Structural Theories

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A structural theory may be defined as one which tends to organize a set of propositionsand, in the realm of the natural sciences, a set of observations to which they referas a whole made up of interdependent parts. A structure may be defined as a functional whole presiding over a system of transformations and governed by self-regulating mechanisms.

Such a definition applies equally well to inanimate material systems (self-regulating machines), to constructions of the mind (logico-mathematical wholes, as for instance set theory), to living organisms, or to subsystems of living organisms. This last category would include the psychical apparatus in Freud's sense, and that apparatus can thus be deemed the object of a structural theory in psychoanalysis.

From its earliest formulations, Freudian metapsychology may indeed be looked upon as a structural theory according to the above definition, for it was meant to describe the functioning of a system made up of interdependent elements, namely the psychical apparatus as a whole. This was clear in Freud'sworkas early as the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]) and his reformulation of the ideas of the "Project" five years later in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). During this first period in the development of psychoanalysis, Freud was already specifying local aspects of an overall functioning. After describing how ideas are linked together, for instance, he observed that their concatenations crossed at "nodal points" which it was the task of analysis to locate: "The logical chain corresponds not only to a zigzag, twisted line, but rather to a ramifying system of lines and more particularly to a converging one. It contains nodal points at which two or more threads meet" (1895d, p. 290). Sometimes, even, several interconnected nodes were observable, like those constituting what Freud called a "pathogenic organization."

The whole of Freud's subsequent work strove for an ever more refined and better articulated description of the operation of the psychical apparatus as a structure, and this at a number of levels. It is thus possible to distinguish those writings in which Freud described partial, local aspects of that operation in terms of a networkas, for example, the breast-feces-penis-money interplay of symbolic equivalentsand indeed the term complex itself denotes such a local organization; those writings concerned with modalities of overall mental functioning characteristic of particular groups of individuals (for example, the obsessional structure); and those writings whose subject was the general laws of mental functioning. Two major stages in Freud's approach to these laws were represented by the metapsychological papers of 1915 and by his introduction in the 1920-1923 period of a second topography and a second theory of the instincts.

The structural view was always paralleled in Freud by a developmental approach to the same issues. If one accepts the idea that any structure may be apprehended in terms of its genesis (the successive stages of its establishment), and that any genetic process presents its own diachronic structure, it would seem that the two perspectives must be inextricably linked. The structural and the developmental have nevertheless often been opposed to each other by psychoanalysts, who have privileged one to the detriment of the other.

This separation has been spurred by two currents of thought. The first, within psychoanalysis itself, accompanied the advent of child psychoanalysis and of theoretical options that stressed development. The chief figures here were Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, and their more or less direct heirs, among them Margaret Mahler, Frances Tustin, Donald Meltzer, Donald W. Winnicott, and Serge Lebovici. In the wider general cultural framework, a second contributing factor was the "structure-versus-history" debate that stirred up so many disciplines during the nineteen-seventies (Green, 1963). The origins of that debate may be traced back to linguistics, to the moment around 1910 when Ferdinand de Saussure introduced an avenue of research which treated language as a system of signs each of which derived its meaning from its relationship with the others: in other words, a structural approach to language sharply opposed to the hitherto dominant diachronic one. This orientation was further refined later by many linguists, notably by Roman Jakobsen, who inspired Jacques Lacan. In another area, Claude Lévi-Strauss revolutionized traditional cultural anthropology by asserting that the kinship relationships observable in any given society were structures, and added that in all societies the taboo on incest was "the rule of rules."

It is important to note that two major schools of thought, though radically at odds with one another, considered themselves, or were considered by others, to be "structural" psychoanalysis. The first was "ego psychology," developed above all in the United States under the influence of Heinz Hartmann. The qualifier "structural" refers in this instance to ego psychology's embrace of the second Freudian topography, in which the id-ego-superego systema set of polarities and complementaritiesunquestionably implies a structural conception of psychoanalysis, as envisaged in the latter part of Freud's work. Inasmuch, however, as the developmental axis was dominant for the ego psychologists, French-speaking authors have tended to characterize their doctrine as "genetic psychoanalysis," and in many cases expressed strong reservations about what they deemed an "objectivist realism" which by overvaluing "direct observation" of children's behavior was liable to water psychoanalysis down into a mere developmental psychology.

In any event, Jacques Lacan is thought to stand in diametrical opposition to ego psychology, referring directly as it does to Saussure, Jakobsen, and Lévi-Strauss. For Lacan language constituted the paradigmatic structure of the psyche, and more especially of the unconscious, which he therefore described as "structured like a language." Language was a system of signs none of which signified anything in itself, for meaning arose solely from the place and function of a given sign within the system as whole. In his later work, however, Lacan distanced himself somewhat from this linguistic orientation and called upon logico-mathematical models borrowed from topology, notably metaphorical uses of the Möbius strip and the Borromean chain. He was led eventually to distinguish three main types of structures in the sense of modalities of the functioning of a whole: the structures of neurosis, marked by repression, the structures of perversion, characterized by disavowal, and the structures of psychosis, produced by foreclosure.

Roger Perron

See also: Actual neurosis/defense neurosis; Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia ; Autism; Autoeroticism; Beyond the Pleasure Principle ; Blank/nondelusional neuroses; Brain and psychoanalysis, the; Change; Partial drive; Consciousness; Danger; Determinism; Addiction; Dualism; Ego boundaries; Fear; Group analysis; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego ; Ideology; Infantile, the; Mentalization; Narcissism; Object; Object-relations theory; Operational thinking; Perversion; Phobic neurosis; Primary process/secondary process; Processes of development; Psychanalyse, La ; Psychic causality; Psychoses, chronic and delusional; Psychosexual development; Psychosomatic limit/boundary; Representation; Schizophrenia; Symbol; Totem and Taboo ; Transference neurosis; United States.


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Perron, Roger. (1981). Note sur la notion de structure. Revue française de psychanalyse, 45, 4, 1059-65.

Further Reading

Brenner, Charles. (2002). Conflict, compromise formation, and structural theory. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 71, 397-418.

Gillett, Eric. (1997). Revising Freud's structural theory. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 20, 471-500.

Van den Daele, L. (1994). Revision of the topographic and structural theories. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 17, 407-446.

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Structural Theories

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