structuralism and its characteristics

Structuralism is “one of the most influential movements in twentieth-century thought” (Macey 364) which is a conceptual system to interpret and analyze the inherent structure of any system such as society, culture, language, belief, myth, etc. Every unit of any system is linked with another and thus, a broader meaning system comes into being. Simon Blackburn argues that it is a belief that without determining the relationship, the human belief system is not intelligible. All of these diversified connectivities give birth to a structure. So, it can be said that every structure consists of some atoms or primary units which are inevitably connected with each other with a view to producing a larger unit or structure or system. Finally, it can be said that structuralism mainly tries to examine any system with two objectives. Initially, it tries to find out the primary atoms that constitute a system, and secondly, its aim is to explore the mechanisms through which the atoms are connected with each other. Moreover, structuralism attempts to offer a universal mechanism of explaining any system such as language.

Structuralism and its flourishing

Structuralism developed in 1900 in France and Russia. Ferdinand de Saussure is credited with the emergence of this brand of thought which is particularly linked with linguistics but “the work of the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss” (Barry 38) takes it forward in the realm of knowledge. Later, the idea is taken and developed by the Prague, Moscow, and Copenhagen circles of linguistics. Different schools of thinkers gradually take the concept of structuralism. It can be noted that the publication of four essays in 1968 in psychoanalysis, anthropology, linguistics, and poetics edited by Ducrot” (Macey 364) introduced the science of sign, and after it, structuralism was established as a predominant discourse. Thus, it is widely used in different other branches of knowledge such as anthropology, social science, psychology, architecture, etc. However, there are many criticisms of this school of thinking such as by Chomsky. It leaves an undeniable impression on Levi Strauss who deals with it extensively (structural analysis of myth). Roman Jakobson and Jacques Lacan also use this concept in expanding their linguistic ideas and psychoanalytical views respectively. But the criticism of structuralism has never stopped. With the emergence of poststructuralism, thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida criticize it very severely to put forward their new brand of thought.

Structuralism and its characteristic of demystifying literature

Structuralism is a process of demystifying literature by concentrating more on the linguistic aspects than the godly existence of the authors. Humanism, with the emergence of the Renaissance, puts human beings in the center of everything, and thus, authors are considered to be godly characters in the textual reality. Structuralism demystifies this idea with its concentration on the linguistic aspects. It dethrones the authors from their godly appearance in the texts and takes the textual language as the deciding factor for exploring the existing meaning system. Structuralism neglects the literary individuals and the canonical aspects of literature. This process of neglecting the individuals and the canonical aspects is called scandalization. Thus, it declares the end of great aestheticians and humanist literary scholars such as Croce, Curtius, Auerback, Spitzer, and Wellek. Later Roland Barthes, in his “The Death of the Author”, and Foucault, in his “What is an Author”, examine the matter of killing the author from the text which opens the emergence of the poststructuralist ideas in the realm of theory.

Structuralism and its characteristic of constructedness of meaning

It highlights the constructedness (meaning is inherent) of human meaning. There is an inherent meaning system underlying in the linguistic paradigm of any literary domain. For this reason, literary work is considered a construct in which language plays a very important role. It is possible to explore the meaning system by considering the language as “all languages are the same, because all have the same structure, regardless of what kind of words they contain” (Klages 32). Meaning is neither taken as a private experience nor a divinely ordained entity. It is the product of a certain shared system of signification.

Structuralism and the speaking quality of language

Language speaks. People do not speak the language. Language predates the individual. No idea can exist without following the linguistic reality. Klages argues “no ideas pre-exist language; language itself gives shape to ideas and makes them expressible, and thought cannot exist without language” (37). There is an inherent order in every language and it is to be explored with a view to discovering the meaning system. Structuralism also adds that the human mind is very active to determine this meaning system. Human rationality mostly determines this meaning system. So,  meaning is not natural. We interpret the world by imposing meaning on objects which can be called functions of the language. It is to be noted here that meaning can also be attributed arbitrarily.


Structuralism, as a theoretical paradigm, posits the language in the center of the meaning system declaring the end of the humanist perception of putting the authors in the center of all textual realities. The language that determines the idea is at the root of the structuralist analysis.


  • Klages, Mary. Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008
  • Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. Penguin Books, 2000
  • Nayar, Pramod K. Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory: From Structuralism to Ecocriticism. Pearson, 2014
Abdur Rahim
Abdur Rahim

Assistant Professor, and Member of the Proctorial Body
Department of English Language and Literature (DELL), Premier University, Chattogram,
& Doctoral Fellow, English Department, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka.

Phone: +8801715638298


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.