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  The system of ideas now referred to as structuralism (from Latin struere, ‘to build’) was first advanced by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 - 1913). The first application of structuralist ideas was aimed at completely redefining the object of enquiry in linguistic science. In the 20th century, however, Saussure\'s theories have been applied not only in language studies, but in anthropology, sociology and throughout the arts.

Linguistics in the 19th century was essentially historical, or diachronic, in orientation, with demonstrations of how certain aspects of language changed over time (see comparative-historical linguistics). However, Saussure suggested that the history of a language is entirely irrelevant to the speakers of that language. The linguist, too, has the option to ignore what has gone before and adopt a synchronic approach, which concentrates on the language system as it exists at a particular point in time.

In a synchronic approach, individual linguistic elements cannot be defined in isolation, but can only find their meaning in relation to other elements within the system (or structure). For example, the meaning of ‘blue’ can only be derived by contrasting it with other members of the system. Thus a blue object can be defined as one which is not red, not brown, not purple and so on. In Japanese, the term blue is conventionally translated as aoi, but we cannot assume equivalence of meaning. In fact, Japanese speakers also use aoi to refer to objects which would be described as green in English. So clearly, the term aoi occupies a different range of meaning in the colour system to that occupied by blue, and the meaning of each term derives from the contrasts with other members in their respective systems.

Saussure described the linguistic sign as the fusion of a ‘signified’, or concept, together with a ‘signifier’, or word, which is the physical manifestation of a sign. Saussure argued that there is no compelling reason why the sequence of sounds in the word blue should necessarily stand for the concept which it represents. This lack of any inherent relationship between ‘signified’ and ‘signifier’ reveals the fundamentally arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign. The language system as a whole is considered to be an abstract phenomenon: one cannot, after all, touch or see a language. The words we hear or read on the page are examples of what Saussure called parole, that is, the concrete deployment of the system on a particular occasion of use.

The brand of European structuralism advocated by Saussure emphasizes paradigmatic relations, in particular. That is, the focus is on elements which can substitute for one another in the same slot, or linguistic paradigm. In linguistic studies in the US, however, the 20th century has witnessed a heavier emphasis on syntagmatic relations, that is, the way linguistic elements combine into longer constructions (sentences). The concern with syntactic structures, independent of the meanings they convey, was spearheaded by Leonard Bloomfield, and is also, on occasion, described as structuralism. In a superficial sense, almost all 20th-century linguistics has been structural in nature, but there is clearly a distinction to be made between European and American versions of structuralism. Saussure\'s ideas often seem perfectly obvious and straightforward to a latter-day audience, yet the revolutionary importance of turning the attention of linguists towards the systematic aspects of language should not be underestimated.

As a theory in anthropology, structuralism is primarily associated with the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss since the late 1950s. It describes theories attempting to explain what characterizes us all as human beings living in society. As language is one of the key elements separating us from animals, linguistic theories were adopted as tools to get to the bottom of cultural systems and the structures of the human mind.

Lévi-Strauss\'s view was that all humans had a tendency to order and classify, in the same fundamental manner, whatever phenomena they perceived. He relied upon computer logic and the linguistic model of ‘binary oppositions’ that operated by ordering two elements into a relationship of opposition or contrast like raw/cooked, male/female and nature/culture. From his earlier work on kinship and marriage systems, to his later work on myth and symbolism, he attempted to systematize cultural phenomena according to such ‘binary oppositions’. Cultural elements such as myths were not considered on their own, but treated with others as part of a total system built up from these basic contrasts.

Lévi-Strauss had enormous influence on other anthropologists, each of whom interpreted and contributed to the body of structuralism in his or her own manner. Edmund Leach considered how language terms and social mores acted to construct conceptually distinct compartments in a field that is otherwise continuous. (For instance, the English language discriminates between seven colours in the light spectrum. These are not real as such but artefacts of human thought imposed on external reality.) Mary Douglas concentrated on Jewish rules of food prohibition as mentioned in the Old Testament for her work Purity and Danger (1966). She concluded that those animals not falling into the set classification system were considered polluting and not eaten. Lord Chesterfield\'s saying ‘Dirt is matter out of place’ was borrowed to illustrate how it is that something not fitting into category systems is considered polluting rather than it being dirty in itself. Using a familiar example, she remarked how shoes are not dirty in themselves but are considered so when placed on the dining table.

Criticisms of structuralism in anthropology centre on its essentially static nature, which make it inadequate in explaining historical changes and the disregard for the active role of the individual in creating cultural patterns. Others have challenged its ambitions to explain the universal operations of the human mind through the analysis of social and cultural phenomena. They question why structuralism has not been satisfactorily applied to the fields of politics and economics. Instead, later anthropologists have tended to critically adapt and incorporate elements of structuralism into their approaches without entirely subsuming their methodologies to it.

In sociology, scholars use the term ‘structuralism’ in two ways. At the general, it refers to a perspective based on the concept of social structure and the view that society exists prior to its individual members. In a more specific sense, it refers to a distinctive style within sociology concerned with the identification of underlying structures in social or cultural systems. Structuralism also refers to any assumption that social analysis should be concerned with the exploration beneath surface appearances in order to discover the deeper structures which are believed to determine social relationships. Certain Marxist sociologists (such as Althusser) adopted a structuralist framework in seeking to explain social phenomena by reference to the underlying structures of the type of production in a given society. These contemporary structuralist positions in sociology have been criticized for being ahistorical, impossible to verify, and dismissive of human creative activity.

The importance of structuralism for the arts is that it cuts through much Romantic rambling on the ineffable qualities of genius, leaving the artist as the animator, not of new thoughts and images, but in the words of Roland Barthes of the ‘already written’. But this is not to remove all volition. The study of painting and sculpture in particular is the study of a ‘poetic’ sign system which self-consciously separates itself from other outwardly similar sign systems, such as traffic signals or road maps. The study of structuralism has advanced art history towards the ‘science’ of signs, but has by no means ended the debate surrounding the origins and nature of art.

In literature, structuralists use techniques such as deconstruction to examine not the meaning of a piece of writing—anything from a bus ticket to a creation myth—but the structures which produce meaning. It is concerned above all with the mechanisms (often subconscious) by which meaning is put into a piece of writing meant as communication, and with the mechanisms (not necessarily the same ones) by which that meaning is actually communicated.

Post-structuralism takes the critical analysis back to each specific text, and examines the way the specificity of that text collaborates with or resists the structures which produce meaning, in order to achieve the specific communication it exists to make. DA PD MG RK KMcL MS

See also exchange; Marxism; Marxist anthropology; social realism; society; structure; structure-agency debate.Further reading Ferdinand de Saussure,Course in General Linguistics; , E. Kurzweil, The Age of Structuralism: Lévi-Strauss to Foucault; , Edmund Leach, Culture and Communication; Lévi-Strauss; , D. Robey, Structuralism, an Introduction.



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