Structuralism is a mode of thinking and a method of analysis practiced in 20th-century social sciences and humanities; it focuses on recurring patterns of thought and behaviour – it seeks to analyse social relationships in terms of highly abstract relational structures. Structuralism is distinctly different from that applied to Radcliffe-Brown – it involves more the bio and psychological aspect of human studies rather than social structures. Claude Levi-Strauss was the one to pioneer structuralism; he suggested that cultural phenomena such as myths, art, kinship systems and language display certain ordered patterns or structures.
With these, he believed that the structure of the human mind could be revealed. He reasoned that behind the surface of individual cultures there must exist natural properties common to us all: innate structures universal to all man. Levi-Strauss focused his attention on the patterns or structures existing beneath the customs and beliefs of all cultures. Methodologically, Strauss drew his models from structural linguistics, analysing forms of social activity as though they were languages.
In other words, the things a society does, the way people in this society act, is compared to language; behaviour is acted out unconsciously as is grammar in the case of language. Therefore, societies differ just as grammar differs between one culture and another, but what Levi-Strauss sought was the universal/common structure behind it. He believed that while the surface phenomenon may vary, the underlying ordering principles are the same. Levi-Strauss believed that basic thinking occurs as sets of contrasts. All cultures think in to terms of opposites so as to classify-meaning we must be able to distinguish between things.
For example, life, death; spirit, body; black, white; red, green (stop and go) – these words alone do not carry much significance; they have a meaning and that’s it – basic facts. We take the words as they are by use of external references from what society acknowledges to it to be. A pen is not an eraser because society has accepted it to be a pen. Levi-Strauss argued that culture is to be understood as a surface phenomenon which reveals the universal human tendency to order and classify experiences and dynamics. He compared people’s language to the rules’ that govern society, in that the governed are largely unconscious of what they know.
He compared speech – the use of sounds and rules, mainly in the form of sentences to the ideas and behaviour that result from the application of largely unconscious social rules. Members of a society are much more likely to be conscious of their actual ideas and behaviours than they are of the deeply structured rules that make these ideas and behaviours possible, but the ideas and behaviours of a given group of people, according to Strauss, can only be understood once the “deep” structures in their minds can be discovered.
He says that human responses are largely dissimilar, and that the surface structure is what will consequently show different cultural behaviour. In T. O. K. , we are currently discussing language, mind and meaning – we covered the same man, Noam Chomsky, the same man mentioned in the book. He pursued the same line of inquiry in linguistics as Strauss. Chomsky believes that the human brain contains a language system base before birth, but goes to seed’ if not stimulated after birth.
All babies are programmed to all phonetic systems but are channelled into particular language groups on socialization. In other words, a child who has Danish parents will eventually end up speaking Danish unless brought up elsewhere. Structuralism is often criticized for not being able to prove something through hypothesis testing and validation. Strauss makes unprovable assumptions about humans, and some people find it hard to believe the concept of universal structures. Structuralism also tends to ahistorical, thus not accounting for the way history effects the present.