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Structuralism is a method of intellectual analysis (or “mode of thought”) employed by a number of French symbolists, literary critics, anthropologists, philosophers, and psychologists who, since the 1960’s have been called “structuralists”. Though structuralism has no common vocabulary or specific doctrines, some structuralists employ interdisciplinary approaches in an attempt to develop an objective method that will unify their diverse fields.

While the concern with “structure” can be traced back to Aristotle’s Poetics, contemporary structuralists have been principally influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss “father of modern linguistics,” who, as recorded in Cours de Linguistique Général (1913), a posthumous reconstruction of his lectures from his students’ notes, examined language as a system of signs, a study called semiology. Saussure views language as an arbitrary, culturally determined system of signs without any “intrinsic” or natural relationship to external reality. (If, for example, there were a natural relationship between the word ‘tree’ and the ‘actual object’, the word would – at any rate- be used in every other language. A sign consists of a fusion of two elements: (i) the Signifier (a “sound-image” or its equivalent in writing) and (ii) the Signified (the concept). Since language is instrumental, signs give meanings to things, not things to signs. In analyzing the structures of language, Saussure distinguishes ‘langue’, the system of signs from ‘parole’, individual utterances determined by the system. The science of linguistics is, therefore, principally concerned with ‘langue.’

Structuralists, equipped with a theory and a method of linguistic analysis, have examined a whole variety of texts, such as fairy tales and myths. Such cultural phenomena as wrestling matches, regarded as ‘texts’ from the structuralist point of view, have also been examined. In the study of literature, structuralists have employed linguistic analysis to reveal how structures are formed.

In a now famous essay on Baudelaire’s sonnet ‘Les Chats’, the linguist Roman Jackobson and the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who has been primarily responsible for the widespread use of he term ‘structuralism’, combined their disciplines in a “dissection  and articulation”, as Ronald Barthes characterizes the typical activity of structuralists. The poem is minutely examined grammatically, prosodically, phonetically, and semantically to determine the functions of each sound, rhyme, rhythm, and meaning as they interact and form patterns. In a prefatory note to the essay, widely regarded as a model of structuralist activity, Levi-Strauss justifies the union of linguistics, poetry, and anthropology stating: “In poetic works, the linguist discerns structures which are strikingly analogous to those which the analysis of myths reveal to the ethnologist.” Michael Riffaterre, commenting on the essay, claims that such an analysis fails to reveal those elements that have an effect on the reader – that is, the “poetic structure” (Yale French Studies, 36/37, 1966).

Indeed, structuralism does not so much focus on the “meaning” of a literary work as on its linguistic structure. Moreover, structuralists are principally concerned not with the uniqueness of literary works as aesthetic objects but with basic structures of “possible” works; traditional criticism, on the other hand, is more generally involved not only with meaning but also with value in literature.

In its extension of Saussurean linguistics to literary study, structuralism has attempted to create a new science of literature. As structuralism evolved into the more radical post-structuralism of the early 1970’s, critics of its anti-historical and anti-humanistic approach to literature have increasingly deplored its putatively subversive nature and have called for a return to an interest in the social, and even political, aspects of literature.