What is structuralism?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The defining premise of structuralism is the belief that we ourselves and society around us construct our own meanings of human experiences, even thought processes; human experiences themselves have no inherent meaning.  Instead, meanings are constructed through sensations and feelings and only expressed through a language system. There are also patterns of human experiences, and we can better understand those experiences by breaking them down into constructions, or structures, from which we can recognize and analyze patterns. In addition, we can only analyze and understand those patterns using a language system.

As David H. Richter, author of The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, phrases it, all human activity is "expressed in language," and language is more than just written or oral communication; there are also activities that function as language symbols that communicate patterns of meaning. Among many of the examples Richter includes concerns the fact that "our economic life rests upon the exchange of labor and goods for symbols, such as cash, checks, stock, and certificates" (as cited in Purdue University, Online Writing Lab, "Structuralism and Semiotics (1920s-present)").

When using structuralism as a literary theory to analyze literature, we look at structural patterns within texts to see how those patterns create meaning. For example, we might examine a group of short stories from one culture to determine any patterns in characterization, plot development, or recurring motifs in order to better understand and classify the genre as a structural system. We can also use structuralism to analyze one literary work for any patterns within an already classified structural system.

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