Structuralism has made an impact in several disciplines, particularly linguistics, anthropology, psychology and literature. The key initial theorist was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913). Saussure argued that language was a system of differences with no positive terms, meaning that no ‘word’ could be understood in isolation from other words—words did not, in fact, refer to ‘objects’ in the world but to other words. Saussure also initiated the synchronic study of language, whereas previously forms of speech had been analysed in terms of their change over time, or diachronically. By contrast, Saussure recommended the analysis of speech usages within communities, to reveal not their grammar but their patterns or structures, and that each utterance (parole) had to be understood within its system of language (langue). Structural anthropology derives from the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–) which analysed the structures of culture—its kinship and taboo rules, its eating and story-telling practices and so on— while structural psychology offers an analysis of mental reasoning on the basis of components of thought and feeling.
   In literary studies, after the work early in the century of the Russian formalists (for example, Vladimir Propp, who took a structuralist approach to relatively simple narratives in his 1928 work Morphology of the Folktale), the most influential practitioner of a structuralist reading practice was Roland Barthes. Perhaps most importantly, Barthes’s S/Z painstakingly assesses and details the several codes at work in a short story by Balzac (other important texts are Gèrard Genette’s Figures of Literary Discourse and Tzvetan Todorov’s The Fantastic and The Poetics of Prose) but a better introduction is provided by his Mythologies. Here, in a series of bravura performances, Barthes offers a number of cultural readings from a structuralist perspective on such wide-ranging subjects as wrestling and haircuts in films.
   Structuralism influenced numerous British literary critics in the 1960s and 1970s, and in some ways initiated the interest in continental literary theory that has dominated literary studies over the last thirty years. One other important coinage was made by the Welsh literary and cultural critic Raymond Williams, who invented the term ‘structure of feeling’ (most fully discussed in his The Long Revolution) to describe the way in which individuals become aware of how they resemble and differ from each other within a common culture. For example, he says that one generation’s shared responses to a cultural phenomenon will have much in common with those of the previous generation, but that they will also have significant differences. Perhaps most important of all structuralism’s contributions is the belief that nothing in human activity is ‘natural’; it is all ‘constructed’ and is therefore open to analysis and critique. This idea is developed much further by the various strands of post-structuralism.
   See also: literary theory
   Further reading
    Hawkes, T. (1977) Structuralism and Semiotics, London: Methuen.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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