Structuralism : A Sampler


What is the "structuralism" in "post-structuralism"?


When we hear the word "structuralism" two things come first to mind: "structural functionalism" and "post-structuralism." The former shares a concern with structure in general but the word means something different in the writings of the structural-functional anthropologists (e.g., Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski) and sociologists (e.g., Parsons and Merton).

The connection with "post-structuralism" is more direct, but what is this "structuralism" which needs to be superceded?

Actually, structural-functionalism and structuralism do share a few characteristics:

  • orientation toward thinking about systems
  • grand theoretical ambitions (belief in capacity for a theory to be trans-cultural and trans-historical)


Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1906-11. "Arbitrary Social Values and the Linguistic Sign" (152-160)
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. "The Structural Study of Myth" ((313-317)
Barthes,Roland. 1964. "Semiological Prospects" (318-320)

Important Figures, Brief Biographies

Summary Take-aways

Wikipedia summarizes structuralism nicely: "Structuralism is an intellectual movement that developed in France in the 1950s and 1960s, in which human culture is analysed semiotically (i.e., as a system of signs)" (Wikipedia 2010). Our readings help us understand what we mean by "semiotically."

From Saussure: language as a system that exists in collective consciousness; sign as signifier+signified; abritrariness of sign = things mean what they mean because group thinks so, not because of any natural connection between sound and meaning; to study meaning we need to look at words in two dimensions: what words you could (almost) substitute and what words appear near it in things people actually say. These two dimensions play an important role in how structuralism gets extended to cultural realms beyond language.


If I say "The car hit the tree," a part of the meaning of "car" rests in all the other things I could and could not substitute for it in this sentence and where "car" stands in relation to this. On the other hand, the meaning of "car" depends on its appearance as the subject of this sentence, as the noun controlled by a definite article (it would mean something different if it were "a car hit a tree").

It is possible to think of the horizontal dimension as "now" — the relationship between this word and the words currently surrounding it — and the vertical dimension as the dimension of choice or selection. See the concepts of paradigm (vertical) and syntagm (horizontal).


From Barthes:

From Levi-Strauss:


F. Saussure, defined a sign as the unity of a signifier (e.g., sound image) and a signified (e.g., meaning). See also sign (semiotics) in Wikipedia

Potential Test Questions

Further Reading (Annotated Bibliography)

Semiology // Semiotics by Robert M. Seiler
Not a bad summary of basic ideas.
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