The Four Main Ideas Underlying Structuralism

Structuralism is a current of knowledge in which everything human beings say, do, think, or feel is due to a structure of underlying common rules. Continue reading to find out more about the study of this interesting philosophy.
The Four Main Ideas Underlying Structuralism

Last update: 20 October, 2022

Several approaches strive to understand the rules that govern human thought and action. Structuralism is one of the most significant ones. This is because the analysis of human experience, language, and culture has been fundamental to an understanding of the human species.

This approach to research and reflection in the social sciences emerged in the mid-20th century in Europe. However, some people believe its foundations were laid as early as 1916 by philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure in his book entitled Course in General Linguistics. Today’s article will review the most important ideas of structuralism.

“Words are a pretext. It’s the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.”


The definition of structuralism

Structuralism is a movement that focuses on how humans learn from a social perspective. Its main characteristic is an angular approach to language as a vertebral element in the development of human activity.

The emergence and expansion of structuralism have been very important for the constitution of the main currents of thought in the world today. Although it isn’t as recognized as other movements, it’s definitely a part of various disciplines such as anthropology and sociology.

The impact of this discipline isn’t only limited to the theoretical sphere. In fact, it also has important implications in practice.

As we mentioned above, linguist Ferdinand de Saussure laid the foundations of the structuralist perspective. He did so by considering the need to build logical simulations with which to understand the facts of social life. In other words, the sets of implicit rules that govern human functioning, especially regarding the meaning of language. However, his ideas weren’t fully developed until the 1960s.

In conclusion, the structuralist movement is the methodological and theoretical approach that puts forward the following maxim: there are structures or forms of organization in every sociocultural system that condition what happens in it.

The interest of structuralism is to study these specific structures and analyze the connection between them. Also, to observe how they shape the various socio-cultural systems and the activity that gravitates in their area of influence.

The main ideas of structuralism

The term and its approach may seem frightening, although it isn’t such a challenge when you finally understand its key ideas and draw a map from them.

Thus, it’s enough to look at a given society and compare it with others to find structures that differentiate them. In this respect, one of the central propositions of structuralism is that these differences define humans. In fact, they’re the origin of much of what happens around us.


This is the main method of investigation in structuralism. However, it doesn’t divide reality into smaller parts in order to see them better. On the contrary, it tries to understand culture as a whole, understanding the relationships between its different elements as well.

Language as a system

In this theory, language is a system formed by a set of articulated units. In other words, language is understood as a set of elements that have different functional relationships among themselves. Thus, structuralists study language as something more than the simple sum of its parts: an emergent process.

Descriptive approach and the inductive method

This movement conducts studies from a descriptive approach for which it analyzes social structures and the relationships established between them, thus formulating a description of them. It also uses the inductive method, basing theories on evidence found in a given society.

Four people high-fiving.

The methodological perspective of structuralism

Structuralism can offer a methodology that brings perspectives and approaches to other human sciences. This is why its influence on linguistics, history, or cultural anthropology is so important.

Another aspect of the context of the structuralist movement lies in its antecedents. Previously, existentialism, which used entirely different human approaches, was gaining momentum in France under the influence of Sartre. Something changed in the 1960s, however, when the Gallic philosopher De Saussure looked to Marxism and produced the context that led to the birth of structuralism as such.

Ever since, there have been notable philosophers and anthropologists in the movement such as Noam Chomsky, Jean Piaget, and Claude Levi Strauss, among many others. Understanding their work can help in the crusade to better understand the world as human beings.

Keep in mind that this movement was born in a specific context: at the height of Marxism. However, the latter shows a somewhat different notion of science than the former, meaning that its philosophical ramifications are also different.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • J.M. Auzias, El estructuralismo, Alianza, 1970.

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