Françoise Héritier (1933-2017), a citizen anthropologist

You need but one single Internet click on the name of Françoise Héritier to come across a myriad of press articles, interviews, radio or TV broadcasts. Most of them pay tribute to the feminist as well as to the activist anthropologist who died on her 84-year old birthday.  They also praise the writer who left a moving and intimate testament about the small joys of life.  (bibliography, 2012, 2013 et 2017).

She often talked about her youth, how she decided to become an ethnologist and how much she loved fieldwork. She also endeavoured to present the core of her anthropological discoveries in the simplest possible manner. In addition, she spoke out on current topics such as AIDS, prostitution, medically assisted reproduction, same-sex marriages, etc. She actually viewed herself as a « ’citizen anthropologist », whose knowledge about the organisation of societies was to contribute to enlightening social changes.

She said her commitment as a chair to the French National AIDS Council (Conseil national du Sida) (1989-1994) was one of the most enriching experiences in her life. Her exceptional institutional status  (second emeritus female professor at the Collège de France, head of the Laboratory of Social Anthropology founded by Claude Lévi-Strauss) significantly reinforced her standpoints on public matters (about her career, see the  Collège de France website).

I shall only deal with those aspects of her work which are of the most interest to me, as a kinship anthropologist and as a feminist,

A « male brain »? A cheerful and lovable woman

She would playfully tell you that, one day, Lévi-Strauss had very seriously declared that “she had a male brain”. He probably meant it as a way to praise her extraordinary intellectual agility which I had the opportunity to admire during a CNRS training course on kinship anthropology in 1979 at the Solignac abbey. Back then, I was a historian and a demograph and wished to train in anthropology as I was carrying some historical research into kinship involving four Pyrenean villages in Aude, working with a team of young ethnologists investigating this collective fieldwork under the supervision of Daniel Fabre.

During the course, Françoise Héritier presented the Samo system of semi-complex kinship she had studied for a long time in Burkina Faso. I was impressed by her clear language, her ability to analyse and synthetize. I was then and indeed many times later particularly struck by her skills in rephrasing exactly what the person she was speaking to was unable to envision and express. Incidentally, I also remember how she would enthusiastically organize board games for our long evenings.

  • Héritier F., 2008, L’identique et le différent. Entretiens avec Caroline Broué, La Tour d’Aigues : Éditions de l’Aube.

Kinship structures

When conducting that training course, she was a 46-year old CNRS senior scientist and was completing the writing of her major work, The exercise of kinship. As a virtuoso master in kinship issues, she wished to carry forward Lévi-Strauss’ analyses in Elementary structures of kinship, according to which there are:

  • Elementary structures which prescribe who ego (any given individual) must marry,
  • Semi-complex and complex structures acting negatively, the former by forbidding some social groups (clans, lineages, kin categories), beyond which egomay freely choose her/his spouse, the latter(ours) by placing interdictions according to the degree of closeness between the relative and ego.

Lévi-Strauss had analysed elementary structures, Françoise Héritier carried the research forward by investigating semi-complex systems. By relying on the genealogical memory of those she interviewed and thanks to the first IT tools, she carried out a statistical analysis of marriages in three Samo villages, that is, about 1 500 inhabitants.

This corpus enabled her to spot constants into what looked completely left to chance. To Emmanuel Terray, this is a « true scientific discovery in the strictest sense of the word ». The researcher showed that « in a field seemingly subjected to randomness, strictly defined structural laws do operate.  I will select only one of those:  unions develop at the very margin of the dividing line drawn by prohibition (…). Interdictions mark off a zone of exclusion, but the spouse is definitely chosen along the border of this zone. ». She insisted that her discovery was related to her status as a female researcher: while previous anthropologists assumed that the brother/sister connection was identical to the sister/brother connection, she found out that these two connections were asymmetric. Thanks to the exposition of this asymmetry, she was able to understand connubial interdictions in semi-complex systems.

The incest of the second type

In Two sisters and their mothers (Les deux sœurs et leur mère-1994), she continued to analyze the theory of exchange related to the universal prohibition of incest which had been uncovered by Lévi-Strauss. She ambitioned to go further as his theory only considered consanguinity- related prohibition but did not say anything about interdictions between allied (mothers-in-law, daughters-in-law, the spouse’s sisters, etc.). And yet, this prohibition exists in a great number of societies.

Understanding this prohibition implies assuming the existence of indirect homosexual incest between same-sex blood relatives (mother/daughter, father/son, sister/sister, etc.) sharing the same partner, which leads to « a bodily closeness which is unthinkable between blood relatives ». This is what Françoise Héritier called « incest of the second type ».

The prohibition of incest is thus related to a problem of bodily fluids circulating between bodies, its basic criteria being the meeting of identical fluids.   Having sexual relations with one’s wife’s sister means connecting the two sisters by transporting one sister’s sexual fluids into the other’s womb. This theory states the primacy of the symbolic « rooted deep into the most bodily part of humanity, which is the anatomical difference between the sexes » (Héritier, 1994, 23). This difference is what founds the construction of the categories of the identical and of the different. Connecting « two persons sharing, even only partially an identical substance » (combining the identical) is said to have negative climatic effects (drought or flooding), biological (diseases, infertility, etc.) or social effects(wars).

What connections can be established between the incest between blood relatives and the incest of the second type, the former being universal conversely to the latter? However, according to Françoise Héritier, the latter is the crucial incest. Because, what is prohibited in the incest between blood relatives is definitely bringing into contact identical substances. Hence, the primary incest can only be comprehended through the incest of the second type. By sleeping with his mother (primary incest), Œdipus did actually sleep with his father (secondary incest).

The demonstration is brilliant and the book has been widely read. Each chapter aims at verifying  the theory by exploring cases studied in different societies and using a variety of material (legends, theatre plays ,laws, etc.), spanning over a very  long historical period.

As my own doctoral thesis focused on the symbolical functions of the spiritual incest (Godfathers, godmothers, spiritual kinship in Europe, Paris: Fayard, 1994), I was both fascinated and intrigued by the book. As a matter of fact, my thesis demonstrates that the spiritual incest which has been part of all Christian societies, prohibits conjoining blood kinship and spiritual kinship and more generally, conjoining flesh and spirit, the living and the dead.

While Françoise Héritier sees incest as merely amounting to the combination of the identical, the spiritual incest prohibits the combination of opposed categories. Nevertheless, she devotes too few insufficiently substantiated pages to try and fit the spiritual incest into her general theory. When I wrote to her to express my doubts, she answered that « I was certainly right ». But, we never had the opportunity to discuss our difference of opinion, neither had her other opponents. Among them, Bernard Vernier, published a book collecting all his critical reviews which she never contested.

All the same, this daring book proved extremely stimulating and has opened up long-lasting new perspectives in the anthropological, historical and psychoanalytical studies of incest.

  •  Vernier B., 2009, La prohibition de l’inceste. Critique de Françoise Héritier, Paris : L’Harmattan.
  • Fine A., 2013, « Retour critique sur l’inceste de 2e type », L’Homme, n° 205, 99-114.

A feminist anthropologist

Masculin/féminin I, La pensée de la différence was published In 1996. The book gathers twelve articles published between 1979 and 1993 which all examine, from a different perspective, a single issue: the hierarchy between the sexes. The author takes up and further explores the main anthropologists’ research in terminology systems, i.e. how, in a given society, a person names his parents, and how the terms used define the sphere of her/his blood relatives and that of her/his allied.

Both objectives and methods are extremely clear. She first demonstrates to what extent kinship systems, however diverse, are cultural inventions which are worked out from an elementary biological fact. By exploring the various logical possibilities of the terminology systems and studying those that have actually been observed in human societies, she finds out that, out of the six possible combinations, only one is missing: in the elder-younger relationship among siblings, there is no elder daughter/younger brother combination.  

She uncovers the universal character of what she calls « the differential valence of the sexes » which appears to be inscribed in the very notion of difference: human thinking, whether traditional or scientific, focused on the first difference they could observe, the difference between male and female bodies. And any thinking about the difference is a hierarchical classification which also operates for other cognitive categories (left/right, high/low, dry/wet, etc.). Hence, men and women share male-female « oriented » categories to approach the world. According to Françoise Héritier, the differential valence of the sexes originates from men’s determination to control women’s reproductive power, this « outrageous » power to produce girls and boys, namely the identical and the different. While following Levi-Strauss’ approach, her analyses step away from his view of the major issue of kinship systems.  The book’s rigorous logic and clear language have contributed to its outreach and is a remarkable breakthrough in the anthropological approach to sexual hierarchy. It ends on a rather pessimistic observation: assuming that male domination has been at work since prehistorical times, she fears true equality between men and women may never be achieved. She feels that societies can only develop by relying on « this set of closely welded frames  which are the prohibition of incest, the sexual division of labor, a legal or officially recognized stable union and the differential valence of the sexes ».And yet, some discussions, particularly with Michelle Perrot, led her to acknowledge the importance of occurrences such as female contraception, which, for the very first time in human history, enabled women to control their fertility.

Masculin/féminin II, Dissoudre la hiérarchie (2002) is a collection of some of her conferences in which she takes up the analyses developed in the first volume to enlighten more political and contemporary themes. Being neither an anthropologist of European societies, nor a sociologist, the author’s comments on current topics are more of a journalistic than scientific nature. However, her theses have contributed to position her as a feminist thinker. Her feminism is all the more convincing as it is founded on her coherent explanatory hypotheses about the origin of masculine domination. Although these hypotheses are probably not likely to be verified, they nevertheless help make sense of what can be observed in most human societies.

Some works by Françoise Héritier

    • L’exercice de la parenté, Paris : Gallimard, 1981.
    • Les Deux sœurs et leur mère : anthropologie de l’inceste, Paris : Odile Jacob, 1994.
    • Masculin-Féminin I. La Pensée de la différence, Paris : Odile Jacob, 1996.
    • Masculin-Féminin II. Dissoudre la hiérarchie, Paris : Odile Jacob, 2002.
    • Le Sel de la vie, Paris : Odile Jacob, 2012.
    • Le Goût des mots, Paris : Odile Jacob, 2013.
    • Au gré des jours, Paris : Odile Jacob, 2017.

Crédits images en CC : Svg Silh ; Wikimedia Commons ur archi02 ; Pixabay Mondes Sociaux ; Pixabay b0red


Agnès Fine

Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, LISST-CAS (

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