Discuss the relationship between language and reality with reference to structuralist theory.

Discuss the relationship between language and reality with reference to structuralist theory.

Discuss the relationship between language and reality with reference to structuralist theory.

Structuralism is a European movement that started in the 20th century. It is concerned with structures. A structure describes and distinguishes what a system is made of. Structures consist of an arrangement of items, a collection of inter-related parts or services. These structures are not concrete, material, or physical phenomenons, they exist only in the human mind. Structuralism has been an influential way of looking at the world, not only in sociology and the social sciences, but also in the arts, literary studies and history.

The origins of structuralism lie in linguistics, which is the study of language and in particular in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure. According to Saussure no ready made ideas exist before words. We or in layman's terms believe that our words are not arbitrary but they mean something, that our words are linked to some sort of idea, thereby for Saussure, a word or sign on its own has no meaning, it only has meaning as part of system or structure of differences. As a structuralist, Saussure believed he could plot all of language on a graph, vertically and horizontally. Saussure called this structure that is deeper than thought and that produces our idea's ‘the langue' and he distinguished the langue from a parole, which he defined as a specific instant of speech and writing. Saussure argued that it is this structure that produces parole that is the instant words or statements. (Giddens, 1987)

Saussure's analysis of language and structuralism was that it is possible to study a language in two dimensions, vertically and horizontally. Vertical meaning is synchronic (with time) and which is concerned with how each sign interacts with the existing structure or system of differences. Saussure like most structuralists was concerned with synchronic meaning. On the other hand horizontal meaning is diachronic, (through time) and is concerned with the evolution of the structure through or how the system or structure changes from era to era. For example Karl Marx was diachronic as he was interested in historical change. (Giddens, 1987)

For Saussure, we can study what individual people actually write and say. That is if a man utters a sentence like “elephants are bigger than apples” we can pay attention to the meaning of this particular utterance, consider its truth, the man's reasons for saying it and so on. That is to say that, that the dimensions of language, of what people write and say is ‘diachronic'.

Contrasted with this, however, is the fact that it is only possible for anyone to filter this sentence, or indeed any other, because there are rules which go to make up the language which is being spoken. Most obviously, there are rules governing the relationship between words and things, for Saussure, a word or ‘sign' links a concept (signified) with a sound or image (signifier). In English the word elephant (the signifier) is attached by convention to the large animals with trunks which are indigenous to Africa and India. Of course, there is no absolute reason why we should call them elephants (the word itself is quite arbitrary), but once the convention is established we must use it if we are to make sense. Secondly there are rules of grammar. In English, for example there are particular rules bigger than apples has a different meaning from our original sentence elephants are ‘bigger than apples' by virtue of the grammatical rules governing past and present tenses. Saussure's point is that we can also study language in this way, as a system of rules governing what we can and cannot say.

This distinction between the diachronic and the synchronic is fundamental not only to structuralist linguistics but to the whole structural approach. Saussure drew a distinction between synchronic and diachronic linguistics, which is fundamental to the present day organization of the discipline. Primacy is accorded to synchronic linguistics, and diachronic linguistics is defined as the study of successive synchronic stages. (Lopez, et.all, 2000)

Claude Levi- Strauss an anthropologist further developed the idea of structuralism.

Levi-Strauss did not encounter Saussure directly; he got his saussureanism from another linguist called Roman Jakobson. Jakobson was a disciple of Saussure and he, following Saussure broke language down even further into its smallest units, and he called these units ‘phonemes'. Phonemes he believed are an individual vowel or syllable (consonant sound). Jakobson argued that all language and thus thought is composed of these phonemes, but the phonemes have no meaning in and of themselves. Like Saussure, Jakobson believed that these phonemes only had meaning when they were put in a system or structure of differences. (Lopez, et.all, 2000)

Building on Jakobson's concept of the phonemes, Levi- Strauss posited that complex mythic structures are composed not of phonemes but of ‘mythemes'. Mythemes are an individual unit, whose meaning arises solely from difference and structure, thus mythic archetypes like the sun, or water are not cross cultural, in fact they are mythemes whose meaning changes as we move from culture to culture or from structure to structure.

As an anthropologist, Levi- Strauss was interested in applying structuralist methods to the analysis of human culture. One of his most famous analyses was of myths. Levi- Strauss interpreted myths by critically analyzing their deep structures, just as Saussure arranged each sign of a given linguistic system into a complex over arching langue, just so Levi- Strauss arranged each element of a myth so it can read both horizontally and vertically or synchronically and diachronically.

Levi- Strauss believed that myths exist in all societies, although, superficially, the myths which different societies possess are quite different from each other. Levi-Strauss's analysis emphasized that this is only when considered in a diachronic sense. When viewed synchronically he argued that myths possess certain common structural features. According to Levi-Strauss, one can place a large number of myths or all myths alongside each other and detect a common set of underlying rules which govern their structure. Levi-Strauss attempts to explain this deep structure in terms of fundamental properties of the human mind; that is the underlying structure of culture, which he says is ultimately produced by the biologically determined structures of the human brain. (Turner, 2003)

For Levi-Strauss myths are based on oppositions. Typical oppositions are good/evil; male/female; life/death; night/day; land/sea. For example these and many other oppositions are found in the creation myth in Genesis, which tell the story of the creation of the world, of life and of human beings. Many of these oppositions cause unwelcome contradictions for human beings. For example death contradicts life. Myths can resolve this contradiction by stating that death is not a necessary consequence of life. They can introduce a new possibility, a new form of existence which is neither life nor death. Thus myths often contain ‘mythical beings' such as angels, ghosts and other supernatural creatures who are neither alive nor dead as we normally understand these terms. In this way myths mediate between the opposition of life and death, they resolve the contradiction. (Turner, 2003)

Levi-Strauss argues that all myths have the same basic structure opposition and mediation, or put another way, contradiction and resolution. Only when this structure is revealed are we in a position to interpret the functions of myths. In Levi-Strauss's words, ‘the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction.

Derived from the theoretical basis of structuralism, semiotics, or the study of signs, was developed most famously in the work of Ronald Barthes. Semiotics analysis concentrates upon the central structuralist principle that the relationship between the signifier and signified is arbitrary, and hence determined only by convention and applied according to rules. For example, consider a red rose. A red rose can be considered a signifier, in the sense that it has a meaning, beyond the physical existence as a flower. We know this from the fact that if a man gives a woman a bunch of red roses, she will interpret this in a quite different way than if he had given her a bunch of daffodils. Red roses, in our culture, signify love, whilst daffodils do not. There is no necessary reason for this; it could just as easily be the other way around. The task of the semiotics is to interpret the meaning of signs in our culture. (Lopez, et.all, 2000)

Barthes was also heavily influenced by Marxism, and one of his tasks was to analyze the deep ideological meanings of signs in modern popular culture. He argued that very often such signs, whilst appearing on the surface trivial enough, betray deeper ideological, ‘myths' which are often invisible to ordinary people and can only be seen when subjected to semiological analysis. As with other structuralist writers, Barthes approach rests upon his analysis of the synchronic dimensions, and specifically upon the systems of rules which govern the relationship between signifiers and that which they signify. It is only in relation to these systems of rules, which link certain signs with deeper ideological meanings, that the specific products (that is the diachronic dimension) of popular culture can be understood. (Lopez, et.all, 2000)

There can be no doubt that structuralism provides a powerful method for the analysis of virtually any aspect of human culture and its reality. More specifically, it has encouraged sociologists to recognize 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'. It has nevertheless been subject to criticisms. One is that in reducing the diachronic to the synchronic or, interpreting actual utterances, myths, pictures or whatever in terms of underlying systems of rules that we are in danger of losing the uniqueness and subtlety of actual human action. Subtle differences in meaning between myths, for example, are in danger of being lost sight of in the eagerness of the structuralist to find some underlying pattern which all myths have in common. Secondly, it can be argued that structuralism has inevitable difficulty in explaining change. If particular instances of actions are to be explained with reference to some underlying structure, then it is difficult to see how changes in that structure are to be explained. (Heller, 1984)

Structuralism is an intellectual movement which has found its analysis on the reduction of materials into forms referred to as structures. In conclusion, as the basis of understanding the concept of structuralism it has to be understood that structures are not physical expressions of reality; but rational models of reality. Despite these criticisms, the insights of structuralism have nevertheless been important in shaping modern sociological theory.

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