Skip to content

Bibliography Literary Theory Structuralism


Structuralism is a peculiarly French phenomenon. Emerging from debates primarily within French epistemology (the theory of knowledge) in the 1950s, it came to dominate the Parisian intellectual scene of the mid-1960s and the Anglo-American academy of the 1970s. The phenomenon is closely tied to the rise of the social sciences and the critique of the traditional humanities, especially philology and philosophy. Structuralism is not a philosophy as such but a mode of thinking and analysis applicable to a wide diversity of disciplines, from linguistics, psychology, and anthropology to literature, psychoanalysis, and political economy. While the disparate group of thinkers who are now placed under the rubric “structuralist,” including the psychologist Jean Piaget (b. 1896–d. 1980), the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908–d. 2009), the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (b. 1901–d. 1981), the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (b. 1918–d. 1990), and the literary critic and semiotician Roland Barthes (b. 1915–d. 1980), do not form a coherent group, they do share a common problématique (see Bachelard 2012 [cited under Epistemic Structuralism: Marxism]) that characterizes the structuralist project as a whole: the priority of structure over agency, a profound anti-humanism, the preeminence of scientific knowledge over empirical experience, anti-historicism, and, finally, a radical reconceptualization of the human subject. Structuralism is first and foremost a method of analysis that is seen to be applicable to all human social phenomena, namely the social and human sciences as well as the humanities and arts.

General Overviews

Many of the general introductions to structuralism date from the 1970s when the methodology first made an impact within the Anglo-American academy. These works still constitute some of the most accessible introductions. This section is subdivided into Single Author Studies, which develop a specific perspective on the subject, and Edited Collections, which introduce key authors and debates.

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M038-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 11, 2018, from

‘Structuralism’ is a term embracing a family of theories that between them address all phenomena of the human world – notably language, literature, cookery, kinship relations, dress, human self-perception. In all these domains, structuralists claim, the observable, apparently separate elements are rightly understood only when seen as positions in a structure or system of relations.

The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is generally recognized as the founder of the structuralist movement. For him semiology – the science of the meaning of natural languages – consists in determining the formal place of any signe within the inclusive system of signs that is language (langue), that is, to see it as a ‘difference’ among the system of inseparably linked ‘differences’. Literary significance is treated in a similar way. But both in linguistic and literary studies the existence of a complete and closed system has been largely anticipated, presupposed rather than confirmed, where no more than fragments of the supposed system could ever really be collected.

This itself is a point of serious contention: for one thing, the meaning of any fragment of a would-be system seems, on the structuralist view, not to be defined if the full system is not accessible; for another, there is no way to approximate to the inclusive system to which apparent fragments belong. But if that is so, it is asked, then can structuralism – whether applied to literature or to language in general – be a science at all?

Citing this article:
Margolis, Joseph. Structuralism in literary theory, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M038-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.