Structuralism is an approach that grew to become one of the most widely used methods of analyzing language, culture, and society in the second half of the 20th century. 'Structuralism', however, does not refer to a clearly defined 'school' of authors, although the work of Ferdinand de Saussure is generally considered a starting point. Structuralism is best seen as a general approach with many different variations. As with any cultural movement, the influences and developments are complex.
Broadly, structuralism seeks to explore the inter-relationships (the "structures") through which meaning is produced within a culture. According to structural theory, meaning within a culture is produced and reproduced through various practices, phenomena and activities which serve as systems of signification. A structuralist studies activities as diverse as food preparation and serving rituals, religious rites, games, literary and non-literary texts, and other forms of entertainment to discover the deep structures by which meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture. For example, an early and prominent practitioner of structuralism, anthropologist and ethnographer Claude Levi-Strauss, analyzed cultural phenomena including mythology, kinship, and food preparation.
When used to examine literature, a structuralist critic will examine the underlying relation of elements (the 'structure') in, say, a story, rather than focusing on its content. A basic example are the similarities between West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. Even though the two plays occur in different times and places, a structuralist would argue that they are the same story because they have a similar structure - in both cases, a girl and a boy fall in love (or, as we might say, are +LOVE) despite the fact that they belong to two groups that hate each other, a conflict that is resolved by their death. Consider now the story of two friendly families (+LOVE) that make an arranged marriage between their children despite the fact that they hate each other (-LOVE), and that the children resolve this conflict by committing suicide to escape the marriage. A structuralist would argue this second story is an 'inversion' of the first, because the relationship between the values of love and the two pairs of parties involved have been reversed. In sum, a structuralist would thus argue that the 'meaning' of a story lies in uncovering this structure rather than, say, discovering the intention of the author who wrote it.
Some feel that a structuralist analysis helps pierce through the confusing veil of life to reveal the hidden, underlying, logically complete structure. Others would argue that structuralism simply reads too much into 'texts' (in the widest sense) and allows clever professors to invent meanings that aren't actually there. There are a variety of positions in between these two extremes, and in fact many of the debates around structuralism focus on trying to clarify issues of just this sort.
Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics (1916) is generally seen as being the origin of structuralism. Although Saussure was, like his contemporaries, interested in historical linguistics, in the Course he developed a more general theory of semiology. This approach focused on examining how the elements of language related to each other in the present ('synchronically' rather than 'diachronically'). He thus focused not on the use of language (parole, or talk) but the underlying system of language (langue) of which any particular utterance was an expression. Finally, he argued that linguistic signs were composed of two parts, a 'signifier' (roughly, the sound of a word) and a 'signified' (the concept or meaning of the word). This was quite different from previous approaches to language which focused on the relationship between words and the things in the world they designated. By focusing on the internal constitution of signs rather than focusing on their relationship to objects in the world, Saussure made the anatomy and structure of language something that could be analyzed and studied.
Structuralism in linguistics
Saussure's Course influenced many linguists in the period between WWI and WWII. In America, for instance, Leonard Bloomfield developed his own version of structural linguistics, as did Louis Hjelmslev in Scandanavia. In France Antoine Meillet and Émile Benveniste would continue Saussure's program. Most importantly, however, members of the Prague School of linguistics such as Roman Jakobson and Nikolai Trubetzkoy conducted research that would be greatly influential.
The clearest and most important example of Prague School structuralism lies in phonemics. Rather than simply compile a list of which sounds occur in a language, the Prague School sought to examine how they were related. They determined that the inventory of sounds in a language could be analyzed in terms of a series of contrasts. Thus in English the words 'pat' and 'bat' are different because the 'p' and 'b' sounds contrast. The difference between them is that you vocalize while saying a 'b' while you do not when saying a 'p'. Thus in English there is a contrast between voiced and non-voiced consonants. Analyzing sounds in terms of contrastive features also opens up comparative scope - it makes clear, for instance, that the difficulty Chinese and Japanese speakers have differentiating between 'r' and 'l' is due to the fact that these two sounds are not contrastive in Chinese. While this approach is now standard in linguistics, it was revolutionary at the time. Phonology would become the paradigmatic basis for a structuralism in a number of different forms.
Structuralism after the War
After WWII, and particularly in the 1960s, Structuralism surged to prominence in France and it was structuralism's initial popularity in this country which led it to spread across the globe.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, existentialism such as that practiced by Jean-Paul Sartre was the dominant mood. Structuralism rejected existentialism's notion of radical human freedom and focused instead on the way that human behavior is determined by cultural, social, and psychological structures. The most important initial work on this score was Claude Levi-Strauss's 1949 volume Elementary Structures of Kinship. Levi-Strauss had known Jakobson during their time together in New York during WWII and was influenced by both Jakobson's structuralism as well as the American anthropological tradition. In Elementary Structures he examined kinship systems from a structural point of view and demonstrated how apparently different social organizations were in fact different permutations of a few basic kinship structures. In the late 1950s he published Structural Anthropology, a collection of essays outlining his program for structuralism.
By the early 1960s structuralism as a movement was coming into its own and some believed that it offered a single unified approach to human life that would embrace all disciplines. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida focused on how structuralism could be applied to literature. Jacques Lacan (and, in a different way, Jean Piaget) applied structuralism to the study of psychology, blending Freud and Saussure. Michel Foucault's book The Order of Things examined the history of science to study how structures of epistemology, or epistemes shaped how people imagined knowledge and knowing (though Foucault would later explicitly deny affiliation with the structuralist movement). Louis Althusser combined Marxism and structuralism to create his own brand of social analysis. Other authors in France and abroad have since extended structural analysis to practically every discipline.
The definition of 'structuralism' also shifted as a result of its popularity. As its popularity as a movement waxed and waned, some authors considered themselves 'structuralists' only to later eschew the label. Additionally, the term has slightly different meanings in French and English. In the US, for instance, Derrida is considered the paradigm of post-structuralism while in France he is labeled a structuralist. Finally, some authors wrote in several different styles. Barthes, for instance, wrote some books which are clearly structuralist and others which are clearly not.
Reactions to structuralism
Today structuralism has been superceded by approaches such as post-structuralism and deconstruction. There are many reasons for this. Structuralism has often been criticized for being ahistorical and for favoring deterministic structural forces over the ability of individual people to act. As the political turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s (and particularly the student uprisings of May 1968) began affecting the academy, issues of power and political struggle moved to the center of people's attention. In the 1980s, deconstruction and its emphasis on the fundamental ambiguity of language - rather than its crystalline logical structure - became popular. By the end of the century Structuralism was seen as a historically important school of thought, but it was the movements it spawned, rather than structuralism itself, which comanded attention.
Francois Dosse. History of Structuralism (two volumes). University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
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