Structuralism as a term refers to various theories across the humanities, social sciences and economics many of which share the assumption that structural relationships between concepts vary between different cultures/languages and that these relationships can be usefully exposed and explored.
More accurately it could be described as an approach in academic disciplines in general that explores the relationships between fundamental principal elements in language, literature, and other fields upon which some higher mental, linguistic, social, or cultural "structures" and "structural networks" are built. Through these networks meaning is produced within a particular person, system, or culture. This meaning then frames and motivates the actions of individuals and groups. In its most recent manifestation, structuralism as a field of academic interest began around 1958 and peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Structuralism appeared in academia for the first time in the nineteenth century and then reappeared in the second half of the twentieth century, when it grew to become one of the most popular approaches in academic fields concerned with the analysis of language, culture, and society. The work of Ferdinand de Saussure concerning linguistics is generally considered to be a starting point of twentieth century structuralism. The term "structuralism" itself appeared in the works of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and gave rise, in France, to the "structuralist movement," which spurred the work of thinkers in diverse fields such as the historian Michel Foucault, the political scientist Louis Althusser, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, as well as the structural Marxism of Nicos Poulantzas. Almost all members of this so-called movement denied that they were part of it. Structuralism is closely related to semiotics. Post-structuralism attempted to distinguish itself from the use of the structural method. Deconstruction was an attempt to break with structuralistic thought. Some intellectuals like Julia Kristeva, for example, took structuralism (and Russian Formalism) as a starting point to later become prominent post-structuralists. Structuralism has had varying degrees of influence in the social sciences: a great deal in the field of sociology, but hardly any in economics.
Structuralism in psychology (19th century)
At the turn of the nineteenth century the founding father of experimental psychology William Wundt tried to confirm experimentally his hypothesis that conscious mental life can be broken down into fundamental elements, which then form more complex mental structures. In this part of the nineteenth century, researchers were making great advances in chemistry and physics by analyzing complex compounds (molecules) in terms of their elements (atoms). These successes encouraged psychologists to look for the mental elements of which more complex experiences were composed. If the chemist made headway by analyzing water into oxygen and hydrogen, perhaps the psychologist could make headway by considering a perception (e.g., the taste of lemonade) to be a "molecule" of conscious experience which can be analyzed into elements of conscious experience (e.g., sweet, sour, cold, warm, bitter, and whatever else could be identified by introspection). A major proponent of the approach was the psychologist Edward B. Titchener who was trained by Wundt and worked at Cornell University. Since the goal was to specify mental structures, Titchener used the word "structuralism" to describe this branch of psychology. Wundt's structuralism was quickly abandoned because its objects, conscious experiences, are not easily subjected to controlled experimentation in the same way that behavior is.
Structuralism in linguistics
Ferdinand de Saussure was the originator of the twentieth century reappearance of structuralism, and evidence of this can be found in Course in General Linguistics, written by Saussure's colleagues after his death and based on student notes. Saussure focused not on the use of language (parole, or speech), but rather on the underlying system of language (langue) and called his theory semiology. However, the discovery of the underlying system had to be done via examination of the parole (speech). As such, Structural Linguistics are actually an early form of corpus linguistics (quantification). This approach focused on examining how the elements of language related to each other as a system of signs, that is, 'synchronically' rather than how language develops over time, that is, 'diachronically'. Finally, he argued that linguistic signs were composed of two parts, a signifier (the sound pattern of a word, either in mental projection—as when we silently recite lines from a poem to ourselves—or in actual, physical realization as part of a speech act) and a signified (the concept or meaning of the word). This was quite different from previous approaches which focused on the relationship between words and the things in the world that they designate.
Key notions in Structural Linguistics are the notions of paradigm, syntagm and value, though these notions were not yet fully developed in Saussure's thought. A structural paradigm is actually a class of linguistic units (lexemes, morphemes or even constructions) which are possible in a certain position in a given linguistic environment (like a given sentence), which is the syntagm. The different functional role of each of these members of the paradigm is called value (valeur in French).
Saussure's Course influenced many linguists between World War I and WWII. In America, for instance, Leonard Bloomfield developed his own version of structural linguistics, as did Louis Hjelmslev in Denmark and Alf Sommerfelt in Norway. 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 sounds /p/ and /b/ represent distinct phonemes because there are cases (minimal pairs) where the contrast between the two is the only difference between two distinct words (e.g. 'pat' and 'bat'). Analyzing sounds in terms of contrastive features also opens up comparative scope–it makes clear, for instance, that the difficulty Japanese speakers have differentiating /r/ and /l/ in English is because these sounds are not contrastive in Japanese. While this approach is now standard in linguistics, it was revolutionary at the time. Phonology would become the paradigmatic basis for structuralism in a number of different forms.
Structuralism in anthropology and sociology
See the main articles at structural anthropology and structural functionalism
According to structural theory in anthropology and social anthropology, meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture 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 Lévi-Strauss in the 1950s, analyzed cultural phenomena including mythology, kinship (the Alliance theory and the incest taboo), and food preparation (see also structural anthropology). In addition to these studies, he produced more linguistically-focused writings where he applied Saussure's distinction between langue and parole in his search for the fundamental mental structures of the human mind, arguing that the structures that form the "deep grammar" of society originate in the mind and operate in us unconsciously. Levi-Strauss was inspired by information theory and mathematics.
Another concept was borrowed from the Prague school of linguistics; Roman Jakobson and others had analyzed sounds based on the presence or absence of certain features (such as voiceless vs. voiced). Levi-Strauss included this in his conceptualization of the universal structures of the mind, which he held to operate based on pairs of binary oppositions such as hot-cold, male-female, culture-nature, cooked-raw, or marriageable vs. tabooed women. A third influence came from Marcel Mauss, who had written on gift exchange systems. Based on Mauss, for instance, Lévi-Strauss argued that kinship systems are based on the exchange of women between groups (a position known as 'alliance theory') as opposed to the 'descent' based theory described by Edward Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes.
While replacing Marcel Mauss at his Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes chair, Lévi-Strauss' writing became widely popular in the 1960s and 1970s and gave rise to the term "structuralism" itself. In Britain, authors such as Rodney Needham and Edmund Leach were highly influenced by structuralism. Authors such as Maurice Godelier and Emmanuel Terray combined Marxism with structural anthropology in France. In the United States, authors such as Marshall Sahlins and James Boon built on structuralism to provide their own analysis of human society. Structural anthropology fell out of favor in the early 1980s for a number of reasons. D'Andrade (1995) suggests that structuralism in anthropology was eventually abandoned because it made unverifiable assumptions about the universal structures of the human mind. Authors such as Eric Wolf argued that political economy and colonialism should be more at the forefront of anthropology. More generally, criticisms of structuralism by Pierre Bourdieu led to a concern with how cultural and social structures were changed by human agency and practice, a trend which Sherry Ortner has referred to as 'practice theory'.
Some anthropological theorists, however, while finding considerable fault with Lévi-Strauss's version of structuralism, did not turn away from a fundamental structural basis for human culture. The Biogenetic Structuralism group for instance argued that some kind of structural foundation for culture must exist because all humans inherit the same system of brain structures. They proposed a kind of Neuroanthropology which would lay the foundations for a more complete scientific account of cultural similarity and variation by requiring an integration of cultural anthropology and neuroscience–a program also embraced by such theorists as Victor Turner.
Structuralism in the philosophy of mathematics
Structuralism in mathematics is the study of what structures (mathematical objects) are, and how the ontology of these structures should be understood. This is a growing philosophy within mathematics that is not without its share of critics.
Paul Benacerraf's paper "What Numbers Could Not Be" (1965) is of seminal importance to mathematical structuralism in a perverse way: it inspired critique upon which the movement was born. Benacerraf addressed a notion in mathematics to treat mathematical statements at face value, in which case we are committed to an abstract, eternal realm of mathematical objects. Benacerraf's dilemma is how we come to know these objects if we do not stand in causal relation to them. These objects are considered causally inert to the world. Another problem raised by Benacerraf is the multiple set theories that exist by which reduction of elementary number theory to sets is possible. Deciding which set theory is true has not been feasible. Benacerraf concluded in 1965 that numbers are not objects, a conclusion responded to by Mark Balaguer with the introduction of full blooded Platonism (this is essentially the view that all logically possible mathematical objects do exist). With this full blooded Platonism, it does not matter which set-theoretic construction of mathematics is used, nor how we came to know of its existence, since any consistent mathematical theory necessarily exists and is a part of the greater platonic realm.
The answer to Benacerraf's negative claims is how structuralism became a viable philosophical program within mathematics. The structuralist responds to these negative claims that the essence of mathematical objects is relations that the objects bear with the structure.
Important contributions to structuralism in mathematics have been made by Nicolas Bourbaki, and also by the genetic epistemologist, Jean Piaget who, in collaboration with the mathematician, E.W. Beth, developed the notion of "mother structures" from which all mathematical formations are considered transformations.
Structuralism in literary theory and literary criticism
In literary theory, structuralism is an approach to analyzing the narrative material by examining the underlying invariant structure. For example, a literary critic applying a structuralist literary theory might say that the authors of the West Side Story did not write anything "really" new, because their work has the same structure as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In both texts, a girl and a boy fall in love (a "formula" with a symbolic operator between them would be "Boy + Girl") despite the fact that they belong to two groups that hate each other ("Boy's Group - Girl's Group" or "Opposing forces") and conflict is resolved by their death.
The versatility of structuralism is such that a literary critic could make the same claim about a story of two friendly families ("Boy's Family + Girl's Family") that arrange a marriage between their children despite the fact that the children hate each other ("Boy - Girl") and then the children commit suicide to escape the arranged marriage; the justification is that the second story's structure is an 'inversion' of the first story's structure: the relationship between the values of love and the two pairs of parties involved have been reversed.
Structuralistic literary criticism argues that the "novelty value of a literary text" can lie only in new structure, rather than in the specifics of character development and voice in which that structure is expressed. One branch of literary structuralism, like Freudianism, Marxism, and transformational grammar, posits both a deep and a surface structure. In a Freudian literary interpretation the literary text is based on the deep structure grounded in the life and death instincts; the Marxist reading will interpret the conflict between classes in the text as rooted in the deep structure of the economic "base."
Literary structuralism often follows the lead of Vladimir Propp, author of Morphology of the Folktale and Claude Levi-Strauss in seeking out basic deep elements in stories and myths, which are combined in various ways to produce the many versions of the ur-story or ur-myth. As in Freud and Marx, but in contrast to transformational grammar, these basic elements are meaning-bearing.
There is considerable similarity between structural literary theory and Northrop Frye's archetypal criticism, which is also indebted to the anthropological study of myths. Some critics have also tried to apply the theory to individual works, but the effort to find unique structures in individual literary works runs counter to the structuralist program and has an affinity with New Criticism.
Structuralism after World War II
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, existentialism like that propounded by Jean-Paul Sartre was the dominant mood. Structuralism surged to prominence in France after WWII and particularly in the 1960s. The initial popularity of structuralism in France led it to spread across the globe. The social sciences (in particular, sociology) were particularly influenced.
Structuralism rejected the concept of human freedom and choice and focused instead on the way that human behavior is determined by various structures. The most important initial work on this score was Claude Lévi-Strauss's 1949 volume Elementary Structures of Kinship. Lévi-Strauss had known Roman Jakobson, a former member of the Russian Formalist group OPOYAZ and the Prague Linguistic Circle 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.
Blending Sigmund Freud and Ferdinand de Saussure, the French (post)structuralist Jacques Lacan applied structuralism to psychoanalysis and, in a different way, Jean Piaget applied structuralism to the study of psychology.
Michel Foucault's book The Order of Things examined the history of science to study how structures of epistemology, or episteme, shaped how people imagined knowledge and knowing (though Foucault would later explicitly deny affiliation with the structuralist movement).
In much the same way, American historian of science Thomas Kuhn addressed the structural formations of science in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—its title alone evincing a stringent structuralist approach. Though less concerned with "episteme," Kuhn nonetheless remarked at how coteries of scientists operated under and applied a standard praxis of 'normal science,' deviating from a standard 'paradigm' only in instances of irreconcilable anomalies that question a significant body of their work.
Blending Marx and structuralism another French theorist Louis Althusser introduced his own brand of structural social analysis, giving rise to "structural Marxism." 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.
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 clearly are not.
Reactions to structuralism
Today structuralism is less popular than approaches such as post-structuralism and deconstruction. There are many reasons for this. Structuralism has often been criticized for being unhistorical 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 academia, issues of power and political struggle moved to the center of people's attention. The ethnologist Robert Jaulin defined another ethnological method which clearly pitted itself against structuralism.
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 commanded attention.
- Atkinson, R.L. (1990). Introduction to Psychology, 10th Edition. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Caws, P. 1997. Structuralism: A Philosophy for the Human Sciences New York: Humanity Books. ISBN 9781573924283
- D'Andrade, R. 1995. The development of cognitive anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521459761
- Beth, E.W., and J. Piaget. 1974. Mathematical Epistemology and Psychology. Springer. ISBN 9789027700711
- Francois Dosse. 1998. History of Structuralism (two volumes). University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816622412
- Kuper, A. 1988. The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415009034
- Laughlin, Charles D. and Eugene G. d'Aquili. 1974. Biogenetic Structuralism. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231038171
- Leach, E. 2006. Political Systems of Highland Burma. ACLS History E-Book Project. ISBN 9781597402606
- Leach, E. 1980. Rethinking Anthropology. Humanities Pr. ISBN 9780391001466
- Levi-Strauss, C. 1971. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Beacon Press. ISBN 9780807046692
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