Tripped up by “structuralism”

In what is likely to be another blow to my classroom ethos, I need to correct an error I introduced into the discussion in 5531 Composition Pedagogy last Wednesday.

A classmate asked about what “structuralism” is. I confidently described it as arising from the linguistics of the Frenchman Ferdinand de Saussure, embodied famously in the work of the Prague School (a movement, not an institution) of linguistic theory, a leading figure of which was Roman Jacobson. So far, so good.

But then I characterized it roughly as the notion that we can understand a subject (like language or culture) by the structure uniting its component parts.

That’s where I think I went a bit wrong. What I described was probably as much “reductionism” as “structuralism.”

Here is an excerpt of a proper description of “structuralism”:

[Structuralism] assumes that the individual phenomena of human experience exist, and are intelligible, not in isolation, but rather through their interconnections. They can be accounted for rationally—rather than just described and classified, or intuitively grasped in their unique peculiarity—if one looks at them in their relational character, sees their connections as constituting a structure, and finds that behind the apparently endless variation of their different shapes and combinations, there is a limited set of abstract patterns subject to simple general rules.

Pierre Swiggers et al. “History of Linguistics” International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. William J. Frawley. 2003.

In other words, the structure is something other than the components, perhaps another layer.

With a bit of reading, I gathered that this perspective is the same pursued by anthropologists and others in the Western tradition who embraced structuralism.

Sorry if I sowed any confusion.


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