Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 17 May, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Structuralism is a way of thinking about the world that is predominantly concerned with the perception and description of structures of interrelated objects, concepts or ideas.

explanatory context


Structuralism hinges on the view that the world does not consist of independently existing objects whose concrete features can be perceived clearly and individually. Structuralism takes as its object of investigation the interrelationship between objects of enquiry as opposed to the objects themselves.


Structuralism, however, is not a single unified theory or approach but has been developed in several disciplines and in diverse ways. (See history and scope of structuralism).

Approaches to structuralism include: semiotics, search for deep structures and Marxist structuralism. These, are not, however to be regarded as discrete. To some extent they overlap and draw on similar traditions. They all have two aspects; a methodic and a metaphysical component.

Common to structuralism in all its approaches, at least to some degree are the following:

The world can only be understood on the basis of structural relationships. The first principle of structuralism, then, is that the world is made up of relationships rather than things. This means that the significance of any element cannot be grasped independently of the structure of which it forms a part. Unlike systems theory or structural functionalism that identify elements, structuralism looks at the relationship between elements. Structuralism is concerned with underlying structure not just surface reality.


Hawkes (1977) suggests that Piaget provides a useful definition. For Piaget, structure is an arrangement of entities that embodies the following fundamental ideas:

a. the idea of wholeness (i.e. internal coherence, not a simple composite  or  aggregate  of  independent  elements,  but  parts conforming  to intrinsic laws that determine the nature of the structure and of the parts)

b. the idea of transformation (i.e. the structure is not static, the  intrinsic laws make it not only structured but structuring. The structure is capable of transformative procedures.)

c.  the idea of self-regulation. (i.e. the structure makes  no appeals  beyond itself in order to validate its  transformational procedures).


Language, for example, is a relational whole with grammatical rules, can transform fundamental sentences into a wide variety of forms whilst retaining them within its structure and transforms sentences with no reference to an outside reality.

Thus structuralism sees structures as rational or logical and assumes that there is some form of underlying structure (or deep structure). This may be implicit or ostensibly the focus of attention of structuralist analysis.

Structuralism argues that actions are determined (in some way) by social structures rather than as affected but different from social structures. The pre-eminence of structures leads to an indifference (or even hostility) towards history (and especially historicism).

Structuralism, because of its concern with structural relations, and thus of the meaning of signs/objects etc. as dependent upon their relations with other signs/objects, is strongly anti-empiricist.

Structuralism is not concerned with the role of the active subject, subjects are 'determined' by structures.

Structuralism sees social meanings as more than the sum of subjective perspectives. This has implications for the notion of the self. The self comes to appear as a product of conventions, constructed, as it is within a structure of trans-subjective components. The 'I' is not something given, rather it comes to exist mirroring society as the organism grows from infancy.


Structural explanation is guided by a system of norms such as the rules of a language, the collective representations of a society, or the mechanisms of a physical economy. However, such rules are not overt and may be 'unknown' to the structuring agent. They exist, argue Saussure, Freud and Durkheim, in the unconscious.


All observation is, structuralists maintain, inherently biased and no 'objective' observation is possible as any observer actually creates something of what he or she observes. It is only the relationship between observer and observed that can be observed. This is what reality consists of. Reality is not the things themselves but the relationships we construct and perceive between entities.

History and scope of structuralism

Structuralism Hawkes (1977) argued can be seen to have begun in the work of Giambattista Vico (1725) who, in his Scienza Nuova [The New Science], argued that people constantly structure their world. A basic human characteristic, Vico argued, was the capacity to use language to generate myths to make sense of, and thus deal with, the world. For Vico:

'man   constructs  the  myths,   the  social   institutions, virtually the whole world as he perceives it, and in so doing he  constructs  himself.  This making process involves  the  continual creation of recognizable and repeated forms which  we can now term a process of structuring.... The one genuinely distinctive and permanent human characteristic is discrenible in the  faculty of 'poetic wisdom', which manifests itself as the capacity and the necessity   to   generate  myths,   and  to   use   language metaphorically: to  deal with the world, that is, not directly, but at one remove by means of other agencies: not literally but 'poetically'. (Hawkes, 1977, pp. 14–15)

In this sense we are all structuralist.

Structuralism has developed as a way of looking at the world that is practiced in a variety of disciplines. In the main it derives from work done in linguistics (Saussure, Pierce, Jackobson) but also has roots in philosophy (Kant), anthropology (Levi-Strauss) and sociology (French sociology) and has been developed in the fields of psychoanalysis (Lacan), film studies (Metz) and media analysis (Derrida, Barthes). It also has a more common currency in sociology notably through those who have been labelled Marxist structuralists, notably Althusser and Poulantzas.

The ultimate goal of structuralism for some structuralists is revealing the permanent structures into which individual human acts, perceptions, etc., fit and from which they derive their final nature. Jameson argues that this leads ultimately to a search for the permanent structures of the mind itself.

Approaches and Aspects of Structuralism


The three approaches to structuralism are:

1. Semiology Derived from Saussurian linguistics and developed as a sociological tool (especially in film and media studies) through Barthes. It hinges on the analysis of the 'mythical' level of sign systems. See Semiology.

2. The search for deep structures. Levi-Strauss, Piaget, Jameson and, to some extent, linguistic structuralism in general, all are involved in a search for the underlying stuctures of society, language, myths and even thought. Thus structuralism is a theory of general meanings: ideas have an underlying (rational) structure that determines what we think. See Types of Structuralism (especially Anthropological Structuralism)

3. Marxist structuralism, which owes most to Althusser's endeavours. It draws on the long tradition of French sociology as well as epistemological debates in the philosophy of science. It sees social structures existing independently of our knowledge of them and of our actions.

Cross-cutting this distinction are the two aspects of structuralism.


1. Structuralism is a metaphysical system (i.e. 'statements about the world which cannot be proved but must be taken on faith' (Craib, 1984))

These metaphysical assumptions are:

a. The world is a product of our ideas. This is a 'distortion' of Kant. In extreme form is anti-empiricist.

b. A logical order or structure underlies general meanings

c. The subject is trapped by the structure.

The idea that there is an unconscious logical structure is common to all structuralist approaches (Larrain 1979). Thus ideology becomes an unconscious phenomenon whose meaning is received but not read (as in Barthes) or a set of images, concepts and structures subconsciously imposed upon people (as in Althusser) or a psychological structure of mind that determines the logic of myth (as in Levi-Strauss).

2. Structuralism is a method. As a method it sets out to show structural relationships. Various methodological devices are used:
a. Linguistic model: based on the work of Saussure and Pierce, it sees language as the underlying structure behind speech. This relies on an analysis of signs and their relationships.

b. The anthropological method of Levi-Strauss, which is based on a notion that the human mind arranges world into binary pairs (opposites).

c. Semiotics, principally the adaptation of Saussurian semiotics by Barthes.

Sometimes these, or elements of these, are combined and labelled the 'structuralist method'.

In general a structuralist method allows for a way to classify what is an apparently infinite number of variations by analysing structure.

For example, when analysing the Western film Wright (1975) analyses the structural forms of the narrative rather than the multiplicity of roles and actions of the participants.

Types of Structuralism

Linguistic Structuralism

See linguistics

Anthropological Structuralism

Anthropological structuralism is exemplified by the work of Levi-Strauss and his attempt to reveal 'deep structures'.

Levi-Straus extended Saussure's anlaysis of signification to non-linguistic sign systems, inc. food, myth, economic systems and kinship. Each are constituted through rules of a code.


Structuralist Method in Levi-Strauss

Prior to Mythologiques, Levi-Strauss analysed individual myths using a linguistic pattern of approach, i.e. 'language-speech' type differences. He exposes the constituent units, mythemes, (like phonemes in normal language) which are basically sentences. The story of the myth is broken down into the shortest possible sentences, written on an index card bearing a number reflecting its sequence in the story. Synchronic bundles of mythemes comparing a unit of meaning are assembled, which also allow for sequential reading of the story. Like a musical score, this dual analysis is done via a vertical reading (harmony) and a horizontal reading (melody). Telling the myth is a principle of diachronic speech, understanding involves ignoring this and reading 'vertically through' the text. This vertical reading is through four columns, two represented the terms of the contradiction to be solved and the other two are the mediating terms whose relationship is supposed to reduce the contradiction to a new logical and manageable dimension.


After, Mythologiques Levi-Strauss abandons this and concentrates on the interrelationship between myths. 'A sort of spiral methodology is thus employed: one myth illuminates another, which in turn ellucidates a third, and so forth. Every aspect is related to its homologue in other myths and the analysis aims at discovering an internal coherence, a general logic of myth. Now the emphasis is much less on the particular contradictions which myth supposedly seeks to solve in a logical manner and more on the general unconscious mental structures behind it.' (Larrain, 1979, p. 148).

See Hawkes, 1977, pp. 42–58 for a more detailed account of Levi-Strauss's approach.

In 1961, Levi-Strauss defined anthropology as a branch of semiology following on his work of fifteen years earlier. Levi-Strauss had suggested anthropology follow phonology and analyse signifying phenomena in order to investigate actions or objects that bear meaning, he should postulate the existence of an underlying system of relations and try to see whether the meaning of individual elements or objects is not a result of their contracts with other elements and objects in a system of relations of which members of a culture are not already aware. (Culler, 19**, p. 94).

Trubetzkoy (1939) had already argued for a phonological approach to social science, on the grounds that social science investigates meaning, that meaning inheres in differentiation of elements and thus cannot be grasped by natural science, which investigates intrinsic (natural) properties of phenomena. The natural sciences have nothing approaching a difference between langue and parole, whereas social and human sciences are concerned with the social use of material objects and the system of differentiation which give them meaning and value.


Structuralist metaphysic in Levi-Strauss

Levi-Strauss argues that the psychological structure of mind, common to all humanity, is what determines the logic of myth. It is an unconscious structure, unknown by people. The true nature of cultural life is in its being unconscious. Ultimately, Levi-Strauss is engaged in the search for the universal synchronic logic. [3]

Levi-Strauss [curiously given the arbitrary nature of sign systems] leads towards a notion of the 'translatability' of one rule system from another. This he does through an attempt to reveal 'innate cultural universals', which are not dependent upon social reality. 'The unrealised supposition of Levi-Stauss's anthropology is the ultimate reducibility of the diversity of human cultural practices to a unitary and universal 'depth-grammar' of the mind' (Benton, 1984, p. 12).


The important thing for Levi-Strauss is not that myth may distort reality, but that myth makes sense from a logical point of view. 'In myth, structural anthropology sees a means whereby individual subjects are bound together in their submission to the symbolic representation of the founding and integrity of their social order. But the integration of their lived experience with the intelligible categories of the myth, the means whereby the order sustains itself, is no guarantee of the truthof the myth. On the contrary, the characteristic structuralist detachment of signification from reference implies that whatever 'truth' the myth attains will be disclosed not to the consciousness of the believer, but only to the anthropologist who applies to it structuralist methods of analysis.' (Benton, 1984, p. 13)

The human sciences then exhibit a relation to their object similar to that which the natural sciences exhibit.

On history

Levi-Strauss, in common with many other structuralists, has little time for history. He is opposed to any notion of 'man-made' history (Sartre), which he regards as a modern myth, which also answers to social imperatives. The myth of the French Revolution, for example, motivates revolutionary action but is not necessarily true. For the myth to be true would require that contemporary schemes of interpretation were 'congruent with imperatives of action'.

History, then, is not the product of conscious subjects but as a process whose meaning is endowed by the totality of rule systems within which subjects are located. The structure of the cultural system predates the subject who is subordinate to the constituting rules of cultural practices. Subjective projects are devised only within such practices.


The idea of 'man made history', Levi-Strauss also relates to 'presentist' ('Whig') history. He argues that cultures and historical forms are either incommensurable, or they are interpreted selectively from the standpoint of the project of the present. The latter entails the imposition of a spurious continuity upon discrete historical forms and periods, denying the specificity of those periods and cultural forms.  

For Levi-Strauss, Sartre's conception of history inhibits analysis. Cultures and historical forms are either incommensurable, or they are interpreted selectively from the standpoint of the project of the present. The latter entails the imposition of a spurious continuity upon discrete historical forms and periods, denying the specificity of those periods and cultural forms. Levi-Strauss draws a direct comparison of this approach with 'primitive' mythology. In myth (particularly creation myths), structural anthropology sees a means whereby individual subjects are bound together in their submission to the symbolic representation of the founding and integrity of their social order. However, the integration of their lived experience with the intelligible categories of the myth, the means whereby the order sustains itself, is no guarantee of the truth of the myth. On the contrary, the characteristic structuralist detachment of signification from reference implies that whatever 'truth' the myth attains will be disclosed not to the consciousness of the believer, but only to the anthropologist who applies to it structuralist methods of analysis.

Levi-Strauss is concerned with the origin and structure of myth. He argues that the structure of myth revals the structure of the mind, which he sees as autonomous. He does this by assuming what this structure is and then demonstrating that the conceptual meaning of tribal myths is expressed through this structure. The structure is one borrowed from linguistics; the idea of binary oppositions. Strauss claims that if myth exhibits the same binary structure as phonetics, this structure must be derived from the human mind. In Mythologiques he demonstrates the existence of binary oppositions in tribal myths. For Levi-Strauss, this implies that myths signify the mind that evolves them. This psychological concern prevents him from paying particular attention to the way myths of a particular society relate to its social actions or instutions, although he argues meticulously that the myths of totemistic societies serve to resolve conceptual contradictions inherent in those societies.

In analysing myth, Levi-Strauss begins with the notion of classification. In 'scientific' communities, classification is according to abstract or primary qualities. In 'primitive' societies, classification is according to sensible, or secondary, qualities.

Levi-Strauss looks at the binary oppositions in the structure of myth. An image of something (a human) is structurally opposed in a myth to an image of something else (an animal). The sensible differences (like human/unlike human) become symbols of conceptual differences (culture/nature). Thus the image of a character (human) in a myth does not come to represent a concept (culture) because of any inherent properties of the image but because of differences between it and the image of the character (animal) it is oppsed to. Each society has a system of such oppositions and it is through them that myuths are (unconsciously) understood by members.

The inherent binary nature of myth, for Levi-Strauss, is simply because myth is the mind imitating itself as object and the (autonomous) mind operates on binary oppositions.

This does not adequately address the issue for Wright who notes that Levi-Strauss got the idea from Roman Jackobson who argues that the structure of language is inherently dichotomous. Jackobson's approach, based on Saussure's idea of the diacritical nature of symbols, i.e. that symbols are defined negatively in relation to other terms of the system.

For Jackobson, a dichotomous system means that the symbolic meaning of an image is determined only by differences, similarities are irrelevent. When three or more images/characters are structurally opposed, their symbolic reference becomes more restricted and obscure because fine distinctions are required and thus their interpretation becomes more difficult. On the other hand, when two characters are opposed in a binary structure, their symbolic meaning is virtually forced to be both general and easily accessible because of the simplicity of the differences between them.

Levi-Strauss, therefore, argues that tribal myths are cognitive rather than emotional attempts to classify and understand the world. (Burke takes a similar approach to works of literature in modern societies).

Levi-Strauss, Burke and others concentrate on the conceptual dimension of myths (and literature) at the expense of their function as a model of social action. The concern with social symbolism tends to ignore the movement of the story as evidenced in the resolutions of the plot.

According to Levi-Strauss, the narrative (syntagmatic) aspect of the myth is to the binary (paradigmatic) aspect as melody is to harmony in music: the former provides the interest, the latter provides the depth. Levi-Strauss also argues that the narrative contains only superficial, or apparent, content; the real, conceptual meaning of myth is established and communicated solely by the structure of oppositions.


On ideology

For Levi-Strauss, myth designates the underlying sphere of connotation which represents the ideological level. He sees myth as a particular kind of language 'whose purpose is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real).' (Larrain, 1979, p. 142).

This, says Larrain, is similar to Marx's concept of ideology, as both see the solution to contradiction as distorting, Marx because it inverts reality and Levi-Strauss because myth is a logical model unable to succeed when facing a real contradiction.

'Levi-Strauss's concept of science tends entirely to substitute the discovery of an order or arrangement in phenomena for their causal explanation. These operations are not necessarily opposed, but when the emphasis lies heavily on the classificatory side without taking into account the cause-effect relationship, science becomes powerless'. (Larrain, 1979, p. 143–144).

Larrain argues, however, that Levi-Strauss, emphasises form over content and his myth therefore differs from Marx's ideology. Levi-Strauss's myth respond to a logical problem of human nature, Marx's ideology responds to historical contradiction.

Marx sees ideology as attempting to solve social contradictions and myth as attempting to solve contradictions with nature. In mythology it is nature that is invested with subjective characteristics. Myth exists in primitive classless societies with simple social relations whereas ideology emerges when social relations have become complex enough to produce a class system. As science proceeds and people progressively gain control over the environment, then myth diminishes as ideology evolves towards more abstract forms whose contradictory character assumes an increasingly deceptive appearance.

Larrain argues that Levi-Strauss's view is at variance with Marx because it ignores the fact that the structures are themselves historically produced through praxis. Myth, for Marx, like ideology deals with concrete historical situations, rather than the 'universal conflict of the human species'. Ideology, for Marx, is always given in the consciousness of individuals through the process of their practice. Ideology is produced in the conjunction of subject and object it is neither pure illusion nor pure mentality. It cannot be said that ideology constitutes a hidden structure which imposes itself upon people without passing through their practice. [4]

Critique of Levi-Strauss

The main critiques of Levi-Strauss is that his structuralism entirely ignores content in favour of form and that he tends to be arbitrary in leaving out those elements that do not fit the postulated structure.



Some elements of the 'deep structure' perspective are to be found in some developments of structural linguistics. For example, the search for deep structure of language and the structurlist analysis of texts which relies on the elaboration of opposites. (see Hawkes, 1977). This latter, in effect seems to develop an analysis through an assessment of paradigmatic relationships, irrespective of any concerns about mythical or ideological re-presentations.


Psychoanalytic structuralism

Psychoanalytic structuralism can be seen in the work of Lacan who traces the constititive subject to its psychic source. This he does through a re-working of Freudian psychoanalysis. The core of Freud is seen to be his discovery of the nature and significance of the unconscious. Rather than an 'ego-centered' psychoanalysis, Lacan employed the basic concepts and distinctions of structural linguistics to show that the conscious life of the individual is not self-sufficient, and does not carry the means of its own intelligibility. Not only is analysis via language, but Lacan claimed, the unconscious is structured like a language. The Freudian phases of identity constitution are transformed by Lacan into phases in the subjection of this subject to the authority of the culture, i.e. the symbolic order. (Benton, 1984, p. 14)

French (Social) Structuralism

French structuralism refers to a general attitude rooted in a French tradition of thought that stands opposed to subject-centered history and subject-constituted knowledge. This goes back as far as Comte and is clearly expressed in Durkheim. For these, human subjects are constituted by their social milieu. The consciousness of the individual subject is a function of external social constructs.

The development of this approach has predominantly been in various positivist and functionalist forms notably the Durkheimian approach.


Marxist structuralism


Marxist structuralists attempt to combine Marxism with structuralism. They argue strongly that Marx developed a structural analysis of capitalism in his later works, which used history as a context rather than as an analytic tool.

Structural Marxists accept that there is an epistemological break in the work of Marx. Larrain (1979) says that structuralist approaches to Marx see a break in his work and regard German Ideology with suspicion as it comes at the point of the break (1845?) 'Structuralism wants to free Marx from a conception of ideology as 'pure speculation' or false consciousness'. (Larrain, 1979, p 154).

Structuralism is opposed to historicism, which supposedly emphasises the role of the subject class and of consciousness in the origin of ideology thus making ideology an arbitrary and psychological creation of individuals. Structuralism advocates a material existence for ideology, which determines the subject. Ideology, then,'is not a false representation of reality because its source is not the subject but material reality itself' (Larrain, 1979, p 154).

Structuralist Marxists tend to argue that the economic base is, in the final analysis, the determinant of superstructural constructs (although this is by no means a simple economic determinism of some Orthodox Marxism).





Althusser's approach is the best known and most widely debated version of structuralist Marxism. The work draws upon what is seen as Marx's concerns with structure in his later works (Capital).

Althusser argues that Marx, in analysing capitalism, is dealing with a system rather than with a historiographical task. Structuralist Marxism sees capitalism as a self-generating system.

Althusser argues that Marx has been misread. First, he proposed a fundamental error in the reading of Marx within an empiricist theory of knowledge. Althusser drew on structuralism and conventionalism in developing his reconstruction of Marxism. He, thereby, proposed instead an entirely different epistemology whereby the subject matter of Marxism can be identified as:

a) the real object: the reality that the theory seeks to explain.

b) the thought object: the theoretical system making up the science.

Theoretical development takes place directly at the level of the thought object. What Althusser is doing is distinguishing clearly between reality and the process whereby we come to know reality. This enables Althusser to present a new theory of reading which involves a dialectic between the theory whose principles govern the reading and the theory contained in the text.

Second, Althusser identified an epistemological break in the works of Marx. He interprets Marx's writings as being in two parts: the early Marx which, in he regards as an ideology and the later Marx which he sees as a science. The difference is between an ideology, which formulates a problem (a problematic) that is merely the theoretical expresion of the conditions that allow a solution to be imposed, and a science that allows an objective understanding of the theory at work in the text. In this case the text chosen is Capital. In principle then the ideology formulates the framework of the problematic; the theory specifies the problematic and the objective solution to the problematic by a symptomatic reading of the text.

There are two outcomes to this symptomatic reading.

First, the concept of over-determination. This relates to the notion of totality (about which Capital is concened). A totality is determined by the contradictions between the social relations of production and the material processes of production (forces of production). Totality is not a harmonious sructure but it posseses a certain heirarchical order and autonomy. Its unity is that of a complex of instances at uneven stages of developoment relative to each other. In the last resort, however, a totality is determined by the structure-in-dominance. That is, the totality is over-determined.

Second, the notion of theoretical practice. The totality is the sum of the instances and the practices associated with each instance. Practice is the process of transformation of a determinate raw material into a determinate product. Althusser proposes to discuss three forms of practice: ideological, political and theoretical. Political and ideological practice are manifested in the superstructural agencies Althusser calls the ideological state apparatuses (civil society) and repressive state apparatuses (political society). However these practices are designed to maintain the hidden mystery of capitalist relations of production. Theoretical practice is that which can reveal the hidden mystery.

Theoretical practice works at three levels: Generality I, Generality II and Generality III. Generality I comprises the raw material of theoretical practice - the body of concepts upon which the process will set to work to transform them. Generality II comprises the system of concepts whose unity comprises the 'theory of the science by defining the field in which the problems of the science must be posed. Generality III is the 'concrete-in-thought' the knowledge produced by the work of G II on G I. There is always a real transformation between GI and GIII; the 'work' between GI and GIII takes place in thought.

See also Althusser, for a detailed analysis of his work.




Genetic structuralism

Genetic structuralism is a term applied by Goldmann to his historicist Marxist methodology.

Methodologically, Goldmann (1971) sees all human behaviour as a significative structure that may be understood. He distinguishes understanding or comprehension, which is the description of basic universal and permanent structures, from explanation, which proceeds via the identification of laws and causes. Goldmann regards comprehension alone as non-genetic structuralism.


Genetic structuralism in effect combines understanding and explanation. It involves an internal analysis aimimg to understand the social structure by revealing its immanent structure and an external analysis aiming to explain the structure by inserting the structure as a functional element in another larger structure.

Thus, genetic structuralism sees comprehensive description and causal explanation as two sides of the same process.

Every partial structure is explained by its subsumption under a wider structure but each partial structure must be understood through comprehensive description. Structures are dynamic and the result of praxis.

Genetic structuralism is based on the assertion that the significance of social phenomena is given by their being structured and upon the fact that these significative structures are the result of a genesis and cannot be understood or explained independent of this genesis. The genesis of structures must be sought in the wider structure which subsumes it. Every human fact is a process of structuration, which tends towards a provisional equilibrium. The equilibrium becomes contradictory and, for that reason, is at the same time a process of destructuration. This dynamism is not merely internal to the structure in question but is closely related to the dynamism of a wider structure which also tends to a provisional equilibrium. The reference to the structure in itself is description or comprehension, the reference to the wider structure which subsumes it is explanation (Larain, 1979, p. 123).

As an example of what he means Goldmann refers to literary analysis. To understand it one needs to go beyond mere analysis of text. But to impute the author's intentions is essentially an arbitrary procedure. The author's intentions are determined by his Weltanschauung. Goldmann raises two problems in attempting to assess an authors' intentions first, the delimitation of the author's output so as to isolate the important or significative texts, second the problem of contextualisation.

What is needed, he argues, is a structure within which to locate both text and author. As a historicist, Goldmann sees this structure to be the Weltanschauung, which permits of the counterposing of oppositional frameworks. The Weltanschauung of a class, he argues, is manifested in the works of 'gifted' members of the class who convey this perspective coherently.

Weltanshauung and Ideology in Goldmann’s Genetic Structuralism

Utilising the concept of Weltanschauung as fundamental structuring principle raises certain problems when Goldmann approaches ideology.

Following Lukacs, Goldmann distinguishes the real (i.e. factual) consciousness from the possible consciousness of the class, the latter being what the class might attain without changing its nature. Thus Kant’s ‘tragic vision’ is justified by the situation of the 18th century German bourgeoisie ‘which aspired to a revolution it was unable to bring about’. According to Goldman, the frustrated class created a tragic vision that refers a real contradiction to a new conceptual one or imaginary opposition, which makes the situation bearable. (In this Goldman reflects Levi-Strauss’ logic of myth but differs from Strauss in that Goldmann privileges class struggle not logical paradoxes, and concentrates on historical and not universal structures.)

Goldmann causes confusion by sometimes equating Weltanschauung with ideology and sometimes differentiating between them. When used interchangeably they form a general concept that elaborates ‘truth’. Ideologies exist on different planes, and different ideologies have different scientific values. The criteria for objective assessment is based on which allows for a critical understanding of the other. Thus Marxism provides a full understanding and critique of Saint-Simonism but not vice-versa.

The above view of ideology and Weltanschauung dispenses with Marx’s negative or critical aspect of ideology and reflects Lenin’s formulation of ideology as the embodiment of the class interest. Goldmann, however, confuses the issue by attempting a distinction in which he refers to ideology as partial and distorted whereas Weltanschauung is total.

For Goldmann, ideologies are products of defensive postures of declining class interests. Weltanschauungen are related to social classes which ‘possess an ideal bearing on the whole of society’.

In constituting ideology as a distorted Weltanschauung the critical nature of ideology is lost and the ascendant Weltanschauung, per se, transcends ideology.

Larrain (1979) argues that Goldmann’s identification of class consciousness with the production of literary and philosophical works is a problematic element in genetic structuralism as it fails to take account of the mediation of the individual and of other cultural products. Furthermore, Goldmann’s requirement that only relevant literature be taken into account introduces an arbitrary element for what determines how authentic literature may be distinguished from inauthentic.

In Marx, class consciousness is the collective consciousness of the class based upon praxis. To relate ideology in the sense of Weltanschauung to class consciousness ignores the practical aspect of class consciousness. Larrain argues that, in effect, in Goldmann’s usage, class consciousness, ideology and Weltanschauung become confused and overlapping concepts. He suggests that Goldmann’s contribution consists of ‘comparative study of cultural production and an analysis of its social determination by the class struggles of the historical period in which it emerges’. (Larrain, 1979, p. 129).

Goldmann derives genetic structuralism from the work of Lukacs

Goldmann develops his historicist perspective from Lukacs’s (1923) History and Class Consciousness.

Despite Lukacs’s later reservations about this work, written in the post Russian Revolutionary era, Goldmann (1971) considers that it contains methodological, philosophical and sociological elements relevant to a contemporary understanding of the social world.

For Goldmann, Lukacs (1923) was the first expression of a rebirth of dialectical thought in Marxism. Apart from Rosa Luxembourg and the, then, unknown works of Gramsci, Lukacs was alone in opposing the positivist orthodoxy of the Russian Bolsheviks. This orthodoxy constituted a return to mechanism and Stalinist positivism from 1922 and picked up momentum after the death of Lenin.

For Goldmann, then, Lukacs provided a return to the essence of Marx’s thought. Lukacs’s theoretical analyses constitute a vital element in the development of the metascience of the Geisteswissenschaften.

Central to this is the idea that the collective, not the individual subject, is the proper focus of historical enquiry. Specifically, Lukacs argues that social classes are the only historical subjects, and that the ideology (?) of the individual subject is a deforming ideology, which is itself the product of a collective subject.

Social classes, as trans-individual subjects, are accorded a privileged position (not available to, for example, families and professional groups) because they are the only ones

‘whose consciousness and action are directed to the organization of the sum of interhuman relationships and relationships between men and nature, with a view to either keeping them as they are or of transforming them in a more or less radical manner; this is to say they they are the subject par excellence of historical action, and, at a level of consciousness, the subject of the creation of conceptual and imaginative worlds.’ (Goldmann, 1971, p. 72).

The relating of historical process to the trans-historical subject (social class) requires, says Goldmann, a radical reversal of scientific perspectives and methodology. This is provided by Lukacs.

Goldmann sees the individual as having both a libidinal and a collective existence and that these aspects are difficult to disentangle. The relationship between the individual subject and the surrounding world is, at the level of knowledge, inevitably static and contemplative. It required the identity of the subject and the object of thought and action. So the contemplative individual could only move into the field of action via a radical break which identified theory with praxis.

For Goldmann, all other philosophies concentrated on the individual and only attempted to avoid a dichotomy of thought and action via speculative transcendentalism. Thus, Goldmann saw Lukacs’s reworking of Marx as important because it opposed the notion that fact and value were independent judgements with no necessary connection.

Lukacs’s dialectical approach, encapsulated in the concept of the transhistorical subject offered a resolution to the numerous dichotomies (subject–object, thought–action, science–conscience, fact–value, part–whole, synchrony–diachrony, static–dynamic, political–moral, ends–means) that divorced theory from praxis.

The trans-individual subject as basis of a dialectical analysis makes redundant such dichotomies. In terms of the science–conscience dichotomy the duality disappears because the study of the object is simultaneously a transforming self-knowledge of the subject.

Only the structuring force of history is important in dialectical analyses because it takes account of the limitation on action of prevailing social conditions and the resulting mental categories. However, this limitation provides an arena for social class action within which this very action modifies the social structures thereby affecting the scope of this arena, in Goldmann’s terms, the structuring of history itself effects the freedom of social classes.

The dichotomous relationships posited above, then, are not permanent and static but are a function of historical circumstances.

Methodologically, Goldmann notes that dialectical thought (like psychoanalysis at the individual level) involves an internal analysis aimimg to understand the social structure by revealing its immanent structure (and thus the potential significance of the various elements of a given relationship) and an external analysis aiming to ‘explain them by inserting the structure as a functional element in another larger structure.’ (Goldmann, 1971, p. 76).

Goldmann says, therefore, that despite their differences the philosophies of Hegel, Marx, Freud and Lukacs are all varieties of genetic structuralism based on the idea that all human acts must be regarded as actions whose aim is to establish a more satisfactory equilibrium between the subject and the world surrounding it.

Goldmann reasserts Marx’s distinction between class in itself and class for itself. The actual consciousness of a class must be perceived in the light of the potential consciousness (the potential reality which the class seeks to bring into being).

analytical review

Encyclopedia of Marxism (1999–2008) states:

Structuralism is the method of investigation which aims at revealing the structure of a complex thing, abstracted from its phenomenal form, historical development and materiality. This allows attention to be focused on structural similarities between different phenomena irrespective of superficial differences and material content of the object. This method has been popular among sociologists.

Structuralism further denotes a whole trend in philosophy which was dominant from the end of World War II till the rise of post-structuralism in the 1960s. Structuralism had its origins in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (c. 1910) and was prefigured by the anthropology of Emile Durkheim at the turn of the century. This trend arose in response to the inadequacy of the exclusive focus, characteristic of the Second Positivism of Mach, on analysis of the data of perception and its rejection of any type of “metaphysics.” Saussure showed that the meaning of a word lay not in its phonic form but in its position within a structure of phonemes. Likewise, for Durkheim, various societies based themselves on mythologies the characters and events of which were relatively “arbitrary”, but clearly shared a common “structure”. Claude Lévi-Strauss is the most eminent exponent of structuralist sociology. The American version is Functionalism, developed by Talcott Parsons, which emphasises the dynamic equilibrium to the various processes within a complex.

Likewise, in economics it was seen that the values of the various econnomic parameters formed a structure much like that of a mechanical structure which could be manipulated by intervention. (John Maynard Keynes).

It was Louis Althusser who made an amalgam of structuralism and Marxism who would today be regarded as the foremost exponent of structuralism. For Althusser, individual human beings are utterly determined by social forces, from ideology which penetrates their minds from birth via the market, the media, the church, the family, etc.

The limitations of structuralism arise from its focus on form, albeit structural form, at the expense of content, and abstracting from materiality, and its deliberate blindness to the historical origins of a system. A dialectical view differs from Structuralism because for dialectics form and content bear a definite relation which analysis is bound to explore, whereas strucuralism regards form as indifferent. Materialism differs from structuralism by recognising the necessary interconnection between the multiplicity of interconnected structural forms within any complex and the need to study the development of structures in relation to underlying social developments.

Foucault's critique of structuralism in Archaeology of Knowledge, reflected the failure of structuralism to resolve the social contradictions manifested at the end of the post-war boom and the loss of confidence in “grand narratives” and is parallel to the emergence of finite mathematics and related technologies relative to analysis and notions of continuum. While drawing attention to the shortcomings of Structuralism Foucault's post-structuralism fails to resolve the very issues which lay at the basis of the earlier rise of structuralism and suffers from much the same short-comings as indicated above.

The word-play which makes points on the similarity of sound or spelling of words, even though the words have no other connection, is characteristic of Structuralism. So for example, for a structuralist feminist, the ‘man’ in ‘manual’ is evidence of sexist connotations in ‘manual work’ even though the ‘man’ derives from the Latin for hand, not the English word ‘man.’

The structuralist linguistics, both the ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ are mental entities. Consequently, the way in which a word or meaning is connected to material activity (the focus of Marxist linguistics) is invisible.

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines:

genetic structuralism: Bourdieu's approach, which involves the study of objective structures that cannot be separated from mental structures that, themselves, involve the internalization of objective structures.

structuralism: A theory that depends on the view that there are hidden or underlying structures that determine what transpires in the social world.

associated issues


related areas

See also





Researching the Real World Section


Benton, T. 1984, The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism: Althusser and his influence. Basingstoke, Macmillan.

Encyclopedia of Marxism, 1999–2008, 'Structuralism', Glossary of Terms, available at, accessed 12 April 2013, still available 28 December 2016.

Goldmann, L., 1971, ‘Reflections on History and Class Consciousness’, trans P. France. in Mészáros, I. (Ed.), 1971, Aspects of History and Class Consciousness, pp. 65–84, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hawkes, T., 1977, Structuralism and Semiotics. London Methuen.

Larrain, J., 1979, The Concept of Ideology. London, Hutchinson.

Lukács, G., [1923], 1971, History and Class Consciousness, London, Merlin Press.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 28 December 2016.

Vico, G., 1725, Scienza Nuova [The New Science] , edited and translated, 2002, by Leon Pompa, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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