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Structuralism

Structuralism

SAUSSURE AND EARLY APPROACHES IN LINGUISTICS

APPROACHES IN ANTHROPOLOGY

OTHER STRUCTURALISTS

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Structuralism is the theoretical position that finds meaning in the relation between things, rather than in things in isolation. In other words, it gives primacy to pattern over substance. To take a crude example, the colors red, green, and amber take on the meanings stop, go, and caution in relation to each other, in the context of a traffic light. In some other context, and in opposition to other colors, red may mean something completely different, such as socialism or communism, or humanity or sacrifice. Such meanings may be either part of a universal pattern or culturally determined.

SAUSSURE AND EARLY APPROACHES IN LINGUISTICS

Structuralism began in linguistics and spread to anthropology, philosophy, literary criticism, and other fields. Its founder was Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913), a Swiss linguist who wanted to move beyond the historical interests that dominated his field in the early twentieth century. Although the work he published during his lifetime was entirely in the historical tradition, he left behind lectures given between 1906 and 1911 that set the scene for a new synchronic, structural analysis of language. These were published posthumously as the Course in General Linguistics (1916).

In the Course, Saussure made four distinctions which are now commonplace both in language studies and in many social sciences. The most important is the distinction between synchronic (at the same time) and diachronic (through time). His own interest in the (synchronic) structure of language was thus contrasted to others interests in the (diachronic) history of languages. The second was between langue and parole the French words always being used for this distinction. Langue refers to language in the sense of linguistic structure or grammar and, by extension (e.g., later, in anthropology or sociology), to the grammar of a culture or society. Parole means speech or actual utterances of individuals and, by extension, the actual actions of individuals in a social structure. The third distinction was between syntagmatic and associative (later called paradigmatic) relations. The former are relations between words or smaller units within a sentence and, by extension, the relations between elements with a cultural sentence such as the traffic light sequence mentioned above. The latter marks the relation between those elements and what they mean. Finally, Saussure considered the relation between signifier (a word or symbol that stands for something) and signified (what it means), these two elements together making up what he called the sign. He stressed that the sign is arbitrary: It depends on knowing the language. In his example, if I speak French, I call the dog le chien, but if I speak German, I call him der Hund.

Later structuralists in linguistics developed Saussures ideas further, including, for example, the French Indo-Europeanist Émile Benveniste (19021976), who studied under one of Saussures students. Benveniste added the distinction between énoncé (a statement independent of context) and énunciation (a statement in context), the latter exemplified by the subject/object opposition of first-and second-person pronouns. This, in turn, suggested the further understanding of language as discourse.

Another major development is credited to Roman Jakobson (18961982), Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1890 1938), and others of the Prague school, active first in Prague in the 1930s and later in the United States and elsewhere. They applied Saussurian distinctions at the level of phones (sounds), which are grouped slightly differently into phonemes (meaningful units of sound) by different languages according to the presence or absence of certain distinctive features. English, for example, distinguishes the unvoiced labiodental fricative /f/ from its voiced equivalent /v/: Fat is a different word from vat. Jakobson was also important for his emphasis on the distinction between metaphor (relations of similarity, such as a crown as in the trademark of a beer company) and metonymy (relations of contiguity, such as a crown standing for sovereignty). In studies of the acquisition of language, he found that aphasics have difficulty with this aspect of language function.

APPROACHES IN ANTHROPOLOGY

In anthropology, there have been three main approaches in structuralist thought. First, the classic French structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss and his followers maintains a search for universal principles. In his kinship studies, for example, Lévi-Strauss sought the system of all possible systems and the structural principles that differentiate one kinship system from another: positive or negative marriage rules, marriage to one kind of cousin or another, and the effects of such marriage principles, when repeated, on relations among social units within a society. A rule of marriage of men to the category of the mothers brothers daughter, for example, would create a system of generalized exchange in which group A gives its daughters in marriage to group B, and group B to group C (not to group A). The same pattern is repeated through the generations. Marriage to the fathers sisters daughter, however, creates a demographically unstable pattern of delayed direct exchange in which women marry in one direction in one generation and in the opposite direction in the next generation. The latter systems are virtually nonexistent or break down easily when created. A system that allows marriage to either of these kinds of cousin, by contrast, fosters direct exchange between just two groups, sometimes with men exchanging their sisters with other men.

Second, J. P. B. de Josselin de Jong (18861964) and his students from the 1930s onward, working mainly in the East Indies, were interested in patterns occurring within that culture area. Later scholars in Holland, Belgium, and Britain sought similar patterns elsewhere, and the idea was that each cluster of cultures had its own system, and an anthropologist could better understand a society in terms of its contrast to related cultures within that area rather than on its own. There are elements of this regional approach too in Lévi-Strausss work on South American Amerindian mythology.

Third, British structuralists, such as Sir Edmund Leach (19101989) and Rodney Needham (19232006), in the 1960s and 1970s emphasized relations between elements within a given culture. Both the Dutch and the British structuralists had an interest in kinship structures, which for the Dutch especially involved a search for regional patterns and large cultural associations, and for the British usually more specific ones, as, for example, in Needhams reanalysis of symbolic associations among Purum in eastern India between wife-givers/wife-takers: superior/inferior, private/public, east/west, life/death, sacred/profane, village/forest, prosperity/famine, and moon/sun.

Much of this work, including Lévi-Strausss, was based on the application of Jakobson and Trubetzkoys notion of distinctive features to culture. The idea was that the same structural principles that govern language also govern culture and that simple binary oppositions defined by the presence or absence of some feature were significant especially for the understanding of kinship, symbolism, and mythology. Famously, Lévi-Strausss work on North and South American myths, such as his four-volume Mythologiques (literally, mytho-logics), sought explanations for the meaning of myth through such simple distinctions and their transformations. Elements in mythology, such as different kinds of animals and their actions, say, one flies up, the other down, can be dissected by the structuralist, who thereby can understand the cultural code of the mythological system from the people who possess it.

OTHER STRUCTURALISTS

Among other structuralists were the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (19011981) and the Marxist writer Louis Althusser (19181990). Lacan stressed the importance of language in defining identity. He reinterpreted Sigmund Freud through Saussure, arguing that the unconscious has a structure not unlike language. Lacan emphasized opposition (e.g., love is the opposite of hate), thereby suggesting that language is never complete but implies what is left out. In a similar vein, Althusser reinterpreted Karl Marx, arguing for a deep symptomatic reading to move beyond the surface reading of his contemporaries. He suggested that one needs to understand the structure of the whole in order to explain modes of production. For Marx, he says, there is no distinct individual because the individual is embedded in the social context. Likewise, one should not see in Marx economic determinism (the Marxian base as determining the superstructure) because both the base and the superstructure are part of the same system.

At least implicitly, structuralism remains at the root of much of early twenty-first-century thinking in the social sciences, although its specific tenets are often now overshadowed by new interests and its simplistic vision attacked as misleading. It remains a touchstone even for its critics because so much in poststructuralism depends on understanding structuralist thought at its root and so much in postmodernism requires an understanding of what it is that is being rejected.

Linguists moved on from structuralism through Noam Chomskys work, which from the 1960s has emphasized universals over the structural features of particular languages. Yet in linguistics, phonemes and other structural elements of language, though sometimes defined differently than they were by Jakobson and Trubetzkoy, remain essential. Anthropology has decidedly moved on in several directions, and there have been interesting criticisms of structuralist thought in that field. One of the most important was that of the French anthropologist-sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (19302002), who attempted to break down the static notion of structure he saw in Saussure and Lévi-Straussdependent on oppositions such as langue /parole, as well as system/event and rule/improvisation. Bourdieu wished to emphasize individual action, not within the structure, but in what he called the habitus or environment of dispositions. The French historian of science Michel Foucault (19261984) had a similar impact. Early in his career, he stressed the absence of order in history and suggested that parole rather than langue is its essence. Later he came to emphasize discourse over structure. Again, this linguistic concept is used in a metaphorical sense, implying a way of talking about something or the body of knowledge implied. Inherent in this, as in much poststructuralist and postmodernist thinking, is a notion of power that is absent in classic structuralist concerns.

SEE ALSO Lévi-Strauss, Claude; Social Science; Social Structure

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Althusser, Louis. 1969. For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: Allen Lane.

Deliège, Robert. 2004. Lévi-Strauss Today: An Introduction to Structural Anthropology. Trans. Nora Scott. Oxford: Berg.

Lacan, Jacques. 1977. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1969. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Rev. ed. Trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press. (Orig. pub. 1949.)

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1978. Myth and Meaning. London:Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1974. Course in General Linguistics. Rev. ed. Ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Wade Baskin. London: Fontana. (Orig. pub. 1916.)

Alan Barnard

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structuralism

structuralism At the most general level the term is used loosely in sociology to refer to any approach which regards social structure (apparent or otherwise) as having priority over social action.

More specifically, however, it refers to a particular theoretical perspective which became fashionable in the late 1960s and early 1970s and which spread across a range of disciplines including social anthropology, linguistics, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and sociology. Its influence on sociology came from several directions: Claude Lévi-Strauss's structural anthropology and semiotic analysis of cultural phenomena in general; Michel Foucault's work on the history of ideas; Jacques Lacan's psychoanalysis; and the structural Marxism of Louis Althusser.

Basic to the approach is the idea that we can discern underlying structures behind the often fluctuating and changing appearances of social reality. The model is Saussure's structural linguistics and the notion that a language can be described in terms of a basic set of rules which govern the combination of sounds to produce meanings. For Lévi-Strauss and semiotics generally, these underlying structures are categories of the mind, in terms of which we organize the world around us. For Lévi-Strauss, but not necessarily others, such categories can always be understood as binary oppositions (for example up/down, hot/cold). Structural Marxism replaced these mental categories by positions in modes of production (such as those of labourer versus non-labourer) and substituted relationships to the means of production for the rules governing the production of meaning.

The basic principle is perhaps most visible in the writings of Lévi-Strauss. He acknowledged three influences: namely, geology, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. All three reveal hidden (unconscious) laws or structures beneath surface manifestations, but that is the extent to which he pursued the implications of the latter two. In contrast to the tradition inspired by Bronislaw Malinowski, Lévi-Strauss was less interested in detailed, holistic studies of specific societies, but rather with potential universals and common structures of the mind. He examined an array of exotic classification systems and myths, Mythologies (four vols., 1964–71), arguing that they could be reduced to binary oppositions, while also demonstrating the complexity and richness of imagination among different peoples. Totemism (1962) and The Savage Mind (1962) reveal hidden logic and intriguing transformations in what might otherwise have been dismissed as mere superstitions: so-called primitives had a science of the concrete. Similarly, in the bulky and formidable The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), he aimed to show that the multiplicity of kinship systems could be reduced to just two types—either generalized or restricted exchange.

Whatever the form of structuralism, however, certain implications about the nature of the world necessarily follow. The first is that the underlying elements of the structure remain (comparatively) constant, and it is the varying relationships between them that produce different languages, systems of ideas, and types of society. The emphasis therefore shifts away from looking at distinct entities towards concentrating on the relationships between them—to the extent, indeed, of arguing that those things which appear to us as discrete entities are the artefactual products of relationships. This emphasis on relationships is carried much further by post structuralism.

Secondly, there is the implication that what appears to us as solid, normal, or natural, is in fact the end result of a process of production from some form of underlying structure. This is perhaps most startling in literary criticism, where even the realist novel is shown to be as much the result of a process of artistic production as its most avant-garde counterpart: it is not simply a good copy of something that exists ‘out there’ in reality. This idea has now become commonplace in, for example, sociological studies of gender, where it is often argued that masculinity, femininity, homosexuality, and so forth are social constructions. Similarly, it is frequently argued that scientific knowledge is not knowledge of a real, external world, but rather the result of certain social processes and ways of thinking that we call scientific.

Thirdly, structuralism transforms our commonsense notion of individuals: they too are seen as the product of relationships, rather than as the authors of social reality. Structuralism replaces the ontologically privileged human subject with a decentred conception of the self. Whereas structuralist Marxism would see the individual as a mere bearer of social relations (of ownership and non-ownership of the means of production), others conceptualize individuals as the product of discourses and the relationships between discourses. This shift in perspective is often placed in a steady progress of our understanding of the world—a process of so-called decentring. Thus, with Copernicus came the realization that the earth was not the centre of the universe; with Darwin the realization that human beings were not the centre of creation but a product of evolution; with Marx the realization that human beings were not the producers but the product of social relations; and with Freud the realization that individuals were not the conscious agents of choice but the product of unconscious desires. Indeed, at the height of the popularity of structuralism, it was common to talk of the death of the subject—the demise of the idea of individuals acting and choosing voluntarily. Some granted the role of agency instead to the underlying structure itself, and talked of ‘language speaking people’, ‘books reading people’, and so forth. This more extreme view has moderated with the development of post-structuralism.

Finally, structuralism heralded a change in our conception of history, away from the idea of a comparatively steady evolutionary development, with one form of society leading on to another, towards a view of history as discontinuous and marked by radical changes. The root of this shift in perspective lies in the distinction between diachrony and synchrony. The former refers to changes of which we are most immediately aware. If we take language as an example, then a language can be seen to change over a shorter or longer period, as new words and phrases enter general usage while others disappear. However, it can be argued that the structure remains constant throughout, since the changes are produced by new combinations already provided for or contained within the underlying rules. This constancy occurs at the synchronic level. Similarly, in the case of societies, it is possible to argue that the underlying structure of (say) capitalism remains the same and determines the history of apparent social change, this being the change that we actually experience. A change in the type of society itself would involve a much more dramatic shift in the underlying structure.

Structuralism (at least in its radical form) is no longer as fashionable as it was, although some of the above ideas have had an influence beyond structuralist circles. Its sociological significance is discussed fully in C. R. Badcock , Lévi-Strauss, Structuralism and Sociological Theory (1975)
.

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structuralism

structuralism, theory that uses culturally interconnected signs to reconstruct systems of relationships rather than studying isolated, material things in themselves. This method found wide use from the early 20th cent. in a variety of fields, especially linguistics, particularly as formulated by Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss used structuralism to study the kinship systems of different societies. No single element in such a system has meaning except as an integral part of a set of structural connections. These interconnections are said to be binary in nature and are viewed as the permanent, organizational categories of experience. Structuralism has been influential in literary criticism and history, as with the work of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. In France after 1968 this search for the deep structure of the mind was criticized by such "poststructuralists" as Jacques Derrida, who abandoned the goal of reconstructing reality scientifically in favor of "deconstructing" the illusions of metaphysics (see semiotics).

See J. Culler, Structuralist Poetics (1976); J. Sturrock, ed., Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida (1979).

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STRUCTURALISM

STRUCTURALISM. A theory or method which assumes that the elements of a field of study make up a structure in which their interrelationship is more important than any element considered in isolation. Structuralist principles have been applied since the beginning of the 20c, primarily by francophone theorists, to various fields of interest: in linguistics, it is associated with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure in Switzerland and Leonard Bloomfield in the US; in anthropology, with Claude Lévi-Strauss in France; in literature and semiotics, with Roland Barthes in France; and in studies of history with Michel Foucault in France. Generally, structuralists follow de Saussure in emphasizing the arbitrary nature of the relationship between a SIGN (le signifiant the signifier) and what it signifies (le signifié the signified), and in treating objects of study (whether phoneme inventories, kinship groups, or texts) as closed systems abstracted from their social and historical contexts. See LINGUISTIC SIGN, SEMANTICS, SEMIOTICS.

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Structuralism

Structuralism. Architecture derived from ‘archeforms’ (meaning archetypal or original forms), supposedly involving a creative searching for those archetypes, sign-systems, and indicators that determine, in theory, the history of architecture. Elements of Structuralism have been detected by some in early designs by Le Corbusier involving an overlay on a pronounced circulation-pattern, and in works by Kahn and the Smithsons. It seems to have evolved from discussions by Team X and CIAM, and has been used to describe certain Dutch buildings, notably by Blom, van Eyck, and Hertzberger.

Bibliography

B+W, xxxi/1 (1976), 5–40;
Ehrmann (ed.) (1970);
Jencks & Baird (eds.) (1969);
Lévi-Strauss (1963);
J. Walker (1992))

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structuralism

structuralism Twentieth-century school of critical thought. Ferdinand de Saussure argued that underlying the everyday use of language is a language system (langue), based on relationships of difference. He stressed the arbitrary nature of the relationship between the signifier (sound or image) and the signified (concept). Initially a linguistic theory, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes developed structuralism into a mode of critical analysis of cultural institutions and products. It is associated especially with the notion of a literary text as a system of signs. See also deconstruction; semiotics

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structuralism

struc·tur·al·ism / ˈstrəkchərəˌlizəm/ • n. a method of interpretation and analysis of aspects of human cognition, behavior, culture, and experience that focuses on relationships of contrast between elements in a conceptual system that reflect patterns underlying a superficial diversity. ∎  the doctrine that structure is more important than function. DERIVATIVES: struc·tur·al·ist n. & adj.

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