The term "structuralism" is a related term that describes a particular philosophical/literary movement or moment. The term appeared in the works of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and gave rise in France to the "structuralist movement," which influenced the thinking of other writers such as Louis Althusser, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, as well as the structural Marxism of Nicos Poulantzas, most of whom disavowed themselves as being a part of this movement.
The origins of structuralism connect with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure on linguistics, along with the linguistics of the Prague and Moscow schools. In brief, Saussure's structural linguistics propounded three related concepts.
- Saussure argued for a distinction between langue (an idealized abstraction of language) and parole (language as actually used in daily life). He argued that the "sign" was composed of both a signified, an abstract concept or idea, and a "signifier", the perceived sound/visual image.
- Because different languages have different words to describe the same objects or concepts, there is no intrinsic reason why a specific sign is used to express a given signifier. It is thus "arbitrary".
- Signs thus gain their meaning from their relationships and contrasts with other signs. As he wrote, "in language, there are only differences 'without positive terms.'"
Proponents of structuralism would argue that a specific domain of culture may be understood by means of a structure—modelled on language—that is distinct both from the organizations of reality and those of ideas or the imagination—the "third order". In Lacan's psychoanalytic theory, for example, the structural order of "the Symbolic" is distinguished both from "the Real" and "the Imaginary"; similarly, in Althusser's Marxist theory, the structural order of the capitalist mode of production is distinct both from the actual, real agents involved in its relations and from the ideological forms in which those relations are understood.
Blending Freud and Saussure, the French (post)structuralist Jacques Lacan applied structuralism to psychoanalysis and, in a different way, Jean Piaget applied structuralism to the study of psychology. But Jean Piaget, who would better define himself as constructivist, considers structuralism as "a method and not a doctrine" because for him "there exists no structure without a construction, abstract or genetic".
Although the French theorist Louis Althusser is often associated with a brand of structural social analysis which helped give rise to "structural Marxism", such association was contested by Althusser himself in the Italian foreword to the second edition of Reading Capital. In this foreword Althusser states the following:
Despite the precautions we took to distinguish ourselves from the 'structuralist' ideology ..., despite the decisive intervention of categories foreign to 'structuralism' ..., the terminology we employed was too close in many respects to the 'structuralist' terminology not to give rise to an ambiguity. With a very few exceptions ... our interpretation of Marx has generally been recognized and judged, in homage to the current fashion, as 'structuralist'... We believe that despite the terminological ambiguity, the profound tendency of our texts was not attached to the 'structuralist' ideology.
In a later development, feminist theorist Alison Assiter enumerated four ideas that she says are common to the various forms of structuralism. First, that a structure determines the position of each element of a whole. Second, that every system has a structure. Third, structural laws deal with co-existence rather than change. Fourth, structures are the "real things" that lie beneath the surface or the appearance of meaning.