Literary and Critical Theory Structuralism
Sean Homer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 December 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0019


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.

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