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What Is Structuralism?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 23, 2024
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Structuralism is a broad-based rational theory that focuses on signs and organization in various aspects of human culture. While this approach can be applied to various areas of study ranging from anthropology to psychology, its primary use has occurred in language and literature studies. Structuralists focus on breaking down information into small elements for study. They are further interested in categorization and classification of these units of information.

The structuralism movement took hold in the early and mid-20th century, and it first gained prominence in France with notable figures like Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and Jaques Derrida. Scholars of this era became interested in how the world was defined by structures that could be categorized and studied. Anthropologists, for example, investigated developed systems like religious rituals and also researched epistemes, or the shared methods that cultures use to gain knowledge. Psychologists, on the other hand, determined how common experiences, symbols, and worldviews molded the human mind, while political researchers considered the rules of governments. In a sense, structuralism and its emphasis on the collective and the categorical became a response to existentialism and its reliance on unique and individual experiences.

Language studies became the field in which structuralism arguably took the strongest hold. Individuals like Ferdinand de Saussure applied the theory to language construction via structural linguistics. This approach centered on determining the common components of language systems. The relationship between the sounds and the meanings of words — or the signifier and the signified, respectively — were given particular attention. In modern linguistics, structural scholars study the smallest individual segments of words that produce sound or meaning, otherwise known as phonemes and morphemes.

Similar approaches have also found a stronghold in structuralistic literary criticism. In essence, literary scholars apply structural methods to works of fiction, and their only source of study is the actual works themselves. Such an approach could include finding common character types, settings, or story points among various novels, particularly categorical genre novels. The structural critic may look for patterns and associations within a single text as well. Water, for example, may play a prominent role at various progression points within a novel. In essence, comparison and cohesion are emphasized in structural criticism.

The foundation of structuralism has been both praised and criticized. Proponents believe the philosophy allows an objective and reliable method of researching and studying various principles and cultural components. Critics, however, argue that structuralistic study is too narrow and sterile. It does not consider factors like historical influences or human emotion, and it attempts to classify complex issues into convenient categories. In response, some opponents developed an opposing approach known as post-structuralism, which de-emphasized structure, order, and narrow interpretations.

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Discussion Comments

By burcinc — On Feb 07, 2014

How can anyone study culture and religion without considering human emotion? Can anyone recommend me a structuralist study about culture or religion?

By turquoise — On Feb 07, 2014

@SarahGen-- I agree and disagree wit you at the same time. I agree that our brain has an inclination to form patterns and structures. But I disagree that structuralism as a theory allows us to make a good analysis of the world.

Even though people are good at putting this in categories and established social structures, unfortunately, we can't do this in an unbiased way. When we establish structures and look for patterns, we are very biased about it and only see what we choose to see.

Have you ever heard of motivated reasoning? What this means is that we only select and accept information that already supports our opinion or worldview. So structuralism is just the means to a preordained end.

By SarahGen — On Feb 06, 2014

I think that structuralism is a great way to look at and understand the world. Because the human mind is wired to search for and establish patterns and structures in life.

I guess I'm looking at structuralism from physiological and psychological point of views. I enjoy reading about the human brain and I've read that our brain is basically composed of nerve cells which form patterns among one another to make sense of our experiences. So our worldview is based on the type of patterns we are able to find between different experiences. We try to make connections and structure information in a way that will be useful for us in the future. We also structure information in a way that supports our feelings and thoughts.

So if we think about it, human life, our understanding, our worldviews and the world we create are nothing but structures. Structuralism is the right way to analyze the world because of our brain structure.

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