What is Structuralism definition key approaches ideas authors

Structuralism is a theoretical movement that began in France in the mid-1960s, especially in the area of ​​the humanities and social sciences. The works grouped under the name of “Structuralism” are characterized by the fact that language has a fundamental role in the development of human activity and its functions.

This movement had important repercussions at a theoretical and practical level in disciplines such as linguistics, sociology, anthropology and philosophy. Next, we will review the main ideas of structuralism and how it impacted the social sciences.

What is structuralism?

Structuralism is a theoretical and methodological approach that claims that in every sociocultural system there are a series of structures (forms of organization) that condition or determine everything that occurs within that system.

Thus, what structuralism specifically studies are these structures, however, from this, it becomes inevitable to analyze the connection between them, that is, how they shape different sociocultural systems and human activities .

language as structure

While structuralism is a movement that has a more or less specific history, the term “structuralist” can be applied to any analysis that emphasizes the underlying structures of a phenomenon and their relationships. That is, any school of social sciences whose priority is order rather than action can be considered structuralist (Theodore 2018).

Ideas and Key approaches of Structuralism

Although many of his contributions are quite complex, we can summarize three ideas that help us understand some key approaches to structuralism applied in the social sciences.

1. Every system is composed of structures

A structure is a way of organizing the parts of a whole, including all their relationships. For structuralism, these forms of organization (structures) are what produces meaning in human, social and cultural activity ; so its properties are fundamentally linguistic.

In other words, structures are the set of symbols through which we create meaning. They are the set of signifiers with which we interpret the world and relate to it.

Therefore, for structuralism, all reality has a symbolic nature, that is, it is determined by language understood as an “order of the symbolic” . He argues that the different cultures, behaviors, myths and linguistic schemes that characterize them reveal patterns common to human life.

2. This structure determines the position that each element occupies

From the previous point, the idea is derived that all human activity, as well as its functions (including cognition, behavior and culture) are constructions, as they are mediated by symbols . That is, they are not natural elements, and what is more: they have no meaning in themselves, but only make sense within the language system in which they are found.

That is, instead of speaking a language, it is the language that speaks to us (determines how we will understand and act in the world). Therefore, structuralism is important related to semiotics (the study of signs, symbols, communication and meaning making).

3. Structures are what’s under the apparent

If we understand structures through social science research, we will also understand why or how a particular human and sociocultural activity occurs.

In other words, structuralism as an interpretive method tries to pay attention to the internal structures of cultural elements , or rather, it tries to understand the structures that delimit or make possible the existence of these elements.

Society and culture are not simply a set of physical elements, nor are they events with their own meaning, but elements that acquire meaning.

Therefore, it is the process of meaning acquisition that we must understand when doing research in the social sciences. Thus, structuralism marks an important methodological distinction between natural sciences and human and social sciences .

The latter has even advanced in the sense of understanding individual experience. Therefore, structuralism was also positioned as a reaction to phenomenology, since it considers that deep experiences are nothing more than an effect of structures that, in themselves, are not experiential.

Some key authors

One of the most important antecedents for the development of structuralism is Ferdinand de Saussure, father of semiotics , since, as we have seen, structuralism occupies a large part of its postulates to understand human activity.

However, the work of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, psychologist Jean Piaget, philosopher Noam Chomsky, linguist Roman Jakobson, Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, literary Roland Barthes, among others, are considered recent pioneers of structuralism.

More recently, and on a fine line between structuralism and post-structuralism, and even after denying their connection to these movements, the philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida , as well as the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, stand out.

Reductionist bias and other criticisms

Structuralism has been criticized because, in considering the structures that determine human life, it often neglects autonomy and the possibility of individual agency. That is, it can fall into reductionist and deterministic positions on human activity or experience.

Related to the above, the Argentinian epistemologist Mario Bunge states that structures are themselves sets of relationships , they do not exist without them and, therefore, cannot be studied as elements in themselves.

Being properties of objects, structures always belong to a system and cannot be studied separately from that system or from the individual, as an entity with its own existence.

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