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Structuralism and Post-Structuralism: Home

The Difference between Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

Q: What is the difference between structuralism and poststructuralism?


A: Structuralism was a literary movement primarily concerned with understanding how language works as a system of meaning production. That is to say, structuralism asked the following question: How does language function as a kind of meaning machine? To answer this question, structuralism turned its attention to form. Focusing on the form or structure of the literary work, and the particular use of language in the work, would allow structuralists to think of language as a kind of science.

The primary theorist framing the ideas associated with structuralism was Ferdinand de Saussure, who developed the idea that language was composed of arbitrary units that were void of concept or meaning until they acquired meaning through a language system that relied on differences between terms within their larger linguistic and social contexts.

  Poststructuralism, on the other hand, is less singularly defined as a movement than structuralism. A number of literary theories fall under the larger umbrella of poststructuralism, including gender theory and reader-response theories. These theories recognize the overarching notion that meaning does not exist outside of the text and that meaning is not fixed but rather contingent and unstable.

Poststructuralism evolved alongside Jacques Derrida's theory of deconstruction, which emphasized this concept of unstable, unfixed meaning as it functioned in language. According to Derrida, language is made up of units that do not contain inherent meaning and relate to other units (or signifiers) through their difference. Meaning, in deconstructionist theory, is therefore constantly deferred, never landing in one place or becoming stable. Poststructuralism emerges in this context, recognizing this lack of fixed or inherent meaning and yet also acknowledging the need for language to acquire meaning.


Yale Lecture on Semiotics and Structuralism

In this lecture, Professor Paul Fry explores the semiotics movement through the work of its founding theorist, Ferdinand de Saussure. The relationship of semiotics to hermeneutics, New Criticism, and Russian formalism is considered. Key semiotic binaries--such as langue and parole, signifier and signified, and synchrony and diachrony--are explored. Considerable time is spent applying semiotics theory to the example of a "red light" in a variety of semiotic contexts.

  • 00:00 - Chapter 1. What is Semiology?
  • 08:34 - Chapter 2. "Langue" and "Parole," "Signified" and "Signifier"
  • 27:08 - Chapter 3. Positive and Negative Knowledge: Arbitrary and Differential
  • 33:11 - Chapter 4. Example: the Red Stoplight
  • 45:55 - Chapter 5. Synchrony and Diachrony

In this lecture on the work of Roman Jakobson, Professor Paul Fry continues his discussion of synchrony and diachrony. The relationships among formalism, semiotics, and linguistics are explored. Claude Levi-Strauss's structural interpretation of the Oedipus myth is discussed in some detail. In order to differentiate Jakobson's poetic functions, Professor Fry analyzes the sentence "It is raining" from six perspectives. Significant attention is paid to the use of diagrams in literary linguistic theory.

  • 00:00 - Chapter 1. Synchrony and Diachrony
  • 06:47 - Chapter 2. The Emergence of Structuralism
  • 11:24 - Chapter 3. The Relationship Between Formalism and Semiotics
  • 17:33 - Chapter 4. Levi-Strauss and the Meaning of the Oedipus Myth
  • 26:19 - Chapter 5. The Poetic Function
  • 32:49 - Chapter 6. Jacobson's Six Functions
  • 43:53 - Chapter 7. Metalanguage and Poetic Function

What is Structuralism?

What is Post-structuralism?

Michel Foucault