Structuralism

What is Structuralism?
How is structuralism still present in analysis today?
Is “neo-structuralism” an effective description?
– Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Analysis in Linguistics and Anthropology (1963)
– Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Four Winnebago Myths” (1960)
-Sherry Ortner, Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? (1974)
-Saussure excerpts from Course of Linguistics

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  • Josh AKA "Marky Mark"  On March 5, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Structuralism is a scientific way of taking a single thing and turning it into a complex combination of interacting pieces. Like a birthday party for example: Its a fun time for the kids. But it is also much more, because planning has to be made to work for both the children and the parents schedules, and a site must be obtained, cleaned and prepared for the party. Then you have to call the caterer, or grandma has to help in the kitchen, and then your parents have to fight about something, and consequently, you end up having to do 3/4 of the work for the party that they told you they would throw for you. Then your best friends either don’t show up, or they are extremely late and you have to spend like an hour with that kid that no one really likes but your parents thought he might be a good influence on you so they made you invite him, but all you really want is to see what present he got you because his parents are rich. Then mom gets pissed because attendance was low and she overcooked for original number that said they would show up, and the two twins Timmy and Tommy have just knocked over a lamp.

    -structuralism.

  • Selena Farnesi  On March 25, 2009 at 1:09 am

    Your example of structuralism seems ridiculously unstructured –

    I’d say have the party in the summer and make it a pool party, no indoor mess to clean up and no worrying about how to keep the kids entertained. You can order pizza – kids love it, clean up is just lifting a trash can lid and throwing away some boxes, plus you’ll probably have leftovers!

    The problem with your party is it’s too focused on all the nitpicky details. It misses the big picture, which of course is to have fun with friends – my party will be just as fun as your if not more (since yours sounds like it spiraled out of control leading its participants to a slow social death), and what’s more, I’m not going to short my life with some stress disorder because of it.

    This same problem is paralleled in structuralism. Take for example Levi-Strauss’ “Linguistics and Anthropology.” He spends all this time trying to sort out the connection between culture and language, meticulously going through every possibility – the big picture? The two are connected. The end.

  • Jesscia Flippen  On March 26, 2009 at 3:02 am

    If we were to select a painting for Structuralism, it would be George Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” He applied Chevreul’s law to his work: adjacent objects not only cast reflections of their own color onto their neighbors but also create in them the effect of their complementary color. Impressionists knew this law, but Seurat was the first to apply it systematically. He calculated exactly which hues should be combined, and in what proportion to create the complementary color. The dots, in theory, would merge in the viewer’s eye to produce the missing colors, which would be brighter than the hues mixed on the palette. Unfortunately, the method didn’t work. The dots were large enough to remain seperate in the eye, producing a grainy effect. His figures were stiff; the scene solemn. It was very different from the work of earlier impressionists, who were able to convey movement with dashes of paint.
    Like Seurat, Claude Levi-Strauss tried a rigourous method. What he intended was hard to percieve. Claude Levi Strauss wanted to move away from concreteness to something more abstract. By focusing so hard on the details, his picture became less and less like the lively scene he was trying to represent.

  • Jessica  On March 26, 2009 at 3:21 am

    If we were to select a painting to repesent Structuralism, it would be Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” He applied Chevereul’s law to his work: adjacent objects not only cast reflections of their own color onto their neighbors but also create in them the effect of their complementary color. Impressionists knew of Chevereul’s law, but Seurat was the first to apply it systematically. Seurat calculated exactly which hues should be combined, in what combination, to produce the complementary color. He used tiny dots of color in a technique later known as pointillism. The dots, in theory, would merge in the viewer’s eye, creating a brighter hue than those mixed on the palette. His work wasn’t successful. The dots he applied were large enough to remain seperate in the eye, giving his picture a grainy appearence. The island he painted was usually noisy,littered, and chaotic on Sundays. His rigourous technique made his figures look stiff; the scene solemn. Levi-Strauss also focused too hard on the details. It is difficult to see what he intended to communicate in his work. He often referred to longer books he had written in a shorthand that was hard to follow. He exchanged concreteness for something more abstract. As a result, his formal method wasn’t appreciated as much as the livelier paper written by his predecessor, Benjamin Whorf.

  • Joy  On March 26, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Structuralism is a movement that seems to arise in many fields of thought (psychology had a time of structuralist thinking, linguistics, anth obviously). I think the main idea is breaking phenomena down into component parts. It seems that people enjoy the whole of the phenomenon, but it is too confusing to understand, thus we take a reductionistic view and attempt to understand the whole through studying the smaller and simplistic parts of the phenomenon. For me, it is best understood when in juxtaposition with Functionalism, which looks at the mess and determines the end goal or function of the phenomenon. Both taken in isolation are weak. It is best to understand a phenomenon from both sides. Understanding the component parts is important, and understanding what emerges from the interaction of those parts is equally, if not more important.
    Furthermore, I think Levi-Strauss was overly optimistic in drawing direct parallels between culture and language. His argument that they arise from the same substrate as the human mind, presupposes that ‘a mind’ even exists. However, let’s equate mind with brain, and still just because two things develop from a same starting point does not necessitate that the two will have analogous development or features. They may be similar, I think he is safe in saying that, but he at times goes to far, as any theorist does.

  • Kathryne J  On March 26, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    In many ways, culture is very much like language. Smaller pieces on their own do not make much sense, but when you string them together, add a few patterns, maybe even laws and you’ve got something complex. Not only is it complex, but it is a product of man’s enormous cognitive ability unlike any other creature. But are we really cognitively different? We still think in terms of survival and what things benefit us.

    It takes a lot to argue that culture is placed on the foundation of man’s great mind. In Sherry Ortner’s essay, she suggests that culture is literally from man’s mind. Women represent nature and all things instinctual, reproductive and means for survival. On the other hand, men, having nothing to do with carrying children, have all this free time on their hands and made up something cool: culture. I really don’t know about all of that. Men may not have to physically be pregnant, but trust me, they are just as involved with the reproductive process. Men battle and represent nature just as much as women. But that’s just me.

  • Felicia  On March 26, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    Structuralism is “a theory that argues that the organization of culture and society can be related to some universal features of the workings of the human mind.” Levi-Strauss hoped that by breaking down the symbols in culture this universal message of the human mind would be reveled. For example, read this poem. [I got this idea online, thank you John Phillips.]

    The Sick Rose

    O rose, thou art sick!
    The invisible worm
    That flies in the night,
    In the howling storm,

    Has found out thy bed
    Of crimson joy,
    And his dark secret love
    Does thy life destroy.

    Roses become sick, just like people. Every living thing on this earth can and eventually will become sick because of some germ, bacteria, virus, bug bite, human bite, whatever. Because we all agree that every living becomes sick or infected at some point, we might agree that sickness can be created by whatever whether it be a germ or by something spiritually evil it just depends on that cultures beliefs. How something becomes sick comes out of some pre-existing system, thus structural analysis aims to find out that system of thought, which would then perhaps revel this universal feature about sickness.

  • Inconditus alio  On March 26, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    Structuralism…is it putting many things into ultimately goal of the mind, culture, body, and psyche? I think that a universal overall theory of the human being is kind of thinking the same way in every culture in every kind of ecosystem, with every kind of government, with every kind of people. I say Bull…ShAt. Most people won’t admit it but they have similar goals, house, wife/partner, kids/dogs, and yard. Does every person have these goals? ….no. Structure is a good goal for a building…not people, we do not adhere to boxes… well some of us do but most of us don’t think about it long enough to be categorized…or at least we hope not to be. The human brain is not linked by concept, kinship, thought processes, etc… Every one of us is unique! I hope that someday there will be a consensus on whom we are, or what we are doing that advocates a strong point, but until then we are slaves to our thinking, and acting…so do right and watch the fruits of your labor…or do wrong and collect the tax payers money for your F#*@-ups!

  • Verdugo  On March 26, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    The most interesting thing that Strauss implies about how culture and linguistics are related is the idea that in both there are rules underneath common precipitin. In other words both language and culture operate with guidelines that are implicit to the user. For example in the English language all words follow a set of rules of sounds that make it possible to distinguish between words that sound English and words that can’t be English. We know what words sound like English and what words sound foreign. These Rules can’t be found in any grammar book, or dictionary, but they exist. Structuralism seeks to find these rules, only not in language but in culture. In other words structuralism seeks to find the implicit rules well all follow. The way that it dos this, like in linguistics, is by breaking down aspects of culture (sometimes myth) into smaller parts.

    The problem that I can see with this approach is one that doesn’t seem to apply to linguistics. Because sounds are less abstract then cultural values, breaking words up into their component phonemes seems more scientific. Culture on the other hand is for a large part abstract. So braking it up into smaller parts in order to find their relationships and rules seems harder to prove and or replicate.

  • brandi  On March 27, 2009 at 12:41 am

    Structuralism is the patterning of symbols. Strauss was interested in finding this pattern but was not interested in the symbols themselves. He was “concerned with the patterning of elements, the way cultural elements relate to one another to form the overall system”. Strauss believed in a dialectic thought process like day-night or left-right but applied it to kinships. One specific part was that “the first and most important distinctions that a human makes is between self and others”. This is still true today because people continue to identify themselves as being part of one group rather than another group like democrate versus republican.

  • Merrily Mccarthy  On March 27, 2009 at 7:32 am

    Better a little off the clock that never being able to tell the time! but time just another symbol relative to our schedules that we need to justify our existence. If we had not clocks, nor numbers we would have no names to identify objects and we would be afloat like a bird in the sky still attempting to name the white fluff that periodically gets rain on our feathers.

    If I were a lone cavedweller staring up at my dinner flying off into the late evening dying sunlight I would possibly see tree branches etched dark against the pale of the sky and in my dim witted mind I would construct lines of etching and then I might run into my cave and reflect the lines upon the walls and put sounds to them, not because I was teaching others of my tribe, but because I would be defending and fighting off others who wished to also draw lines over my lines. In English of the new, how far off is “fight and write” well they do ryhme. Now that may be stretching existence of sound but then …all things may be possible in some way or the other.

    The intial connection between a sighted object, and a scratched object that represents the object and a sound that communicates the object to others of the surrounding group does exist. We do the same thing. If we do the same thing in a rudimentary form in modern society, it has possibly never changed throughout time, existence and human awareness. this has formed and is the basis of social and cultural awareness in every given society, whether sophisticated or primitive. This is the structure that carries forward from the unseen to the seen. This is my contribution to the discussion on the subject of structuralism.

    Then in a new forward note we have Mullooly’s unique style and presentation of consciousness shattering presentations that will awake and inspire even the most dull of the dullards.

    Structuralism as it appears in todays world

  • Madoka  On March 8, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    Structuralism is one of the modern ideas, which identify circumstances by structure. It began in the 20th century. A concept of structuralism is extracting a structure from a potential ability in a phenomenon. On the other hand, structuralism may also mean one of the methods to prevent certain phenomenon. These methods in structuralism are useful for structural understandings such as mathematics, linguistics, biology and anthropology. To extract certain parts from any structural organization, people need to research a factor. To look for a structure, the structure should not change although a changed in factor. In general, the specific feature of structuralism is that a research object is divided depending on a factor, and later tries to understand the structure. For example, when researcher focused on English, they must research a common point; not only focuses on English but also Japanese, Spanish and French. Also they must compare with other subject like mathematics, sociology and anthropology, and discuss the same and different points. As a result, people will understand the research object.

  • Adrianna Salinas  On March 16, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Levi-Strauss was the leading pioneer for Structuralism. He believed that every human brain was biologically the same, therefore, all cultures would have similarities. Culture is created through an unconscious thought that is inherent in man, almost like it is written in our DNA. Levi-Strauss’ main emphasis is contrasting nature and culture to analyze such cultures and their myths. He used this approach in the article “Four Winnebago Myths: A Structural Sketch.” In the fourth myth he uses this approach to analyze it. The girl is socially higher but naturally lower than the boy, and the boy is socially lower but naturally higher than the girl. Their roles become inverted when the girl dies. This is a good example of the opposition of nature and culture.

  • Josie Weatherford  On March 16, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    structuralism seems to be the way that people try to find cultural universals to explain the way that people make mental constructs, and to see if there’s a similar way. Like the lady we could have read this week, talking about women being universally seen as being inferior. If you agree with this hypothesis (I don’t) than you just have to follow her proposterous essay and it’s sexist propaganda to see that she is looking for a universal explanation of some phenomena she has seen through her life, and in a very Western way she tries to apply it to all cultures. Specifically she uses the Western theory of man trying to dominate nature and says that since women are seen as being closer to nature than men because of their ability to have babies, men try to dominate them. Then she goes on to say that men are the bearers of higher culture because they have more time outside the hut. I say it depends on what you mean by higher culture. I don’t consider hunting as high culture, and i know there are cultures that offer women equal religious roles, which most people consider as high culture. And furthermore, her theory does not hold up today when women are not tied to having children but can participate in everything men can.

  • Jason McClung  On March 18, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Well, here’s my general stab at structuralism. Take of it what you will!

    Being more of a materialist myself, I can understand the idea of structure being fundamental to a society, even if the society itself is unaware of the reasons influencing their direct actions. To say that this structure is universal to ALL people or cultures is, in my opinion, a bit too broad of an assertion to make without the greatest of evidence to back it up. Societies are typically structured to allow their members to facilitate their main needs (be they social, economic, emotional, etc.), and how they engineer these ideas is typically unique to the peoples developing them. While I can anecdotally observe similar ideas (such as how men typically are dominant over women, as Ortner asserts), it feels like pseudoscience to affirm it as a universal logic in how we think. How does this ideology explain, for example, the matriarchal societies Native Americans use, or the “mama’s house” that ran through black communities during American colonial slavery?

    In the aforementioned examples, other circumstances explain the differences (such as how women were typically the constant members of a slave shack, while males were typically separated and sold off to different plantations). I’m more curious to learn if structuralism can define the ‘norms’ of groups instead of complete ‘universals.’

  • Nicole Giglio  On March 18, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    I must say that while I don’t whole-heartedly agree with structuralism, I understand that it has great benefits. Creating a theory that says all of mankind is culturally unified would seem to only produce positive results. However, it simply isn’t so. Jason makes an excellent point involving structuralism and its excessively broad views. It just isn’t possible to have every culture under one synonymous set of definitions. While we should embrace the similarities, we also need to celebrate the differences.

    And now that I sound like some multicultural cliche…

  • TheAnthroGeek  On March 18, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Kim found a great quote that is timely:

    “The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.”
    – Claude Levi-Strauss

  • Charon193 (Christina Knapp)  On March 19, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Based on what Jason said, it seems like structuralism tries to describe universal laws as seen from a specific culture. This probably helps in trying to understand how certain cultures see the world, but it doesn’t really explain how it works. I mean, just because that is the way things are done in one culture doesn’t mean that it’s the only way. They might share similiarities in some way, but they aren’t all alike. That is like saying Pluto is a planet just because it orbits the sun. By the way, I still think Pluto is a planet since it had a satellite. Maybe it would have been better if I used Xerxes, another asteroid named dwarf planet as an example. Still, you probably get my point. Just because something is from the same source doesn’t mean that they come out the same. If that were the case, then kids would just be clones of their older siblings. Obviously that isn’t the case. Check out Mullooly’s kids if you want to understand this wise crack. *<:-P

  • TheAnthroGeek  On March 19, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Josie’s slamming of Ortner is a pleasure to read

  • pao kue  On March 19, 2010 at 9:14 am

    Structuralism seems to take simple topics, broke it down, and makes it a bit more complicated. For example, culture, when looking into culture one has to study many different sides within the society. And because there are so many different cultures within different groups of people, one has to look at how people’s language, attitude, belief, and way of life affect their culture, and how their culture affect their way of life. In Claude Levi-Strauss’ “Four Winnebago Myths; A Structure Sketch”, he began by introducing four different myths that originated within that individual culture and claims how people’s mind, growing up within their culture, affects their way of thinking and living. One of the myth, “The Two Friends Who became Reincarnated: The Origin of the Four Nights’ Wake”, introduces two friends from a clan who “sacrifices” themselves to save their village, and by living half lives, their remaining lives were separated among their clans men. This, according to Strauss, was a native theory that every person was born with a “specific quota of years of life expectancy”, and if a person dies early his/her time is distributed among the survivors. This story is an example in how the different areas of cultures affect one’s mind, how they should think, and how they should live. Strauss believes that within the myths lie messages from different parts of culture.
    Structuralism is, to put it simply, like a topic. But what’s important is not the topic, but the details and information that came together in order to build it. Strauss looks at the myths, but what he was interested in was the ideas that came together in order to create it.

  • Marta  On October 27, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    Levi-Strauss does not specify any correlation between native theory and myths, Paul Radin does. Levi-Strauss doesn’t suggest that within myths lie messages form different parts of culture at all. He is looking for the structural relationships and how they interconnect in “Four Winnebago Myths; A Structure Sketch. He does this by looking at oppositions and double oppositions within the text.

  • sankofamind  On October 24, 2013 at 8:36 am

    Structuralism espouses that there are basic structures to our thought process which are universal across humanity; saying that perception is mapped by these intrinsic origins of thought process outside of any individual or societal material management. It suggests that the world we create is not simply to enable us to survive well or only shaped by historical, environmental or biological factors, but as a response to the basic dichotomies that our minds naturally create and that these are universal among all societies.
    For me the debate around structuralism, the addendums and criticisms, hold the greatest value. Moberg (2013:279) quotes Ogden’s alternative theory regarding the human tendency to dichotomise that seems to be more sustaining, “oppositions…based on language derive from the perception of two-sided spatial relationships…that all people experience from their own bodies: the dichotomy between left and right limbs, and the front and back of their body”.

  • Arthur Delamare  On October 27, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Structuralism as an anthropological viewpoint is fundamentally the idea of culture as a semiotic system, ultimately concerned with universal principles of the human mind and the deep structure that occurs below the surface of quotidian life. This notion was heavily influential throughout the 1950-70s, having origins in France with the dominant thinking of anthropologist Levi-Strauss. Structuralism has been carried on and supported by many powerful thinkers since then, including the ideas of Mary Douglas who believed that everything obeys a system of classification in a reality that is formless and categorized along a continuum. Any phenomena that was uncategorisable through this system was assigned meaning or importance as an anomaly, as can be seen through the cultural significance assigned to the Pangolin by the Lele peoples of Central Africa. Douglas also famously goes on to define dirt as ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas 1966: 44), implying that there is a classificatory system in which something is ‘dirty’ if it is geographically ‘wrong’ in some way. Structuralism can be explained as a collectivist approach, where the subject is an agentless carrier of culture, upholding inherited social structures to ensure that our system continues to function. According to Craib (1992: 134), ‘the structuralist emphasis is always on the logical order or structure underlying general meanings’, reinforcing the principles of structuralism from a more contemporary perspective.

  • sara  On October 29, 2015 at 2:31 am

    Structuralism is a theory or concept that looks at the worlds as a series of interconnected parts, similar to that of functionalists. However unlike Functionalists who see each separate institutions in society working together to maintain a presupposed value consensus or harmony structeralists are less interested in the function of each ‘organ’ in society but on what is found universally. The theory is interested in the idea that if we were to look at societies all around the world there would be commonalties between all, and in truth they discovered that things such as kinship, food, economic and political systems are indeed a necessity to a working societal system. This deductive approach looks at society in a abstract and distant way that is the direct opponent of ethnographic fieldwork conducted by participant observation (to which Key proponent Levi Strauss was strikingly disengaged in). Critics suggest that because of this we then learn nothing of human nature, of the clear distinctions between cultures, so what of the perhaps to some obvious shared connections? However structuralism is useful in that it’s aim which I believe it has achieved was to show how there are underlying structures in society and mind that are essential, similar to that of linguistics and Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar. There are indeed patterns of language found in all speech and this suggests that there is a certain way our mind works following a structure that is perhaps is already there. This unfortunately leads to Structuralisms biggest downfall of how can we not see individuals as not simply passive and docile creatures adhering to the structures already set in place. If this is indeed the case we are simply puppets in a machine with little choice of individual action or free will. (292)
    S.K

  • Issy Muttreja  On October 29, 2015 at 5:46 am

    Structuralism is a theory that was most popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s, originating from France and often associated with the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. The main focus of structuralism is to understand how societies are organised by looking at the underlying structures. The focus is on universal structures, things that are similar worldwide, rather than structures particular to one culture. In this way it can be seen that structuralism uses deductive reasoning: starting with an idea which is then tested, rather than starting with specific cases or cultures.
    The theory is also closely linked to linguistics and the work of Saussure. He suggested that the individual units of language are arbitrary and words only gain meaning in relation to one another. Craib (1992) uses the example of a traffic light to explain this. There is no reason for the colour red to signify stop, but when it is understood in relation to green meaning go, it gives them both meaning. Culture operates in a similar way to language, as the relationship between symbols and signs are what underlie culture.
    Structuralism is a very useful analytical tool, but also has many issues. As both Craib (1992) and Moburg (2012) point out, structuralism is based more on theory than practice. As a set of metaphysical assumptions (which can’t be proved), structuralism is a less than useful theory. It also ignores the individual as it suggests that people are simply reproducing society rather than having any influence themselves.

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