Skip to main content



Formalism in literary studies was not merely about formal elements of literature, though it stressed the importance of studying form. In fact, it proclaimed the unity of form and content by emphasizing that in a literary work the former cannot properly be understood when separated from the latter and vice versa. At the same time, formalism stressed the need to view literature as an autonomous verbal art, one that is oriented toward itself. Thus, formalism addressed the language of literature and established the basis for the origins and development of structuralism in literary studies.


As a movement in literary studies and a school of literary theory and analysis, formalism emerged in Russia and Poland during the 1910s. In Russia its official beginning was marked by an establishment of two organizations: the Moscow Linguistic Circle, founded in 1915 by such linguists of Moscow University as Roman Jakobson, Grigory Vinokur, and Petr Bogatyrev; and the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (or OPOYAZ, an acronym for the group's name in Russian), founded in 1916 in Petrograd (later Leningrad and then St. Petersburgthe city's original name) by literary scholars such as Osip Brik, Boris Eikhenbaum, and Viktor Shklovsky, as well as the linguist Lev Yakubinsky. A few years later the latter group was joined by the literary theorists Boris Tomashevsky and Yury Tynianov, along with some other scholars from the Petrograd State Institute of Art History.

In Poland the beginning of formalist ideas dates back to as early as the period 1911 to 1914, when Kazimierz Wóycicki, the founder of Polish formalism, wrote his first works on literary scholarship. Yet despite its early indigenous beginnings, formalism in Poland had to wait until the mid-1930s to take concrete shape as the Polish Formalist School, which had two centers: Warsaw and Wilno (present-day Vilnius, Lithuania). Highly indebted to Russian formalism, which by 1930 had already been suppressed by Stalinist pressures, the school was formed by Manfred Kridl, who integrated the movement by drawing together his own students from the University of Wilno, notably Maria Renata Mayenowa, Maria Rzeuska, and Czeslaw Zgorzelski, and some other students from the University of Warsaw, including Kazmierz Budzyk, Dawid Hopensztand, and Franciszek Siedlecki.

Autonomy and "Science" of Literature

Formalism emerged as a reaction against the methods of literary scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It countered the study of literature that took an exclusive approach in which the content and ideas of literary works were embraced as faithful reflections of social and political reality. Thus formalism rejected the study of literature's background, its external conditions, its social and national tasks, and the psychology and biography of the author; instead, it proposed a focus on the literary work itself and a study of its constituent, that is, formal, components. This led to an insistence on the autonomy of both imaginative literature and of literary scholarship. Under formalism, works of literature were to be approached as artistic phenomena independent of any social, historical, ideological, or psychological circumstances. This isolation of literature from its external conditions entailed efforts to systematize and define literary scholarship. Indeed, the formalists' true concern was to reform literary study and make it a more scientific discipline. They attempted a "science" of literature by defining what the real subject of literary study is and by establishing its own methods of inquiry.

Literariness and Device

According to formalism, the background of literature and other extraliterary phenomena do not belong to literary scholarship. The proper subject matter of the discipline is not even literature itself but a phenomenon that Jakobson, in his work Noveishaya russkaya poeziya (1921; Recent Russian poetry), called literaturnost' (literariness). He declared that it is literariness that makes a given work a literary work. In other words, literariness is a feature that distinguishes literature from other human creations and is made of certain artistic techniques, or devices (priemy ), employed in literary works. These devices became the primary object of the formalists' analyses and, as concrete structural components of the works of literature, were essential in determining the status of literary study as a science.

One of the most important devices with which the formalists dealt was the device of "defamiliarization" (ostranenie ). As described by Shklovsky in "Iskusstvo kak priem" (1917; Art as device), defamiliarization, a typical device of all literature and art, serves to present a familiar phenomenon in an uncommon fashion for the purpose of a renewed and prolonged (the device of retardation) aesthetic perception. This kind of perception is an aim of art.

The notion of device was very seminal, as it helped the formalists do away with the traditional division of literature into form and content. They claimed that form and content are inseparable and that they constitute one unity. In place of form and content the formalists proposed to use the notions of device and material, respectively. Material stands for the raw and unorganized stuff of literature, not only themes, ideas, emotions, events, and the "outside world," but also language; device transforms material into an artistically shaped literary work of art.

Poetic Language

In their studies of the distinguishing features of literature the formalist scholars, many of whom were linguists and followers of the Polish linguist Jan Baudouin de Courtenay (18451929), turned to the problems of language in literature. The idea of literariness is easily embraced in terms of what differentiates literature from nonliterature. What distinguishes these is language and its particular use. The formalists juxtaposed the language of imaginative literature, especially poetry, with the language of everyday conversations to present the specific function assigned to language phenomena in literature. Colloquial language, they indicated, serves purely communicative purposes, whereas in poetry this communicative function of language is reduced to a minimum. Thus, Jakobson defined poetry as a "language in its aesthetic function" (Noveishava russkaya poeziya, p. 11). He also said, and Tomashevsky repeated in Teoriya literatury: Poetika (1925; Literary theory: Poetics), that the language of poetry is oriented toward itself and draws attention to its own properties.

To demonstrate their thesis about the aesthetic function of poetic language, the formalists turned in their early works to the study of sound and its role in poetry. The Russian scholars investigated the sound-oriented avant-garde futurist poetry, while the Polish formalists, especially Siedlecki in Studia z metryki polskiej (1937; Studies in Polish metrics), demonstrated that the same can be said about sound and its aesthetic use with reference to a more traditional, nonavant-garde kind of poetry. In their more mature studies the formalists investigated poetic language not only through limiting it to the sound structure but also through including its other components: syntax, vocabulary, and semantics. Wóycicki's Forma dźwiekowa prozy polskiej i wiersza polskiego (1912; Sound form of Polish prose and verse) and Tynianov's Problema stikhotvornogo yazyka (1924; The problem of verse language) serve as the best examples of formalist studies concentrated on a close correlation of sound and meaning in poetry.

What Is Literature?

In their efforts to indicate the distinguishing features of literature, the formalists did not stop at studying the use of language in poetry; they continued their inquiry with regard to prose. One of the most fundamental points of departure for the formalists was the question about the essence of literature. Indeed, they wanted to know what literature is and what makes literary works. The study of concrete prose works seemed like a valid approach in this essentialist search. It produced masterful textual analyses of narrative fiction, innovative studies in the morphology of the literary work, and new definitions of a work of literature, as well as groundbreaking inquiries into the problems of style. In such studies as "Kak sdelana Shinel Gogolya" (1919; How Gogol's The Overcoat is made) by Eikhenbaum and "Tristram Shendi"

Sterna i teoriya romana (1921; Sterne's Tristram Shandy and the theory of the novel) and "Kak sdelan Don Kikhot " (1921; How Don Quixote is made) by Shklovsky, the formalists showed the structure, mechanisms, and laws of narrative fiction. In studying the structural components of the concrete prose works, they addressed the problems of plot composition, organizing principles of narration, and dynamism of the internal structure of the literary work. By looking into these problems the formalists were able to define the literary work in such innovative and diverse terms as a sum total of devices (Shklovsky), a uniform structure, a whole closed in itself, an organic and stylistic unity of structural components (Wóycicki), an artfully made object (Kridl), an aesthetic system (Tynianov, Wóycicki), and a dynamic structure (Tynianov, Wóycicki).

Literary Evolution

Even though the formalists, both in their theory and practice, insisted on an autonomous and intrinsic approach to literature, over time they acknowledged the importance of studying literary history and literature's connections with other spheres and "systems" of life. (In the case of the Russian formalists, this change resulted from Stalinist pressures.) Thus in its later phase, formalism introduced the notions of literary evolution and renewal and the dynamism of literary forms. These notions stood for the formalist understanding of the history of literature. It was concerned with literary change, modifications of the literary tradition, the laws of literary processes, and the development of art forms in relation to other aspects of culture. Literary change and evolution was explained in original terms of gradual shifts and reshufflings among the functions of devices, genres, works, styles, traditions, and "systems." Thus, the formalists skillfully reexamined the notion of literary history, which traditionally had been viewed as an unbound mosaic of writers and works. They showed the mechanics of continuity in the development of literature.

Suppression and Influence of Formalism

The connections of literature with other spheres and "systems," such as social conventions and other extraliterary factors, were most directly addressed in the 1928 essay "Problemy izucheniya literatury i yazyka" (Problems of the study of literature and language) by Tynianov and Jakobson. This essay, however, was only a theoretical acknowledgment by the formalists of the links between literature and social forces. These links were also presented as autonomous and separate systems governed by their own laws. Such a presentation of the problem did not spare the formalists from the attacks by Russian Marxists, who saw literature as an integral, not a separate, part of social forces. By 1930 the formalists in Russia had been silenced. Operating in a totally different environment, the Polish Formalist School, as well as the Prague Linguistic Circle in Czechoslovakia, continued the work of the Russian scholars, taking it even further, toward structuralism. The outbreak of World War II, however, finally suppressed the activity of the Polish formalists and Czech structuralists.

After the war formalism exerted a powerful influence on many trends and schools of literary criticism both in the Slavic countries and beyond. Most indebted were structuralism, considered a natural continuation of formalist theorizing, and semiotics. The Anglo-Saxon New Criticism was not influenced by formalism, but the obvious points of convergence between the two schools, comparable to the affinities among formalism, structuralism, and semiotics, clearly point to the universality, vitality, and significance of formalist ideas.

See also Literary Criticism ; Literary History ; Literature ; New Criticism .



Eikhenbaum, Boris. "How Gogol's Overcoat Is Made." In Gogol from the Twentieth Century: Eleven Essays, edited and translated by Robert A. Maguire, 269291. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. Translation of "Kak sdelana Shinel' Gogolya."

. "The Theory of the 'Formal Method.'" In Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, edited by Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, 337. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971. Translation of "Teoriya 'formal'nogo metoda.'"

Jakobson, Roman. Noveishaya russkaya poeziya. Nabrosok pervyi. Velemir Khlebnikov. Prague: "Politika," 1921.

Shklovsky, Viktor. "Art as Technique." In Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, edited and translated by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, 324. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. Translation of "Iskusstvo kak priem."

. "The Making of Don Quixote. " In his Theory of Prose, translated by Benjamin Sher, 72100. Elmwood Park, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990. Translation of "Kak sdelan Don Kikhot. "

. "Sterne's Tristram Shandy : Stylistic Commentary." In Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, edited and translated by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, 2557. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. Translation of Tristram Shendi" Sterna i teoriya romana.

Siedlecki, Franciszek. Studia z metryki polskiej. Wilno: Dom Ksiaz. ki Polskiej, 1937.

Tomashevsky, Boris. Teoriya literatury: Poetika. Moscow and Leningrad: Gos. Izdatel'stvo, 1925.

Tynianov, Yury. "On Literary Evolution." In Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, edited by Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, 6878. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971. Translation of "O literaturnoi evolutsii."

. The Problem of Verse Language. Edited and translated by Michael Sosa and Brent Harvey. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1981. Translation of Problema stikhotvornogo yazyka.

Tynianov, Yury, and Roman Jakobson. "Problems in the Study of Literature and Language." In Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, edited by Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, 7981. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971. Translation of "Problemy izucheniya literatury i yazyka."

Wóycicki, Kazimierz. Forma dźwiekowa prozy polskiej i wiersza polskiego. Warsaw: Wyd. Tow. Naukowego Warszawskiego, 1912.


Erlich, Victor. Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine. 3rd ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965.

Hansen-Löve, Aage A. Der russische Formalismus: Methodologische Rekonstruktion seiner Entwicklung aus dem Prinzip der Verfremdung. Vienna: Verlag der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1978.

Jackson, Robert Louis, and Stephen Rudy, eds. Russian Formalism: A Retrospective Glance; A Festschrift in Honor of Victor Erlich. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Center for International and Area Studies, 1985.

Karcz, Andrzej. The Polish Formalist School and Russian Formalism. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2002.

Pomorska, Krystyna. Russian Formalist Theory and Its Poetic Ambiance. The Hague: Mouton, 1968.

Steiner, Peter. Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Striedter, Jurij. Literary Structure, Evolution, and Value: Russian Formalism and Czech Structuralism Reconsidered. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Thompson, Ewa M. Russian Formalism and Anglo-American New Criticism: A Comparative Study. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.

Andrzej Karcz

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Formalism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 27 May. 2017 <>.

"Formalism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (May 27, 2017).

"Formalism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved May 27, 2017 from


formalism, formal sociology A branch of sociology usually considered to have been founded by Georg Simmel, which aims to capture the underlying forms of social relations, and thus to provide a ‘geometry of social life’.

Simmel distinguished the ‘content’ of social life (wars, families, education, politics) from its ‘forms’ (such as, for example, conflict), which cut across all such areas, and through which social life is patterned. Conflict, as a social form, may be found in situations as diverse as those of family life and politics, and to it certain common features will accrue. Contents vary–but forms emerge as the central organizing features of social life. Among the forms central to Simmel's thinking were the significance of numbers for group alignments (isolated individuals, dyads, triads), patterns of superordination and subordination, group relationships (conflicts, competitions, coalitions), identities and roles (the stranger, the poor), disclosures (secrets, the secret society), and evaluations (prices, exchanges).

Most sociology concentrates upon content: there are sociologies of education, the family, the media, and so forth. Formalism shuns this approach to sociology, by cutting across such topics, and seeking to identify generic processes and patterns through which they are socially constituted: stigma, stratification, and secrecy, for instance, may be forms cutting through the substantive areas of education, family, and media.

After Simmel, the earliest development of such an approach was to be found in the work of the Chicago interactionists. Robert Park was a student of Simmel's, and brought to Chicago a concern both to study the richness of the empirical world as revealed in the city, and a concern to detect the patterns of city life. The most popular textbook of the day ( Park and and Burgess 's An Introduction to Sociology
) is largely organized according to ‘forms’.

Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss have attempted to develop formal sociology in their work on dying, moving from a rich substantive area of research (cancer wards and the dying process), to a more sustained theoretical analysis of common forms (such as status passages and awareness contexts). For example, moving from a detailed case-study of a dying patient, they were able to seek comparisons with other major status changes in order to develop a formal theory of status passage, which postulated many features in common with other status passages (see Status Passage, 1967
). From a grounded substantive study came more comparative, abstract, and formal theory. More recently, Robert Prus (‘Generic Social Processes’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 1987)
has outlined five key dimensions of group life that are needed for a processual generic sociology: acquiring perspectives, achieving identity, being involved, doing activity, and experiencing relationships.

There have been a number of other attempts to construct a formal theory of social life, including John Lofland's Doing Social Life (1976) and Carl Couch's Constructing Social Life (1975), as well as more specific case-studies, such as Lewis Coser's The Functions of Social Conflict (1956) and Erving Goffman's Stigma (1961).

There is some dispute about the role and nature of formal sociology. Some see it as seeking fixed structures of an obdurate social order; others view it as depicting the very interactions out of which social life is constituted; while for many it is simply an analytic device produced by sociologists seeking to impose order on an otherwise chaotic universe. See also SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"formalism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 27 May. 2017 <>.

"formalism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (May 27, 2017).

"formalism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved May 27, 2017 from


for·mal·ism / ˈfôrməˌlizəm/ • n. 1. excessive adherence to prescribed forms: academic dryness and formalism. ∎  the use of forms of worship without regard to inner significance. ∎  the basing of ethics on the form of the moral law without regard to intention or consequences. ∎  concern or excessive concern with form and technique rather than content in artistic creation. ∎  (in the theater) a symbolic and stylized manner of production. ∎  the treatment of mathematics as a manipulation of meaningless symbols. 2. a description of something in formal mathematical or logical terms. DERIVATIVES: for·mal·ist n. for·mal·is·tic / ˌfôrməˈlistik/ adj.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"formalism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 27 May. 2017 <>.

"formalism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (May 27, 2017).

"formalism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved May 27, 2017 from


formalism. Alleged fault in comp. by Soviet Union composers for which Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and others were officially criticized, esp. in 1948. The criticism is of too much intellectual emphasis on form as opposed to content, with the suggestion also that the mus. is too ‘modern’ and discordant.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"formalism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . 27 May. 2017 <>.

"formalism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . (May 27, 2017).

"formalism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved May 27, 2017 from