I'm having a hard time to find good learning material for the structuralist school of thought. I try to understand what it is "all" about and how it relates to other schools of thought and scientific terms (i.e.: postmodernism, poststructuralism, …).

What I've found (on the web) so far is not very much. I found the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy to be helpful, but other than that I don't know where to turn.[^1]

What I would like to attain is an introduction to (what I would call for now) "structuralism and related fields" in broad terms. I don't need to be an expert on structuralism (for now). I would just like to have a working knowledge.

[^1]: I should probably mention here that I am German and have found some helpful material in my native language or translated material, so technically it's not only the "IEP" I've found.

3 Answers 3


Some structuralism classics are "General course in linguistics" by Ferdinand de Saussure and "Structural anthropology" by Lévi-Strauss. Linguistics is a field deeply intertwined with structuralist thought, and Lévi-Strauss anthropology relies on language to explore social phenomena. For criticism on structuralism you may look for Paul Ricoeur, for example. Maybe "school of thought" is not quite a good term for structuralism, it is rather a pervading influence. Many authors associated with structuralism do not see themselves as such. Structuralism is a kind of imprecise label. Whenever you deal with a system with economic rules and values, you may have what would be called "structuralistic" approach. Many times structuralism comes down to speech analysis or logic.


The best concise guide that I can recommend is John Sturrock's book on the subject.

Much more comprehensive, but at times tendentious, is Francis Dosse's 2-volume "History of Structuralism."

I'd recommend starting with secondary texts such as these, to begin with; the primary texts can be quite difficult without adequate context. If I had to choose one primary text to recommend, though, it would be Roland Barthes "S/Z", which is a structural analysis of a short story by Balzac; it's a self-contained example, as it requires no outside knowledge other than the story (which is included.) On the other hand, it may prove rather difficult to generalize from Barthes to other forms of Structuralism as diverse in their content as Lévi-Strauss, Althusser, Piaget, or Lacan, etc.


I know you were asking for a book, but as a linguist I have to answer that the best introduction to structuralism is understanding a vowel triangle. Indeed, the mother of all structuralist thought is phonology, a theory of sounds outlined by N. Trubetzkoy in the twenties. Phonology and its oppositional structures were a key metaphor throughout the structuralist boom of the sixties in human sciences.

A vowel diagram for the vocalic phonemes of Californian English

The container area represents the phonetic continuum : all sounds pronounced with an open mouth can be positioned along the two dimensions of aperture (vertical dimension) and tongue forward/back position (horizontal dimension). Within this continuum of possibilities each language will define its own vocalic phonemes ie discrete (quantified) positions that are relevant to distinguish one word from another (eg hat vs hot).

Linguists remarked that when one phoneme changed historically it affected all the others, as if they were trying to maintain the distance between each other. In other words the selected discrete positions form an oppositional structure where each element is not directly defined by the underlying continuum but rather defined by its relationship to the other discrete elements along some defining dimensions.

And that, my friend, is the gist of the structuralist insight. You can apply it to almost everything.

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