At the most general level the term is used loosely in sociology to refer to any approach which regards social structure (apparent or otherwise) as having priority over social action.
More specifically, however, it refers to a particular theoretical perspective which became fashionable in the late 1960s and early 1970s and which spread across a range of disciplines including social anthropology , linguistics , literary criticism, psychoanalysis , and sociology . Its influence on sociology came from several directions: Claude Lévi-Strauss's structural anthropology and semiotic analysis of cultural phenomena in general; Michel Foucault's work on the history of ideas; Jacques Lacan's psychoanalysis; and the structural Marxism of Louis Althusser .
Basic to the approach is the idea that we can discern underlying structures behind the often fluctuating and changing appearances of social reality. The model is Saussure's structural linguistics and the notion that a language can be described in terms of a basic set of rules which govern the combination of sounds to produce meanings. For Lévi-Strauss and semiotics generally, these underlying structures are categories of the mind, in terms of which we organize the world around us. For Lévi-Strauss, but not necessarily others, such categories can always be understood as binary oppositions (for example up/down, hot/cold). Structural Marxism replaced these mental categories by positions in modes of production (such as those of labourer versus non-labourer) and substituted relationships to the means of production for the rules governing the production of meaning.
The basic principle is perhaps most visible in the writings of Lévi-Strauss. He acknowledged three influences: namely, geology, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. All three reveal hidden (unconscious) laws or structures beneath surface manifestations, but that is the extent to which he pursued the implications of the latter two. In contrast to the tradition inspired by Bronislaw Malinowski , Lévi-Strauss was less interested in detailed, holistic studies of specific societies, but rather with potential universals and common structures of the mind. He examined an array of exotic classification systems and myths, Mythologies (four vols., 1964-71), arguing that they could be reduced to binary oppositions, while also demonstrating the complexity and richness of imagination among different peoples. Totemism(1962) and The Savage Mind (1962) reveal hidden logic and intriguing transformations in what might otherwise have been dismissed as mere superstitions: so-called primitives had a science of the concrete. Similarly, in the bulky and formidableThe Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), he aimed to show that the multiplicity of kinship systems could be reduced to just two types-either generalized or restricted exchange.
Whatever the form of structuralism, however, certain implications about the nature of the world necessarily follow. The first is that the underlying elements of the structure remain (comparatively) constant, and it is the varying relationships between them that produce different languages, systems of ideas, and types of society. The emphasis therefore shifts away from looking at distinct entities towards concentrating on the relationships between them-to the extent, indeed, of arguing that those things which appear to us as discrete entities are the artefactual products of relationships. This emphasis on relationships is carried much further by post structuralism .
Secondly, there is the implication that what appears to us as solid, normal, or natural, is in fact the end result of a process of production from some form of underlying structure. This is perhaps most startling in literary criticism, where even the realist novel is shown to be as much the result of a process of artistic production as its most avant-garde counterpart: it is not simply a good copy of something that exists ‘out there’ in reality. This idea has now become commonplace in, for example, sociological studies of gender, where it is often argued that masculinity, femininity, homosexuality, and so forth are social constructions. Similarly, it is frequently argued that scientific knowledge is not knowledge of a real, external world, but rather the result of certain social processes and ways of thinking that we call scientific.
Thirdly, structuralism transforms our commonsense notion of individuals: they too are seen as the product of relationships, rather than as the authors of social reality. Structuralism replaces the ontologically privileged human subject with a decentred conception of the self. Whereas structuralist Marxism would see the individual as a mere bearer of social relations (of ownership and non-ownership of the means of production), others conceptualize individuals as the product of discourses and the relationships between discourses. This shift in perspective is often placed in a steady progress of our understanding of the world-a process of so-called decentring. Thus, with Copernicus came the realization that the earth was not the centre of the universe; with Darwin the realization that human beings were not the centre of creation but a product of evolution; with Marx the realization that human beings were not the producers but the product of social relations; and with Freud the realization that individuals were not the conscious agents of choice but the product of unconscious desires. Indeed, at the height of the popularity of structuralism, it was common to talk of the death of the subject-the demise of the idea of individuals acting and choosing voluntarily. Some granted the role of agency instead to the underlying structure itself, and talked of ‘language speaking people’, ‘books reading people’, and so forth. This more extreme view has moderated with the development of post-structuralism.
Finally, structuralism heralded a change in our conception of history, away from the idea of a comparatively steady evolutionary development, with one form of society leading on to another, towards a view of history as discontinuous and marked by radical changes. The root of this shift in perspective lies in the distinction between diachrony and synchrony. The former refers to changes of which we are most immediately aware. If we take language as an example, then a language can be seen to change over a shorter or longer period, as new words and phrases enter general usage while others disappear. However, it can be argued that the structure remains constant throughout, since the changes are produced by new combinations already provided for or contained within the underlying rules. This constancy occurs at the synchronic level. Similarly, in the case of societies, it is possible to argue that the underlying structure of (say) capitalism remains the same and determines the history of apparent social change, this being the change that we actually experience. A change in the type of society itself would involve a much more dramatic shift in the underlying structure.
Structuralism (at least in its radical form) is no longer as fashionable as it was, although some of the above ideas have had an influence beyond structuralist circles. Its sociological significance is discussed fully in, Lévi-Strauss, Structuralism and Sociological Theory(1975).

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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