Continuity v. binary categories

Sat, 28 Oct 1995 13:02:00 PDT

Pate comments:

"I'm wondering, why is it so important for some of us to draw all-or-none
binary distinctions between "thingies," when there might be a continuum,...

Did Levi-Strauss describe an iron cage of binary polarities which can not be
escaped? Or did he have a vocabulary which included as well as hot and cold,

I think two very distinct levels are being confounded here. One is the level
of the objective world "out there" and second is the level of mental

Levi-Strauss, to simplify quite a bit, has argued that a binary opposition
is a structure that is frequently used at the level of mental constructs.
E.g., we categorize folks in the U.S. using a black/white opposition. This
opposition is a cultural construct, not an accurate description of phenomena,
and whether or not the opposition matches external reality (which a
black/white opposiiton clearly does not) is irrelevant from the viewpoint of
us as anthropologists interested in knowing the conceptual constructs the
natives (in this case, us, as well) have formulated. Validity is in terms of
being able to demonstrate that this conceptual structure (black/white) is a
conceptual structure used by the natives to give meaning to external

It is when we ask about concordance between mental construct and objective
reality that we find discordance between a construct which uses a binary
opposition structure, and external reality which presents itself along a

So the question is not: Did Levi-Strauss use a vocbulary which includes cool,
lukewarm, warm, but do the natives use a conceptual structure with those
gradations, or do the natives insist on using a binary opposition structure,
even if that structure is demonstrably in dis-accord with objective reality?

See for example, El Guindi "The Myth of Ritual" (pp. 26 - 34 and references
therein) for a particularly lucid discussion of the interplay between
ethnographic data collection, analysis and discovery of structure underlying
native conceptual categories.

D. Read