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Structuralism suggests that interactions, discourses, and social formations can be understood as self-contained systems. Jean Piaget (1971, 5) identified three distinctive assumptions: the wholeness of a structure of elements; that structures are subject to transformations; and that these structures are self-regulating.
Piaget further distinguished between a weak or ‘global’ form of structuralism and a strong or ‘analytic’ structuralism. Whereas the sociologist Umile Durkheim’s structuralism is weak, speaking of the social whole as a union of components, the anthropologist Claude Luvi-Strauss’s structuralism is strong because it refers to specific rules of composition that account for particular cultural practices. Most important, structuralism proper assumes that the diverse observable aspects of social life bear witness to generative deep structures.
The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure originated the prototypical formulation of structuralism, describing language as a combinatorial system of concrete expressions (‘parole’) and an underlying system (‘langue’). The transformational- generative grammar of Noam Chomsky has been an influential variant of a strong, analytic structuralism in linguistics. But the most elaborate application of structuralism to social life occurred in anthropology, where Luvi-Strauss (1963) accounted for myths in terms of their constituent units by analogy to sentences. Structuralist approaches have been especially manifest in critical traditions of the social sciences.
In its strong sense, structuralism became a major influence on two interrelated forms of media and communication research – qualitative textual analysis and cultural studies. Textual media analyses draw on formalist models to indicate how form carries content, further exploring the interrelations between textual and cognitive structures. In cultural studies, structuralism is one of two constitutive paradigms, the other being culturalism (Hall 1980).
Structuralism provides a conceptual matrix to account for the combined dynamism and stability of contemporary culture and society. As a prototype of interdisciplinary scholarship, structuralism has developed alongside and in dialogue with media and communication research
- Hall, S. (1980). Cultural studies: Two paradigms. Media, Culture and Society, 2, 57–72.
- Luvi-Strauss, C. (1963). Structural anthropology. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Piaget, J. (1971). Structuralism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.