Structuralism: An Extremely Short Introduction

[These are my notes for a presentation I made on Structuralism a couple years ago for an assignment on schools of thought related to literature, though I admittedly don’t dwell on literature at all. The presentation is about as accessible as I could make it, though many of my classmates found it overly complicated. Most of the material is from the book European Intellectual History Since 1789 by N. Roland Stromberg, the “Structuralism” entry in the Colliers Encyclopedia, and some websites that I have since forgotten. For a magnificent & extremely accessible comparison of structuralism to poststructuralism (the best I have read on the topic), I direct the reader to John Lye’s essay Some Post-Structural Assumptions here.]

What Is Structuralism?

  • Philosophy/Sociology/Anthropology movement rising to prominence in the late 1950s-early 1960s (especially in France), reaching a peak in the later 1960s.
  • Successor to existentialism as a fashion in French ideas. Provided a cool, detached, objective, antihistorical view.
  • Specialized in the linguistic analysis of social ‘codes’, versus the frenetic subjectivism & romanticism of the existentialists.
  • Though roots were in linguistics, it became a mode/method of thought that could be used almost anywhere, thus transcending specialization.
  • Applied to such fields as anthropology (myth, kinship systems), literary criticism, sociology, & psychology.

How Does It Work?

  1. Analysis of patterns in language & media, taking into account the structure + the human faculties of comprehension.
  2. Antihumanism: the abolishment of the individual. The boundaries of language force speakers to think in certain ways, thus is it so irrational to assume that these boundaries affect action as well?
  3. Determinism: People are prisoners of language and cannot escape, no more than a physicist can find an observation point outside of nature.
  4. Consideration of clothing, etiquette, myth, gesture, etc., as ‘languages’; less focus on content, more on patterns & structure.
  5. However, offered a new principle of certainty, a “science of the permanent” (Claude Lévi-Strauss).
  6. Johannes Weissinger marked this as one of the most extraordinary of modern intellectual trends, describing it as “the penetration of mathematics, mathematical methods, and above all the mathematical way of thinking, into areas which previously appeared to be closed to it.”

Basic Principles

  • Social & cultural phenomena do not have essences but are defined by their internal structure (the relations among their parts) and by their relations with other phenomena in the relevant social & cultural systems.
  • These systems are systems of signification, so that social & cultural phenomena are not just objects and events, but objects and events with meaning.
  • Isolates factors which have significance in a given culture (e.g. length of a skirt versus its color, one not being socially significant).
  • In identifying the features by which subjects (e.g. a garment) become signs (i.e. symbols), the structuralist would be attempting to make explicit the system of implicit conventions at work in the behaviour of members of the culture.
  • Explains how social institutions, systems of convention that can only be elucidated by a structural analysis, make human experience possible. Underlying systems make it possible to score a goal, to write a poem, to be impolite.
  • Structural explanation does not trace temporal antecedents & link them to a causal chain, but explains why a particular object or action has significance by relating it to a system of underlying norms & categories (e.g. neckties).
  • Substitution of a synchronic (looking at a system ‘frozen’ at a given point in time) for a diachronic (emphasizing change over a period of time) perspective is characteristic of structuralism and has three important correlates:
  1. Structuralism is less interested in what might have caused a particular phenomenon to occur at a given moment than in enabling conditions that make it appropriate and significant.
  2. Structural explanation relies on the notion of the unconscious. For example, I know a language, in that I can pronounce and understand new utterances, but I do not know what I know; the complex grammatical system I employ is mostly inaccessible to me and still has not been completely described by linguists. Their task is to describe the unconscious system at work in my linguistic behaviour.
    • Structuralism is indebted to thinkers such as Marx & Freud who have promoted the analysis of powerful underlying systems & structures.
  3. Since it explains meaning in terms of systems that escape the subject’s conscious grasp, structuralism is inclined to treat the conscious decisions of individuals as effects rather than causes. The self or subject is not a given but a product of social/cultural systems.

When Did It Originate?

  • Principal figures in the movement are the linguist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2005), literary critic Roland Barthes (1915-1980), and linguist Noam Chomsky (1928-present).
  • Others associated with it are child psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980), intellectual historian Michel Foucault (1926-1984), psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), and Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (1918-1990).
  • Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), the founder of modern linguistics, is generally regarded as the father of structuralism.
  • He distinguished between actual speech acts or utterances (parole) and the underlying system one learns when one learns a language (langue). He argued that linguistics should concentrate on the latter.
  • Saussure urged that synchronic linguistics should take the place over diachronic or historical linguistics, i.e. defining the elements of linguistics in terms of their relations with one another.
  • Following Saussure’s suggestions, Jakobson and other linguists produced analyses of sound systems of various languages.
  • For Lévi-Strauss, these structural analyses in phonology, with their descriptions of systems of rules and oppositions that may operate unconsciously, provided a model for structuralism.

Aspects of Structuralism In Literature

  1. Attempt by Jakobson & others to give a linguistic description of literary structures.
  2. The development of ‘narratology’ or a science of narrative, which would identify the various constituents of narrative and describe the fundamental structures & their rules of combination.
  3. The investigation of the various codes, produced by prior literary works and by various conventional systems of a culture, that enable literary works to have meaning.
  4. Analysis of the role of the reader in bringing into being the meaning of a literary work, and of the ways in which works resist and comply with the reader’s expectations.

Structuralism in literary criticism is in part a response to modern literature, which has self-consciously explored the limits of meaning and sought effects in the violation of conventions of language, literature, and social practices. In its concentration on codes & structures, structuralism rejects, as modern literature often has, the notion of literature as imitation of the world, and sees its as experimentation with the language and codes of a culture. Literature is valued for its probing of the structuring procedures by which we order and understand the world. It reveals the conventional nature of our social world.

Why The Big Deal? Who Has It Affected?

  • Structuralism’s antihumanism starkly constrasts other schools of thought: Humanity has been abolished; it was an invention now seen through. History is a “process without a subject” (Althusser), its formations imposed on people by the ‘hidden mechanisms’ of language forcing people to think in certain ways. The author is irrelevant to the study of a work.
  • The structuralist approach to criticism lies in its adherence to the scientific method, that is, breaking down complex phenomena into its component parts and then analyzing the relations between them, as opposed to the Symbolists, who find meaning in constituents rather than relations.
  • Its principle of certainty provided a unification of all the social sciences as well as human sciences, e.g. literature, art, & popular culture, supplying the much-desired role of an underlying connecting factor among increasingly specializing and fragmentary fields.
  • Structures originate from the a priori logic printed in each mind; the world has meaning because we endow it with such. In this case we can see that oddly enough, Structuralists seems to agree at bottom with their foes, the existentialists.
  • In its examination of the culture wherein literature is formed & found as well as the impact of the reader themself (viz. their expectations and how the work resists & complies with these) it foreshadows and perhaps paved the way for modern day subjectivism in literary analysis; eisegesis rather than exegesis.
  • Though structuralism began in linguistics it has been extended to such fields as anthropology, psychoanalysis, literary theory, architecture, and indeed, its use as a method can be applied to any field or discipline, emphasizing scientific results.

Where Has It Gone?

  • In two fundamental ways, poststructuralism agrees with structuralism:
    • Deconstruction retained & even intensified the Structuralist abolition of the subject (self), unmasking the “metaphysics of presence” (Derrida) that causes us to assume a person behind the text. No such essential author exists, we have only the text.
    • The Poststructuralists also agreed that we are dominated by an impersonal realm of language & culture of social norms.
  • However, the Poststructuralists took delight in showing that logical structures are illusions, which may be shown to rest on some unproven assumption, rhetorical statement, or contradiction.
  • Whereas Structuralists had held that the text, if not the author, could be placed within a logical structure, Deconstructionists often took for granted that texts themselves had no implicit meaning. What this means is that, as well as there being no ‘real’ (objective) Kafka, there is also no real The Hunger Artist, because every reader’s subjective interpretation will differ, leaving it a vain matter to search for which one is ‘true’.
  • For example, the sentence “Time flies like an arrow” does not have merely one possible interpretation: it can mean ‘I want you to record the speed of these flies as you would record the speed of an arrow’, ‘time flies enjoy an arrow’, or ‘time progresses in a linear manner similar to the flight of an arrow’. There is no ‘correct’ interpretation.
  • The realm of language was accepted to be irrational, not subject to objective quantification.
  • From then on, almost any interpretation went, as long as it was intelligibly explained, and outré interpretations were given a premium.
  • The reigning doctrine of the intellectuals became that no intellectual construction could be trusted. Accepting anything at face value affirmed by a writer became a mark of naïveté―each work must be scrutinized to show its underlying secrets. Works were often subject to many different forms of completely different interpretations, e.g. Freudian, Marxist, structuralist, symbolist, etc. (essentially, social, personal, economic, or psychological).
  • Roland Barthes: “Classical criticism has never paid any attention to the reader…the writer is the only person in literature…it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.”

The death of Structuralism signified the loss of hope in classical beliefs of great synthesizing systems, the fragmentation of thought into specialization and microanalysis, and the stark division of objectivity versus subjectivity. In the realm of art & culture, here was now a need for extremes in order to secure a shock effect: “The rage of the younger generation was that of those who wanted to break the rules but found no rules left to break” (Stromberg, 301).

Synopsis: How Is Structuralism Relevant To Me?

  • Introduced determinism as a significant issue. Forces one to ask oneself whether or not they believe in free will.
  • Allows further understanding of contemporary thought―why historical ideologies are so different from those of today. Structuralism’s death was modernity’s turning point.
  • Elucidates the spectrum of objective vs. subjective, tough- versus tender-minded realms of thought, allowing one to see where one’s own thought lies thereupon.
  • Alerts people to how they are limited by their language & vocabularies, perhaps inspiring the learning of new words or even new languages (e.g. the German word ‘schadenfreude‘, which has no English equivalent). There is no such thing as a synonym: every word has its own nuances which make it distinct from similar ones.
  • Fostering awareness that everything has symbolic value; each thing represents more things, and the chain of these is what leads to systematic structures.


**Note: For those who are interested, there are also some more advanced writings on structuralism at Complete Lies and Objet petit a (1, 2, 3).


About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on July 28, 2011, in History, Language, Semiotics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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