Structuralism is a 20th Century intellectual movement and approach to the human sciences (it has had a profound effect on linguistics, sociology, anthropology and other fields in addition to philosophy) that attempts to analyze a specific field as a complex system of interrelated parts. Broadly speaking, Structuralism holds that all human activity and its products, even perception and thought itself, are constructed and not natural, and in particular that everything has meaning because of the language system in which we operate. It is closely related to Semiotics, the study of signs, symbols and communication, and how meaning is constructed and understood.
There are four main common ideas underlying Structuralism as a general movement: firstly, every system has a structure; secondly, the structure is what determines the position of each element of a whole; thirdly, "structural laws" deal with coexistence rather than changes; and fourthly, structures are the "real things" that lie beneath the surface or the appearance of meaning.
Structuralism is widely regarded to have its origins in the work of the Swiss linguistic theorist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 - 1913) in the early 20th Century, but it soon came to be applied to many other fields, including philosophy, anthropology, psychoanalysis, sociology, literary theory and even mathematics. In the early 20th Century, Saussure developed a science of signs based on linguistics (semiotics or semiology). He held that any language is just a complex system of signs that express ideas, with rules which govern their usage. He called the underlying abstract structure of a language, "langue", and the concrete manifestations or embodiments, "parole". He concluded that any individual sign is essentially arbitrary, and that there is no natural relationship between a signifier (e.g. the word "dog") and the signified (e.g. the mental concept of the actual animal).
Unlike the Romantic or Humanist models, which hold that the author is the starting point or progenitor of any text, Structuralism argues that any piece of writing (or any "signifying system") has no origin, and that authors merely inhabit pre-existing structures ("langue") that enable them to make any particular sentence or story ("parole"), hence the idea that "language speaks us", rather than that we speak language. Structuralism was also to some extent a reaction against Phenomenology in that it argued that the "depth" of experience could in fact only be an effect of structures which are not themselves experiential.
Although they would probably all have denied being part of this so-called movement, the philosopher Michel Foucault, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 - 2009), the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901 - 1981), the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896 - 1980), the linguists Roman Jakobson (1896 - 1982) and Noam Chomsky (1928 - ), the literary critic Roland Barthes (1915 - 1980) and the Marxist theorists Louis Althusser (1918 - 1990) and Nicos Poulantzas (1936 - 1979) were all instrumental in developing the theory and techniques of Structuralism, most of this development occurring in France.
Barthes, in particular, demonstrated the way in which the mass media disseminated ideological views based on its ability to make signs, images and signifiers work in a particular way, conveying deeper, mythical meanings within popular culture than the surface images immediately suggest (e.g. the Union jack signifies the nation, the crown, the empire, "Britishness", etc).
By the 1960s, it had become a major force within the overall Continental Philosophy movement in Europe, and came to take Existentialism’s pedestal in 1960s France. In the 1970s, however, it came under increasing internal fire from critics who accused it of being too rigid and ahistorical, and for favoring deterministic structural forces over the ability of individual people to act, and schools like Deconstructionism and Post-Structuralism attempted to distinguish themselves from the simple use of the structural method and to break with structuralistic thought. In retrospect, it is more these movements it spawned, rather than Structuralism itself, which commands attention.