What are the differences between Structuralism and Post-Structuralism?

Structuralism assumes that communication can be understood by applying a set of rules. It attempts to make meanings by looking for structures. It also assumes that meaning is a cultural construct rather than intrinsic in the text or language.

Structuralism arose from the linguistic studies of, amongst others, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 - 1913) and Roland Barthes (1915 - 1980). They developed theories that resulted in semiotics the study of signs that are still helpful tools for textual and linguistic analysis today.

Ferdinand de Saussure:

In his linguistic studies, Saussure introduced the key terms signifier and signified. He developed the notion that the link between signifier and signified is arbitrary. This link, Saussure decided, is influenced by cultural factors. For example, how we interpret the representation of gender in a text depends on the position or perception of that gender within the audience's society.

Roland Barthes:

Barthes developed Saussaure's ideas of signifier and signified by introducing the terms denotation and connotation. He also introduced another level of semiotic meaning that of myth or ideology. A myth or an ideology is a belief or belief system based on shared cultural meanings. Roland Barthes produced his ground-breaking study Mythologies in 1957.

Another structuralism interpretation is based on narrative theory which includes the study of narrative and narrative structure. Various theorists developed different approaches to narrative deconstruction. Vladimir Propp (1895 - 1970), a Russian theorist, developed the idea, based on folk-tales but then applied it to all narratives, that characters provide one of thirty-one suggested functions within a text. They are a construct, a narrative tool.

So overall, this school of thought was based on the fundamental insistence on frameworks and structures as access points to truth.

However, post-structuralism is a school of thought that responded negatively to structuralism's insistence on frameworks and structures. Post-structuralism emphasized the instability of meaning. While structuralism regarded language and communication as a closed system, post-structuralism identified an inevitable gap between signifier and signified. In post-structuralism, the reader and not the writer became a paramount: the author's intended meaning, because it could never be truly known, was less important than the reader's perceived meaning.

Like other postmodern theories that interrogated cultural assumptions, post-structuralists believe in studying both the text and the systems of knowledge that produced that text. Post-structuralism is associated with many French writers and thinkers, namely Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984), and Jacques Derrida (1930 - ). However, these theorists would deny their involvement with and even the existence of post-structuralism, making it, like other post-modern approaches, difficult to define and deal with.

Foucault always insisted that he was not a post-structuralist critic but rather a genealogist. But his analysis of discourse owes a lot to Saussure's insights into the construction of meaning. Discourse unlike textuality, not only deals with the text, but also with the context. Discursive researchers focus on the question of how rather than why. They do not look for casual explanations but instead, they try to understand the working of an incredibly complex mechanism that creates subordinates and produces hierarchical power relations. Foucault rejected the objective truth and so called scientific truth claims made by Marxism which is based on economic determinism.

Derrida focused on the binary pairs that make meaning, arguing that rather than being polar opposites, each was dependent on the other for meaning and (we might say) existence. He also showed how in all binaries, one of the terms was always subordinated to the other (man/woman, good/evil). To describe how meaning is produced, Derrida developed the term difference, meaning to differ and to defer.

Barthes post-structuralist period is best represented in his essay The Death of the Author in which he argues that textual analysis does not deal with the life of the author, but dwells in the way it is composed, on the ways it draws attention to itself, and in what manner it interrelates with the reader. The shift in Barthes theory is thus from the author to the text and finally to the reader. For Barthes, the interpretation of the reader is far more important than the author's intention. He argues that intertexts in fictional works are anonymous, untraceable and yet already read: they are quotations without inverted commas. The plurality of texts thus invites a plurality of meanings and undermines, indeed dispels the author.

Watch this video on Vimeo where you can understand this topic better with a real life example of a coffee shop

More useful resources

A Gentle Introduction to Structuralism, Postmodernism And All That
English Literature: Jacques Derrida: Structuralism/Poststructuralism
Structuralism and its Application to Literary Theory
Structuralism and Functionalism in Psychological Studies

Written By: Pippa Timmons (Stockport, United Kingdom)

Useful books on Amazon

Structuralism and Poststructuralism For Beginners
Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics
Postmodernism For Beginners By Jim Powell
Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film by Seymour Chatman

Go Back to Life, People and Religion for more

Edited by: Rajesh Bihani ( Find me on Google+ )

Disclaimer: The suggestions in the article(wherever applicable) are for informational purposes only. They are not intended as medical or any other type of advice