Basic Concepts of Structuralism and Its Application in Different Disciplines

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Historical Background:

Structuralism is an intellectual literary movement which was commenced in France in the 1950s. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was the first intellectual who applied this intellectual movement in his works and the literary critic Roland Barthes put forward this movement by applying it in his works. However, its origin is in the works of Ferdinand de Saussure in his development of the structural linguistics. It was extending from linguistics to other disciplines as well and the concepts of structuralism achieved widespread influence throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

It is so difficult to describe structuralism in a single definition or proposition. However, it can be said that the essence of structuralism is the belief that nothing can be understood in isolation and everything must be seen in the context of the larger structure(s) it is a part of. This looking for a bigger structure of everything we see is called structuralism.

Structuralism is like a lens which sees any phenomena about the world mostly in two contrasting elementary structure of binary opposition (a pair of opposite concepts).

Applications of Structuralism in Different Fields:

Some fields of knowledge and science applied structuralism in their respective analysis and discussion of the topics. The fields are linguistics, anthropology, sociology, architecture, psychology, and literature.

The most famous thinkers who put forward structuralism in their respective fields include:

  • Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure
  • Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss
  • Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan
  • Psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung
  • Philosopher and historian Michel Foucault
  • Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser
  • Literary critic Roland Barthes
  • Literary critic Northrop Frye

Structuralism in Linguistics: 

Structural linguistics was developed by Ferdinand de Saussure between 1913 and 1915, although his work wasn’t translated into English and popularized until the late 1950s. The linguistics analysis of signs focuses on the relationship between words (Signifier) and the things in the world that they refer to (Signified). Structural linguistics includes paradigm, syntagm, and value and it examines how the elements of language relate to each other.

Structuralism in Anthropology

Structural anthropology, developed by Claude Levi-Strauss in the late 1950s, identifies the underlying common traits and the structures that connect everything and everyone disregarding the differences among the outlooks of the cultures to which all human beings belong. Although different cultures have different rituals and customs, they express some important aspects of social life and it can be inferred that all the cultures constituted by the humans have some codified processes of, for example, marriage, family bonding, and celebration of adulthood. 

Structuralism in Psychology:

Structuralism has an objective to analyze the structure of the mind according to the mental experience. Jacques Lacan explained the id-ego-superego theory of Freud through the lens of structuralism.    

Lacan’s theory concentrated on three things:

  • The distinctive aspects of the consciousness
  • How these aspects are structured into more complex experiences
  • In which manner these mental phenomena associated with physical events.

Structuralism in Literary Criticism:

For students of literature, structuralism has very important implications. After all, literature is a verbal art: it is composed of language. So its relation to the master structure, language, is very direct. In addition, structuralists believe that the structuring mechanisms of the human mind are the means by which we make sense out of chaos, and literature is a fundamental means by which human beings explain the world to themselves, that is, make sense out of chaos. So there seems to be a rather powerful parallel between literature as a field of study and structuralism as a method of analysis.

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