Structuralism emerged in the 1970s as a departure from the theoretical foundations of structural functionalism. It is among a variety of approaches to the study of social structure based on the general premise that there exist underlying structures that form the foundation for a social reality that only appears to be variable and changing. From the constructionist perspective, social structure is viewed as being either intentionally or unintentionally created by social agents. It is also used as a methodological or analytic tool by some social scientists to explain the regularity of social action by placing unpredictable behaviors outside the model. For structuralists, structure is recognized as the underlying force that drives social action, which in itself is viewed as merely a manifestation of a primary but hidden reality that lies beneath the level of consciousness. From this view, structures do not change, only the externalization of these structures in terms of changes in human action. The goal, therefore, of such analysis is to reveal the hidden universal and relatively constant social laws that influence the systems of society at the interaction, group, and institutional levels. This perspective deemphasizes the influence of individual agency, or individuals acting and choosing voluntarily.
Darwin, Spencer, Durkheim, Marx, and Freud took a structural approach to define their worldview, and planted the seeds for what was to become structuralism. Each of these individuals saw, from his unique perspective, a system of structures that was both greater than the sum of its parts and the cause of behavior rather than its result. Building on these perspectives but taking a linguistic turn, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a Swiss linguist who is generally considered the father of structuralism, concluded that all social facts and patterns could ultimately be seen as resulting from the structures of language. Like Freud and Marx, Saussure concluded that it is structures that determine social interaction, not individual agency. Once a language is developed, the words and the thoughts they trigger become one entity, which then forms the social patterns incorporated as part of a particular culture. Language becomes autonomous and self-sustaining, allowing the subject to be undermined or totally ignored.
Formalizing these concepts into a single school of thought, Roman Jakobson wrote in 1929, “Were we to comprise the leading idea of present-day science in its most various manifestations, we could hardly find a more appropriate designation than structuralism. Any set of phenomena examined by contemporary science is treated not as a mechanical agglomeration but as a structural whole, and the basic task is to reveal the inner …laws of this system.” Lévi-Strauss, a French structural anthropologist who knew Jakobson and was influenced by his work, as well as by the American school of anthropology, studied these inner laws not by looking at the observable details of a society, but instead by examining what he felt to be universal structures of the mind that manifested themselves in signs and myths. Where Saussure felt that the primary structures of society were rooted in language itself, Lévi-Strauss looked into a culture’s myths, its literary traditions, and its guiding principles.
All forms of structuralism tend to see structure as the defining factor in determining social activity, often at the expense of human agency. It examines how a culture creates meaning for itself through its patterns of structured activities. There exists a sharp division between structuralists who believe the term refers to observable patterns of social practices, such as roles, norms, and language and those who see structures as the underlying principles upon which social patterns are built. This divergence of perspectives has never been successfully resolved, but opened the door for the school of post-structuralism, which is particularly critical of structuralism’s inability to deal with the “temporality” of reality and the subsequent social changes that occur over a culture’s history.
Post-structuralism combines the structural linguistic approach of focusing on language, or more specifically on text, with the idea that social reality is merely the superficial manifestation of underlying linguistic structures. The primacy given to the unconscious by Freud and Lévi-Strauss was used by post-structuralists to disavow the legitimacy of all texts, since a text is nothing more than an expression of the writer’s unconscious. Therefore, texts cannot be understood by examining their content, the story, but rather must be deconstructed into linguistic formations or codes that are representative of all cultural texts.
It concludes that ultimately there is nothing real except words and how they are used together to form texts that literally construct reality. And, because it is people that invent and use words, they do in fact have significant agency in creating their reality and are not wholly proscribed by underlying or external forces. This perspective then allows for language to be used to change reality over time.
Two major proponents of this school are the French authors Derrida and Foucault. Their work, often criticized for being opaque, had an important impact on sociological thought. Both felt that the use of language by individuals does not create subjective meaning, but that the creation of language is “anonymous” and therefore without agent or subject. Throughout his varied and controversial works, Foucault attempts to demonstrate how systems of categorization structure our beliefs and practices, as well as what we think of as our knowledge. However, for Foucault, this knowledge is really the pretext for authorization and power. In other words, the stories or texts created by individuals are really the method by which society authorizes those in power to control those who are not.
Taking this critique of structuralism one step further, Derrida tries to demonstrate that the ability to describe and understand structures requires the writer, or scientist, to be somehow outside, to transcend, the structures being described, which he says is impossible. He concludes that individuals can never successfully stand outside their cultures and objectively study the structures within their culture, and therefore, there is no legitimate scientific methodology for interpreting cultural structures. Conversely, the investigator who attempts to understand the structures of another culture can do no better than to superficially describe those structures because interpreting another culture’s structures always involves the subjective perceptions of the observer and is necessarily suspect. Acknowledging this arbitrariness, Derrida focuses his investigations more on the act of writing than on oral or spoken communication. He takes this perspective, at least in part, because writing fixes the communication in time and exploits the arbitrary nature of both the act of signifying and of meaning itself.
In the end, these diverse structuralist and poststructuralist approaches to the understanding of social and cultural phenomena and to the cultural methods used to create meaning, have, according to recent criticism by Giddens and others, led down a path to their own demise. According to Giddens, the structuralist tradition has been unable to handle the very issues it raises. Structuralist theory takes its own conflicting ideas and codifies them in terms of binary oppositions, but never truly resolves these opposing forces. For Giddens, the structuralist attempt to deny the agency of the individual and the importance of subject has been misguided. “Social agents, not social theorists, produce, sustain, and alter whatever degree of “systemness” exists in society.” Giddens goes on, within the general theory of structuration, to suggest that there can be reconciliation between structure and action because there is a “duality of structure.” He contends that we can move beyond the contributions and limitations of structuralism by looking at both how structural properties are generated and sustained as well as what circumstances agents need to reproduce or change those structures.
- Giddens, A. (1987). Structuralism, post-structuralism and the production of culture. In A. Giddens & J. Turner (Eds.), Social theory today. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1968). Structural anthropology. London: Allen Lane.
- Waters, M. (1994). Modern sociological theory. London: Sage.