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My Teacher, Claude Lévi-Strauss


Richard Price

Richard Price has kindly provided us with a brief account of the impact that Levi-Strauss had upon his life and growth as an anthropologist. Price is currently the Duane A. and Virginia S. Dittman Professor of Anthropology, American Studies, and History at the College of William & Mary:

In October 1963, Sally and I took a banana boat from Fort-de-France to Rouen so I could spend the year studying with Alfred Métraux—the Swiss-born South Americanist who was a pillar of French anthropology. Claude Lévi-Strauss, then in his fifties, met me in his place, explaining that Métraux had taken his own life several months before. He kindly offered to step in as my teacher, although I had only just finished my undergraduate degree.

Every Friday afternoon until June, I met with Lévi-Strauss for an hour. At first he asked me to share what I was writing, and soon agreed to publish my first article (on fishing magic) in L’Homme and encouraged me to submit my second (on Andean trial marriage) to his friend George Peter Murdock, who edited Ethnology. Besides fanning my historical fires—he had me read deeply on Andean history in the library of the Musée de l’Homme and on seventeenth-century pharmaceuticals in the library of the School of Pharmacy—he led me through Americanist classics, Boas, Lowie, Radin, Eggan…. Ethnography, the more detailed the better, was the love he instilled in me. And in the weekly seminars that I attended at the old Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, it was the importance of precise ethnographic knowledge—the science of the concrete—that he hammered home to his doctoral students, who were making their post-field presentations. His lectures at the Collège de France—he was writing Le cru et le cuit at the timewere quite like his books, logical, measured, pellucid, yet filled with imagination.

Lévi-Strauss found us a lovely apartment on the Place des Abbesses, belonging to an archaeologist who was off in Lebanon digging for the year. He also gave me a paying job—I was never sure it wasn’t like the copying out of the Encyclopedia Britannica in Conan Doyle’s “Red-Headed League,” but I certainly learned a lot—writing one-page summaries of what I deemed to be the most significant articles that had appeared in the first ten issues of L’Homme, to be used in an advertising brochure to encourage subscriptions.

His personal kindness—helping Sally with art dealer contacts when she was writing Primitive Art in Civilized Places, writing the occasional job recommendation for me—was well beyond what we expected. We last met in his office in 2005, where Sally interviewed him for Paris Primitive, as he offered sprightly observations and asked characteristically penetrating questions.

What a paradox! The anthropologist who probably did less fieldwork than any major contemporary cared more about ethnography than any anthropologist I’ve ever met. Understanding his intellectual legacy—which Marshall Sahlins has usefully summarized in his blog on this site—depends, in my view, on realizing that the master’s big ideas grew out of thinking about the minutiae buried in the most traditional of ethnographic tomes. As Marshall, wrote, “he developed an ethnographic knowledge of the planet unparalleled by any scholar before and unlikely to be duplicated by anyone again.” That ambition—the idea that ethnographic knowledge is worth its weight in gold—was the most precious and generous gift that an experienced elder could give to a young, aspiring anthropologist. I remain forever in his debt.

*This post was updated on November 5, 2009.
[All guest commentary on this blog is posted with the permission of contributing authors. If you wish to reproduce work that appears here, please contact each author directly.]

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6 Responses

  1. […] My Teacher, Claude Lévi-Strauss from American Anthropological Association by Brian Richard Price […]

  2. […] at the AAA blog Richard Price reflects on his time studying under […]

  3. […] AAA blog has run a couple of pieces about Lévi-Strauss, including one by Richard Price. There is also an older posting from Marshall Sahlins, which is, obviously, a much better summary […]

  4. […] online such as Rex at Savage Minds, Marshall Sahlins at the AAA website (for the 100th birthday), Richard Price, a student of Lévi-Strauss, and Robert Mackey at the NYTimes website, The influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss (a piece that links […]

  5. I have spent so many years at university, but have met so few dedicated teachers. It seems that the breed a la Lévi-Strauss is dying out.

    For me as a teacher, very inspiring, how Lévi-Strauss supported a young student.

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