- A broad-based and therefore loosely structured interdisciplinary movement which originated in France during the 1960s and spread rapidly to other countries thereafter. Post-structuralism's prime achievement has been to rediscover and extend the radical analytical possibilities inherent in Saussure's theory of language as a significatory rather than a representational phenomenon. According to its proponents, these possibilities were obscured for a long time by the scientistic readings of Saussure which dominated the work of linguists, as well as such other usages as those associated with the likes of Louis Althusser , Nicos Poulantzas , Claude Lévi-Strauss, and other structuralists.More specifically, its achievement had been to rediscover the possibilities implicit in Saussure's insistence that language is a self-subsisting if not a self-sufficient social entity; that is, an entity wherein the two aspects of all signs (their ‘signifiers’ (physical images) and their ‘signifieds’ (mental images)) are brought into alignment with one another, but not with any referent they may have in the extra-linguistic world. Putting the point another way, what excited the post-structuralists were the analytical possibilities created by the realization that words (and signs more generally) may mean something, without referring to anything in the extra-linguistic world; and, therefore, that all language and language-borne phenomena (philosophies, ideologies, sciences and even whole societies, for example) might be far more autonomous, in relation to other social phenomena, than had hitherto been suspected.The scientistic appropriations of Saussure's theory which for so long obscured the theory's more radical implications did so because their authors made the claim that their words, if no others, were verifiable accurate depictions of what they referred to, whether the latter objects were aspects of language, literature, kinship systems, or modes of production. However, with the exception of the pioneering Jacques Lacan, rather than return to Saussure directly and try to reformulate what had become known as ‘the structuralist tradition’ on a nonscientistic basis, the leading post-structuralists sought to counter scientism by resorting to bodies of thought which were located outside of the tradition itself- for example, the philosophies of Nietzsche , in the case of Michel Foucault , and Heidegger in that of Jacques Derrida. Whichever strategy was adopted, the result was similar in that in each case the conclusion arrived at was that there was both more and less to words than met the eye: more, in that even individual words always carry ‘traces’ of other words and texts (Derrida), provide evidence of and for the ‘unconscious’ (Lacan), and project power as elements in ‘discourse’ (Foucault); less, in that, for Lacan and Derrida (if not necessarily Foucault), words were no longer understood to carry aspects of the extra-linguistic world into thought.The full relativistic implications of the post-structuralist critique are perhaps most easily seen in the work of the French social theorist Jacques Derrida. The starting-point of Derrida's self-differentiation within the structuralist tradition, and therefore of his post-structuralism, is his claim to have detected a residual humanism within the former. This humanism inheres in the unconscious privileging of speech over writing which, ironically, underpins Saussure's decision to make langue (language as an established system of rules and units) rather than parole (language in use as actually produced speech) the object of study of linguistics. In Derrida's view it is the spoken rather than the written language that Saussure is concerned to elucidate. This privileging of speech, or ‘phonocentrism’, betrays a ‘metaphysics of human presence’ buried deep in the heart of the text that has commonly been supposed to be the founding document of the non-humanist approach to the study of social phenomena. Such a metaphysics, because it unconsciously privileges the speaker, vouchsafes not just the possibility of stable meanings, but also the possibility of a knowable truth, and for no convincing reason.On the basis of this insight, which may be found in the opening essay of his Of Grammatology (1967), Derrida proceeds to elaborate on the method, if that is not too strong a word, that made it possible. The essential elements of this are: that writing should not be disprivileged, compared to speech, but that both should simply be taken as instances of ‘texts’; special attention should be paid to the decorative and rhetorical aspects of the text (especially if it is one that makes claims to any special rigour); and, finally, the reader should be given an authority as a ‘meaning-giver’ that is at least equal to that commonly ascribed to the author. Under these conditions, the pursuit of meaning becomes the pursuit of an endlessly receding horizon, whose centripetal movement (differance) is the product of the proliferation of connotations (traces or grams for Derrida) that occurs whenever we use (as we must) other signifiers to define what is signified by any particular signifier. In other words, the true meaning of a text can never be known, and nothing can ever be said about it that is anything other than a provisional account of its ‘intertextual’ nature.In sum, Derrida provides a means, not so much of subverting truth claims, but of showing how the texts wherein such claims are made subvert (or ‘deconstruct’) themselves. The deconstructive method would appear to possess great power when applied to texts that either claim or are claimed to validate themselves (for example religious scriptures). It does not, however, appear to possess the same degree of meaning-deferring power when applied to texts that either do not claim or cannot be claimed to validate themselves. Such texts (those of the social and natural sciences for example) have recourse to modes of validation which refer to phenomena that are beyond their boundaries. Notwithstanding the fact that neither these modes of validation nor the interpretation of their results are innocent of complicity with the texts or counter-texts involved, the possibility of external validation remains ever present, and cannot be denied by deconstructionists without involving them in a self-contradictory claim to know the truth.The significance of post-structuralist ideas for sociology has been twofold: on the one hand, to stimulate new methods of approach to old problems, especially in relation to the study of the ideological realm; and, on the other, to stimulate apocalyptic thoughts about the impossibility of sociology. That said, some authorities have claimed that sociology might profit from a sustained programme of deconstructive readings which would enhance the reflexivity of its practitioners, by drawing their attention to the self-subverting sub-texts that are imported into their discourse, with the myriad metaphors upon which they too often depend in order to make their meanings clear. For a measured assessment (which nevertheless opens with the statement that ‘structuralism, and poststructuralism also, are dead traditions of thought’) see, ‘Structuralism, Post-structuralism and the Production of Culture’, in, Social Theory Today (1987). See also epistemology.
Dictionary of sociology. 2013.