Structuralism is a 20th-century intellectual movement and approach to the human sciences that attempts to analyse a specific field as a complex system of interrelated parts. Broadly speaking, Structuralism holds that all human activity and its products, even perception and thought itself, are constructed and not natural, and in particular that everything has meaning because of the language system in which we operate.
There are four main common ideas underlying Structuralism as a general movement:
1. Every system has a structure
2. The structure is what determines the position of each element of a whole
3. “Structural laws” deal with coexistence rather than changes
4. Structures are the ”real things” that lie beneath the surface or the appearance of meaning.
The idea originated from linguists, more precisely from notes from a course in general linguists taught by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913).
Saussure was a Swiss linguist and semiotician. He is widely considered one of the founders of 20th-century linguistics and of semiotics/semiology. He taught mainly Sanskrit and Proto Indo-European at the University of Geneva from 1891 until 1913. His lectures about important principles of language description between 1907 and 1911 were collected and published by his students posthumously in the famous Cours de linguistique générale in 1916. Saussure thought that any language is just a complex system of signs that express ideas, with rules which govern their usage.
First of all, Sassure divided the concept of language into three levels:
Langage is best described as a rule-abiding game. It is a universal system which has an underlying, fundamental, structure so that linguistic communication can work.
Langue is the actual language spoken, for instance; French, German or English. The language of the speaker.
Parole is the individual speech act. Romantic and humanistic readings influence one’s parole.
Unlike the Romantic or Humanist models, which hold that the author is the starting point or progenitor of any text, Structuralism argues that any piece of writing (or any "signifying system") has no origin, and that authors merely inhabit pre-existing structures ("langue") that enable them to make any particular sentence or story ("parole"), hence the idea that "language speaks us", rather than that we speak language.
Saussure's argument about the nature of a sign is the idea that inspired philosophers and scholars from all areas of humanities in the next few decades. The Swiss linguist explained that a sign was not only a sound-image but also a concept. Thus he divided the sign into two components: the signifier (or "sound-image") and the signified (or "concept"). For Saussure, the signified and signifier were purely psychological; they were form rather than substance. Today, the signifier is interpreted as the material form (something which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted) and the signified as the mental concept. This immediately recalled Plato's concept of the ideas (forms) and their material manifestations.
Structuralism was also to some extent a reaction against Phenomenology in that it argued that the "depth" of experience could in fact only be an effect of structures which are not themselves experiential.
A number of thinkers and scholars were later labeled structuralist, because of their adoption of the main postulates of Sassure's conception. Some of the most famous ones are: Michel Foucault (1926-1984), philosopher; Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), anthropologist; Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), psychoanalyst; Jean Piaget (1896-1980), psychologist; Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), linguist; Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), linguist; Roland Barthes (1915-1980), literary critic; Louis Althusser (1918-1990), Marxist theorist.
Barthes, in particular, demonstrated the way in which the mass media disseminated ideological views based on its ability to make signs, images and signifiers work in a particular way, conveying deeper, mythical meanings within popular culture than the surface images immediately suggest (e.g. the Union jack signifies the nation, the crown, the empire, "Britishness", etc).
In the 1970s, Structuralism came under increasing internal fire from critics who accused it of being too rigid and ahistorical, and for favouring deterministic structural forces over the ability of individual people to act, and schools like Deconstructionism and Post-Structuralism attempted to distinguish themselves from the simple use of the structural method and to break with structuralistic thought.
Some of the key assumptions underlying Post-Structuralism include:
1. The concept of "self" as a singular and coherent entity is a fictional construct, and an individual rather comprises conflicting tensions and knowledge claims (e.g. gender, class, profession, etc). The interpretation of meaning of a text is therefore dependent on a reader's own personal concept of self.
2. An author's intended meaning is secondary to the meaning that the reader perceives, and a literary text (or, indeed, any situation where a subject perceives a sign) has no single purpose, meaning or existence.
3. It is necessary to utilise a variety of perspectives to create a multi-faceted interpretation of a text, even if these interpretations conflict with one another.