Structuralism: Guide to Definition & Importance
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


Imagine you're playing with a set of toy blocks. You can arrange and rearrange the blocks in countless ways, but the blocks themselves don't change. In the world of ideas, that's a lot like structuralism. This blog post will take you on a journey through the definition of structuralism and why it's important. We'll explore its origins, key concepts, and its impact on various fields. We'll also address some criticisms it has faced over the years. Ready? Let's go!

What is structuralism?

Structuralism is a bit like our block analogy. It's a method of understanding the world that focuses on the structure of things, rather than their individual parts. Think of it like looking at a building. You don't just see bricks, windows, or doors. Instead, you see how these parts fit together to create the building. That's the definition of structuralism in a nutshell.

But let's make it even simpler:

  • Structuralism is about patterns. It's about finding the common threads that tie different things together. For example, you might find the same underlying structure in different stories, cultures, or even in the way our brains work.
  • Structuralism is about relationships. It doesn't just look at individual elements. Instead, it focuses on how those elements interact with each other. It's about the connections between the blocks, not the blocks themselves.
  • Structuralism is about systems. It views things as part of a larger whole. This whole can be a text, a culture, a mind—anything that's made up of interconnected parts.

Now, you might be thinking: "Okay, but why does this matter?" Well, that's where things get interesting. As you'll see, the definition of structuralism is more than just an academic exercise. It's a powerful tool for understanding the world around us.

Origins of structuralism

Let's hop into our time machine and travel back to the early 20th century. That's when structuralism first made its appearance on the scene. Its birthplace? The land of croissants, the Eiffel Tower, and high fashion: France.

The father of structuralism is a gentleman by the name of Ferdinand de Saussure. He was a linguist, which means he studied languages. But Saussure wasn't just interested in learning new languages or creating a killer Duolingo streak. He wanted to understand the underlying structures that made languages tick.

So, what did Saussure discover? He found that language isn't just a collection of words. Instead, it's a system of signs. Each sign consists of two parts: a signifier (the sound or written form of a word) and a signified (the concept or idea the word represents).

Here's an example to help you understand: Let's take the word "dog." The word itself (D-O-G) is the signifier. The image or idea that pops into your head when you hear or read the word is the signified. Together, they form the sign "dog."

But Saussure didn't stop there. He went on to argue that the relationship between signifier and signified isn't natural or fixed. It's arbitrary and based on social convention. In other words, there's no inherent reason why D-O-G should signify a four-legged, tail-wagging pet. It's just something we, as a society, have agreed upon.

So, how did we get from Saussure's ideas about language to the broader definition of structuralism? That's a story for another section. For now, just remember this: Structuralism started as a way to understand language. But it soon spread to other fields, offering a new way to look at the world.

Key concepts of structuralism

So, now that we know where structuralism comes from, what's it all about? Let's break down the key concepts that make up the definition of structuralism.

First off, structuralism is all about structures (shocker, right?). But we're not talking about physical structures like buildings or bridges. Instead, structuralism is interested in mental structures. These are the patterns and systems that shape our thoughts, actions, and perceptions.

Remember how Ferdinand de Saussure saw language as a system of signs? Structuralism applies that idea to everything from literature to anthropology to psychology. It looks for the signs and systems that underpin all aspects of human life.

Here's another key concept: Structuralism doesn't focus on individual elements. Instead, it's all about relationships. For structuralists, it doesn't make sense to study a single sign or element in isolation. You have to look at how it fits into the larger system.

Let's say you're trying to understand a painting. A structuralist wouldn't just focus on one color or brushstroke. They'd look at how all the colors and brushstrokes work together to create the overall image.

Finally, structuralism is all about uncovering hidden meanings. It assumes that the true significance of things isn't always obvious. By analyzing structures and relationships, structuralists aim to reveal deeper layers of meaning.

So, in a nutshell, the definition of structuralism involves structures, relationships, and hidden meanings. But what does this mean in practice? Stick around to find out!

Why structuralism matters

Now that we have a basic understanding of the definition of structuralism, let's talk about why it's important. Why should you care about these mental structures and hidden meanings? Well, there are a few reasons.

Firstly, structuralism helps us understand how our minds work. It shows us that our thoughts and perceptions aren't random—they're shaped by underlying structures. This can help us become more aware of our biases and assumptions. It's like shining a flashlight into the hidden corners of our minds.

Secondly, structuralism can help us appreciate the complexity of human culture. By revealing the intricate structures that underpin our languages, myths, and social norms, it shows us just how sophisticated and nuanced our cultures are.

Thirdly, structuralism can change the way we read and interpret texts. Whether you're reading a novel, watching a movie, or studying a painting, structuralism can help you uncover layers of meaning that you might have missed otherwise.

Finally, structuralism can be a powerful tool for social critique. By exposing the structures that underpin our societies, it can help us identify and challenge harmful norms and inequalities.

In short, while structuralism might sound like a complex and abstract theory, it has some very real and practical implications. So next time you're reading a book or watching a movie, why not try looking for the structures underneath? You might be surprised at what you find!

Structuralism in literature

Having discussed why structuralism matters, let's dive into one of its most fascinating applications: literature. Unpacking the definition of structuralism in literature, it serves as a unique lens through which we can explore and understand our beloved tales and texts.

Structuralism in literature is all about looking for patterns. Just as a detective might look for clues to solve a mystery, a structuralist reader looks for recurring structures or themes in a text. These structures could be anything from repeated symbols and motifs to similar plot structures or character types.

Let's take the classic fairy tale "Cinderella" as an example. In this story, we see a common structure: the downtrodden hero (Cinderella) overcomes adversity (her wicked stepmother and stepsisters) with the help of a magical helper (the fairy godmother) and ultimately achieves a happy ending (marrying the prince).

Now, this might seem like a one-off story, specific to Cinderella. But when we look at other fairy tales, we see the same structure again and again. The downtrodden hero, the adversity, the magical helper, the happy ending—it's a pattern that recurs in stories from all around the world.

By uncovering these structures, structuralism allows us to see the deeper connections between seemingly different stories. It's a bit like discovering that all your favorite songs share the same chord progression. Suddenly, you start to see the bigger picture—the underlying structures that shape our stories and our world.

And that's the beauty of structuralism in literature. It turns the simple act of reading into a grand adventure, a treasure hunt for hidden structures and meanings. So next time you pick up a book, why not give it a try? You never know what you might find!

Structuralism in anthropology

Now that we've navigated the world of literature, let's take our understanding of structuralism on a journey through anthropology. When it comes to the definition of structuralism in anthropology, it all boils down to understanding the deep structures that shape human cultures.

Imagine you're an anthropologist studying a remote tribe. You notice that they have a unique practice of exchanging gifts during a specific time of year. Instead of just recording this as a standalone fact, as a structuralist, you would dig deeper. You would ask: What is the underlying structure that gives meaning to this practice?

The answer might reveal something about the tribe's social structure, their beliefs about reciprocity, or their relationship with nature. In other words, you would uncover the invisible rules and structures that govern their way of life. That's the power of structuralism in anthropology—it helps us see beneath the surface.

Consider the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, a famous structuralist anthropologist. He studied myths from different cultures and discovered that they all shared a common structure. No matter how different the stories were, they all revolved around a fundamental conflict between two opposing forces, like nature versus culture.

By identifying this structure, Lévi-Strauss was able to reveal a universal pattern in human thought. It's kind of like finding a secret code shared by all cultures, a common language of the human mind. And that's pretty cool, isn't it?

So, the next time you encounter an unfamiliar culture or practice, remember to think like a structuralist. Look for the hidden structures, the invisible rules that govern the way of life. As you'll discover, it's an exciting way to understand our diverse and fascinating world!

Structuralism in psychology

Now, let's turn our gaze inward, as we explore the definition of structuralism in psychology. This field of study takes our understanding of structures and applies it to the human mind.

Think of the brain as a giant puzzle. Each piece is a sensation, a thought, or a feeling. Structuralism in psychology is all about figuring out how these pieces fit together to form the whole picture of human consciousness.

Edward B. Titchener, a key player in the world of psychological structuralism, believed that by understanding the basic elements of the mind, we could understand the complexity of mental processes. It's like understanding how a car works by looking at each individual part before seeing the whole machine in action.

Imagine you're enjoying a slice of your favorite pizza. You savor the cheesy goodness, the tangy tomato sauce, the crispy crust. But as a structuralist psychologist, you'd break this experience down into its basic elements: the sensation of taste, the feeling of satisfaction, the memory of past pizzas enjoyed. That's structuralism at work!

While structuralism in psychology has its critics—it's hard to break down our rich, subjective experiences into basic elements—it was an important first step in the study of the mind. It laid the groundwork for later psychological theories and remains a fascinating approach to understanding our inner world.

So, next time you're lost in thought, remember: there's a whole structure behind your thinking. And isn't that a mind-blowing thought in itself?

Criticism of structuralism

Like any theory or approach, structuralism has faced its fair share of criticism. In fact, the critique of structuralism is as important to understanding its definition as the theory itself. So, let's dive into some of the main points of contention.

Firstly, structuralism emphasizes the concept of binary opposition too heavily. This idea presents pairs of contrasting elements as essential building blocks of structures. For instance, night and day or good and bad. But does everything in life really boil down to black or white? Critics argue that life is full of shades of gray and can't be neatly divided into two opposing categories.

Secondly, structuralism tends to disregard individual experiences and variations. It focuses on universal structures, but what about the unique ways each of us experiences the world? Critics argue that this approach oversimplifies the complexity and richness of human experience.

Finally, structuralism has been criticized for being too deterministic. It suggests that our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings are all determined by underlying structures. But what about our free will? Can everything we do really be explained by hidden structures?

Despite these criticisms, remember that no theory is perfect, and each adds a valuable perspective to our understanding. Structuralism, with all its strengths and weaknesses, has undeniably played a significant role in shaping various disciplines, from literature to psychology. While it might not provide all the answers, it certainly sparks some interesting questions, don't you think?

For a deeper understanding of structuralism and its importance in the art world, we recommend exploring 'Classical Painting in the Modern Day' by Eric Drummond. This workshop not only discusses classical painting techniques but also touches on the relevance of structuralism in today's art landscape. Expand your knowledge and artistic perspective by joining this insightful workshop.