Originating in the study of languages, structuralism has exerted a vast amount of influence in the social sciences especially in the work of Saussure, Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes. Although these theorists may disagree with the exact view of structuralism, there is, on the other hand, a broad consensus that a structuralist approach to the study of human society and culture involves the notion of wholes. The purpose of this essay will be to develop the points of structuralism and the product of its strengths and weaknesses in relevance to important aspects of contemporary society. This will include the works of Saussure who was an expert on languages and talks about the rules of language. Levi Strauss who suggested that cultural phenomena such as myths, art, kinship systems and language display certain ordered patterns or structures and work of Roland Barthes
Sociology of Saussure
The founder of modern structuralism was Ferdinand de Saussure. An expert on Indo-European languages, Saussure worked on a general theory of languages during the 1980’s and he followed Durkheim in regarding language as an example of a social fact. For Saussure, language constituted a collective representation, an abstract system of linguistic rules which governed concrete language use and a formal and coherent structure. In explaining how languages function, he distinguishes between signifiers and the signified which together constitute a sign. Saussure concentrated instead on the patterns and functions of language in use today, with the emphasis on how meanings are maintained and established and on the functions of grammatical structures. (Barry P. 1995. Beginning Theory, an Introduction to Literacy and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press: Manchester.p.41) What he looks at is the social meaning which is embedded into the language. The key point for when we talk about social meaning is that we have to look at language and the ordering of language. But what exactly did Saussure say about linguistic structures which other structuralists found so fascinating? He describes the linguistic sign as a ‘double entity’, one formed by the association of two terms. These two terms do not consist of a name and thing, but of a form which signifies- the signifier and a meaning, the signified. ‘Signifier’ being the material and element of sign (e.g. printed word, or sound) and the ‘Signified’ being the mental element of ‘sign’ image/idea which the ‘signifier’ brings to mind. In his definition of the linguistic sign he used the word arbitrary for meanings which we give to words. By saying this he means that there is no inherent connection between the word and what the word designates. There is no intrinsic or essential reason why any particular combination of sounds and letters should be linked to any particular concept. The crucial connection is not between the sign and the “real” world of objects; rather, it is between the sign and the overall system of language. At any given time, the system of language is set: “The signifier, though to all appearances freely chosen with respect to the idea that it represents, is fixed, not free, with respect to the linguistic community that uses it. The masses have no voice in the matter, and the signifier chosen by language could be replaced by no other.(Saussure, 1974:71)(B S Turner (ed), 1996, Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, Blackwell p.171.) Saussure then came up with an analogy, which he would keep relating back to. This was between language and the game of chess. A chess piece gets its meaning from the distinction made between it and the other chess pieces on the board, not from what it looks like. The meaning and identity of a chess piece therefore derives from how it is distinguished from all the other chess pieces, i.e. from the difference between it and other pieces on the chess board. “The synchronic facts of language, like the synchronic facts of chess, are characterised by...
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