Sunday, March 19, 2017

Structuralism - Summary and short Explanation

Structuralism as a form of thought and theoretical approach emerged from a reaction against the humanism of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. Sartre assailed the idea of structures that overly determine the behavior of individuals, of having actors without agency. Structuralism emerged in the 1960s, and was based on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure’s work in linguistics was oriented to understanding the structures underlying languages and all form of human sign systems (semiology or semiotics). Thus, structuralism is associated with the linguistic turn.  Saussure focused on the relationship between the formal, grammatical system of language (langue) and the everyday usage of language (parole) (see extended summary on de Saussure's langue and parole). Parole was of little interest to linguists, who should be concerned with understanding the determinant laws that govern langue. Langue is conceptualized by de Saussure as a system of signs whereby each sign may be understood by its relationships to other signs within the system. This system of signs is a structure, a structure that affects society by shaping relationships of signs within the system and our understanding of the world.  Saussure focused on the creation of difference, particularly through binary oppositions (e.g., hot/cold) , which have meaning only in relation to one another. The idea of semiotics extended the analysis of sign systems to various dimensions of the social world.

When first published de Saussure's work remained within the confines of linguistics but in the 60's structuralism also influenced anthropology and Marxism.  In the former case, the work of Claude Levi-Strauss exhibits this influence. Levi-Strauss attempted to extend structuralism to anthropology, focusing on communication. He reinterpreted social phenomena for their effects on communication. Structural Marxism took from structuralism an interest in the historical origins of structures, but continued to focus on social and economic structures. An example of structuralism in Marxist thought can be found in the works of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault. Roland Barthes is considered on of the key figures in developing structuralism in semiotics and also taking it to the next phase of poststructuralism. Structuralism also made its way into psychoanalysis in the works of Jacques Lacan.   

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Some books on structuralism to consider:

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