Structuralism Research Paper

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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.

Saussure And Early Approaches In Linguistics

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 Emile Benveniste (1902-1976), who studied under one of Saussure’s students. Benveniste added the distinction between enonce (a statement independent of context) and enunciation (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 (18901938), 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.

Approaches In Anthropology

In anthropology, there have been three main approaches in structuralist thought. First, the classic French structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss and his followers maintains a search for universal principles. In his kinship studies, for example, Levi-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 Levi-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 Levi-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, Levi-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.

Other Structuralists

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 Levi-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.


  1. Althusser, Louis. 1969. For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: Allen Lane.
  2. Deliège, Robert. 2004. Lévi-Strauss Today: An Introduction to Structural Anthropology. Trans. Nora Scott. Oxford: Berg.
  3. Lacan, Jacques. 1977. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.)

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