronoun (a category) in your story from ‘we/our’ to ‘I/my’ there will be a huge shift in your spouse/partner’s reaction (try saying “My children” instead our “Our children” with your spouse present!)
  • if I am trying to persuade a student to do something (for their own good of course) and I add a new category, from “Why don’t you finish the essay quickly?” to “As your Professor of this course (pause…), I recommend you finish the essay quickly”, you will get some different behaviour (what that actually is will depend upon all sorts of social contexts).  The second sentence, of course, added a role category (Professor) but also changed from a question into a socially negotiated command, my point being that it is rarely just a category switch which occurs.

So, from my contextual version of language use, any of these linguistic changes (which will include category shifts) are done because of what they materially do to listeners and other audiences and our relationships, not because of some physiological constraints of the ‘human mind’.  The ‘human mind’ is a way of talking about social events when language affects what listeners do.  Because the ‘power’ of such social events is difficult to observe, we attribute it to a ‘mind’.

Shifting categories gets people to behave in different ways, and this could be done for amusement, entertainment, social control, community organization, establishing authority, exercising authority, building competition with other nearby communities, getting compliance with moral lessons, building cooperation, getting people to agree so they will then agree with what else you say, etc. The list is large, and each of these produces material and usually observable changes following changes in language use, and without appealing to a ‘mind’.  Telling myths could fulfill any or all of these.

In summary, the material bases for things that are said (language use) lie in the changes in other people’s behaviour, and the ‘power’ of the words to make this happen comes from all the other forms of social power and our long social training in language use.  The power to make things happen with words does not come from the words themselves, and it does not come from a ‘mind’.

We must therefore pursue the social basis for the subtle changing of categories in myth telling in situ.  For example, using a neighbour’s myth but changing the categories could be:

  • a put-down to those neighbours
  • a competition with those neighbours
  • affirming the community’s identity as unique and different from the neighbours
  • a reminder to listeners that those neighbours are very important trade partners

Without further ethnography we will not know.  I will add, however, as raw food for thought, that many of the properties of myths and religious discourses arise because the listeners and audiences were usually the same people and were kin, week in and week out.  In modern western societies our most frequent social relationships and the people we talk to are stranger-based (90%) and so they change frequently.  This will change the very nature of any discourses which are shaped.  We would not expect the same sort of long-term mythical discourses to arise in modern societies, at least not in the same forms.  Blogs are more likely to arise…

[I will leave Amazonian ontologies and Jaguars for another Blog… This one turned out long enough… Just to note, ontology is not the study of ‘what there is’ (Quine; Costa & Fausto, etc.).  Ontology is the study of ‘what we say there is’.  This difference will be huge for rethinking Amazonian ontologies.]


Costa, L., & Fausto, C. (2010). The return of the animists: Recent studies in Amazonian ontologies. Religion and society: Advances in Research, 2, 89-109.

Edwards, D. (1998). The relevant thing about her: Social identity categories in use. In C. Antaki & S.Widdicombe (Eds.), Identities in talk (pp. 15-33). London: Sage.

Guerin, B. (2001). ‘Replacing catharsis and uncertainty reduction theories with descriptions of the historical and social context’. Review of General Psychology, 5, 44–61.

Guerin, B. (2003). Language use as social strategy: A review and an analytic framework for the social sciences. Review of General Psychology, 7, 251-298.

Guerin, B. (2004). Handbook for analyzing the social strategies of everyday life. Reno, Nevada: Context Press.

Guerin, B. (2016). How to rethink human behavior: A practical guide to social contextual analysis. London: Routledge.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966). The savage mind. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Levi-Strauss, C. (1972). Structuralism and ecology. Social Science Information, 12, 7-23.



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