Race, History and Culture

By Levi-Strauss, Claude | UNESCO Courier, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Race, History and Culture


Levi-Strauss, Claude, UNESCO Courier


One of the world's leading anthropologists, Claude Levi-Strauss twice set forth his ideas on racism for UNESCO, first in Race and History (1952) and later in Race and Culture (1971). On the following pages we publish long extracts from these two important studies.

Race and history(1)

The development of human life is not everywhere the same but rather takes form in an extraordinary diversity of societies and civilizations. This intellectual, aesthetic and sociological diversity is in no way the outcome of the biological differences, in certain observable features, between different groups of men; it is simply a parallel phenomenon in a different sphere. But, at the same time, we must note two important respects in which there is a sharp distinction. First, the order of magnitude is different. There are many more human cultures than human races, since the first are to be counted in thousands and the second in single units.... Second, in contrast to the diversity of races, where interest is confined to their historical origin or their distribution over the face of the world, the diversity of cultures gives rise to many problems; it may be wondered whether it is an advantage or a disadvantage for human kind....

Last and most important, the nature of the diversity must be investigated even at the risk of allowing the racial prejudices whose biological foundation has so lately been destroyed to develop again on new grounds.... We cannot therefore claim to have formulated a convincing denial of the inequality of the human races, so long as we fail to consider the problem of the inequality - or diversity - of human cultures, which is in fact - however unjustifiably - closely associated with it in the public mind....

Collaboration between cultures

... A culture's chance of uniting the complex body of inventions of all sorts which we describe as a civilization depends on the number and diversity of the other cultures with which it is working out, generally involuntarily, a common strategy. Number and diversity: a comparison of the Old World with the New on the eve of the latter's discovery [in 1492] provides a good illustration of the need for these two factors.

Europe at the beginning of the Renaissance was the meeting-place and melting-pot of the most diverse influences: the Greek, Roman, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon traditions combined with the influences of Arabia and China. Pre-Columbian America enjoyed no fewer cultural contacts, quantitatively speaking, as the various American cultures maintained relations with one another and the two Americas together represent a whole hemisphere. But, while the cultures which were cross-fertilizing each other in Europe had resulted from differentiation dating back several tens of thousands of years, those on the more recently occupied American continent had had less time to develop divergencies; the picture they offered was relatively homogeneous. Thus, although it would not be true to say that the cultural standard of Mexico or Peru was [in 1492] inferior to that of Europe at the time of the discovery (we have in fact seen that, in some respects, it was superior), the various aspects of culture were possibly less well organized in relation to each other.... Their organization, less flexible and diversified, probably explains their collapse before a handful of conquerors. And the underlying reason for this may be sought in the fact that the partners to the American cultural "coalition" were less dissimilar from one another than their counterparts in the Old World.

No society is therefore essentially and intrinsically cumulative. Cumulative history is not the prerogative of certain races or certain cultures, marking them off from the rest. It is the result of their conduct rather than their nature. It represents a certain "way of life" of cultures which depends on their capacity to "go along together". In this sense, it may be said that cumulative history is the type of history characteristic of grouped societies - social super-organisms - while stationary history (supposing it to exist) would be the distinguishing feature of an inferior form of social life, the isolated society. …

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