The Colour Out of Space Opera: What is structuralist anthropology, and why should I care?

So, to recap: this is a blog post series, based on a 60-minute talk I gave in 2018, on how designers working on space operas secretly use structuralist anthropological concepts to establish character and mood quickly and unobtrusively, and to differentiate locations easily. You can read the introduction here.

51uTBkmKh2L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_By this point, a few people are probably asking what “structuralist anthropology” is, and, yes, why it’s at all relevant. So: this post will be the quick-and-dirty, oversimplifying, explanation (if you want longer and more complicated, I recommend Claude Levi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology, Edmund Leach’s Social Anthropology, Needham’s introduction to his edited volume Right And Left, and Pierre Bourdieu’s essay The Berber House. Yes, there are a lot of French names there– the reason will become obvious in a second. Please also note that the use of Amazon links is indicative only– I’d encourage you to use your local library if you can).

Structuralist anthropology emerged in the 1950s, initially in France (see my recommended reading list above), but with the UK and other places (such as India and South Africa) following close behind (what about North America? While it wasn’t uninfluential, at the time the US and Canada were largely dominated by an emerging culturalist anthropology developed from the works of Franz Boas and his student Ruth Benedict, so took a slightly different approach. Again, longer and more complicated).

The defining characteristic of structuralist anthropology is, essentially, the idea that culture is sort of like language: that people have cultural traits, but underlying these is a sort of “grammar”, which informs the ways in which people possess and express these traits. The initial idea the structuralists had was to drill down through these and identify what’s universal to all humans. While they did identify some things that seem to be common to all human cultures, the problem was that they were expressed differently, sometimes quite radically differently, all over the place: for instance, marriage, as an institution, is arguably universal, but the idea that “marriage is always (or even usually) between one man and one woman” is wrong, dead wrong, and the idea that every person in a given society should, ideally, be married, is also not a given.

Eventually, having figured this out, the structuralists instead wound up focusing on comparison and context: looking at the different ways different cultures address the issues humans face around the world, though without losing sight of the initial premise about culture as a kind of language, with an underlying grammar.

One key point to raise here is the idea of binary oppositions. Structuralists fairly rapidly turned up the fact that human societies love developing informal classifying systems (what we call “native categories”, and incidentally I’ve written about this too), which often revolve around oppositions between categories: nature-culture, raw-cooked, female-male, left-right, yin-yang, etc. But again: this is complicated and problematic, and these binary systems are far from universally expressed or interpreted (“left”, for instance, is “sinister” in the UK, but “sacred” in Japan). Many of my readers might find that list I just gave familiar and even self-evident, but that’s because my blog stats show most of you are from the UK and the USA, or secondarily from Australia and Canada, where all of those are, well, your native categories.

See how this works?41B4G4DQ8ZL._SX294_BO1,204,203,200_

An example from the literature is the idea, analysed in an essay by Sherry Ortner, that “Female is to Male as Nature is to Culture”: this spawned an entire (very good) edited volume by Carol McCormack and postmodernist living legend Marilyn Strathern, coming to the conclusion that this wasn’t universal, and, even in places where it is, the meanings of “nature” and “culture” and their symbolic relationships to gender aren’t necessarily the same. Furthermore, that it changes over time: what European people in the 18th century understood by making that sort of opposition isn’t what Europeans mean now.

What has all this got to do with space opera? Hang on to your tricorders, we’re going back in….

 

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Professor Fiona Moore

Academic, anthropologist and SF writer, living, teaching and working in a global city.

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