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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Far from Levi-Strauss's best, 26 April 2012
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This review is from: The Way of the Masks (Paperback)
This book contained the seed of Levi-Strauss's last theoretical hurrah: the so-called "house society", sociétés à maison. This grew into an academic cottage industry in the nineties, with at least two published collections of articles on the topic by prominent authors. Some of those articles are excellent, but the unfortunate thing is that this concept, the house society, is rather useless. It explains very little, and the enthusiasm for it has died down as anthropologists have realised that Levi-Strauss's formulation is vague, is little different to talk of unilineal descent groups (and their variable methods of recruitment), and can be interpreted to mean almost anything. Levi-Strauss was trying to solve a nineteenth-century problem in 1979 (1982 English translation), and ended up with a kludge of little explanatory power.

The publication of the book (originally in two parts) happened to coincide with the decline of kinship studies, under attack from David Schneider, and also with the continued rise of Levi-Strauss's reputation. It also coincided with the rise of interest in architecture and actual, physical houses in anthropological studies, pioneered by Clark Cunningham in Timor. In the fallout from the assault on unilineal descent, a lot of anthropologists looked for alternative concepts, and Levi-Strauss's solution to Boas's problem came at the right time. It solved nothing in the end; we don't expect "unilineal" descent groups to be so rigid in their recruitment, and haven't for decades, since before this book was released. The "house society" proved to be a bit of a time-waster.

It's still worthwhile to read the essay in this book, "The Social Organization of the Kwakiutl", in which the idea was first explained.

This book still demonstrates Levi-Strauss peculiar approach and his mastery of the literature (if nothing else). In it Levi-Strauss cites more articles by Boas than I've read, and discusses a wide variety of masks, societies, and their concomitant myths and aspects of social organisation. As ever, the focus is on finding details of myth or mask design or *something* in the literature that might be related by some logical transformation to another logical problem under consideration. The writing is dense, and a great deal of prior knowledge about the structuralist method is required to make any sense of it whatsoever. It's all too much effort for me; I approve of Levi-Strauss in the way Sperber does, as someone who contributed to the defeat of behaviourism, and as a great innovator in the study of marriage alliance.

Theoretically-speaking, "The Way of the Masks" was behind its own times. Today, there is not a lot of point in reading the whole book unless you have a desire to read all of the relevant literature on northwestern American societies and their art. If Levi-Strauss had been barking up the right tree to begin with, then this book would be a good example of his method, but in the end it has lamentably little to recommend it.
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The Way of the Masks
The Way of the Masks by Claude Levi-Strauss (Paperback - 15 Jun 1982)
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