Structuralism was so influential during the middle third of the twentieth century (and continues to be) that a good chunk of the critical theory which has followed has been referred to as post-structuralism. Of the structuralists (Saussure, Jacobson, Barthes, Althusser, Piaget, Lacan,  etc.), LS was possibly the most widely read, but certainly the best known. 


A.  From: Michael Lane 1970  “Introduction” from his : Structuralism: An Introduction.

     Probably the most distinctive feature of the structuralist method is the emphasis it gives to wholes, to totalities. Traditionally, in Anglo-American social science, structure has been used as an analytical concept to break down sets into their constituent elements, an essentially atomistic exercise. As structuralists understand and employ the term, a new importance had been given to the logical priority of the whole over the parts. They insist that the whole and the parts can be properly explained only in terms of the relations that exist between the parts. The essential quality of the structuralist method, and its fundamental tenet, lies in its attempt to study not the elements of a whole, but the complex network of relationships that link and unite those elements....
     Next, structuralism seeks its structures not on the surface, at the level of the observed, but below or behind empirical reality. Levi-Strauss, in the Overture to Le Cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked), both states this most forcibly and gives the rationale for it. “We should not exclude the possibility that the men themselves, who produce and pass on the myths, could be aware of their structure and mode of operation, though this would not be usual, but rather partial and intermittent.” He compares the situation to that of men using their own language. Though they consistently and constantly apply its phonological and grammatical laws (its structure, in other words) in their speech, they will not, unless they are versed in linguistics, be consciously aware of them. Nor, if asked, would they be able to supply these laws. The same is true, the structuralists argue, of all social activity. What the observer sees is not the structure, but simply the evidence and product of the structure. On the other hand, though the structure of any activity is not itself what can be seen, it can only be derived from what is seen....
     The relations described earlier exist at the level of the structure, though they are, of course, reflected at the level of observable empirical reality. In abstract these relations can be reduced to one of binary opposition....
     Further, structuralist analysis is centrally concerned with synchronic as opposed to diachronic structures; its focus is upon relations across a moment in time, rather than through time. ...[T]he synchronic structure is seen as being constituted or determined not by any historical process, but by the network of existing structural relations. Hence structuralism is rather atemporal than strictly ahistorical.
     Partly as a result of this, structuralism is effectively anti-causal. The language of structuralist analysis in its pure form makes no use of the notions of cause and effect: rather, it rejects this conceptualisation of the world in favor of “laws of transformation”. By these are meant the law-like regularities that can be observed, or derived from observation, by which one particular structural configuration changes into another....
     No single one of these properties is by itself a distinguishing characteristic of structuralism. Most have separately been held as items of belief or rules of procedure in other philosophies and methods. What is distinctive is this particular combination of them.

 B.   From: LS 1962 Totemism, p. 16.

     ...[L]et us define objectively and in its most general aspects the semantic field within which are found the phenomena commonly grouped under the name of totemism.
     The method we adopt, in this case as in others, consists in the following operations:
             1) define the phenomenon under study as a relation between two or more terms, real or supposed;
             2) construct a table of possible permutations between these terms;
             3) take this table as the general object of analysis which, at this level only, can yield necessary
                connections, the empirical phenomenon considered at the beginning being only one possible
                combination among others, the complete system of which must be reconstructed beforehand.
     The term totemism covers relations, posed ideologically, between two series, one natural and the other cultural.

                                  1            2                  3                  4
      NATURE      category   category      particular       particular
      CULTURE      group        person       person            group

C.   From: LS 1954 “The Mathematics of Man.” Internat. Soc. Sci. Bulletin (UNESCO): 6 #4: 581-590.

     ...a new school of mathematics is coming into being and is indeed expanding enormously at the present time --a school of what might almost be called qualitative mathematics, paradoxical as the term may seem, because rigorous treatment no longer necessarily means recourse to measurement.  This new mathematics... teaches us that the domain of necessity is not necessarily the same as that of quantity.
     ...When, about 1944, [the present writer] gradually became convinced that the rules of marriage and descent were not fundamentally different, as rules of communication, from those prevailing in linguistics, and that it should therefore be possible to give a rigorous treatment of them, the established mathematicians whom he first approached treated him with scorn.  Marriage, they told him, could not be assimilated either to addition or to multiplication (still less to subtraction or division), and it was therefore impossible to express it in mathematical terms.  This went on until the day when one of the young leaders of the new school, having considered the problem, explained that, in order to develop a theory of the rules of marriage, the mathematician had absolutely no need to reduce marriage to quantitative terms; in fact, he did not even need to know what marriage was.  All he asked was, firstly, that it should be possible to reduce the marriages observed in any particular society to a finite number of categories and, secondly, that there should be definite relationships between the various categories (e.g. that there should always be the same relationship between the ‘category’ of a brother’s marriage and the ‘category’ of a sister’s, or between the ‘category’ of the parents’ marriage and ‘category’ of the children’s).  From then on, all the rules of marriage in a given society can be expressed as equations and these equations can be treated by tested and reliable methods of reasoning, while the intrinsic nature of the phenomenon studied --marriage-- has nothing to do with the problem and can indeed by [sic] completely unknown.

D.    Metaphor and Metonymy  [Tropes]
    L-S uses differences (oppositions) between figures of speech (types of "non-literal" imagery) as models of structure. The really critical case was borrowed from Roman Jacobson, a linguist who built upon the work of Fernand de Saussure. It is the opposition between metaphor and metonymy. Below, I give a standard litcrit definition of these terms (adapted from Cuddon's A Dictionary of Literary Terms, 1980) and then a table of the various labels used by different structuralists (and others) to name or exemplify the contrast.

Metaphor: (Greek "carrying from one place to another")  A figure of speech in which one thing or domain is described in terms of another, thus bridging between them. The basic figure in poetry. (If the comparison is explicit [eg, using 'like' or 'as'] it's called a simile, but that distinction is not relevant in structuralist usage.)
    Eg: Harris is an ass.  The maples weep tears of red and gold. I am a parakeet. Life is like a highway.

Metonymy: (Greek "name change")  A figure of speech in which the name of an attribute or thing is substituted for the thing itself, or the part stands for the whole or vice versa (strictly, the latter is 'synecdochy', but it's one of the key examples of 'metonymy' here).
    Eg, The Crown delivers the budget today.  Ford made my car.  Washington attacked.
Jacobson Metaphor Metonymy
similarity contiguity (sequence, touch)
basic to poetry basic to prose
de Saussure Paradigmatic Syntagmatic
elements that can be substituted elements that can be combined, sequenced
 (eg, nouns for one another)  (eg, noun & verb phrases)
 (eg, sentence or discourse)
Barthes System Syntagm
Freud on dreams identification & symbolism displacement & condensation
Frazer on magic imitative or homeopahtic contagious
Music harmony melody


EFrom LS 1945 “Structural Analysis in Linguistics and in Anthropology.” Reprinted in Structural Anthropology.

...Structural linguistics will certainly play the same renovating role with respect to the social sciences that nuclear physics, for example, has played for the physical sciences. In what does this revolution consist...? N. Troubetzkoy, the illustrious founder of structural linguistics, himself furnished the answer to this question. In one programmatic statement, he reduced the structural method to four basic operations. First, structural linguistics shifts from the study of conscious linguistic phenomena to study of their unconscious infrastructure; second, it does not treat terms as independent entities, taking instead as its basis of analysis the relations between terms; third, it introduces the concept of system -”Modern phonemics does not merely proclaim that phonemes are always part of a system; it shows concrete phonemic systems and elucidates their structure”- ; finally, structural linguistics aims at discovering general laws, either by induction “or... by logical deduction, which would give them an absolute character.”
     Thus, for the first time, a social science is able to formulate necessary relationships. This is the meaning of Troubetzkoy’s last point, while the preceding rules show how linguistics must proceed in order to attain this end.

F.   From: John Carlos Rowe 1990 “Structure”, in: Critical Terms for Literary Study (F. Lentricchia & T. McLaughlin, eds.), U Chicago Press. Excerpts pp. 28-38. [1st edn] Emphases in original.

a.    "Structure" derives from the Latin structura... out of the verb struere, "to heap together, arrange", or, as in the English cognate, "to strew"....
     Structure and strew are not antithetical meanings of struere, because both demonstrate a common concern with spatial extension. In modern thought, after Kant and Einstein, it is impossible to think space apart from some form of temporality. Virtually every twentieth-century theorist to use "structure" as a key term recognizes the interrelation of time and space as fundamental to the concept of structurality. In practice, however, many of these same theorists tend to subordinate time to space. In fact, this tendency to treat time as governed by space might be said to be characteristic of most important modern uses of the term "structure".... [NB: most "post-modern" (incl. post-structuralist) rhetoric substitutes spatial for temporal metaphor]
     ...The "form" of what is scattered or strewn is intimately involved in the performance of the act and depends upon the a priori ground that is essential to the meaning of the act. Even in a metaphor, such as "I scattered my thoiughts to the wind", the act itself is stressed, and it determines the relation of "thoughts" to "wind". The form of what is structured is determined by the elements involved in construction, all of which are assumed to belong to the same set. Whereas "thoughts" and "wind" belong to different sets (mind and nature), the elements of a "structure" are assumed to belong to the same set, as in "the stones of this building". As a consequence, the temporality in the act of structuring may be said to subsist in the manifest form. Thus the constructive "acts" that made possible the structure of Chartres Cathedral, even though historically specific and determinate acts, are presumed always --for all time-- to be discernable in the manifest object that is Chartres Cathedral. By the same token, the act of strewing or scattering... is not self-evident and self-sufficiently discernible from the mere relation of [the objects strewn]. This distinction encourages me to offer the further hypothesis that "structure" suggests an abstract conception of
temporality... whereas "strew" depends upon a specific temporal act that can be imitated but not repeated. (pp. 23-4)

b.    Although structural linguists from Saussure to the present increasingly have considered their work to be “scientific” and thus free of the “ontological” and “metaphysical” assumptions of philosophers, structural linguistics relies on several fundamentally ontological premises. Saussure claimed that linguistic science would dethrone philosophy as the “Queen of the Sciences”. What he meant was that linguistics ought to become the foundational discipline for twentieth century man as philosophy had been considered fundamental from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Hegel. Once again, the rhetorical strategy of replacing the philosophically loaded term “form” with “structure” is particularly important in this regard. Whereas “form” related man (his mental forms) to some extrahuman realm of “nature” or “Being” (as in Plato’s nous), “linguistic structure” stressed man’s fabrications of a complex “tool” that structural linguists took considerable pains to dissociate from any natural or extrahuman origins. From the beginnings of its modern usage, then, the term “structure” was troublingly bound up with notions of technology.
     ...The history of the shift from the use of “form” to “structure”, irregular and full of exceptions as any such “history” must be, reflects the gradual shift from industrial and material economies to the postmodern economy of “information” and “service” that now governs productive and personal relations in the developed nations. In a material economy, such as Marx both criticized and analyzed, “nature” remains an important realm independent of “culture”. Man's material production is most often justified by means of some appeal to “nature”, according to the “use-value” of a product (the product is useful because it serves some undeniable natural “need” such as thirst, hunger, reproduction). The “exchange-value” produced by nineteenth-century capitalism generally justified itself by some appeal, often quite specious, to an increasingly vague category of natural “use”. The gradual confusion of “use-value” and “exchange value”, resulting ultimately in what Jean Baudrillard has termed the “postmodern subordination of all use value to exchange value”, may well have been the means by which industrial capitalism gave birth to its own best successor --our own economy of information and representation. “Nature” is no longer considered a foundation for judging the value of something produced in such an economy: “value” is entirely a measure of “exchange”, the relation of one “product” to another as established by general market conditions.... Those nostalgic for an older, material world may condemn our postmodern economy for its disregard of the self-evident “values” of natural use. The fact remains, however, that we have entered an epoch in which “nature” is always a self-evident “fabrication”, always the effect of certain human interests and social purposes. Even earthquakes and other unpredictable natural disasters “exist” for us only in their relation to social processes, in about the same fashion that we “go to nature” with guidebooks in our hands.

G. This oft-quoted passage is from LS's 1955  Tristes Tropiques., the book which made him famous {trans. John & Doreen Weightman as A World on the Wane, 1974, pp. 55-8}. It makes the point that linguistics was not the only source of LS's notion of deep structure.

    It was during the decade from 1920 to 1930 that psychonalytical theories became known in France. They taught me that the static oppositions around which we were advised to construct our philosophical essays and later our teaching --the rational and the irrational, the intellectual and the emotional, the logical and the pre-logical-- amounted to no more than a gratuitous intellectual game. In the first place, beyond the rational there exists a more important and valid category --that of the meaningful, which is the highest mode of being of the rational, but which our teachers never so much as mentioned, no doubt because they were more intent on Bergson's Essai sur les donnees immediates de la conscience than on F. de Saussure's Cours de linguistique generale. Next, Freud's work showed me that the oppositions did not really exist in this form, since it is precisely the most apparently emotional behaviour, the least rational proceedures and so-called pre-logical manifestations which are at the same time the most meaningful.... Being 'of this world', [knowledge] partakes of the same nature as the world....
    At a different level of reality, Marxism seemed to me to proceed in the same manner as geology and psychoanalysis (taking the latter in the sense given by its founder). All three demonstrate that understanding consists in reducing one type of reality to another; that the true reality is never obvious; and that the nature of truth is already indicated by the care it takes to remain elusive. For all cases, the same problem arises, the problem of the relationship between feeling and reason, and the aim is the same: to achieve a kind of superrationalism, which will integrate the first with the second, without sacrificing any of its properties.

H. Definitions: Empiricism & Rationalism
The wonderful British anthropologist Edmund Leach was the most important English-language commentator on L-S's work for anthropologists themselves during the 1960's and 70's. Though he made brilliant use of the method, he remained sceptical of many of  L-S's own claims and approaches, partly for reasons given in this excerpt from his 1976 Culture and Communication.

    Levi-Straussian rationalists call themselves 'structuralists', but the structure here refers to the structure of ideas rather than the structure of society.
    Because of their interest in ideas as opposed to objective facts rationalist anthropologists tend to be more concerned with what is said than with what is done. In field research, they attach particular importance to mythology and to informants' verbal statements about what ought to be the case. Where there is discrepancy between verbal statements and observed behaviour, rationalists tend to maintain that the social reality 'exists' in the verbal statements rather than in what actually happens.

Here's a quick precis on the terms. Leach's problems with L-S had mostly to do with Leach's empiricism.
Empiricism:  theories of explanation, definition & justification claiming our concepts or knowledge are derived from or must be justified in terms of sense experience; characteristic position of positivism
    big names: Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Mill  [Radcliffe-Brown]
    opposed to: Plato, Descartes; innate ideas, deduction from them to reality
    troubles: include tendency to ignore social contexts in which knowledge-giving experience occurs

Rationalism:  theory of knowledge claiming either or both:
  a) that mind has innate ideas, concepts not derived from experience (eg, formal concepts of logic, or categories such as substance, causality, & space)
  b) that knowledge which is not dependent on experience for its justification is possible, beyond what's just true by definition (eg, every event has a cause) and that therefore the general nature (not details) of the world can be established by deduction
    big names: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Hegel [L-S, Chomsky]
    opposed to: a) empiricism, & b) irrationalism, which claims that human behaviour is only sometimes guided by reason (eg, Marx, Freud, Kuhn); or that it should not be wholly guided by reason (eg, Kierkegaard, Neitzsche, Feyerabend, much "romanticism")
    troubles:  include: why experiment needed in science? why does science change?

I.  From: 1956  "The Family." In: H. Shapiro, ed., Man, Culture and Society.

 ...if the natural reasons which could explain the division of labor between the sexes do not seem
to play a decisive part, as soon as we leave the solid ground of women's biological specialization in the
production of children, why does it exist at all? The very fact that it varies endlessly according to the
society selected for consideration shows that, as for the family itself, it is the mere fact of its existence
which is mysteriously required, the form under which it comes to exist being utterly irrelevant, at least
from the point of view of any natural necessity... ...when it is stated that one sex must perform certain
tasks, this also means that the other is forbidden to do them. In that light, the sexual division of labor is
nothing else than a device to institute a reciprocal state of dependency between the sexes. {Similarly, he
argues that the incest taboo institutes a dependency between families.}

J.    From: LS c. 1972 “Structuralism and Ecology.” Reprinted in: View from Afar, pp. 108 & 116.

     I have simply outlined the dialectical relationship between two myths of neighboring tribes... (That should) suffice to demonstrate that rules exist allowing the transformation of one myth into another, and that these complex rules are nonetheless coherent. Where do these rules come from? We do not invent them in the course of analysis. They are, so to speak, liberated by the myths. When formulated by the analyst, they rise to the surface as visible manifestations of laws governing the mind of the people when they hear their neighbors narrate one of their myths. For the listeners may borrow the myth, but not without deforming it through mental operations that they do not control. They will appropriate it in order not to feel themselves to be inferior, while remodeling it consciously or unconsciously, until it becomes their own.
     These manipulations are not random. The inventory of American mythology which I have been engaged upon for many years apparently shows that different myths result from a transformation that obeys certain rules of symmetry and inversion: myths reflect each other according to axes on which one can construct the list. To account for the phenomenon, we cannot escape the conclusion that mental operations obey laws not unlike those operating in the physical world....
     ...The eye does not merely photograph objects: it encodes their distinctive characteristics. These consist not of the qualities that we attribute to the things that surround us, but of an ensemble of relationships. In mammals, specialized cells in the cerebral cortex perform a kind of structural analysis, which, in other animal families, retinal and ganglion cells have already undertaken and even achieved. Each cell --whether in the retina, the ganglions or the brain-- responds only to a stimulus of a certain type: contrast between motion and immobility; presence or absence of color; changes in light and dark; objects whose contours are positively or negatively curved; direction or motion either straight or oblique, from right to left or the reverse, horizontal or vertical; and so on. Out of all this information, the mind reconstructs, so to speak, objects that have not been actually perceived as such....

K.    From: LS 1962 Totemism, Beacon Press, p. 103.

 ...every human mind is a locus of virtual experience where what goes on in the minds of men, however remote they may be, can be investigated.

L.    From: LS 1962 Totemism, pp. 69-71.

     As affectivity is the most obscure side of man, there has been the constant temptation to resort to it, forgetting that what is refractory to explanation is ipso facto unsuitable for use in explanation....
     We do not know, and never shall know, anything about the first origin of beliefs and customs the roots of which plunge into a distant past; but, as far as the present is concerned, it is certain that social behavior is not produced spontaneously by each individual, under the influence of the emotions of the moment. Men do not act, as members of a group, in accordance with what each feels as an individual; each man feels as a function of the way in which he is permitted or obliged to act. Customs are given as external norms before giving rise to internal sentiments, and these non-sentient norms determine the sentiments of individuals as well as the circumstances in which they may, or must, be displayed....
     Actually, impulses and emotions explain nothing: they are always results, either of the power of the body or of the impotence of the mind. In both cases they are consequences, never causes. The latter can be sought only in the organism, which is the sole way offered to psychology, and to anthropology as well.
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