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.
Structuralism began in linguistics and spread to anthropology, philosophy, literary criticism, and other fields. Its founder was Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), 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 Saussure’s ideas further, including, for example, the French Indo-Europeanist Émile Benveniste (1902–1976), who studied under one of Saussure’s 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 (1896–1982), 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.
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 mother’s brother’s 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 father’s sister’s 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 (1886–1964) 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-Strauss’s work on South American Amerindian mythology.
Third, British structuralists, such as Sir Edmund Leach (1910–1989) and Rodney Needham (1923–2006), 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 Needham’s 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-Strauss’s, was based on the application of Jakobson and Trubetzkoy’s 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-Strauss’s 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.
Among other structuralists were the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) and the Marxist writer Louis Althusser (1918–1990). 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 Chomsky’s 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 (1930–2002), who attempted to break down the static notion of structure he saw in Saussure and Lévi-Strauss—dependent 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 (1926–1984) 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
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.)
Structuralism refers to a movement that became fashionable in French intellectual circles and with the French public in the mid-1960s. Structuralism, or structural analysis, is above all a method applicable to a wide range of disciplines (but it should not be confused with E. B. Titchener's structuralist psychology). Although not its founder, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss is generally considered the most notable exponent of the movement.
Structuralism and the Notion of Structure. Structuralism, as the term indicates, has to do with structures, but the word structure was used long before anybody dreamed of calling himself a structuralist.
Originally "structure," a derivative of the Latin struere, to build, designated the manner or act of building, constructing, or organizing; something built or constructed such as a building or dam; the interrelationship of parts in an organized whole. The building metaphor was extended to include the structure of rocks, plants and animals, chemical structures, the structure of a sentence or of society, and even the way in which the elements of consciousness were organized.
Hence, structure means what an internal analysis of a given whole reveals, viz, elements, relationships among elements, and the arrangement or system of these relations. Structures thus defined are observable empirical entities, and structure, organization, arrangement, and ordering are all synonymous. In this sense nearly everything possesses a structure, and we do not need structuralism to tell us so.
Traditional notions of structure involve eliminating differences and emphasizing similarities. Structuralism proper begins when we admit that differing wholes can be brought together not despite but by virtue of the differences we then seek to order.
Structuralism involves a plurality of organized wholes, but this does not indicate a structure proper to each whole, nor an ideal structure of a plurality of wholes. The structure is essentially the syntax of transformations that enables us to pass from one variant to another.
The contemporary structuralist sees structure as the means of making different wholes appear as variants of one another. In each organized and systematized whole there exists a more restricted configuration that defines the whole both in its singularity and its comparability, since it is the variability of this configuration that situates it among other wholes defined according to the same procedure [ Pouillon, Les Temps Modernes (Nov. 1966) passim ]. This configuration is not a privileged part of the organization, nor its skeleton, as would be implied in the traditional definition of structure. The structure is both a reality (this configuration discovered by analysis) and an intellectual tool (the law of its variability). This duality is expressed by the French adjectives structurel and structural. A relation is structurel when considered in its determining role at the heart of a given organization; structural when considered susceptible of being realized in several different and equally determining ways in several organizations. Structurel refers to structure as reality; structural refers to structure as syntax.
Piaget summarizes the progress of this study of structures in mathematics, logic, physics, biology, psychology, linguistics, the social sciences, and philosophy in a single unifying definition of structure as "a self-regulating system of transformations" (p. 36).
Origins and Development. Thus defined, the first-known structure to be studied was the 19th-century mathematical discovery of "group." But most structuralists recognize Ferdinand de Saussure as the founding father of the method. If so, structuralism can be dated from 1916 when Saussure's students published their lecture notes under the title of Cours de linguistique générale.
Saussure makes a number of important distinctions. First of all, a particular language (langue ) should not be confused with human speech in general (langage ). "Language … is a self-contained whole and a principle of classification" (p. 9). Language should be considered as a system of functions on one level (langue ) as opposed to the shifting actualizations of speech on another (parole, utterance). A linguistic sign is the whole resulting from the association of the signifier (significant, the sound image) and the signified (signifié, the concept or meaning). Linguistics must study these arbitrary signs not in a historical or comparative way (diachronically) but in a single language at a single moment in time (synchronically). Finally, a linguistic system (Saussure did not use the word "structure") "is fundamentally one of contrasts, distinctions and ultimately oppositions, since the elements of language never exist in isolation but always in relation to one another" (Lane, p. 28).
Roman Jakobson later improved Saussure's linguistic model and influenced Lévi-Strauss's application of it to ethnological data. In 1945 their fruitful collaboration led to Lévi-Strauss's article on structural analysis in linguistics and anthropology (Word 1.2, ch. 2 of Structural Anthropology ). Through an analysis of phenomena such as kinship (Elementary Structures of Kinship ) and ritual and myth (Totemism, The Raw and the Cooked, Ashes and Honey, Table Manners ), Lévi-Strauss discerned a certain number of recurring types of mental operations, a structure or hidden order of human behavior. Social organization and myth were studied as languages having syntactical and grammatical characteristics; they were also thought to result from a limited number of inherent categories according to Lévi-Strauss.
Such conclusions regarding human nature coupled with Sartre's attack in the Critique de la raison dialectique and Lévi-Strauss's counterattack in The Savage Mind sparked popular interest in structuralism. Thus the 1960s witnessed a flurry of publications by or about structuralists in France. Esprit devoted its May 1963 issue to a treatment of La pensée sauvage and a roundtable discussion involving Lévi-Strauss, Paul Ricoeur, Mikel Dufrenne, Jean Cuisenier, and others. The Nov. 1966 issue of Les Temps Modernes (a review under Sartre's direction) dealt with the problems of structuralism in mathematics, history, Marx, and literary criticism as well as an attempt at definition. The May 1967 issue of Esprit (p. 771) declared structuralism officially "à la mode" and named its "four" musketeers: Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan (whose psychoanalytical Ecrits show the unconscious to be structured like a language), Louis Althusser (whose Lire le Capital and Pour Marx translate Marx into structuralist terms), and Michel Foucault (whose Les Mots et Les Choses credits structuralism not only with the death of the human sciences but also with the death of man). Equally notable were the publication of Yale French Studies 36–37 (see Ehrmann) and the proceedings (see Macksey) of an international symposium held in Baltimore in Oct. 1966 where structuralist participants included the literary critic Roland Barthes, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, the genetic structuralist Lucien Goldmann, and Jacques Lacan. The decade also saw the extension of structural analysis to art, cinema, the James Bond novels, Corneille's "Cinna," Racine, and Genesis.
But the popularity of the movement has not prevented a growing controversy centered on Lévi-Strauss and also involving the very definition of structuralism. Edmund Leach, a British anthropologist and one-time disciple of Lévi-Strauss, has criticized him for insufficient field experience and an overreliance on Jakobson's linguistic model, largely outdated by Chomsky's work. On the other hand, it would seem that Lévi-Strauss's generative and transformational rules for myth analysis parallel Chomsky's generative and transformational grammars. Jean Paul Sartre and Henri Lefevre, among others, have criticized the philosophical and ideological implications of Lévi-Strauss's work. Consequently, most discussions of structuralism define it under the double heading of "method and theory" or the triple classification of method, philosophical transposition, and ideological use.
Structuralism as Method. Although the structuralist methodology varies somewhat in its application to different disciplines, there are certain features common to all structuralists. They include the attempt to reduce a multiplicity of expressions to one language or the view that all human social phenomena can be treated as languages; the emphasis on wholes or totalities and the logical priority of the whole over its parts; the search for structures below or behind empirical data; a belief in the innate structuring capacity of man which limits the possible number of available structures; the concern with synchronic structures whose relations reduce to binary oppositions; and the rejection of causal laws for laws of transformation.
Philosophical and Religious Implications. When the structuralist methodology is transposed into philosophy, we are confronted with a world view and an interpretation of human nature that competes not only with existentialism but also with Marxism and Christianity. The scientific hypotheses of man's innate structuring capacity and the limited number of mental categories echoes Kant and implies the primacy of essence (a single human nature) over existence (freedom). Sartre sees the structuralist emphasis on synchrony as "bourgeoisie's last stand against Marxism, an attempt to set up a closed inert system where order is privileged at the expense of change" [New York Times Magazine (Jan. 28, 1968) 40]. Some misinterpret structures to be Platonic ideas. Others charge structuralism with atomism, formulaism, positivism, scientism, static relativism, and antihumanism—charges vigorously refuted for the most part.
Günther Schiwy views the movement as both useful and challenging to the contemporary Christian. The structurel-structural distinction might remind the believer to avoid the temptation of identifying his world view or "model" with reality itself (pp. 23–24). Roland Barthes' description of literary criticism as metalanguage can also apply to religious discourse (p. 72) and dogmatic formulations (p. 81). Finally, "the structuralistic thesis that the individual is embedded in a certain system of relationships and must be understood in terms of this system is a challenge to Christianity to reflect anew on its own original catholicity" (p. 47).
Bibliography: r. barthes, Elements of Semiology (London 1964). j. a. boon, From Symbolism to Structuralism: Lévi-Strauss in a Literary Tradition (New York 1972). r. t. and f. m. degeorge, eds., The Structuralists: From Marx to Lévi-Strauss (New York 1972). j. ehrmann, ed., Structuralism (New York 1970). m. foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (New York 1971). h. gardner, The Quest For Mind: Piaget, Lévi-Strauss, and the Structuralist Movement (New York 1973). m. lane, ed., Introduction to Structuralism: A Reader (New York 1970). e. r. leach, Genesis as Myth and Other Essays (New York 1969). c. lÉvi-strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago 1966); Structural Anthropology (New York 1963). r. macksey and e. donato, eds., The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy (Baltimore 1970). j. piaget, Structuralism (New York 1970). f. de saussure, Course in General Linguistics (New York 1959). g. schiwy, Structuralism and Christianity (Pittsburgh 1971). f. wahl, ed., Qu’est-ce que le structuralisme? (Paris 1968).
[j. m. miller]
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)
B+W, xxxi/1 (1976), 5–40;
Ehrmann (ed.) (1970);
Jencks & Baird (eds.) (1969);
J. Walker (1992))
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.