In sociology, anthropology, archaeology, history, philosophy, and linguistics, structuralism is a general theory of culture and methodology that implies that elements of human culture must be understood by way of their relationship to a broader system. It works to uncover the structures that underlie all the things that humans do, think, perceive, and feel.
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Alternatively, as summarized by philosopher Simon Blackburn, structuralism is:
[T]he belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract structure.
Structuralism in Europe developed in the early 20th century, mainly in France and the Russian Empire, in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague, Moscow, and Copenhagen schools of linguistics. As an intellectual movement, structuralism became the heir to existentialism. After World War II, an array of scholars in the humanities borrowed Saussure's concepts for use in their respective fields. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss was arguably the first such scholar, sparking a widespread interest in structuralism.
The structuralist mode of reasoning has since been applied in a range of fields, including anthropology, sociology, psychology, literary criticism, economics, and architecture. Along with Lévi-Strauss, the most prominent thinkers associated with structuralism include linguist Roman Jakobson and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.
By the late 1960s, many of structuralism's basic tenets came under attack from a new wave of predominantly French intellectuals/philosophers such as historian Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, and literary critic Roland Barthes. Though elements of their work necessarily relate to structuralism and are informed by it, these theorists eventually came to be referred to as post-structuralists. Many proponents of structuralism, such as Lacan, continue to influence continental philosophy and many of the fundamental assumptions of some of structuralism's post-structuralist critics are a continuation of structuralist thinking.