Note: the following has been abstracted from the Grolier Encyclopedia.


Structuralism is a mode of thinking and a method of analysis practiced in 20th-century social sciences and humanities. Methodologically, it analyzes large-scale systems by examining the relations and functions of the smallest constituent elements of such systems, which range from human languages and cultural practices to folktales and literary texts.

In the field of linguistics the structuralist work of Ferdinand de Saussure, undertaken just prior to World War I, long served as model and inspiration. Characteristic of structuralist thinking, Saussure's linguistic inquiry was centered not on speech itself but on the underlying rules and conventions enabling language to operate. In analyzing the social or collective dimension of language rather than individual speech, he pioneered and promoted study of grammar rather than usage, rules rather than expressions, models rather than data, langue (language) rather than parole (speech). Saussure was interested in the infrastructure of language that is common to all speakers and that functions on an unconscious level. His inquiry was concerned with deep structures rather than surface phenomena and made no reference to historical evolution. (In structuralist terminology, it was synchronic, existing now, rather than diachronic, existing and changing over time.)

In the domain of anthropology and myth studies, the work done in the immediate post-World War II period by Claude Levi-Strauss introduced structuralist principles to a wide audience. Following the ideas of Saussure and of the Slavic linguists N. S. Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson, Levi-Strauss specified four procedures basic to structuralism. First, structural analysis examines unconscious infrastructures of cultural phenomena; second, it regards the elements of infrastructures as "relational," not as independent entities; third, it attends singlemindedly to system; and fourth, it propounds general laws accounting for the underlying organizing patterns of phenomena.

In humanistic and literary studies, structuralism is applied most effectively in the field of "narratology." This nascent discipline studies all narratives, whether or not they use language: myths and legends, novels and news accounts, histories, relief sculptures and stained-glass windows, pantomimes and psychological case studies. Using structuralist methods and principles, narratologists analyze the systematic features and functions of narratives, attempting to isolate a finite set of rules to account for the infinite set of real and possible narratives. Starting in the 1960s, the French critic Roland Barthes and several other French narratologists popularized the field, which has since become an important method of analysis in the United States as well.

Because structuralism values deep structures over surface phenomena, it parallels, in part, the views of Marx and Freud, both of whom were concerned with underlying causes, unconscious motivations, and transpersonal forces, shifting attention away from individual human consciousness and choice. Like Marxism and Freudianism, therefore, structuralism furthers the ongoing modern diminishment of the individual, portraying the self largely as a construct and consequence of impersonal systems. Individuals neither originate nor control the codes and conventions of their social existence, mental life, or linguistic experience. As a result of its demotion of the person, or subject, structuralism is widely regarded as "antihumanistic."

Saussure envisaged a new discipline, a science of signs and sign systems that he named semiology, and for which he believed structural linguistics could provide a principal methodology. The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, Saussure's contemporary, sketched a similar science labeled semiotic. In 1961, Levi-Strauss situated structural anthropology within the domain of "semiology." Increasingly, the terms semiology and Semiotics came to designate a field of study that analyzes sign systems, codes, and conventions of all kinds, from human to animal and sign languages, from the jargon of fashion to the lexicon of food, from the rules of folk narrative to those of phonological systems, from codes of architecture and medicine to the conventions of myth and literature. The term semiotics has gradually replaced structuralism, and the formation of the International Association for Semiotic Studies in the 1960s has solidified the trend.

At the moment when structuralist methodology was expanding into the discipline of semiotics, critical reaction occurred, particularly in France, where it led to such antithetical and schismatic projects as Gilles Deleuze's "schizoanalysis," Jacques Derrida's Deconstruction, Michel Foucault's "genealogy," and Julia Kristeva's "semanalysis." These critical schools were lumped together and labeled poststructuralism in the United States.

Despite the various critiques of structuralism, it has generated much important work and holds promise of continuing to do so.

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