What is Structuralism?| Meaning & Key Theorists

The development of structuralism is a turning point in literary criticism and theory. It has given birth to many critical ideas and principles. The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is considered the founding father of the movement of structuralism who is also hailed as the father of modern linguistics. It is assumed that the movement of structuralism properly began in the 1950s in France with the writing of Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009) and Roland Barthes (1915-1980). Saussure gave lectures in general linguistics between 1907 and 1911 at the University of Geneva which later transformed into the foundation of structuralism. The theory of structuralism travelled to Britain in 1970s. Saussure’s thoughts on language or semiology (science of meaning) has given birth to many linguistic principles through them we can understand the development of structuralism. Saussure talks about three things in the study of language.
1. The nature of words are arbitrary—words do not have their own meaning but they get meaning in the system or by convention where they are places.
2. There is relational meaning among words—thus words do not possess meaning in isolation. Words possess meaning in relation with other words.
3. Language constructs the world—human mind attributes meanings to the word and through words we experience world, language constructs the reality.
This three pronouncements by Saussure caused a great fluctuation for the coming theorists; and the philosophy of structuralism set by these principles. In general, structuralism is a broader term applied to any field of human activity. In this regard, we have words of Margolis:
“Structuralism is a term embracing a family of theories that between them address all phenomena of the human world—notably language, literature, cookery, kinship, relations, dress, human self- perception. In all these domains structuralists claim, the observable, apparently separate elements are rightly understood only when seen as positions in a structure or system of relations.” (rep.routledge.com).
Structuralism is a wider term covering many areas of human life. It takes into consideration the larger structures to analyse the objects in study. For Saussure, language is the system of signs based on conventions. His concept of langue and parole is used by later theorists to build their arguments in linguistics or study of language. He makes difference between langue and parole as:
“A parole is any particular meaningful utterance, spoken or written. The langue is the implicit system of elements, of distinctions and oppositions, and of principles of combination, which make it possible, within a language community, for a speaker to produce and the auditor to understand a particular parole.” (Abrams, 153).
Language is a wider notion of a whole system of language transaction. We can take an example of any literary work to understand the difference between these two terms; say a novel, Wuthering Heights is an utterance, a parole; analysing it in a wider system of the genre of literature as novel can be an example of langue—a wider system. For that matter we can take any form or genre of literature. The knowledge of language i.e. grammar, structure, sound system, etc. comprises of a system of langue. Some important books on structuralism:
1. The Handbook of American Indian Languages (1911) by Franz Boas.
2. Cours de Linguistique Generale (1915) by Ferdinad de Saussure, published two years after his death.
3. Languages (1921) by Edward Sapir.
4. Language (1933) by Leonard Bloomfield.
5. Methods in Structural Linguistics (1951) by Zelling Harris.
6. Mythologies (1957) by Roland Barthes.
7. Structural Anthropology (1958) by Claude Levi-Strauss.
Claude Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist, used the principles of structuralism in interpretation of myths according to him, myths also do not have separate or individual meanings but they acquire meaning in a larger structure of other relational myths. An individual tale in mythology gets its meaning through the cycle of another tales. Here he cites an example of Oedipus myth as an individual tale. He considered other related tales concerning the city of Thebes for interpretation. He used contrasting pairs like human/ animal, relation/ stranger, husband/ son, husband/ wife, etc. according to him, the tale has meaning in relation to other relations. Placing these paroles into a larger structure of langue leads to derive meaning from the myth. This concept, further can be applied with binary opposition or what Saussure said the absence of the characteristic of other, e.g. what is ‘male’, the absence of ‘female’ characteristics or simply ‘male’ is ‘male’ because it is not ‘female’. It can be considered vice-versa. Let’s understand Barry’s words in this connection:
“Concrete details from the story (Oedipus) are seen in the context of larger structure, and the larger structure is then seen as an overall network of basic ‘dyadic pairs’ (opposing pairs) which have obvious symbolic, thematic, and archetypal resonance (like the contrast between art and life, male and female, town and country, telling and showing, etc., as in the ‘worked example’ later).” (45).
The general principal of structuralism is setting objects from particular to general. The particular work might be an author’s whole works or single work, or a piece in particular work (a poem, an essays or a few passages in a novel), etc. And general means again, establishing them into wider structures. Levi-Strauss must be given the credit of expanding the scope of structuralism to interpretation of myths.
The next leading significant figure in structuralism is Roland Barthes, who, like Levi-Strauss expanded it to general study of modern culture. He tried to analyse the culture of France in 1950s and recorded it in his book Mythologies published in 1957. He sought a wider canvas of different types of things for his study—e.g. boxing, wrestling, eating steak and chips, Citroen car, Greta Garbo’s face, a photo of a soldier, etc. Though these are not related, directly, to the literature, later he assessed literature based on the patterns of these structures, embodied with values, beliefs, symbols, motifs, etc. Barthes wrote a book S/Z (1970) where he analysed the story ‘Sarrasine’ written by Balzac. It a 30 pages story but Barthes wrote 200 pages of commentary in S/Z. In this book, he talks about five codes to analyse the story:
1. The Proairetic Code: in this code, we can stress out the beginning of an action.
2. The Hermeneutic Code: this code indicates certain questions or fills the narrative with suspense. E.g. ‘they went into and shut the door’. This situation calls for certain questions like who were they who went into and shut the door? What might have been they doing behind the door? The suspense and questions flood in reader’s mind.
3. The Cultural Code: it is based on common knowledge, generally out of the text. Pre-conceived ideas help to understand the objects described. Already readers know about the situation or characters.
4. The Semic Code: it is a connotative code concerned with theme. Characters are considered for analysis.
5. The Symbolic Code: it is based on binary oppositions and also leads to the theme. E.g. male-female, day-night, good-evil, life-art, etc.
We can analysis based on these codes, any literary work. There is an elaborate example of analysis of the story The Oval Portrait written by Edgar Allen Poe in the book Beginning Theory by Barry. In the same book (p. 48), Barry provides an account of ‘what structuralist critics do’ when they apply the approach of structuralism to any literary work:
1. These critics (structuralists) primarily analyse prose texts which has some larger structures like:
a. The conventions of particular literary genre, or
b. A network of intertextual connections, or
c. A projected model of an underlying universal narrative structure, or
d. A notion of narrative as a complex recurrent patterns or motifs.
2. The interpretation of literature is based on the linguistic structures described by Levi-Strauss, Barthes and Saussure.
3. For them, the coverage of structuralism is wider right from ancient Greek myths to modern brands like soap or fashion, etc. They use systematic pattering and structuring to combine the analogy and differences across cultures.
Thus the above points are important to understand the very base of structuralism. Now there a few concepts in structuralism or general linguistics which are crucial and help us to dissect the theory of structuralism:
1. Sign: it is an object in study. Saussure gave significance to sign but according to him, it does not contain direct meaning. It should be understood through the relationship with signifier and signified, another two concepts in structuralism. Sign includes a sound image of an object and physical object itself. E.g. the word ‘sheep’, now it includes the sound image i.e. utterance of the word ‘sheep’ and physical object ‘sheep’. Many theorists think sign as a sound image of an object or just a naming system.
2. Signifier: it is in the form of a sound, image or word, e.g. the word sheep, it sound or an image.
3. Signified: it is in the form of concept, a mental perception. It is the meaning of that particular object. E.g. what is sheep? The meaning of the word sheep (an animal, a mammal, pet, domesticated, etc.).
4. Parole: it is an utterance or written words. It is smaller compared to langue. It is an individualistic system. E.g. an author’s work or novel.
5. Langue: it is a wider system of language encompassing all the aspects of language, grammar, sound system, structure, etc. rules of language. Let’s consider above example of novel that setting a novel into a wider canvas of language system is the study of langue. Here let’s understand more definitely:
“Parole is actual action that we engage in when we speak. It is, essentially, speaking. Another way of saying it: langue is the universal system while parole is the pivotal agent that contributes to the expansion of the system.” (enotes.com).
This is all about structuralism and its key theorists, there are many other theorists who worked in this field but we have taken into consideration only the most basic exponents of structuralism—Saussure, Levi-Strauss and Barthes.

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