Structuralism of Saussure, Barthes, and Levi Strauss


Structuralism is a mode of thinking which works to find the fundamental basic units or elements of which anything is made. A structuralist analysis of a pen, for instance, might look at how certain kinds of atoms combine in certain patterns according to certain rules to make the wood and graphite cylinder we write with.

Structuralism appears in a number of disciplines and fields i.e., anthropology, linguistics, mathematics, and literary and cultural criticism. In any field, a structuralist goes deep in finding the basic elements – the units – that make up any system, and in discovering the rules that govern how those units can be combined.

Elements of Structuralism

  • It privileges structures over logo centric meanings. They say that meaning is determined by the structure not something else.
  • Structuralism re-hierarchizes, setting up a new system as elaborate as that of Kant and Plato. The hierarchy is from top to bottom.
  • It takes in all areas of thought and study. It is interdisciplinary. It means it can be applied to any field of study. They find structures everywhere.

Structuralism of Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure (Swiss Linguist and Semiotician)

Born:  November 26, 1857, Geneva, Switzerland

Death: 22 February 1913,  Vufflens-le-Château, Switzerland

Major work: Course in General Linguistics

Structuralism developed as a theoretical framework in linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  De Saussure proposed that languages were constructed of hidden rules that practitioners knew but are unable to articulate.  In other words, though we may all speak the same language, we are not all able to fully articulate the grammatical rules that govern why we arrange words in the order we do.  However, we understand these rules, and we are aware when we correctly use these rules when we are able to successfully decode what another person is saying to us (Johnson 2007: 91). For example, a person who is illiterate can speak fluent Pushto or Urdu, although he is un aware of the basic and fundamental rules of the concerned language.

  • Logo centric would say that there exist a pre-determined idea and when we think of that idea the words come to mind. Saussure refutes it. No ready-made idea exists before words. A word does not unite a thing with a name; but a concept with a sound-image. He calls the concept the signified. He calls the sound image a signifier.
  • The signifier
  • The signified
  • When we call and object with branches, leaves, fruit, stem and roots with a name. so the name ‘ tree’ through which it is addressed is signifier by calling the signifier the object and its existence that comes to mind is called
  • He says there is no pre-determined idea and the relationship between the signifier and signified is arbitrary. What is arbitrary or arbitrariness? Arbitrariness is something upon which the majority is agreed and they understand. For example, in Pushto Language, we call a house ‘Kor’.  In reality there is no connection between the word ‘Kor’ and the object which it addresses, yet, all the Pushto speaking community understand it because there is an agreed arbitrariness over this word that whenever they would call a word Kor , the meaning would be boundaried structure where people live.  He say if that were not the case there would have been only one language in the world. He said everything is a man-made concept.
  • Each sing is a part of a greater system of signs. This system creates our ideas. This is called langue- the whole system of the language. He distinguishes Langue from Parole. A parole is a specific instance of speech or writing. Saussure is interested in Langue.
  • What is langue? Langue is the capacity of communication that everyone possesse.
  • What is parole? Parole is the action of speaking or writing at a particular time.
  • In simple words, langue is the ability to speak or write while parole is the exercising of that ability.
  • He says that each sign fits into a greater system and that system goes into vertical and horizontal directions. Vertical meaning is paradigmatic and synchronic. Paradigmatic means why one sign was chosen instead of another and synchronic means how the sign interacts with the existing structure. Horizontal meaning is syntagmatic and diachronic. Syntagmatic means how the sign functions in terms of grammar. Diachronic means the evolution through time of the system.
  • According to Saussure, society develops a system, it is not something from the heaven. The meanings are created by the system.

Structuralism of Ronald Barthes

Ronald Barthes ( French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician. )

Born: November 12, 1915, Cherbourg-Octeville, Cherbourg-en-Cotentin, France

Death: March 26, 1980, Paris, France

Full Name: Roland Gérard Barthes

  • Barthes views man as a structural being.
  • Barthes is concerned with the human process by which men give meaning to things.
  • Barthes is not interested in what things mean but how they mean.
  • For him man is not endowed with meaning rather he fabricates meanings. He says first is our existence and then we create our essence.
  • He says a work of art does not exist within a structure. It functions within a structure. It means that all the literary pieces give meanings because the choice of words of author implies certain pattern of meanings.

Structuralism of Claude Levi Strauss

Born: November 28, 1908, Brussels, Belgium

Death : October 30, 2009, Paris, France

Influenced by:  Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Karl Marx,

Claude Levi-Strauss is far and wide regarded as the father of structural anthropology.  In 1940s, he proposed that the proper focus of anthropological investigations was on the underlying patterns of human thought that produce the cultural categories that organize worldviews to be studied. He believed these processes were not deterministic of culture, but instead, operated within culture.

In 1972, his book Structuralism and Ecology was published detailing the tenets of what would become structural anthropology.  In it, he proposed that culture, like language, is composed of hidden rules that govern the behavior of its practitioners.  What made cultures unique and different from one another are the hidden rules participants understood but are unable to articulate; thus, the goal of structural anthropology is to identify these rules.  He maintained that culture is a dialectic process: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.  Levi-Strauss proposed a methodological means of discovering these rules—through the identification of binary oppositions.

The structuralist paradigm in anthropology suggests that the structure of human thought processes is the same in all cultures, and that these mental processes exist in the form of binary oppositions (Winthrop 1991). Some of these oppositions include hot-cold, male-female, culture-nature, and raw-cooked. Structuralists argue that binary oppositions are reflected in various cultural institutions (Lett 1987:80). Anthropologists may discover underlying thought processes by examining such things as kinship, myth, and language. It is proposed, then, that a hidden reality exists beneath all cultural expressions. Structuralists aim to understand the underlying meaning involved in human thought as expressed in cultural acts.

Further, the theoretical approach offered by structuralism emphasizes that elements of culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to the entire system (Rubel and Rosman 1996:1263). This notion, that the whole is greater than the parts, appeals to the Gestalt school of psychology.