Structuralism is a broad-based rational theory that focuses on signs and organization in various aspects of human culture. While this approach can be applied to various areas of study ranging from anthropology to psychology, its primary use has occurred in language and literature studies. Structuralists focus on breaking down information into small elements for study. They are further interested in categorization and classification of these units of information.
The structuralism movement took hold in the early and mid-20th century, and it first gained prominence in France with notable figures like Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and Jaques Derrida. Scholars of this era became interested in how the world was defined by structures that could be categorized and studied. Anthropologists, for example, investigated developed systems like religious rituals and also researched epistemes, or the shared methods that cultures use to gain knowledge. Psychologists, on the other hand, determined how common experiences, symbols, and worldviews molded the human mind, while political researchers considered the rules of governments. In a sense, structuralism and its emphasis on the collective and the categorical became a response to existentialism and its reliance on unique and individual experiences.
Language studies became the field in which structuralism arguably took the strongest hold. Individuals like Ferdinand de Saussure applied the theory to language construction via structural linguistics. This approach centered on determining the common components of language systems. The relationship between the sounds and the meanings of words — or the signifier and the signified, respectively — were given particular attention. In modern linguistics, structural scholars study the smallest individual segments of words that produce sound or meaning, otherwise known as phonemes and morphemes.
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Similar approaches have also found a stronghold in structuralistic literary criticism. In essence, literary scholars apply structural methods to works of fiction, and their only source of study is the actual works themselves. Such an approach could include finding common character types, settings, or story points among various novels, particularly categorical genre novels. The structural critic may look for patterns and associations within a single text as well. Water, for example, may play a prominent role at various progression points within a novel. In essence, comparison and cohesion are emphasized in structural criticism.
The foundation of structuralism has been both praised and criticized. Proponents believe the philosophy allows an objective and reliable method of researching and studying various principles and cultural components. Critics, however, argue that structuralistic study is too narrow and sterile. It does not consider factors like historical influences or human emotion, and it attempts to classify complex issues into convenient categories. In response, some opponents developed an opposing approach known as post-structuralism, which de-emphasized structure, order, and narrow interpretations.