What is Structuralism?
Structuralism (otherwise known as ‘structural anthropology’), is a theory that causes many people difficulty. This is perfectly understandable since it deals with some pretty advanced concepts, however it is an important part of anthropological understanding, so you should try your best to learn the basics. Hopefully this guide will serve as a relatively easy introduction, so you can rest easy knowing at least what structuralism actually is. We’ll try to avoid using unnecessarily bloated language and stick to the key points so you can focus on understanding the concepts without reading the same line a hundred times! (if you’re having trouble with anthropological language in general, then check out our handy glossary of terms here).
So, What is Structuralism?
Structuralism is a school of thought based on Claude Lévi-Strauss‘ idea that there are deep structures within every society, which cause patterns that can then be seen across all cultures. Lévi-Strauss believed that these patterns were due to the unchanging structure of the human mind, which underlies all acts of human behaviour. These mental structures would then be considered the source of the social structures that people follow unconsciously. He argued that the human mental structure (or ‘metastructure’) is in part created by a system of binary oppositions (light & dark, life & death etc.) which allow people to make sense of the world around them.
So in short, ‘since all human minds work in the same way, all cultures have similar structures’.
You may be wondering what the difference is between structuralism and structural functionalism. The difference here is that structural functionalism seeks to simply identify the structures within a society, whereas structuralism tries to identify the links between mental structures and social structures.
What Influenced Structuralism?
The basic framework for Lévi-Strauss’ ideas were largely influenced by the work of structural linguistics, including that from Ferdinand de Saussure, Émile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss and Roman Jakobson. Inspired by the shifting focus in structural linguistics from individual speech to the role of grammar, Lévi-Strauss wanted to examine the unconscious structures beneath cultures (like grammar structures embedded within language). His examination of binary oppositions was also influenced in part by structural linguistics; Roman Jakobson (among others) had been analysing sounds based on the absence or presence of features, such as ‘voiced’ vs. ‘voiceless’. The binary oppositions concept in structuralism had also been influenced by dialectics described by Marx and Hegel. According to Hegel, every situation has two opposing ideas and a resolution (which Fichte had called the ‘thesis, antithesis and synthesis’).
Mythology, Kinship and Marriage
Lévi-Strauss examined many aspects of cultures to identify the structures within, including myths, kinship systems and marriage rules. In regards to mythology, he argued that when broken down myths hold a series of units (mythemes) and the relationships between these units create understanding. In this sense, myths from all cultures could have the potential to create similar understandings based on these relationships of mythemes. These ideas are explored thoroughly by Lévi-Strauss in his four volume work ‘Mythologiques’.
When considering kinship, Lévi-Strauss actually drew influence from Mauss’ ideas of reciprocity (gift exchange). By examining the nature of gift exchange, Lévi-Strauss observed fundamental traits of the human mind; in addition to the fact that people follow rules, gift exchange is considered the simplest way to create social relationships which bonds the giver and receiver into a continuing relationship. He used these ideas to theorise that exchange is the universal basis of kinship systems, and the structure of kinship systems depend on the type of marriage rules applied (structures are universal, but their realisation is culturally specific). Lévi-Strauss’ kinship model became known as alliance theory and emphasised kinship by law/choice, the opposite of this is descent theory which emphasises kinship by blood.
Lévi-Strauss’ ideas tried to offer an overall explanation for cross-cousin marriage, sister-exchange, dual organisation and exogamy (where marriage is only allowed outside of the social group). He argued that marriage creates social structures because it is generally arranged between groups, not just spouses, and the regular exchange of (usually) women follows the rules of reciprocity that create giver/receiver statuses that continue social relationships. He also described a unit of kinship called the ‘atom of kinship’ which consists of the nuclear family together with the wife’s brother (‘mother’s brother’). The ‘mother’s brother’ plays a crucial role in alliance theory, since he would decide who his daughter would marry and therefore direct the exchange. Again it must be remembered that structuralism is interested not in the family, but the relationships between families that create social structures.
By drawing on Lévi-Strauss’ work, Edmund Leach and Rodney Needham formed the British brand of structuralism. Leach turned his focus away from looking solely for universal structures, and towards people’s actual lives, arguing that Lévi-Strauss’ approach was too ambitious and reflected ideologies instead of actual practice. He also argued that Lévi-Strauss’ model of kinship and marriage was too simplified, and had overlooked their significance within the social system by only describing the symbolic role of marriage exchanges. Leach argued that marriage could also be considered economic or political transactions connected to rights and status. He then went on to challenge whether the structures created by marriage rules would actually be the same in different social contexts.
Critiques of Structuralism
Although structuralism is recognised as an important anthropological theory, it has of course attracted criticism. By focusing on the significance of affinal ties, the structuralist alliance theory ignored descent and genealogical ties, which is the more prominent in certain societies. It is even argued that some Middle-Eastern societies cannot be accurately described by either.
As explained before with the British neo-structuralism, there was criticism of Lévi-Strauss’ search for universal structures that ignored actual practice. Kuper asked why, if all minds are structured in the same way, why then do societies not act accordingly and structure their kinship systems around exchanges and alliances? Also, by considering Mauss’ explanation that different cultures use all kinds of gifts to make and hold relationships, it could surely be argued that social bonds of reciprocity do not have to rest primarily on bride exchange.
One of the biggest criticisms of Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism is the fact that its main points were formulated in a way which could not really be proved or disproved. No evidence was put forward for the existence of the mental structures that are fundamental to the theory, they were just assumed by Lévi-Strauss.
Key Reading for Structural Anthropology
Now that you hopefully understand a little more about structuralism, you may wish to delve a little deeper and expand your knowledge further. Here are a few key texts that deal with structuralism or ideas essential to structural anthropology:
- De Saussure, F. (1959). Course in General Linguistics. Charles Bally et al (eds.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Durkheim, E. & Mauss, M. (1963). Primitive Classification. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963). Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963). The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966). The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1976). Structural Anthropology, Volume II. New York: Basic Books.
- Mauss, M. (1967). The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: Norton.
- Pettit, P. (1975). The Concept of Structuralism: A Critical Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press.
We sincerely hope that this guide has been of use to you, and that you can walk away knowing a little more about such an influential theory. Structuralism isn’t the easiest concept to master in anthropology, but at least now you probably know the basics. If you found this guide helpful or think we could improve it, then leave a comment and let us know what you think.
Don’t forget to follow this website (which you can do from the foot of this page) to keep up to date with anthropological research, and check out Harris-Jones Anthropology on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ too, thank you.