We explain what structuralism is, its main characteristics and examples. In addition, we explore its foundations and post-structuralism.
What is structuralism?
Structuralism is a method for systematizing science and cultural analysis that views structure as part of a whole. It relies on the assumption that the various elements that make up culture can be understood as structural elements which are part of a broader system. In this system, the underlying elements interrelate with one another through the production of meaning.
As a method to approach theory, structuralism is not a school of thought per se, but a shared methodology of doing science. It has been applied in philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, economics and psychology, among other disciplines. Structuralism assumes that the various phenomena it seeks out to analyze may contain hidden or underlying structures that are interrelated and meaningful as part of the same system.
- See also: Relativism
History of structuralism
Saussure and the origins of structuralism
Structuralism emerged with the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, published in 1916 by Saussure's students as a compilation of the linguist's contributions during his teaching years.
Linguistics sees language as an arbitrary system of signs and meaning. However, this system can be understood by any given group of people sharing certain conventions or norms.
For Saussure, the elements of language are understandable only in relation to each other and to the system that contains them. In this way, language goes beyond communication influencing the individual and their role in society.
As a philosophical system, Saussurean linguistics seeks to analyze the systematic and constant relationships that exist in human behavior. These relationships give rise to the structures of a system of signification.
Heyday and development of structuralism
Structuralism gained importance following the contributions from multiple disciplines and thinkers. The anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, the semiotics of Roland Barthes, the epistemology of Michel Foucault and the Marxist philosophy of Louis Althusser are just a few examples.
After World War II, Western philosophical thought was largely dominated by existentialism. Philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre had gained visibility and recognition both within and outside philosophy. However, thanks to the work of linguist Roman Jakobson, structuralism advanced into other fields of thought.
Jakobson's influence on the work of Lévi-Strauss was decisive in giving the French structuralist movement its character. Philosophers like Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida (even if Derrida did not recognize himself as a structuralist) took the structuralist method to literature and literary analysis.
It should be noted that not all the so-called structuralist thinkers recognized themselves as such. Along with Derrida, Althusser and Foucault also reject the classification of their thought as structuralist. To this day, it is assumed that the only one to have made a reflection completely framed within structuralism is anthropologist Lévi-Strauss.
Characteristics of structuralism
The structuralist movement is characterized by:
- The existence of a structure beyond the individual.
- This structure conditions and forms the individual.
- The structure must be recognized.
- Once recognized, the structure obeys its own rules and laws.
Examples of structuralism
Some examples of structuralist analysis include:
- Language. Analyzed by Ferdinand de Saussure in linguistics.
- Society. Analyzed by Claude Lévi-Strauss in anthropology.
- Economy. Analyzed by Louis Althusser in Marxist philosophy.
- Knowledge. Analyzed by Michel Foucault in epistemology and its relationship with power.
- The unconscious. Analyzed by Jacques Lacan in psychoanalysis.
The foundations of structuralism
Structuralism came to be a kind of awake consciousness that allowed for the understanding and analysis of unconsciously acquired knowledge, under the customs and codes of a given culture and involving multiple fields of study.
The structuralist movement can be analyzed from three main perspectives:
- Linguistic structuralism. It is based on the theories of Saussure, regarded as the founder of linguistics. Linguistics is a discipline whose object of study is language, a system of signs found in the minds of several individuals, which is therefore considered social and homogeneous. Speech, on the other hand, is an individual and heterogeneous action that interacts with language.
Saussure argued that words are symbols that provide meaning in reference to other words, but not to the nature of reality. The phonetics of a word or its acoustic image, which he called the “signifier”, arbitrarily relates to the concept it represents, which he called the “signified”. People are able to understand each other when speaking because the relationship between the signifier and the signified is based on social conventions or structures, that is, because they share the same codes.
- Anthropological structuralism. It is based on the theories of Lévi-Strauss, who was a pioneer in considering anthropology from a structuralist perspective to analyze the human being and their life in society. In other words, he succeeded in distancing anthropology from history in order to conduct a more complex analysis.
The application of structuralism to anthropology allowed to identify the underlying or hidden structure and the various relationships between the underlying elements of that structure, such ideas, kinship systems or myths, to which individuals end up being subordinate.
- Marxist structuralism. It is based on the theories of Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas and Maurice Godelier, leading proponents of structural Marxism, who tried to establish that it was not Saussure who had founded structuralism, but Karl Marx.
Marx held that structure should not be confused with visible relationships. His explanation of hidden logic laid the foundation for structuralism. This proved to be a common point among different structuralist thinkers, whether linguists, anthropologists or Marxists: they all acknowledged the existence of a hidden or underlying structure in the object of study of each discipline.
Major figures of structuralism
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is regarded as the father of structuralism. His seminal work in linguistics and semiotics influenced not only his areas of interest but other disciplines as well. His work Course in General Linguistics sparked the structuralist movement, when it was taken up by mid-20th century French and German thinkers.
Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) is one of the central figures of 20th century anthropology. He was the founder of structural anthropology, which based its method on Saussurean linguistics. His Structural Anthropology, published in 1958, posits his theory.
Jacques Marie Émile Lacan (1901-1981) is one of the most significant figures in psychoanalysis. His return to the works of Freud revitalized and redefined all the work done before as well as the contemporary approach to psychoanalysis. Despite being commonly referred to as a post-structuralist, much of his work can be placed within structuralism, especially his early writings.
Louis Althusser (1918-1990) is often associated with philosophical Marxism and social theory. However, his work incorporated many of the tenets of structuralism: Althusser revisited this movement and incorporated structuralism into Marxist analysis in a critical and revisionist way.
Post-structuralism emerged in the 1960s as a criticism against structuralist thought. Common themes among the various post-structuralist writers include the rejection of the self-sufficiency of structuralism and the questioning of the binary oppositions that constitute its structures.
The movement’s starting point is considered to be French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s lecture at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. Derrida questioned the epistemological schemes based on dualisms such as man/woman or spirit/matter, which limited the understanding of other points of view or only considered a central concept and a peripheral one.
He also cast doubt on the stability and existence of thought structures, aiming to adopt new approaches previously marginalized by the methodology itself.
Poststructuralism broke with the dualistic concept of structuralism that considered, for example, nature and society as opposites or binaries. Poststructuralism's main achievement was to rediscover and expand the analytical and radical possibilities of Saussure's theory of language (taken as the most representative significant phenomenon).
Among the main authors regarded as post-structuralists are Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler.
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