What Is the Structuralist Perspective?

The structuralist perspective in the social sciences is an holistic theoretical paradigm based on the Gestalt psychology principle that human behavior and experience are essentially structural in nature, that is, that they consist of individual units that researchers can isolate and study alone in order to gain a greater understanding of the whole. The structuralist perspective has implications for a range of fields, including psychology, anthropology, linguistics and philosophy.

Influenced by the “elementist” movement in the natural sciences, it was the psychologist Wilhelm Wundt who introduced structuralism. Wundt based this new psychological paradigm on his observation that conscious experiences must be defined in terms of their characteristics. The emotion of sadness, for example, cannot be usefully defined as ‘sadness’; it needs to be defined in terms of its basic traits, such as specific thoughts, physical feelings, and so forth.

Between the 1920s and 1930s, Ferdinand de Saussure extended the structuralist perspective to linguistics, noting that while speakers of any language are all aware of the units of their language, which are the grammatical rules and conventions, they are not necessarily able to explain or even identify them.

Structural anthropology, meanwhile, which was pioneered by Claude Levi-Strauss in the 1940s, took de Saussure’s observation further and applied it to human culture in addition to language. The units of a culture may be emic, which is classified or understood within the culture, or etic, which is classified or observed by a cultural outsider.