History of Structuralism Research Paper

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The triumph of structuralism during the 1950s and 1960s was of such a remarkable nature that it became identified with the ensemble of French intellectual history since 1945. During these years, little attention was paid to anything outside of this trend which appeared as a new perspective on the world and human culture. Emphasising critical thinking and expressing the emancipatory will of nascent social sciences in search of scholarly and institutional legitimation, structuralism generated a real sense of collective enthusiasm for the whole of French intelligentsia over at least two decades.

Then suddenly, at the beginning of the 1980s, everything was overturned. Most of the French heroes of this intellectual adventure disappeared and with them their work, anxious to be buried by a new epoch, accentuating thus the impression of the end of an era. In this way, the working through of mourning, necessary in order to do justice to what had been one of the most fruitful periods of our intellectual history, had been avoided.

Taken in its most general sense, the word structure served as a password for a large part of the human sciences (sciences humaines), enabling a unitary program. Where does the concept of structuralism, one that has led both to such infatuation and to such opprobrium, originate? Derived from the word structure, it starts out as an architectural term. Structure was first and foremost ‘the way in which a building is constructed’ (Dictionnaire de Tre oux, 1771 edition).

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the meaning of the term structure is modified and enlarged by the analogy with living beings. Thus, the human body is perceived as a construction in Fontenelle as is language in Vaugelas and Bernot. The term, therefore, is taken to refer to a description of how the components of a concrete object make up the whole. It can have various applications (anatomical, psychological, geological, mathematical structures, etc.). The structural approach is not really applied to the field of the human sciences until the more recent nineteenth century, with Spencer, Morgan and Marx.

It is then taken to refer to a lasting phenomenon that connects, in complex terms, the components of an aggregate according to a more abstract schema. The term structure, rarely found in Marx, with the exception of the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), is consecrated by Durkheim at the end of the nineteenth century in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895). Structure thus gives rise to that which, in Andre Lalande’s Vocabulaire, is qualified as a neologism—structuralism between 1900 and 1926. Structuralism emerges among psychologists in opposition to the functional psychology of the turn of the century. However, structuralism’s real starting point, in terms of its modern meaning and standpoint of domination among all the human sciences, originates in the evolution of linguistics.

Although Saussure uses the term structure only three times in The Course in General Linguistics, it is the Prague School (Troubetzkoy and Jakobson) that is to make widespread the use of the terms structure and structuralism. The Danish linguist, Hjemslev, who founded the journal Acta Linguistica in 1939, asserts the reference to structure as a charter program. The first article in this journal treats the subject of ‘structural linguistics.’

1. The Structural Years

Departing from this linguistic nucleus, the term triggers a veritable revolution throughout the human sciences at the heart of the twentieth century. To the extent that Michel Foucault observed that structuralism ‘is not a new method, but the awakened and anxious conscience of modern knowledge.’ Jacques Derrida defined this approach as an ‘adventure in perception’ and Roland Barthes saw structuralism as the passage from symbolic to paradigmatic conscience, or as the advent of the awareness of paradox. It therefore suggests a movement of thought and a new relationship to the world, much wider than a simple binary methodology confined to one or another field of specific study. This interpretation, seeing itself as unitary, privileges the sign at the expense of meaning, space at the expense of time, the object at the expense of the subject, relation at the expense of content, and culture at the expense of nature.

Primarily, structuralism functions as a paradigm for a philosophy of suspicion, or an act of exposure on behalf of intellectuals that aimed at demystifying the doxa and denaturalise meaning, to destabilise it while searching behind the scenes for an expression of bad faith. It is postulated that the class position of the speaker or his libidinal position enables the denouncement of the illusion under which all types of discourse are condemned to exist. This situation of exposure is inscribed in the ancestry of French epistemological tradition that proposes a position of overhang or rupture between scientific competence and common sense, the latter seen as being tied to illusion. Behind this paradigm of suspicion, a profound pessimism envelops intellectuals as well as a critique of western modernity the antithesis of which they attempt to grasp by reference to the figures of the child, the insane or the savage. Thus, beneath the liberatory discourse of Enlightenment, the discipline of the body, the confinement and imprisonment of the social body within an infernal logic of knowledge and power is exposed. Roland Barthes, then, says: ‘I profoundly refuse my civilisation, to the point of nausea’ and the ‘Finale’ of Claude Levi-Strauss’s The Naked Man ends with the word ‘NOTHING,’ written in capitals, evoking a requiem or the twilight of mankind. This structuralist paradigm proposes the prevailing of a suspension of meaning, as a means of opposing both eurocentrism and various forms of westernised teleology, in favour of a differentialist mode of thought.

The second dimension of the structuralist paradigm involves philosophy’s take-over of three of the social sciences undergoing emancipation and sharing a common valorisation of the unconscious as the locus of truth. These disciplines are general linguistics when, with Saussure, they separate language (langue) as a legitimate object from speech ( parole) forced back to the non-scientific domain; anthropology, with its concern with the encoding of messages rather than with messages themselves and psychoanalysis’s view upon the unconscious as an effect of language. This relates to a quest for both legitimation and standing by nascent social sciences confronted with the established force of the classical humanities and by the tradition and conservatism of the old Sorbonne. Structuralism, at this stage, offers itself as a third discourse, bridging literature and the hard sciences, seeking institutionalisation through socialisation, by-passing the academic center of the Sorbonne by way of the peripheral universities. Publishing and the press through the respected institution of the College De France, serves as a refuge for research on the cutting edge. This involves a veritable battle between the ancients and the moderns in which the themes of breaking and rupture come into play at several levels. The social sciences then attempt to free themselves by cutting the umbilical cord that tied them to philosophy by erecting the efficiency of a scientific method. On their part, some philosophers, taking into account the importance of these endeavors, capture their program and redefine the function of philosophy as a philosophy of the concept. This was to become what is known as ‘effectology,’ or the use of research in the human sciences for a philosophical project that simultaneously deconstructs the classifications employed from within these practices. Philosophy, therefore, retains its central position while declaring its own demise. The major role played by philosophers in this matter also relies on their ability, in the middle of the 1960s, to impose a unitary program, an endeavor in which the structuralist etiquette serves as a rallying call.

The second explanatory idea that accounts for this history is that of generation. Thus, a number of landmark events make a lasting impression upon a generation indelibly marked by the Second World War. The difficulty of thinking after Auschwitz, expressed by Adorno, meant the difficulty of thinking optimistically, as was possible at the turn of the century, of the history of a west that had turned towards atrocity, to crimes against humanity. This history was to become the very locus of doubt, questioning, and severe criticism. Hell is no longer the other, but oneself. A questioning of the self and of its illusory capacities for mastery then aroused by a society that had reduced the individual to nothing more than a number. This despair that engenders the critical distance of suspicion becomes accentuated during the 1950s and 1960s with the progressive liberation of the colonised peoples who had broken free of the colonial yoke and achieved their independence. Many intellectuals were to see this rejection of western influence as a confirmation of their critical position and held the figure of the ‘other,’ or the epitome of absolute alterity from the west, to be the very locus of the expression of truth and of a certain purity. This release from western history, that enabled the Bororos or the Nambikwaras to be perceived as expressing the purified cradle of humanity, is reinforced by the successive revelations about what some had taken to be the incarnation of their hopes for the real Marxism of Communist countries.1956 is to become a vital date for a generation of Marxist intellectuals that takes refuge in a structuralised Marxism, a ‘vacuum-packed Marxism,’ as it is dubbed by Jean-Marie Domenach, upon which the disasters of real Communism would have no bearing. Many among these intellectuals are to break with Communist culture, stealing away on tiptoes from history and taking refuge in the enclosure of text, science, and in the evacuation of the subject and the signified.

2. Founding The Scientificity Of A Third Discourse

The hope for the scientific renovation of the social sciences found its method, a common language capable of effecting change, within structural linguistics. Linguistics then became the model for a whole range of social sciences aspiring to formalism. The discipline was progressively diffused from anthropology, to literary criticism, and to psychoanalysis and it led to the profound renewal of the mode of philosophical questioning.

The areas most affected by the linguistic contagion were those disciplines that found themselves in an institutionally precarious position. Alternatively, disciplines were in search of an identity tainted by the internal contradiction of their pretensions to scientific positivity and their relationship to the political, as in the case of sociology and those such as literary studies and philosophy, fully immersed in the dispute between tradition and modernity. This connection served to blur the boundaries between disciplines. Structuralism offered itself here as a unifying project. This temptation was most clearly expressed by Roland Barthes who advocated a general semiology capable of grouping all the human sciences around the study of the sign.

Modernization becomes articulated at this point with the interdisciplinary, as it is necessary to defy the sacrosanct boundaries in order to allow the linguistic model to infiltrate throughout the field of the human sciences. As everything is linguistic, everyone is linguistic and the world is language. This interdisciplinariness, that infringes upon the Humboltdian model of the university in which each discipline has its strictly delineated place and is related to the delegitimation of meta-narratives, creates a veritable enthusiasm for all variants of formalism, for knowledge immanent to itself. The key word of the times is ‘communication’ that, even beyond the journal bearing the same title is evocative of the multi-disciplinary euphoria of this period. Levi-Strauss was the first to formulate this unifying program for the human sciences in the postwar period. To be sure, the constellation he elaborated gravitated around the social anthropology that he represented and that alone was capable of leading this totalising enterprise. The basis for anthropology’s particular vocation, according to Levi-Strauss, is its ability to bridge the natural and human sciences and, therefore, it does not reject being classed among the natural sciences at the final call of judgement. Strengthened by his fruitful encounter with Jakobson during the war in the USA, Levi-Strauss privileges the linguistic model within his anthropological project. His search for invariants and his paradigmatic and syntactic deconstructions incorporate the teaching of Jakobson’s phonology, for example binary opposites and differential variations. His contribution ensured that linguistics engendered a particularly fecund area of scholarship during the post-war period. Although Levi-Strauss guides anthropology in a cultural direction, due to the emphasis placed on language and the decoding of signs, he does not, however, neglect his ambition for unity. His quest for mental perimeters also seeks out the field of biology. The wholeness, to which Levi-Strauss aspires, incorporating also Marcel Mauss’s ambition to construct the ‘total social fact,’ thus aims to embrace the entire scientific domain. It also aims to finally make an anthropology of the Science of Man; a federation of auxiliary sciences strengthened by logical-mathematical models, the contribution of phonology and by a limitless field of study, able at the same time to encompass societies devoid of history or writing across the globe.

The anthropologist is therefore able to access the unconscious of social practices and can reinstate the complex combinatories of the rules in force in all human societies. Such an ambition represented a major challenge for all sciences involved in the study of human beings. It also encouraged competitive reactions to this program from within other fields of knowledge or, on the other hand, a dependency upon a process of conquest with the aim of attaining a standing for those still marginalised disciplines in search of legitimation. The excessive nature of this ambition matches the difficulty faced by anthropology at its outset to position itself within the institution. Although anthropology alone did not succeed in emancipating the human sciences, structuralism, taking up the challenge, in fact became the common paradigm if not a common school for a whole range of disciplines while converging to construct a whole and unified science.

In 1953, against a backdrop of open crisis, Lacan gives his Rome Report . He is charged with paving an attractive and specifically French way towards the unconscious. In order to win this gamble, he searches for foundations, for institutional and theoretical guarantees. Lacan heads on the quest for lifelines. Therefore he is responsible for breathing new life into psychoanalysis, for curbing its crisis by using a strategy of offence and a dynamic of alliance. While Lacan employs all the means at his disposal he nonetheless uses any available intellectual material to turn things to his advantage, here proving rather more successful.

Lacan’s re-reading of Freud is inscribed in the Saussurian tradition, prioritising the synchronic dimension. With this, he shares in the structuralist paradigm and prompts a new reading of Freud that no longer privileges the importance of stage theory but submits this to a basic oedipal structure characterized by its universality, independent of the relationship to temporal or spatial contingencies and preceding all history.

Contrary to Saussure, for whom the primary object was language, Lacan privileges speech, a displacement necessary due to the therapeutic practice. But this word does not represent the utterings of a conscious subject in control of his speech, but rather the opposite. Speech is forever cut off from all access to reality. They merely convey the signifiers that rebound between them. Man, therefore, only exists according to his symbolic function that, in turn, should apprehend him. Lacan thus presents a radical reversal of the notion of the subject as a product of language and its effect, as implied by the notorious proposition that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language.’ There is, therefore, no point in searching for the human essence anywhere else but in language. This is what Lacan meant when he says, ‘language is an organ;’ ‘the human being is characterized by the fact that his organs are external to himself.’ This symbolic function, upon which man’s identity is founded, is opposed by Lacan in his Rome lecture to the language of bees that is entirely based on the stability of its relation to the reality it signifies. Lacan finds in the Saussurian sign, cut off from the referent, the semi-ontological kernel of the human condition.

This new vision of a decentered, split subject is compatible with the notion of the subject being developed in other structuralist fields within the human sciences. This subject is in some ways fictive, not existing outside of its symbolic dimension and of the signifier. Although the signifier is prioritised over the signified, there is nonetheless no question of the latter’s abandonment. These two different levels therefore interact, a process that Lacan relates to Freud’s discovery of the unconscious thus making of him, in Lacan’s eyes, the first structuralist. The signifier even makes the signified undergo a sort of passion. As becomes clear here, Lacan submits Saussure to a certain twisting of his concepts and in as much as the notion of the sliding of the signified under the signifier would not have made sense to Saussure, so too the notion of the unconscious escaped him. Lacan takes up the two big rhetorical figures of metaphor and metonomy used by Jakobson to highlight the deployment of discourse and assimilates the two to the functionary mechanism of the unconscious that, structured like language, situates itself in total isology from the rules of the latter.

3. A Global Semiological Project: 1964–66

In 1964 there were several breakthroughs in the classical schema. Structuralism now has the possibility of appearing to be a program shared by several disciplines. It is, in fact, in 1964 that the new university at Nanterre was opened, the very center of literary modernity. It is in the same year that a special edition of Communications appears, edited by Roland Barthes and dedicated to semiology. Barthes here defines ‘structuralist activity’ as the conscience of paradox and the denaturalisation of meaning. At the same time, Lacan, definitively excommunicated by the International Freudian Association, establishes the ECF (l’Ecole de la cause freudienne). His seminar moves from Sainte-Anne to the Ecole Normale Superieure at the rue d’Ulm, the epicenter of humanities studies that had fallen prey to the veritable fever of scientism and epistemology favoured by Louis Althusser. Lacan was not only welcomed by Althusser there but he was also welcomed to the bosom of Marxism in a text entitled ‘Lacan and Freud’ in which he subscribes to the new direction taken by psychoanalysis as defined by Lacan—seeing in the latter’s return to Freud the mirroring of his own return to Marx. It is in the same year that Levi-Strauss embarks upon his signature work, Mythologiques, a tetralogy on myths beginning with the publication of The Raw and the Cooked in which mythical thought is described to be structured-like language.

It is around philosophy that the formulation of a global program going beyond the positivity of any specific discipline in the social sciences can be found. At the Ecole Normale Superieure d’Ulm, the epicenter of the circumvention of the strictly classical Sorbonne, the intellectual home of structuralism and that of Lacan and Derrida, philosophy around Louis Althusser is to become the ‘Theory of Theoretical Practice,’ the appropriation of the contribution of the new social sciences and their internal subversion. It is due to the return to Marx, evident in the seminars beginning at the outset of the 1960s, that Althusser proposes re-Reading Marx by establishing his work as the advent of Science following the epistemological break discernible in it around 1845. Two versions of Marx are, therefore proposed of which Althusser refers only to the second, that of science, structural causality and over-determination. Althusser reads Marx in a way that suggests a theoretical antihumanism and a ‘process devoid of either subject or object’ as many of the themes being elaborated within the structuralist project of the 1960s in which man is spoken rather than speaking.

The other attempt led by the structuralist program in the effort to globalise itself is led by Michel Foucault during structuralism’s peak year—1966—the year in which The Order of Things was published. Foucault, thus, announces the death of philosophy and its substitution by active thought, brought about due to logic and linguistics. Foucault prioritises two (social) sciences in particular, psychoanalysis and ethnology in that he sees them as ‘counter-sciences’ that enable the destabilising of both history and of the subject. Foucault sees humanism as our ‘middle-ages’ and the figure of man as a transitory one destined to disappear. It is once again within the figure of the unconscious of the human sciences that their truth may be uncovered behind their illusory pretension to reinstate man in a command made forever impossible by the three narcissistic wounds provoked by Galileo, Darwin and Freud.

The structuralist program is, however, deconstructed from within itself in that it departs from a principled double negation that could not but cause it to fall into an aporia of the subject and of historicity. The ontologisation of structure that resulted, that which Paul Ricoeur called ‘Kantianism without the transcendental subject,’ could not but lead it into a dead end. I support Paul Ricoeur’s warning against the untimely dissociation of the absolute complementarity of the explanatory level, represented by semiological analysis and the interpretative stage or the reappropriation by the subject of the meaning of text, allowing him to endow it not only with meaning but also with signification. The joining of the semiological and hermeneutic approach enables a reappropriation of the discourse’s various components. Paul Ricoeur presents them as a ‘quadrilateral of discourse:’ (a) the speaker as a singular event of speech; (b) the interlocutor’s bringing out of the dialogical character of the discourse; (c) meaning or the very theme of the discourse which is the unique and exclusive dimension of structuralism to the exclusion of all three other dimensions; and (d) reference or that being spoken about. This kind of reappropriation allows for the emergence, not of a transparent subject or master of meaning, but of an ontology of action based upon a triangular relation systemised by Ricoeur in Oneself as Another, the relationship drawn between the self (ipse), the other (alterity) and the institutional foundations (community). This perspective thus seeks to ‘regroup’ the metaphysics of the act, interpersonal ethics and the problem of social ties, a task made all the more pressing by the discovery in the twentieth century of the ‘fallibility’ of democracy. Paul Ricoeur thus enables us to develop action open to historicity, creativity and to narrativity in order to understand better the constitution of both our personal and collective narrative identities.


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