Theories of Structuralism Research Paper

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Structuralism is an intellectual tendency that seeks to understand and explain social reality in terms of social structures. Influenced by the rising prestige of mid-nineteenth century science, theories of structuralism focused on structural form as an organizing principle underlying whole cultures and societies. Structural form is analytically distinct from cultural content such as meanings and norms, although culture and structure can be defined in terms of each other as, e.g., in cultural structuralism or in the idea of structure as a cultural pattern or model. In contrast to both culture and the reductionist view of society as an aggregate of individuals, social structure is defined as the forms of social relations (e.g., difference, inequality) among a set of constituent social elements such as positions, units, levels, regions and locations, and social formations.

Structuralism proceeds on two analytic levels: (a) as a method of analysis or procedure of knowing (epistemology), and (b) as an ontology or metaphysical design of social reality. It approaches its subject matter in terms of two meta-theoretical perspectives on social reality: (a) social structure as an empirical or historical reality, and (b) social structure as a model or representation of reality. The conceptual property space created by these analytical dimensions generates a fourfold typology that accommodates the major theories of structuralism existing today: (a1) sociological structuralism, (a2) symbolic structuralism, (b1) historical structuralism, and (b2) orthodox structuralism. Since the major symbolic and orthodox structuralist theories privilege simultaneity and synchrony over history and diachrony, b1 will only be discussed briefly in contrast to genetic structuralism in Sect. 2.

1. Sociological Structuralism

Marx and Durkheim are the two most important theorists to introduce structural concepts into the study of society. Both conceived of social structure in holistic and nonreductionist terms, i.e., not as an aggregation of individual actors, but as social facts sui generis, explainable only by other social facts. For Marx, the central social fact was the political economy; for Durkheim it was social ties and norms. Both were committed to the use of positivist scientific procedures in the study of society and believed in the necessity of empirical evidence and the importance of establishing objective causal connections between the phenomena to be explained and the structures explaining them. Both offered an analysis of the structural features of modern societies and were centrally concerned with the transition from premodern to modern forms of social organization. However, they developed different structural concepts and theories of historical and structural transformation.

1.1 Marx’s Materialist Conception Of History

Marx formulated the transition from feudal to capitalist society as a historical and structural shift in the mode of production, a high-level structural concept comprising the productive forces as the active source of continuous change and the social relations of production as the historical outcome of conscious human productive activity or self-transforming praxis. The developing contradictions between ever-changing productive forces and increasingly constraining social relations generate the possibility of the transformation of a given mode of production and the emergence of a new mode of production. Structural features such as the division of labor, the ownership and control of capital, the class structure of society, and the ideological representation of class conflict constitute a sociohistorical totality which tends to change with the progressive transformation of the mode of production. Resistance to change by social classes invested and interested in the status quo is the most proximate cause of class conflict and the possibility of social revolution. Marx’s ([1859] 1904) reliance on the Hegelian causal mechanism of dialectical contradiction and on the internal dynamics of the mode of production led him to overestimate the likelihood of revolutionary change and to underestimate the relatively autonomous role of the state, legal institutions, and social movements in mediating between pressures for change and the collective accommodation to the status quo. The use of a self-transformative principle of dialectical causality intrinsic to the economic sphere to explain historical social change led to the charge that Marx’s theory is one-dimensional, self-confirming, and not independently falsifiable or testable, hence worthless as a scientific theory. It can be argued, however, that the rise of the regulatory state in the twentieth century as well as specific forms of radical state intervention under state socialist or national socialist regimes interrupted global capitalist expansion, thus providing the negative evidence necessary to test and refute Marxian economic predictions. By the same token, the collapse of state socialism and the worldwide decline of regulation and intervention under neoliberal auspices have spurred the resumption of globalization. These historical processes, in turn, are likely to confirm certain Marxian expectations and to contribute to the theoretical rehabilitation of Marxian theory.

1.2 Durkheim’s Sociological Realism (Holism)

Durkheim ([1893] 1964) undertook to explain the transition to modern industrial society by invoking a different set of structural forces: population growth due to the agricultural revolution, the resulting rise of population density, the increase in the rate of social interaction, competition, and division of labor among differentiated and specialized social functions, and the emergence of social relations and associations among social groups and occupations. This transition from the mechanical solidarity of segmented but undifferentiated societies to the ‘moral density’ and organic solidarity of highly differentiated ones implied a structural theory of social change which was perfected in his work on the social causes of suicide. The resulting theory of social integration continues to be tested by empirical research. Durkheim formulated a set of methodological rules designed to put sociology on a scientific footing. His conception of social structure as a nonreducible ‘social fact’ was paralleled by culturalist notions of collective representations, collective conscience, as well as cognitive and normative constraints which he referred to as ‘ways of acting, thinking, and feeling.’ This formulation implied a theory of institutions combining structural and normative elements as ‘social facts,’ a theoretical framework transcending the distinction between structure and culture, just as Marx acknowledged the constant interplay of collective action, consciousness, ideology, and structure. Elements of Durkheim’s and Marx’s structuralism reappear in contemporary approaches, e.g. Bourdieu’s (1989) constructivist structuralism and Giddens’s (1984) theory of structuration.

1.3 Modern Network Structuralism

An important development in contemporary sociological structuralism is social network analysis (Scott 1991). Social networks, defined as the patterns of social relations among a set of actors or nodes, are generic social structures. Networks differ from organizations and institutions in that they are informal, private, self-organizing, noncontractual, unregulated, unaccountable, nontransparent, and typically of limited focus, size, and duration. Networks are the least structured social forms that can be said to possess any structure at all, yet whose structural configurations affect the behavior of their members. While networks are typically seen as real, empirical structures, they can be represented by formal models. As such, they are closely related to concepts like ‘intersecting social circles’ and the ‘web of group affiliations’ in Simmel’s (1971, p. 23) formal sociology and Blau’s (1998) theory of structural sociology.

2. Symbolic Structuralism

Sociological empiricism and positivism gave rise to a countervailing epistemological tendency claiming that the holistic structures identified by the new social sciences were nothing but cognitive models of reality since they necessarily had to rely on categories that represented, constituted, or constructed reality. This resurgence of neo-Kantian philosophy influenced Weber, Simmel, and Levi-Strauss, among others, and served to justify the rejection of positivist causality and historical materialism.

Symbolic structuralism is a method of analysis that conceives of structure as a model or representation of reality. Typical is Saussure ([1915] 1966), who introduced certain methodological innovations into the study of language that would move linguistics from a descriptive historical discipline to an analytical, scientific one. The linguistic sign was seen as a holistic combination of two structural elements: a form that signifies (signifier) and a concept to which the form refers (signified). The relationship between signifier and signified is not natural or fixed, but social and arbitrary, hence infinitely variable. Linguistic symbols are meaningful only insofar as they produce identity-in-contrast, binary oppositions (difference), and formal distinctions. This method shifts the analytic focus from such metaphysical concepts as ‘object,’ ‘reality,’ or ‘thing-in-itself’ to the formal properties and the internal structural relations of sign systems. The content and use-value of symbols and objects are subordinated to their relational identity, their position, function, and exchange value within a given system.

A little-noted aspect of Saussure’s linguistic structuralism is its origin in the categories of the capitalist economy, especially the ‘radical duality’ of economic history and the political economy as a system (1966, p. 79). Both economics and linguistics are ‘confronted with the notion of value’; both are ‘concerned with a system for equating things of different orders—labor and wages in one and a signified and signifier in the other’ (Saussure 1966, p.79, italics in original).

Saussure elevates the duality of system and history to central principles of linguistic analysis: the distinction between language and speech, and the priority of synchrony over diachrony. This methodological imperative entails the epistemological precedence of the code over its application, of the structure of the system over its origins and transformation, of exogenous over endogenous change. ‘The linguist who wishes to understand a state must discard all knowledge of everything that produced it and ignore diachrony’ (Saussure 1966, p. 81). Historical change involves merely the displacement of one form or structure by another. History becomes eventless history.

Piaget (1970) showed that these structuralist methods spread from linguistics to other disciplines, e.g., gestalt psychology, psychoanalysis (e.g., the structure of the unconscious in Freud and Lacan), and structural anthropology (Levi-Strauss). Piaget’s (1970) own genetic structuralism replaces the historical study of social change with the notion of structure as a system of transformations. Three key elements here are the idea of wholeness, of structured wholes as determined by internal rules of transformation, and of the relative autonomy and self-regulation of structures. Piaget tacitly acknowledges the transition of structuralism from a method to an ontology by asserting that even though ‘structures consist in their coming to be; that is, their being ‘‘under construction,’’’ they nevertheless depend on higher-level structures; i.e., ‘on a prior formation of the instruments of transformation—transformation rules or laws’ (1970, pp. 140–1). Distinct from genetic structuralism, historical structuralism (Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel and the Annales School) assumes the determinative influence of historical deep structures such as the longue duree.

The epistemological ambiguity of structures as models of reality or as pregiven structures appears in other sociological approaches, for example Georg Simmel’s (1971) social forms and social types, Max Weber’s ‘ideal types’ of religion and rationality, and Alfred Schutz’s ‘typifications,’ the ‘first-order constructs’ (the primary, common-sense construction of social reality by participants) and ‘second-order constructs’ (the secondary, derivative social construction by the scientific observer) of the structures of the lifeworld (see Dosse 1997, p. 42).

3. Orthodox Structuralism

The convergence of structure as a model or representation of reality and the ontological view of structure as substance constitutes orthodox structuralism. The analytic differences between structure and system are blurred. The idealist version is best represented by the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, the materialist version by Louis Althusser.

3.1 Levi-Strauss And Anthropological Structuralism

Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology was influenced by Saussure’s structuralist linguistics by way of Roman Jacobson and the phonological school of Prague as well as by Durkheim and Marcel Mauss (Dosse 1997, pp. 21–2, 29–30). In his initial attempt to formulate a method for producing a model of social reality, Levi-Strauss develops a systemic concept of social structure implying the internal interdependence of elements or ‘elementary structures’ as, for example, in kinship systems. This conceptualization set the stage for the idea of a ‘formal structural homology,’ the reproducibility of structures on different levels such that a series of transformations can produce a group of models of the same general type, ascending from the ‘order of elements’ in the social structure to the ‘order of orders,’ and ultimately to some universal order (Levi-Strauss 1967, pp. 302–9). For Levi-Strauss, the advantage of structural models is that they make it possible to arrive at general laws and to specify the internal logic of social systems such that all the observed facts are immediately visible, an assumption shared with gestalt psychology and other approaches based on a coherence concept of truth rather than on a positivist correspondence concept of truth.

The search for general laws leads Levi-Strauss to shift his attention from the study of conscious phenomena (speech, opinions, ideology) to that of the unconscious infrastructure of cognitive forms, basic codes, and myths. Here, then, the reality of social structure is but the surface manifestation of the deep structure of the mind. Ultimately, Levi-Strauss can be said to take the structuralist model of reality from the agnostic dualism of Kant’s a priori categories back to the pre-Socratic belief that reality can be found only in timeless, changeless ‘Being.’ Thus, it would be logically absurd to see history and social change as anything other than the recurrent rearrangements of internal relations and structural building blocks.

3.2 Althusser’s Marxist Structuralism

The immediate textual source for the adaptation of Marxism to structuralism is Frederick Engels’ formulation of historical materialism in terms of the complex interaction between the economic base and the political and ideological superstructure of society. In this tripartite distinction between relatively autonomous regions of a given social formation, each representing its own form of practice, ‘the economic element finally asserts itself as necessary’ (Engels, in Heydebrand 1981, p. 88). Althusser adapts Engels’ dialectical concept of interaction among levels of social structure by developing a deterministic (rather than probabilistic) scientific model of ‘contradiction and overdetermination.’ This model rejects empiricism, construes dialectics as a dualism of opposites, separates ‘science’ from ideology, and asserts that the superstructure ‘is relatively autonomous but the economy is determinant in the last instance’ (Althusser 1970, p. 177). Since the structuralist concept of causality is deterministic rather than stochastic, a ‘structure is always the co-presence of all its elements and their relations of dominance and subordination—it is an ever pre-given structure’ (Althusser 1970, p. 255). For Althusser, theory is the work of transforming ideology into science. This ‘theoretical practice’ is subject only to its own determinations and is prior to, and independent of, the base–superstructure problematic. This formulation of materialist structuralism occurs at such a high level of abstraction that it becomes practically indistinguishable from idealist structuralism. Althusser later recognized this problem and rejected his notion of theoretical practice as a ‘theoreticist error, i.e., as an epistemological quest for categorical constants and orthodox theoretical principles that falsely impose a fixed, ontological order on the ‘real object’ by means of a reified ‘object of knowledge.’

The controversies surrounding orthodox structuralism as an intellectual and ideological tendency have contributed to the clarification of structural concepts in the social sciences, but failed to formulate testable propositions. Sociological, symbolic, and historical structuralism, however, continue to exercise considerable theoretical influence in the social sciences and in the post-structuralism of Derrida and Foucault.


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