Functionalists and Structuralists

De Saussure's structural linguistics

Early in the century Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's innovative course at Geneva overturned the orthodox views of German philology and laid the basis for a new approach not just to linguistics, but to anthropology and sociology as well. De Saussure had been a part of that movement that launched the investigation of the Asiatic origins of European languages. The quest for the original Ur-language that united European languages with ancient Greek and Sanskrit was one that had gripped the imagination of German philologists like Adam Muller. However, this programme, rich as it was, was also replete with political motivations that called its objectivity into question. The model of linguistic dissemination implied a hierarchy of races, with an Aryan superiority. The contest for national proximity to the Ur-language was a one for authenticity that diverged from a purely scientific investigation.

De Saussure's Course does not reject outright the investigations of the philologists - much of these were real advances. What he does is to challenge some of the suspect methodological assumptions. So for example the idea that languages that are closer to the original are in any way superior is rejected by him as unscientific. Furthermore, he demonstrates, linguistic similarities do not necessarily arise from direct borrowing. Languages may be similar in structure of syntax and yet share no common origin of even influence.

But most pointedly de Saussure rejects the positivist conception of language as one of simple correspondence to the physical world. Words, he says exist primarily in relation to one another, before they exist in relation to an object. It is the relation of sign to the code of signification that accords it meaning, rather than a simple correspondence with an external object. Again de Saussure shows through looking at linguistic variation and innovation that distinctions within the language have a knock on effect upon other terms, tenses, prefixes and so on, that means that any singular innovation necessarily impacts upon the whole code of language, or its structure (hence his linguistics are sometimes called structural). Here de Saussure was taking language out of the realm of logic, to look at language and its grammar as an object of study in its own right.

De Saussure's approach was taken up, but also criticised and reformulated by the school of thinkers around MM Bakhtin in the Soviet Union, such as VN Volosinov and PN Medvedev. De Saussure's attention to the social interaction in language was attractive to Bakhtin and his followers, but they felt that he gave too much credence to the formalised code - and hence the grammar of proper usage - and too little to the fluidity of the vernacular dialogue. Volosinov directly criticises de Saussure for his ignorance of the reality of utterance over the dead codes of proper usage. The vernacular for Volosinov is 'directly social', without the mediation of written rules, and a part of the ebb and flow of ordinary language (contemporary support for the vernacular in education owes much to Volsinov).

Bakhtin, too, is interested in the fluidity of language, or what he calls its dialogic character. Bakhtin takes de Saussure's emphasis upon the incompleteness of language and makes it the defining characteristic. Meaning, for Bakhtin is never fixed or exhausted in a single interpretation, because the language is dialogical, with heteroglot meanings reacting upon one another. Bakhtin's linguistic and literary work was later popularised outside the Soviet Union by Roman Jakobson.


Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss saw parallels between de Saussure's findings in linguistics and recent developments in anthropology. The concept of culture as something that is disseminated from the master races down to the latter was already irksome to anthropologists working in the field. Trying to fulfil idealised justifications of white supremacy was not a motivation that took anthropologists very far. Already, the sociology of Emile Durkheim had suggested an alternative approach. A 'functionalist' approach, taken from Durkheim meant that it was now possible to look at the rituals, taboos, and mores of primitive societies without trying seeing them judgementally. Instead it was possible to look at such institutions from the standpoint of their functionality to those societies. Durkheim's nephew, the anthropologist Marcel Mauss pioneered the functionalist analysis in his study of the role of symbolic gifts amongst Native Americans (these ostentatious shows of gift-making performed the function of disposing of a potentially disruptive surplus produce, Mauss explained in his Essai sur le don). This less judgmental and more objective approach was already being taken up by American anthropologists like Boas and his students.

Levi-Strauss realised that de Saussure's approach meant that it was possible to go further than Durkheim's functionalism. Not just language, but culture itself could be looked upon as a code of meaning in de Saussure's sense. The functionalist approach meant isolating particular institutions and trying to find parallels between those and modern institutions (so Azande Witchcraft is 'their version' of medicine). But this meant that other cultures were still seen simply as version of our own. By looking at the entire cultural code of a culture, the way that its different mores and taboos interact and support each other, Levi-Strauss was able to develop a fuller understanding.

The structuralist approach to anthropology was so productive that its influence was not restricted to anthropologists. Not that Levi-Strauss's influence upon that discipline was not profound. From the New School in New York after the war, and from France in the 1950s Levi-Strauss influenced anthropologists like EE Evans-Pritchard in England and Pierre Bourdieu in Algeria. Beyond his colleagues, though, Strauss's highly readable work impacted upon students of popular culture and society more widely. The literary critic Roland Barthes extended the analysis of codes of signification to analyse popular culture. Barthes was interested in escaping the obligation to committed writing, and structuralism seemed like an alternative. In his hands, de Saussure and Strauss's structuralism became a full blown 'science of signs' or semiology. Meanwhile the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser utilised the structuralist approach to distance himself from the Hegelian methodology he so resented in Marx's work.

For both Barthes and Althusser, structuralism was an alternative to traditional, liberal concepts of the subject. In Barthes case it was the 'intentional fallacy' of authorship that was to be overthrown. Barthes reversed the commonsense view that authors wrote texts to argue - cryptically - that texts 'wrote' authors. What he meant was that specific genres of literature pre-existed the authors that contributed to them, so, for example, the detective story comes before Hammett. Fulfilling the code of the genre, the author is an effect of the discourse, not its originator. The slogan of semiotics became 'The death of the author'.

For Althusser, too, the subject was overthrown as a category of social science. His analysis of ideologies sought to show how these 'interpellated' the subject - meaning to say that the illusion of personal agency was an effect of the ideology. As if trying to fulfil the Cold War caricature of Marxism as an impersonal, objectivist science, Althusser gleefully excised any hint of subjectivity from the social sciences, in favour of an analysis of the ideological structures that generated 'the subject'. The slogan of Althusserian structuralism was 'The death of the subject'.