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Post-structuralism in the social sciences

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R018-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

Structuralism was a twentieth-century approach in various social scientific disciplines (the ‘human sciences’) that promised to put them on a solid scientific basis. The origin and model of structuralism was Saussure’s work in linguistics. Saussure’s approach was later adapted in anthropology (by Lévi-Strauss), in psychoanalysis (by Lacan), and in literary theory (by Barthes). The core of structuralism was the treatment of distinctively human domains as formal structures in which meanings were constituted not by conscious subjects but by relations among the elements of a formal system.

Post-structuralism comprises a variety of reactions to structuralism, primarily by philosophers such as Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, and Lyotard. The first stage of post-structuralist reflection on the social sciences, best represented by Foucault’s discussion at the end of The Order of Things, accepted the structuralist approach and drew from it the philosophical consequences for our understanding of the social sciences. A later stage (including Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Lyotard’s writings from the 1970s on) sought to transform our conception of the human sciences through a critique of structuralist presuppositions. In this later stage, post-structuralists continued to accept structuralism’s elimination of the conscious subject but maintained that human existence could not be adequately understood without taking account of non-structural causal factors such as power (Foucault) and desire (Lyotard). Foucault argued for the inextricable tie between our knowledge of society and society’s power structures. Lyotard maintained that Lacan’s structuralist version of psychoanalysis ignored the way that desire corresponds to a reality that escapes the boundaries of any formal structure. He also developed a political and ethical stance based on the fundamental value of a plurality of desires.

Citing this article:
Gutting, Gary. Post-structuralism in the social sciences, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R018-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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