Structuralism - History and Background

History and Background

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, existentialism, such as that propounded by Jean-Paul Sartre, was the dominant European intellectual movement. Structuralism rose to prominence in France in the wake of existentialism, particularly in the 1960s. The initial popularity of structuralism in France led to its spread across the globe.

Structuralism rejected the concept of human freedom and choice and focused instead on the way that human experience and thus, behavior, is determined by various structures. The most important initial work on this score was Claude Lévi-Strauss's 1949 volume The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Lévi-Strauss had known Jakobson during their time together at the New School in New York during WWII and was influenced by both Jakobson's structuralism as well as the American anthropological tradition. In Elementary Structures he examined kinship systems from a structural point of view and demonstrated how apparently different social organizations were in fact different permutations of a few basic kinship structures. In the late 1950s he published Structural Anthropology, a collection of essays outlining his program for structuralism.

By the early 1960s structuralism as a movement was coming into its own and some believed that it offered a single unified approach to human life that would embrace all disciplines. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida focused on how structuralism could be applied to literature.

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