Structuralism is a powerful theoretical framework that dominated French thought in the 1960s. Deriving from the insights of the Swiss Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and receiving its most comprehensive expression in the anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the structuralist paradigm also operates in the political philosophy of Louis Althusser, the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, the “narratology” of Roland Barthes, the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, the “history” of Michel Foucault, and the genre studies of Tzvetan Todorov.
Uniting a generation of intellectuals against the postwar hegemony of Sartre’s existentialism, with its emphases on the individual will and the act but also defined against phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty, structuralists were interested in the ways that acts were constructed by forces beyond individual consciousness. Structuralists saw systematic patterning in human expressions and actions that indicated not individual free will, but rather, structures of language, power, culture, and the psyche that had more or less determinant influences on consciousness.
Before Saussure, the field of linguistics had primarily consisted of cataloguing the world’s languages and tracing etymologies. Saussure rejected the study of empirically available elements of language for the study of the independent formal relations between them. In his Cours de Linguistique Générale, delivered as a series of lectures in Paris in the first decade of the 20th century, but only edited after his death, Saussure put forward several propositions about language that are definitive for the later development of structuralism. He postulated that language was a coherent social system regulated by the principles of syntax and semantics and that the structure of language consisted in the relations (principally oppositions) between its elements.
He further maintained that any given “signifier” (word) stood in a purely conventional relationship to its “signified” (meaning), with nothing essential, intrinsic, or even stable about the association. To understand language, therefore, linguists needed to chart the logical relations governing the production of utterances rather than these surface forms themselves: grammar rather than speech or, in Saussure’s terms, langue rather than parole.
A Russian disciple, Troubetzkoy, achieved great success in applying Saussure’s postulates to phonology. Troubetzkoy’s student Jakobson, founder of the Prague Linguistic Circle, who would be Lévi-Strauss’s colleague at the New School before and during the Second World War, developed Saussure’s science of signs to analyze poetics.
Structuralist thought holds other social systems to be analogous to language, as defined by Saussure. Just as language grammars, of which most speakers are not consciously aware, govern the production of utterances, cultural, political, and other social phenomena conform to grammars or codes. Furthermore, Lévi-Strauss and Jakobson shared with psychologist Jean Piaget and Biologist François Jacob a conviction that a genetic mechanism acts as a “structuring force” in man.
Lévi-Strauss saw cultural variation as a difference of number and arrangement, like, to use a favorite analogy, various melodies composed from a determinate number of keys. He studied the variations to generate the laws of transformation that formed the essential cultural grammar and indicated universal innate structures of mind. The ultimate goal was l’attitude totalisante, the awareness of complex social structure as determined by “unconscious reason.”
Confusingly for the student of the history of anthropology, English social anthropology had already been describing its approach as “structural” or “structural functional.” Radcliffe-Brown developed this other “structural anthropology” using Malinowski’s concepts of functionalism. For Malinowski, human societies were the analogs of biological organisms, and institutions were explained by their contributions to social homeostasis, just as the organs of the body were explained by their regulatory or therapeutic functions. For Radcliffe-Brown, “structure” was equivalent to social organization. The network of “actually existing” social relations formed a society’s structure, and consistent with the natural science paradigm, their quality was intrinsic to this structure.
For Lévi-Strauss, however, structure was the code governing the form of social institutions rather than anything that was itself empirically available. His analysis would focus on the quality of the relationships between the elements of his object of study and their arrangement.
Both Lévi-Strauss and Radcliffe-Brown wrote about the pronounced cross-cultural variations in the quality of the relationship between a son and his mother’s brother. Radcliffe-Brown took the “elementary family” consisting of “a man and his wife and their child or children” to be the basic unit of kinship. The relationships among the members of this family were first order kinship relations, and those connecting family units were second-order relations. Lévi-Strauss believed this to be a fundamental misunderstanding.
For Lévi-Strauss, the biological family was a term of the second order. The essential function of kinship was not the individual reproduction performed by the elementary family, but the establishment of relations between elementary families. Only by taking as the basic unit of kinship a configuration, including two pairs of correlative oppositions and each of the three types of familial relation (consanguinity, affinity, and descent) in each generation, does one have a meaningful structural unit, the building block of elaborate kinship systems. That is, it is only by drawing the relations between the pairs—brother/sister, husband/wife, father/son, mother’s brother/sister’s son—that the incest taboo, and the avunculate as its corollary, can be explained.
Lévi-Strauss generated a model capable of expressing the apparently contradictory forms of behavior across cultures—a deep structure of avunculate expressions. Comparing the Trobriand Islanders and the Cherkess of the Caucasus, he found that “in both groups, the relation between the maternal uncle and nephew is to the relation between brother and sister as the relation between father and son is to that between husband and wife. Thus if we know one pair of relations then it is always possible to infer the other.”
In taking the biological family as the basic unit, Radcliffe-Brown had taken an arbitrary system of representation for objective ties of consanguinity and descent between individuals. “Any concession to naturalism might jeopardize the immense progress already made in linguistics, which is also beginning to characterize the study of family structure, and might drive the sociology of the family toward a sterile empiricism, devoid of inspiration.”
In the introduction to The Raw and the Cooked, Lévi-Strauss maintained that myth was a fundamental object of study for the structural program, because, unlike kinship, it was not directly tied to a different order of reality. In myth, “the mind imitates itself as object.” For Lévi-Strauss, myths function as mediating structures. As the spatial, formal, or material dichotomies figuring in the narrative of a given myth (high/low, water/earth, raw/cooked, sun/moon) relate symbolically to the basic problems confronting the human mind (male/female, life/death, nature/ culture), myths perform vital intellectual and cultural tasks. Myths symbolically resolve, rearrange, decide, or explain by playing with binary oppositions.
The meaning of a myth resides in the way the narrative elements are combined. It is only the relations between elements that transmit information, express beliefs, ritually explain behavior patterns, and mediate the paradoxes created by social life. For example, in the series of myths whose analysis comprises The Raw and the Cooked, the logical relations between the qualities of “rawness” and “cookedness” that appear in the narrative differentially express beliefs and behaviors surrounding the antagonism between nature and culture. The extension of these terms— raw moldy and cooked burnt—represents one of the ways binary oppositions can be mediated and resolved.
The codes governing the production of myths are distinguished by comparing variants of the same myth along different conceptual axes, such as in Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of variants of the Oedipus myth in Structural Anthropology. Myth’s basic element is more complex that that of linguistic production. The “mytheme” (“Cadmos kills a dragon,” “Oedipus kills his father,” or “Oedipus marries his mother”) stands in relation to the seme or word as that element does to the morpheme or indivisible phonological unit. To the dimensions of language—langue and parole—the mythic code adds a third time-out-of-history level of operation.
Lévi-Strauss has been criticized for abstracting symbols out of their sociocultural contexts—denying the meaning-giving operations of specific historic, cultural, and personal conjunctures. However, he considers rigorous ethnographic methods necessary to the semantic level of his project. In analyzing individual myths, he relates narrative elements to the concrete social organizations, ritual practices, subsistence techniques, and basic geographies of the societies to which they belong. He uses ethnographic data to draw out the mediating functions of the opposing terms in the collected narratives. Lane proposes, in Lévi-Strauss’s defense, that the structural method achieves a synthesis between the thesis—general properties of social life—and the antithesis—particulars of social anthropology.
Lévi-Strauss credits Marx, Freud, and geography with the inspiration for his method. Elaborating on Marx’s understanding of the relationship between a society’s material economic base and its social and ideological superstructure, Lévi-Strauss describes the myth as an epiphenomenon of concrete social fact. His analyses also depend heavily on Freud’s notions of unconscious psychic operations and particularly the operations by which symbols are created and invested. With Freud, he reads the “reason of the unconscious” in the creation and operation of these epiphenomena. He credits geology with the methodological proposition of simultaneous synchronic and diachronic readings. Just as one needs both to survey a landscape and to excavate at a certain spot to reach a geological understanding, to understand a mythical structure, one needs to “excavate” the meaning at a particular juncture as well as reading along the irreversible temporal axis.
Also important as intellectual forbears of the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss are Swiss anthropologist Émile Durkheim and his son-in-law, Marcel Mauss. Durkheim identified cultural forms as collectively authored and susceptible to symbolic readings as fulfillments of basic social needs. He also saw basic homologies between social institutions and categories of thought, although he tended to read from the social to the individual, or in the opposite direction from Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss himself credits Mauss’s Essai sur le don with the first example “in the history of ethnological thought” of “an effort to transcend empirical observation and to achieve a deeper reality” (Lane, 1970, p. 30).
Marx is a significant precursor for the work of many French structuralist social scientists, notably Althusser, Bourdieu, and Foucault. Marx provided a framework for understanding why the actions of individuals would ultimately conform to their structural class interests, but he also proposed that acts could transform the structures of social relations of production. Lévi-Strauss forsook Marx’s dialectical historicism for a determinant structure—the innate capacities of the human mind—that existed outside of historical time and was not susceptible to dialectic change. Others returned to Marx’s social analysis but frequently concentrated on the determinant force of social structures on consciousness to the neglect of the effects of consciousness on history.
Lévi-Strauss’s philosophy, although widely admired for its intellectual force and its elegant expression, found only a few committed adherents in England and America. Foremost among his British followers is Edmund Leach, and David Schneider is perhaps the best-known American structuralist. The American response has primarily been a reassertion of the significance of individual consciousness, location, and “voice,” informed particularly by the increasing awareness that the societies studied by anthropologists are characterized by internal conflict and differential access to power. Structuralism’s synchronic approach was also distasteful to postcolonial critiques and their insistence that the societies studied by anthropologists be placed in specific moments in global history.
Deconstructionism and Poststructuralism
Ironically, the “deconstructionist” and “poststructuralist” movements that followed the structuralist ascendancy in Paris derive equally from Saussure’s insights into the operation of language and include some of the same figures—notably Barthes and Foucault—claimed by structuralism. Derrida, in particular, developed the Saussurian premise that meaning existed only in difference. But this intellectual generation, sometimes dated to the uprising of May 1968, forsook any belief in a stable code. In fact, for them, belief in the fixity of signification has politically suspect motivations.
- Dosse, F. (1997). History of structuralism (Vols. I and II). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Lane, M. (1970). Introduction. Structuralism: A reader. London: Jonathan Cape.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963a). The elementary structures of kinship. Boston: Beacon.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963b). Structural anthropology (Vol. I). New York: Basic Books.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1969). The raw and the cooked. New York: Harper & Row.
- Merquior, J. G. (1986). From Prague to Paris: A critique of structuralist and poststructuralist thought. London: Verso.