What is structuralism and its main features?

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

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When using structuralism to analyze a text, what you are doing is looking at the text's basic structure. Structuralism argues that what we experience through human life can only be made "intelligible," or understandable, through the ways in which these experiences relate to each other. More specifically, the ways in which these experiences relate make up a structure, a structure guided by "laws of abstract culture" ("Structuralism"). When applied to literature, structuralism argues that every text has its own structure and that the text can be understood through perceiving the structure. For example, through structural criticism, a student might judge that the "authors of West Side Story did not write anything 'really' new, because their work has the exact same structure as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet," such as a boy and girl story and the fact that both the boy and the girl belong to two different opposing groups ("Structuralism").

Hence, structuralism analyzes literature in a way that enables a critic to look at all the different parts that make up the story, especially the parts that are consistent with stories as a whole, such as characterization, conflict, and resolution ("Structuralism and Semiotics"). When analyzing literature based on structuralism, as authors Allen Brizee and J. Tompkins point out in the article "Structuralism and Semiotics," you are generally asking these types of questions:

  • What is the text's genre?
  • What are the patterns of the text that make it fit in with a specific genre?
  • What's the relationship between the text and culture?
  • What patterns in the text are also patterns present in culture?
  • Can we also connect the patterns in the text related to the text's specific culture to other cultures to show how the text relates to the greater "'human' experience"?

Structuralism's basic characteristics are a holistic interpretation of the text, a focus on the underlying patterns or systems that cause changes in actions, a look at the structure beneath the world that can be seen, and an acknowledgement that societies create structures that repress actions ("General Characteristics of Structuralism"). As can be also be seen in the University of Central Florida's article "General Characteristics of Structuralism," other characteristics of structuralism concern meanings of words and languages:

  • Words have no inherent meaning. For example, the word "table" only means something "in relation to other words."
  • Meaning of words is not independent of language structure, such as grammar.
  • The "historical development" of a social structure, like the fashion world is not important; what's important is the pattern that emerges surrounding social structures, meaning how many times a certain social structure is referred to.
  • Since the meaning of words is arbitrary, nothing dictates that one word must be used over another. For example, nothing dictates that we must use the word "table" over another; therefore, the pattern that can be seen from the use of table can shed light on meaning.
  • While words have no inherent meaning, they also can't be used arbitrarily; therefore, looking at patterns of word usage can also shed light on meaning.
  • While words have no inherent meaning, words also have different meanings from other words. For example, the word "table" means something different from the word "coffee."
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