Structuralism is a tradition in the history of ideas that rose to special prominence during the twentieth century within the humanities and social sciences. A shared assumption of structuralist approaches to communication, culture, and society is that interactions, discourses, and social groupings are best understood as relatively self-contained systems or structures. Their formation and transformation are accounted for by certain general, immanent principles, rather than by their concrete constituents, or by any external influences.
In his review of the development of structuralism, Jean Piaget (1971, 5) identified three distinctive features of a structuralist perspective. First, it emphasizes the wholeness of a structure of elements; compare the common saying that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Second, structures are subject to transformations: the rules governing them are simultaneously structured and structuring. Third, structures are self-regulating, bounding and maintaining the system in question. To exemplify, an ordinary conversation amounts to a whole, accomplished by two speakers; it represents a contextual selection and transformation of particular linguistic resources; and, to succeed, it requires continuous adjustments, regulating the contributions of the two speakers.
Responding to the likely criticism that structure might be a vacuous concept since, for example, all the units examined by the social sciences can be considered “self-regulating transformational totalities” (1971, 97), Piaget further distinguished between a weak or global form of structuralism and a strong or analytic and more “authentic” structuralism. Whereas the sociologist Émile Durkheim’s structuralism is weak, speaking of the social whole as emerging from a union of components, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism is strong because it refers to specific rules of composition that account for particular cultural practices. Most important, structuralism proper assumes that the diverse observable aspects of social life bear witness to generative deep structures. While this notion is familiar from linguistics, in which the concrete sentences at the “surface” of language are said to derive from transformations of a general “deep” structure, it has been applied in several other disciplines and fields as an explanatory framework.
Although Piaget (1971) noted structuralist positions in his own developmental psychology as well as in mathematics and logic, it is especially humanistic and social scientific inflections of structuralism that have informed communication research. The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure originated the prototypical formulation of structuralism, describing language as a combinatorial system of paradigms and syntagms, and as a twotiered structure of concrete expressions (parole) and an underlying system (langue). The transformational-generative grammar of Noam Chomsky has been a particularly influential variant of a strong, analytic structuralism in linguistics since the 1950s. It is, however, in analyses of social interactions and extended discourses that the influence of structuralism has been most in evidence within communication studies (for an overview, see Hawkes 1977).
Perhaps the most elaborate application of structuralist principles to the study of social and cultural life occurred in anthropology, as formulated by Lévi-Strauss (e.g., 1963). He accounted for myths in terms of their constituent units by analogy to sentences. It is the combination and transformation of such constituents into specific meaningful wholes that characterize the practices and rituals of different cultures, subcultures, and communities. As processes, myths further help to explain how social order is maintained, and conflicts resolved, through the continuous production of meaning. In a characteristically structuralist formulation, Lévi-Strauss aimed “not to show how men think in myths, but ‘how myths think in men, unbeknown to them’” (cited in Hawkes 1977, 41). Being discursive as well as cognitive entities, myths can be understood as deep structures of culture that are articulated in discourse, exchanged in communication, and enacted in social structures.
Structuralist approaches have been especially manifest in critical traditions of the social sciences. This is in spite of the fact that, for instance, the concepts of structure and function in Talcott Parsons’s work are compatible with central tenets of structuralism (Piaget, 1971, 102); there is at least a family resemblance between structuralism and functionalism. The key figures of structuralist social theory, however, have emphasized conflictual rather than consensual views of structure. Building on Marx, Louis Althusser conceived the social totality as an interconnected complex of economic, political, and ideological practices that privileges certain social groups in relation to the means of production and to the institutions of power (Althusser 1977). He counted the media among the ideological state apparatuses serving to legitimate the social status quo (Althusser 1971). Modifying the economic determinism of much of the Marxist tradition, Althusser borrowed the concept of overdetermination from Sigmund Freud to suggest the multiple determinations of particular events in different social domains. On the one hand, societies may be governed by their economic mode of production in the final instance; on the other hand, the relative autonomy and efficacy of political, cultural, and other social practices should be accounted for, not just as structured by, but simultaneously as structuring the social totality and its historical trajectory.
Another key figure – Michel Foucault – marked a transition from structuralist to poststructuralist social theory (e.g., Foucault, 1972). Where structuralism represents an ambition of discovering explanatory categories concerning the deep structures and basic processes of culture and society, poststructuralism begins to question the feasibility of any such categories, whether in everyday consciousness or in scholarly analysis. Taking a radically constructivist position, Foucault shifted attention toward the frames of reference – the epistemes – that can be considered dominant in different historical periods. Such frames condition what will be understood as social reality in the first place; they change decisively from one epoch to the next; and they set limits to what can be known, in science as well as elsewhere. Although much of Foucault’s work critically examined the concrete discourses in which the understanding of, for example, madness, crime, and sexuality has been articulated, he approached these discourses as structures unto themselves, rather than as components of a combinatorial system involving human agents and material resources within observable social practices. From a poststructuralist perspective, ultimately, the structures of discourse do not allow for human subjects as either autonomous actors in a reality beyond signs, or independent observers of either subjects or structures.
Structuralism in Media and Communication Research
In the strong or analytic sense identified by Piaget (1971), structuralism became a major influence particularly on two interrelated forms of media and communication research from the 1960s onward – qualitative textual studies and cultural studies. While research on media texts may be considered the primary inheritor of the analytical principles of Saussurean linguistics, cultural studies incorporated these principles, developing a conception of cultural practices, everyday life, and, indeed, the entire social system as texts to be read and interpreted.
During the 1960s, literary theory was revitalized by the rediscovery and redevelopment of several linguistic and formalist models of analysis; it was in this shape that literary theory fed into media theory. In addition to the work of Saussure, Russian Formalism drove home the point that form carries content – that the structures of narratives and other genres hold meanings. The prototype of such research was offered by Propp (1958) in his study of the constituents and variants of Russian folktales. A wide variety of popular media and genres lend themselves to the systematics of formalist analysis, as exemplified by Umberto Eco’s (1987) early study of the James Bond stories. Other contributions included A. J. Greimas’s structural analysis of semantic units, including those beyond the sentence (Greimas & Courtés 1982), as well as Roland Barthes’s models of meaning and narrative analysis. Partly overlapping with the structuralist enterprise, further work in film and other media theory from the 1980s onward explored the interrelations between textual and cognitive structures (e.g., Bordwell 1985). As systematic approaches to the texts and genres of media, both structuralist and cognitivist models represented significant advances in qualitative media text analysis.
Summarizing the tradition of cultural studies, Hall (1980) identified structuralism as one of its two constitutive paradigms, the other being culturalism. Combining a structural analysis of media texts and a critical, structuralist theory of society with a processual conception of culture, cultural studies has explored the margins of indetermination in the social production of meaning. Even if the media, being part of the social whole, may offer a unitary representation of society – regulating the status quo in the interest of the powers that be – they still provide a potential source of discursive and material transformation.
The Structuralist Legacy
Structuralism was a moment in the development of communication research, with a “classic” period from the 1960s to the 1980s. In retrospect, a strong version of structuralism appears difficult to reconcile both with the multiple types of structures bearing on human communication, and with the historical and cultural variability of communicative practice. Anthony Giddens (1984), for one, while retaining the tradition of semiotics, has questioned the determinist implications of structuralism, re-emphasizing the duality of structure and agency as part of an ongoing process of social structuration. From the outset, 1960s structuralism had been challenged by poststructuralism, which rejected the possibility of stable structures of communication, subjectivity, and society – and, indeed, of science and human knowledge as such (for an overview, see Coward & Ellis 1977). Though present as an epistemological concern in cultural studies and some other communication research, poststructuralism, arguably, has been less influential across the wider theoretical and methodological field. Instead, specific structuralist models and methods continue to offer analytical resources regarding various practices and institutions of communication, at different levels of ambition on a scale from strong to weak structuralism. Piaget (1971) had already suggested that structuralism is not a doctrine or theory, but a method.
The appeal of structuralism, both before and after the classic period, can be interpreted in the context of the history of ideas. The twentieth century witnessed an unprecedented – and massively communicated – degree of social complexity, which coincided with a growing secularization of both society and science in much of the world. Structuralism provided a conceptual matrix that might account for the combined dynamism and stability of contemporary culture and society – without recourse to transcendental first principles. While familiar from the history and taxonomies of natural and other empirical sciences, the notion of generative matrices could be radicalized with reference to language and other communications as the key mediators of both individual cognition and social interaction. As a prototype of twentieth-century interdisciplinary scholarship, structuralism developed alongside and in dialogue with communication research.
- Althusser, L. (1971). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses. In Lenin and philosophy. London: New Left Books, pp. 121–173.
- Althusser, L. (1977). For Marx. London: Verso.
- Bordwell, D. (1985). Narration in the fiction film. London: Methuen.
- Coward, R., & Ellis, J. (1977). Language and materialism. London: Routledge Kegan Paul.
- Eco, U. (1987). Narrative structures in Fleming. In U. Eco (ed.), The role of the reader. London: Hutchinson, pp. 144–172.
- Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. London: Tavistock.
- Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Greimas, A. J., & Courtés, J. (1982). Semiotics and language: An analytical dictionary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
- Hall, S. (1980). Cultural studies: Two paradigms. Media, Culture and Society, 2, 57–72.
- Hawkes, T. (1977). Structuralism and semiotics. London: Methuen.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963). Structural anthropology. New York: Penguin.
- Piaget, J. (1971). Structuralism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Propp, V. (1958). Morphology of the folktale. The Hague: Mouton.
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