What is the basic concept of structuralism?

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amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Structuralism is a method used by sociologists, anthropologists, literary theorists, and linguists. They employ this method to show how all aspects of culture are based upon some underlying structure. This underlying structure or structures are formed by interrelations. 

The origins of structuralism are linked to the work of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. He separated language into "parole" (actual uses of words and language in speech and writing) and "langue" (the abstract structure of language). Words do not get their meanings from themselves. The word "bear" signifies the idea of a bear and/or the actual bear in the world. But the Latin word "ursa" also means bear. There is no essential link between a word "bear" and the idea bear. Rather, the meaning comes from the abstract structure in which the concept of bear interrelates with other concepts. We know what a bear is by showing its relationships within an abstract structure. This is just a technical way of saying how we define what a bear is. A bear is a mammal who feeds on fish and berries, lives outdoors, etc. The meaning of the bear derives from his similarities, differences, and relations to all of these other things: fish, berries, outdoors, etc. 

Psychoanalysts use structuralism to discover the underlying structures of consciousness. In other words, they believe that the behaviors we exhibit arise from some underlying structure. With Freud, it was the division of consciousness into the Id, Ego, and Superego. With Lacan, it was the structural divisions of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary. 

Some Marxist theorists suggest that culture and ideology emerge from the economic conditions of life. Our ideas and the ways we think about the world are therefore based upon the way our economic lives (jobs, businesses, products) are structured. 

Anthropologists and sociologists also look for the underlying structures of human life. Claude Levi-Strauss was one of the most famous structural anthropologists. He argued that certain rituals, habits, and behaviors were based upon the familial roles and interactions of a culture. These underlying structures of family and kinship inform how the people interact locally and how they interact with other tribes, nations, etc. Consider how marriage rules, incest taboos, and name changes structure the way men and women interact. 

The basic idea behind structuralism is that individual and collective behaviors emerge from some underlying structure. With Saussure and the linguists, the structure is an abstract system of interrelated concepts. With the Marxists and anthropologists, the structures are daily, physical interactions and rules and codes, respectively. 

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