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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N055-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

The term ‘structuralism’ can be applied to any analysis that emphasizes structures and relations, but it usually designates a twentieth-century European (especially French) school of thought that applies the methods of structural linguistics to the study of social and cultural phenomena. Starting from the insight that social and cultural phenomena are not physical objects and events but objects and events with meaning, and that their signification must therefore be a focus of analysis, structuralists reject causal analysis and any attempt to explain social and cultural phenomena one-by-one. Rather, they focus on the internal structure of cultural objects and, more importantly, the underlying structures that make them possible. To investigate neckties, for instance, structuralism would attempt to reconstruct (1) the internal structure of neckties (the oppositions – wide/narrow, loud/subdued – that enable different sorts of neckties to bear different meanings for members of a culture) and (2) the underlying ‘vestimentary’ structures or system of a given culture (how do neckties relate to other items of clothing and the wearing of neckties to other socially-coded actions).

Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of structural linguistics, insists that to study language, analysts must describe a linguistic system, which consists of structures, not substance. The physical sound of a word or sign is irrelevant to its linguistic function: what counts are the relations, the contrasts, that differentiate signs. Thus in Morse code a beginner’s dot may be longer than an expert’s dash: the structural relation, the distinction, between dot and dash is what matters.

For structuralism, the crucial point is that the object of analysis is not the corpus of utterances linguists might collect, that which Saussure identifies as parole (speech), but the underlying system (la langue), a set of formal elements defined in relation to each other and which can be variously combined to form sentences. Arguing that the analysis of systems of relation is the appropriate way to study human phenomena, that our world consists not of things but of relations, structuralists often claim to provide a new paradigm for the human sciences. In France, structuralism displaced existentialism in the 1960s as a public philosophical movement. Philosophically, proponents of structuralism have been concerned to distinguish it from phenomenology.

Citing this article:
Culler, Jonathan. Structuralism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N055-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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