Structural Turn

The Structural Turn in Twentieth-Century Biology and Anthropology

Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Exeter)


Cover of a popular brochure published by UNESCO in 1953.

The human and life sciences underwent a fundamental revolution in the first half of the twentieth century, which this project aimed to describe. Referring to this revolution as the “structural turn” alludes to what has become known as “structuralism” in the humanities. Indeed, it is Claude Lévi-Strauss and his Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949) from which the project took its inspiration. In this classical work of social anthropology, one finds a curious section which aligns “the domain of genetics” with the kinship systems that form the domain of les structures élémentaires.

The common ground for this alignment is one of approach: both genetics and the knowledge of parentage are, according to Lévi-Strauss, domains “where individual status is interpreted as a function of a simple or complex dichotomy, and where the whole of physical characters of a given subject is treated as the result of combinations of certain elementary characters inherited from the parents.”

Lévi-Strauss’ remarks raised two questions that guided research in the project. First, structuralist approaches seem to have made their way in parallel in two different domains between which an immediate relation is far from evident: research into heredity in biology and research into kinship systems in social anthropology. Not sharing a common domain of objects, nor a common ideological framework, the analogies between the genetic and social-anthropological “structuralist” approaches seem to testify to the existence of a Foucauldian epistème. Its genealogy is all the more of interest.

Second, both genetics and structuralist anthropology went up against well-established concepts in their respective domains: against evolution and adaptation, against orientation towards the organism or the subject, and against the orientation towards “larger wholes” like races, cultures, or “people.”

This attitude is interesting because it is strongly counterintuitive, especially in regard to the domains—human culture and living nature—toward which it was specifically directed. It is not at all self-evident that these domains are amenable to and should be subjected to a quasi-mathematical analysis in terms of atomic elements and their combination. Why should a concept like “race”, e.g., that once was well-entrenched, justified by elaborate theoretical constructions, and of high social as well as political relevance, have been abandoned in favour of such a reductionist approach? What does that mean for the political role played by science itself ? Of what, that is, does the political power of science consist?

Answers to these questions will be sought in the increasing internationalization of science in the first half of the twentieth century, which not only affected the ideology of individual scientists, but the very methods employed in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

  • “Was ist Rasse? Die UNESCO-Erklärungen von 1950 und 1951,” in: Petra Lutz et. al. (eds.), Der (im-)perfekte Mensch: Metamorphosen von Normalität und Abweichung, Köln: Böhlau, 2003.