Language and Linguistics

Structuralism definition Characteristics and foundations


Structuralism is a philosophical movement that emerged around 1920 in Europe, which aims to understand the structures through which meanings are produced in culture. For that, it is based on the scientific theories and methods of various social sciences, such as anthropology, sociology, or psychology.  In this post we will discuss about the definition of structuralism.

Structuralism describes and analyzes a variety of objects of study, such as culture, economics, language, literature, politics, among others. The analysis assumes that the various research objects may contain hidden or underlying structures that are interrelated and that have significance because they are part of the same system.

The formal beginning of structuralism arose with the work of the Swiss Ferdinand de Saussure Course in General Linguistics, published in 1916 by his students as a compilation of the contributions of the linguist during his years as a teacher.

The linguistic regarded language as a system of signs and significance that related to arbitrary and unnatural ways, but that could be understood by a group of people who shared certain conventions or standards.

For Saussure, the elements of language were understandable only in relation to each other and to the system that contained them. The language went beyond communication because it influenced the individual and his role in society.

Saussure’s linguistics sought to analyze the systematic and constant relationships that existed in human behavior, both individual and collective, that gave rise to the structures of a meaning system.

The structuralist movement as such was formalized after the contributions of multiple disciplines and thinkers, such as anthropology with Claude Lévi-Strauss, Freudian psychoanalysis with Jacques Lacan, semiotics with Roland Barthes, epistemology with Michel Foucault, and Marxist philosophy with Louis Althusser.

Origin of structuralism

The starting point of the structuralist methodology is established in the Course in General Linguistics . Work by Ferdinand de Saussure in which he developed the distinction between linguistic symbols, that is, language and speech. Thus, the communicative act was divided into these two components, which could be analyzed separately but had to be unequivocally united. Language makes sense since those who write and speak it understand the meaning that has been given to each of its elements. It is an artificial creation that serves for a certain community to communicate. 

Characteristics of structuralism

The structuralist movement is characterized by:

  1. The existence of a structure beyond the individual.
  2. The structure that predominates over the individual.
  3. The structure that conditions and forms the individual.
  4. Recognition of one’s own structure.
  5. The structure that obeys its own rules and laws.
  6. The behavior of human beings is conditioned by the structures present in each society or culture.
  7. It is the human being who gives meaning to the facts, actions and customs that they experience.
  8. The structures must be identified, separated and analyzed.
  9. It emerged as a linguistic tool in the 1920s, but in the mid-20th century it became a method for studying the social sciences.

Some examples of these types of structures are:

  • The languageAnalyzed by Ferdinand de Saussure from linguistics.
  • The unconscious. Analyzed by Jacques Lacan from psychoanalysis.
  • SocietyAnalyzed by Claude Lévi-Strauss from anthropology.
  • The economyAnalyzed by Louis Althusser from the Marxist philosophy.
  • KnowledgeAnalyzed by Michel Foucault from epistemology and its relationship with power.

The foundations of structuralism

Structuralism turned out to be a kind of awakened consciousness that made it possible to understand and analyze the knowledge adopted unconsciously, under the customs and codes that take place in a given culture and in which multiple study disciplines intervene.

The current can be analyzed from three main bases:

  • Linguistic structuralismBased on the theories of Saussure, considered the founder of linguistics. Linguistics is the discipline whose object of study is language, a system of signs that is found in the minds of several individuals and, therefore, it is considered social and homogeneous. Instead, speech is an individual and heterogeneous action that interacts with language.
    Saussure held that words were symbols that gave meaning in reference to other words but not to the nature of reality. The phonetics of a word or its acoustic image, what he called significantly, was arbitrarily related to the concept it represented, or what he called meaning. People manage to understand each other when speaking because the relationship between signifier and signified is based on social conventions or structures, that is, because they share the same codes.
  • Anthropological structuralismBased on the theories of Lévi-Strauss, who was a pioneer in considering anthropology from structuralism to analyze the human being and his life in society. In other words, he managed to distance anthropology from the concept of history to achieve a more complex analysis.
    Structuralism applied to anthropology made it possible to detect the underlying structure, or that remained hidden, and the various relationships between the underlying elements of that structure, such as systems of ideas, kinship, or myths, to which individuals ended up subordinate.
  • Marxist structuralismBased on the theories of Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, and Maurice Godelier, the main contributors to structural Marxism, who tried to establish that it was not Saussure who was the founder of structuralism, but Karl Marx.
    Marx determined that structure should not be confused with visible relationships and explained hidden logic, which established the foundations of structuralism. This resulted in a common point between the different thinkers of structuralism, be they linguists, anthropologists or Marxists: all considered the existence of a hidden or underlying structure in the object of study of each discipline.


Post-structuralism emerged from the 1960s as a critique of structuralist thinking of the individual considered a subject to a structure (such as language, society, or the economy) to understand it as a liberated individual. He proposed a new way of analyzing the social sciences.

The starting point was the 1966 speech of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida on the semiotic analysis of deconstruction. Derrida questioned epistemological schemes that were based on dualisms such as man/woman or spirit/matter, which limited the apprehension of other points of view or that only considered a central and a peripheral concept.

Derrida questioned the stability and existence of thought structures, with the aim of reaching new approaches previously marginalized by the methodology itself. Post-structuralism broke with the dualistic concept of structuralism that considered, for example, nature and society as opposite or binary terms.

The main achievement of poststructuralism was to have rediscovered and expanded the analytical and radical possibilities, typical of Saussure‘s theory of language (taken as the most representative significant phenomenon). The main characteristics that defined poststructuralism were:

We hope you have fully grasped the definition of structuralism.

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