By Rachel Briggs and Janelle Meyer

Basic Premises

Structuralism was predominately influenced by the schools of phenomenology and of Gestalt psychology, both of which were fostered in Germany between 1910 and the 1930s (Sturrock 2003: 47). Phenomenology was a school of philosophical thought that attempted to give philosophy a rational, scientific basis. Principally, it was concerned with accurately describing consciousness and abolishing the gulf that had traditionally existed between subject and object of human thought. Consciousness, as they perceived, was always conscious of something, and that picture, that whole, cannot be separated from the object or the subject but is the relationship between them (Sturrock 2003: 50-51). Phenomenology was made manifest in the works of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre among others.

Gestalt psychology maintained that all human conscious experience is patterned, emphasizing that the whole is always greater than the parts, making it a holistic view (Sturrock 2003: 52). It fosters the view that the human mind functions by recognizing or, if none are available, imposing structures.
Structuralism developed as a theoretical framework in linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure in the late 1920s, early 1930s. De Saussure proposed that languages were constructed of hidden rules that practitioners ‘know’ but are unable to articulate. In other words, although 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 at an implicit (as opposed to explicit) level, and we are aware that we correctly use these rules when we are able to successfully decode what another person is saying to us  (Johnson 2007: 91).

Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 – 2009) is widely regarded as the father of structural anthropology. In the 1940s, he proposed that the proper focus of anthropological investigations is on the underlying patterns of human thought that produce the cultural categories that organize worldviews hitherto studied (McGee and Warms, 2004: 345). He believed these processes did not determine culture, but instead, operated within culture. His work was heavily influenced by Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss as well as the Prague School of structural linguistics (organized in 1926) which include Roman Jakobson (1896 – 1982), and Nikolai Troubetzkoy (1890 – 1938). From the latter, he derived the concept of binary contrasts, later referred to in his work as binary oppositions, which became fundamental in his theory.

In 1972, his book Structuralism and Ecology detailed 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 makes cultures unique and different from one another are the hidden rules participants understand but are unable to articulate; thus, the goal of structural anthropology is to identify these rules. 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 expressions.

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, draws upon the Gestalt school of psychology. Essentially, elements of culture are not explanatory in and of themselves, but rather form part of a meaningful system. As an analytical model, structuralism assumes the universality of human thought processes in an effort to explain the “deep structure” or underlying meaning existing in cultural phenomena. “…[S]tructuralism is a set of principles for studying the mental superstructure” (Harris 1979:166, from Lett 1987:101).

Leading Figures

Claude Lévi-Strauss: (1908 – 2009) is unquestionably the founding and most important figure in anthropological structuralism. He was born in Brussels in 1908. and obtained a law degree from the University of Paris. He became a professor of sociology at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil in 1934. It was at this time that he began to think about human thought cross-culturally when he was exposed to various cultures in Brazil. His first publication in anthropology appeared in 1936 and covered the social organization of the Bororo (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:423). After WWII, he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York. There he met Roman Jakobson, from whom he took the structural linguistics model and applied its framework to culture (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:423). Lévi-Strauss has been noted as singly associated with the elaboration of the structuralist paradigm in anthropology (Winthrop 1991).

Ferdinand de Saussure: (1857 – 1913) was a Swiss linguist born in Geneva whose work in structural linguistics and semiology greatly influenced Lévi-Strauss (Winthrop 1991; Rubel and Rosman 1996). He is widely considered to be the father of 20th century linguistics.

Roman Jakobson (1896 to 1982) was a Russian structural linguist. who was greatly influenced by the work of Ferdinand de Saussere and who worked with Nikolai Trubetzkoy to develop techniques for the analysis of sound in language. His work influenced Lévi-Strauss while they were colleagues at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Marcel Mauss (1872 – 1952) was a French sociologist whose uncle was Emile Durkheim. He taught Lévi-Strauss and influenced his thought on the nature of reciprocity and structural relationships in culture (Winthrop 1991).

Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) was a French social philosopher, literary critic and founder of deconstructoinism who may be labeled both a “structuralist’ and a “poststructuralist”. Derrida wrote critiques of his contemporaries’ works, and of the notions underlying structuralism and poststructuralism (Culler 1981).

Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984)  was a French social philosopher whose works also  have been associated with both structuralist and poststructuralist thought, more often with the latter. When asked in an interview if he accepted being grouped with Lacan and Lévi-Strauss, he conveniently avoided a straight answer: “It’s for those who use the label [structuralism] to designate very diverse works to say what makes us ‘structuralists’” (Lotringer 1989:60). However, he has publicly scoffed at being labeled a structuralist because he did not wish to be permanently associated with one paradigm (Sturrock 1981). Foucault largely wrote about  issues of power and domination in his works, arguing that there is no absolute truth, and thus the purpose of ideologies is to struggle against other ideologies for supremecy (think about competing news networks, arguing different points of view). For this reason, he is more closely associated with poststructuralist thought.

Key Works

  • Clarke, Simon (1981) The Foundations of Structuralism. The
    Harvester Press: Sussex.
  • Durkheim, Emile and Marcel Mauss (1963) Primitive
    Classification. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
  • Hage, Per and Frank Harary (1983) Structural Models in
    Anthropology. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
  • Lane, Michael (1970) Introduction to Structuralism. Basic Books,
    Inc.: New York.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1963) Structural Anthropology, Volume I.
    Basic Books, Inc.: New York.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1976) Structural Anthropology, Volume II.
    Basic Books, Inc.: New York.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1963) The Elementary Structures of
    Kinship. Beacon Press: Boston.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1966) The Savage Mind. University of
    Chicago Press: Chicago.
  • Mauss, Marcel (1967) The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange
    in Archaic Societies. Norton: New York.
  • Merquior, J. G. (1986) From Prague to Paris: A Critique of
    Structuralist and Post-Structuralist Thought. Thetford Press: Thetford, Norfolk.
  • Millet, Louis and Madeleine Varin d’Ainvelle (1965) Le
    structuralisme. Editions Universitaires: Paris.
  • Pettit, Philip (1975) The Concept of Structuralism: A Critical
    Analysis. University of California Press: Berkeley.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de (1959) Course in General Linguistics.
    Charles Bally et al, eds. McGraw-Hill: New York.
  • Sturrock, John (1986) Structuralism. Paladin Grafton Books:


Folk stories, religious stories, and fairy tales were the principle subject matter for structuralists because they believed these made manifest the underlying universal human structures, the binary oppositions. For example, in the story of Cinderella, some of the binary oppositions include good versus evil, pretty versus ugly (Cinderella versus her two stepsisters), clean versus dirty, etc. Because of this focus, the principal methodology employed was hermeneutics. Hermeneutics originated as a study of the Gospels, and has since come to refer to the interpretation of the meaning of written works.


Though there are few anthropologists today who would declare themselves structuralists, structuralism was highly
influential. Work of the poststructuralist Pierre Bourdieu, particularly his idea of the habitus, laid the groundwork for agency theory. Structuralism also continued the idea that there were universal structuring elements in the human mind that shaped culture. This concept is still pursued in cognitive anthropology which examines the way people think in order to identify these structures, instead of analyzing oral or written texts.


Some concerns have been expressed concerning the epistemological and theoretical assumptions of structuralism. The validity of structural explanations has been challenged on the grounds that structuralist methods are imprecise and dependent upon the observer (Lett 1987:103). Lett (1987) poses the question of how independent structural analyses of the same phenomena could arrive at the same conclusions.

The paradigm of structuralism is primarily concerned with the structure of the human psyche, and it does not address historical  change in culture (Lett 1987, Rubel and Rosman 1996). This synchronic approach, which advocates a “psychic unity” of all human minds, has been criticized because it does not account for individual human action historically.

Maurice Godelier incorporated a dynamic element into his structural analysis of Australian marriage-class systems and their relationship to demographic factors (Rubel and Rosman 1996:1269). He did so by incorporating Marxist ideas of structures representing an organized reality and by emphasizing the importance of change in society. Godelier took structuralism a step further with his examination of infrastructural factors. In structuralist thought, inherently conflicting ideas exist in the form of binary oppositions, but these conflicts do not find resolution. In structural Marxist thought, the importance of perpetual change in society is noted: “When internal contradictions between structures or within a structure cannot be overcome, the structure does not reproduce but is transformed or evolves” (Rubel and Rosman 1996:1269).

Further, others have criticized structuralism for its lack of concern with human individuality. Cultural relativists are especially critical of this because they believe structural “rationality” depicts human thought as uniform and invariable (Rubel and Rosman 1996).

In addition to those who modified the structuralist paradigm and its critics exists another reaction known as poststructuralism. Although poststructuralists are influenced by the structuralist ideas put forth by Lévi-Strauss, their work has more of a reflexive quality. Pierre Bourdieu is a poststructuralist who “…sees structure as a product of human creation, even though the participants may not be conscious of the structure” (Rubel and Rosman 1996:1270). Instead of the structuralist notion of the universality of human thought processes found in the structure of the human mind, Bourdieu proposes that dominant thought processes are a product of society and determine how people act (Rubel and Rosman 1996). However, in poststructuralist methods, the person describing the thought processes of people of another culture may be reduced to just that—description—as interpretation imposes the observer’s perceptions onto the analysis at hand (Rubel and Rosman 1996). Poststructuralism is much like postmodernism in this sense.

Materialists would also generally object to structural explanations in favor of more observable or practical explanations. As Lett (1987) points out, Lévi-Strauss’ analysis of the role of the coyote as trickster in many different Native American mythologies rationalizes that the coyote, because it preys on herbivores and carnivores alike, is associated with agriculture and hunting, and life and death (Lett 1987:104) is thus a deviation from natural order, or abnormal. Lett further shows that a materialist perspective is reflected in  Marvin Harris’  explanation of the recurrent theme of the coyote as trickster: “The coyote enjoys the status of a trickster because it is an intelligent, opportunistic animal” (Lett 1987:104).

Another reaction to structuralism is grounded in scientific inquiry. In any form of responsible inquiry, theories must be falsifiable. Structural analyses do not allow for this or for external validation (Lett 1987). Although these analyses present “complexity of symbolic realms” and “insight about the human condition,” they simply cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny (Lett 1987:108-9).

Sources and Bibliography

  • Bohannan, Paul and Mark Glazer, eds. (1988) High Points in Anthropology. McGraw-Hill, Inc.: New York.
  • Culler, Jonathan (1981) Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida. John Sturrock (ed.); Oxford University Press: Oxford.
  • Johnson, Matthew. (2007) Archaeological Theory.  Johnson, Matthew. (2001) Archaeological Theory.
  • Lett, James (1987) The Human Enterprise. Westview Press, Inc.:Boulder, Colorado.
  • Lotringer, Sylvère, ed. (1989) Foucault Live. Semiotexte: New York.
  • Rubel, Paula and Abraham Rosman (1996) Structuralism. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, Volume IV. David Levinson and Melvin Ember, Eds. Henry Holt and Company: New York. Seymour-Smith, Charlotte (1986) Dictionary of Anthropology. Macmillan Press, Ltd.: London.
  • Sturrock, John. (2003) Structuralism: Second Edition. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, UK.
  • Winthrop, Robert H. (1991) Dictionary of Concepts in Cultural Anthropology. Greenwood Press: New York.

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