Structuralism Concept in Philosophy


Identifying the Main Theorists in the Field

While analyzing the theory, it is imperative to highlight the difference between structuralism tendencies presented in American and the ones developed in Europe. The latter is associated with the study of structural linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure who focuses more on synchronic linguistics. The theorist was among the first who managed to apply structuralism to other disciplines. Significant contribution has been made to the study of semiotics, a science of signs. More importantly, Saussure was a core figure in developing modern methods studying language. Particular reference was made to historical dimensions of language, as well to how “meanings are maintained and established” (Barry 41).

Another notable theorist who has introduced researches on structuralism was Claude Levi-Straus. His studies were predominantly focused on the analysis of anthropology and sociology. In particular, structural approaches contributed to reproducing system of signs through cultural practices, including customs, religious rites, different types of texts, and many other culture-related activities.

Judging from the above position, the theory of structuralism has greatly contributing to the study of many social, cultural, and linguistic theories and disciplines. Therefore, it is purposeful to consider the tools and the main way of thinking as presented by Ferdinand de Saussure and Claude Levi-Straus.

Defining Structuralism as a Theory and a Cultural Tool

The concept of structuralism centers on the concept of outside influences on human perception of the world. From social point of view, the supporters of structuralism believe that the individuals are always guided by generally accepted social and cultural norms rather than by personal outlooks (Kumral 481). Within a linguistic perspective, structuralism explores social and collective aspects of language and focuses on its grammar rather than its actual application (Booker 20).

Barry also agrees that structuralism explores the structures that are “imposed by our way of perceiving the world and organizing experience, rather than objective entities already existing in the external world” (39). As a result, individuals are considered as subjects because they are created by existing structures. They are decentralized constructs that are involved into a particular social and cultural system.

Structuralism as a Base for Semiotics

A structural approach is heavily applied to semiotics, a field that deals with sign systems, conventions, and codes. A system of signs, therefore, includes different aspects of linguistics ranging from human language to the vocabulary used in the sphere of fashion. Because semiotics is premised on social constructs, it is closely connected to the concepts applied in structuralism (Booker 20). It has been previously mentioned, the fundamental concept of the science is sign. In this respect, semiotic theorists consider humans a subjects making and interpreting signs.

Importantly, because structuralism is highly associated with cultural concepts and dimensions, semiotics is also involved into the analysis of cultural patterns in language structures. In this respect, structuralism can be seen as a modern way of thinking that focuses on recurring patterns of though and behavior through analyzing elements of any system in terms of a highly abstract relational structure.

Outlooks on Structuralism as Presented by Saussure and Levi-Strauss

Linguistic model of Saussure

Signs and the Arbitrary Relationship between Signifier and Signified

Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structuralism and linguistic, has presented an alternative outlook on analyzing languages as systems of signs. In this respect, the linguistics also introduced semiotics as a science of signs. His intellectual contribution to the development of linguistics has affected other scientists working in the sphere. According to Saussure, different languages originate from one language, which allows to conclude that language is based purely on the principle of signs and symbols (Booker 957).

Because of a variety of languages, the only means to identify the relationship between those is to define the natural (arbitrary) similarities. Saussure believes that all human languages have one purpose – to describe the external world. Saussure also suggests that the sign is the atom of language divided into the following parts: a signifier and a signified. A signifier is a sound concept whereas a signified is the concept that endows an object with a meaning.

The relations between those are arbitrary, or predetermined by natural resemblance. In other words, arbitrary relationships means that a person make use of generally accepted language meanings to describe a specific phenomenon. However, the language signs are not subject to an individual choice, but to a generally accepted convention (Booker 958).

Arbitrary connections can be brightly exemplified on the example the relationships between objects and their names. For instance, the word ‘table’ is not correlated with its actual meaning because there is no logical connection between a word (a signifier) and what it actually designates.

However, the exceptions can be connected with onomatopoeic words, but even these ones differ from language to language and are based on conventions (Barry 42). In addition, Saussure also supported the idea of differences and oppositions, which was later discussed by Levi-Strauss. Hence, the scientist believed that language was nothing but a set of differences and oppositions deprived of fixed terms (Booker, 958).

Viewing the language from the point of a signifier and signified, Saussure also refers to the concepts of the langue and the parole, which will later be used by other structuralism, including Claude Levi-Straus who applied this principle to studying texts within cultural contexts.

Synchronic and Diachronic: The Study of a Language System

According to Saussure, language belongs to a larger system of conventional signs in culture. In this respect, language can be regarded as a structured system of symbol and signs that should be studies in a particular cultural period, or synchronically, but in a phenomenon changing over time (a diachronic approach) (Booker 958).

In this respect, there are two types of a language analysis: synchronic and diachronic. The former refers to the static evaluation of a text. In other words, the text is regarded as a set of interrelated concepts and established relations between those. It also analyzes how one concept is influenced by other. The second type is associated with the evolutional approach to a text study. It implies that the text is assessed through the prism of historic or cultural periods.

Reviewing diachronic and synchronic representations within a broader meaning of structuralism, it should be stressed that each objects or phenomena can also be interpreted within a specific time extract, or with regard to the temporary shifts. In such manner, it is possible to identify the way cultural and social conventions change in the course of time.

Structuralism in Anthropology: Anthropological Model of Levi-Straus

Claude Levi-Strauss was a notable anthropologist who made a significant contribution to the development of sociology and linguistics. From structural perspectives, the scholar believes that meaning is produced within a cultural context by means of various activities, practices and phenomena, being the main underpinnings of systems of signs.

The scholar’s belief is that events and phenomena of social anthropology are composed of communication, but not of functions (Booker 1415). While explaining the concept of gift, for instance, he suggests that “gift giving in general and wife trafficking in particular are above all modes of communication” (Booker 1416). Interpreting this, gifts can be considered words used for communication with each other.

While analyzing the individual tale (the so-called parole), Levi-Straus states that it does not have a complete meaning when it is separated from the entire cycle. It can be interpreted and analyzed only when it is presented in the context of the whole cycle, or the langue. At this point, the individual tales posited in larger contexts can be considered through the prism of differences and similarities.

For instance, the anthropologist placed a separate story about the Oedipus myth through a larger context of tales about the city of Thebes. Applying to a structural method, concrete motifs and details from the story are viewed in the light of larger structures. The dual oppositions can be presented in symbolic, archetypal, and thematic terms.

Doing a Structuralist Analysis: A Practical Application

Considering that a shift in one understanding one concept or elements generates shifts to other systems is involved into the main principle of a structuralist analysis. Using language a structural framework, allows the linguist to understand the meaning with regard to eternal cultural and social influences. Hence, while analyzing texts, the emphasis is primarily faced on the analysis of structures, rather than on their content, which contributes to preserving objectivity in the course of analysis.

Looking through the prism of a signifier and signified, let us consider the meanings of a word “table”, which, according to the dictionary, has several meanings (signified objects):

  1. a piece of furniture;
  2. figures and facts displayed in columns;
  3. type of geometrical figure.

Different signified notions are aligned to one signifier, but all of them are premised on the oppositions existing as conventions. However, these meanings cannot be recognized unless they are posited in context.

Comparing Structuralism Theory to Other Theories

Theory before Structuralism: Marxism

Because structuralism is closely associated with cultural and social contexts, Marxist theory can also be seen in the light of cultural concepts. Regarding this, many similarities occur between two theoretical frameworks. Similar to structuralism, Marxist theorists also support the idea that society should be viewed as structure that always undergoes change.

In particular, the Marxian interpretation of social and cultural contexts is premised in splitting the system into two parts: the base, a system in which the core is the mode of production and the superstructure that includes cultural and moral systems, social relations, and other institutions. Hence, the idea is that cultural and social systems are shaped on the basis of existing historical conditions. However, the base is not sufficient for determining all cultural and social institutions because it would mean that all communities are identical.

Both structuralism and Marxism decentralize the role of individuals in shaping cultural arrangements, including traditions and customs. However, the difference is that structuralism considers the external natural world as the one influencing human perception and shaping society in general whereas Marxists support the idea that modes of production, as well as class struggles, are at the core of cultural formation. Hence, both structuralism and Marxism do not recognize society as a group of individuals, but a set of intersections and relations in which the individuals are involved.

A distinctive feature of considering objects and concept as represented by structuralism and Marxism lies in diachronic and synchronic representation of cultural phenomenon. In particular, Saussure suggests that language, as well as cultural concepts should be studied within a certain period of time (synchronically) whereas Marxists view social and cultural progress through changes and transformations (diachronically) (Berger 42). In addition, class struggles define the character for development, similar to differences and oppositions define objects within larger concepts, as presented by structuralism.

While applying Marxism to interpreting texts, much emphasis should be placed on the development of consumer culture and strict communist ideology. In this respect, Marxist approach to interpreting meaning contrasts the structuralism approach. This is of particular concern to symbolic representations of texts.

Theory after Structuralism: Psychoanalytic Analysis

Similar to structuralism, the theory of psychoanalysis has also contributed to the study of sociology and linguistics, but the studies are focused on the notions contrasting to understanding individuals through contexts. In particular, a person-oriented approach opposes a decentralized dimension of structuralism. Hence, the language is viewed as detached from the natural world (or pure conventions, as presented by structuralists) (Barry 43).

Accepting this position implies that a text should not represent the real world. Such an assumption is congruent with Saussure’s definition of language as a set of arbitrary relations that does not depend on realitu, but on the structural differences within a language. The difference, however, lies in the fact that texts are closely associated with the concept of the self, which is withdrawn by structuralism.

While investigating the realms of languages, a French psychoanalytic Jacque Lacan draws parallels between personal development and literary theories (Barry 110). At this point, the scholar singles out several stages of the self: the Imagery and the Symbolic. The first stage is associated with idealized representation of the world. Lacan compares this stage is extensively used to characterized poetry as a literary genre.

Hence, the Imagery represents an anti-realist outlook on the worlds, similar to poetry aimed at idealizing the world through language of gestures that are beyond grammar and logic. The Symbolic is more consistent the realistic representation of the world, which is congruent with prose. Hence, the opposition between the Imaginary and the Symbolic is seen as the opposition between poetry and prose. Similar to personal development interacting with the Imaginary and the Symbolic, the literary genres also combine realistic and anti-realistic tendencies.


Structuralism discusses the individuals through their relations with the outside conventions. A decentralization of outlooks on personal development is determined by the existence of purely conventional terms. Looking at the language through the prism of structuralism allows use to regard it as set of differences and relations deprived of fix terms. Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structuralism, also considers language as a sign system when there words are composed on signifying and signified concepts.

These meaning can be interpreted within a larger context, which also relates to Saussure’s model of the parole and the langue. The latter was used by another supporter of structuralism Claude Levi-Straus. Hence, the presented views on social constructions and literary theories supports the idea that structuralism is a powerful cultural tool contributing to understanding the recurring patterns of thought and behavior. These patterns, however, significantly differ from Marxist theory and Psychoanalysis. Nowadays, structuralism is represented through mass cultures that establishes the norms of society.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. UK: Manchester University Press. 2002. Print.

Berger, Arthurs Asa. Cultural Criticism: A Primer of Key Concepts. US: SAGE, 1995. Print.

Booker, Keith. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. US: W.W. Norton & Co. 2001. Print.

Kumral, Necat. “Semiotics and Language Learning: Speech as a Sociolinguistic Phenomenon.” Ekev Academic Review 13.41 (2009): 481-494. Print.

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