Structuralism and Post-structuralism

Notes on Gender and Anthropology, CH.6 and 7

Importance of studying ideology
The ideational approach, much like the evolutionary and cultural materialist approaches also presumes itself to be foundational. Anthropologists and other cultural theorists do not see symbolism and ideologies as outgrowths of underlying economic relations or biology. Ideas and beliefs can be seen as having an independent reality – and as such can act as powerful forces shaping our economics and biology rather than the other way around.

  • Structuralism and post-structuralism are anchored in French philosophical traditions.
  • Structural anthropology was most popular in the 1950s-70s and is associated with Claude Levi-Strauss. It made a profound impact on all the social sciences and humanities. Numerous critiques contributed to structuralism falling out of favor, particularly it is maligned for paying little attention to a people’s history and issues of social inequality.
  • Post-structuralism emerged in the 1970s and 1980s and is associated with philosophy, history, and literature. There are many important post-structuralists but none is more relevant to the study of gender than Michel Foucault [pronounced Foo-coe].
  • Structuralism will lay our foundation for understanding post-structuralism, and post-structuralism will inform our understanding of performativity.


  • In his work Levi-Strauss drew upon the structural linguistics of Fredinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson. It was Saussure who first claimed that language is a system that creates meaning by setting up binary oppositions between sounds, and that the meaning given to symbols is arbitrary.
  • For example in English we know that the meaning of the word “bat” is different than the meaning of the word “cat” because our language distinguishes between the sounds B and C. Our culture has taught us to hear a difference between those sounds. Moreover, there’s no natural reason why the sound of the word “cat” ought to mean a small, meowing mammal. The relationship between the sound at what it refers to is arbitrary.
  • In discovering these pattern, Saussure felt he had discovered the deep structure of language and the underlying law governing it. Meaning is produced through setting oppositions between signs. It is not necessary that speakers of a language be conscious of this process. They do not need to know the underlying structure language uses to produce meaning in order to speak it.


  • Levi-Strauss argued that myth and kinship patterns were structured in the same way that Saussure believed language to be structured and this reflected deeper, underlying structures in the human brain. Therefore we can analyze social institutions in terms of the binary oppositions that the mind creates.
  • However, the thing about binary oppositions is that (like the relationship between signified and signified) they are always arbitrary. At an unconscious level, the human mind recognizes this and is dissatisfied. Thus the mind creates symbols that mediate between the arbitrary oppositions. These mediators act as in-between categories.
  • For example, at a traffic light red means stop and green means go, but those meanings are arbitrary. There is no inherent quality in the color red that means stop. There is no natural association of the color green with the action of going. From an objective, scientific view point, the light spectrum is continuous from red to violet. It is our culture that breaks down the light spectrum and applies specific names by arbitrarily deciding where, say, yellow ends and green begins.
  • The arbitrariness of the symbolism requires that a third sign be created to act as an intermediary between the two. This is yellow, which means ‘be careful.’ The yellow light, from a structuralist viewpoint mediates between the symbols for stop and go.

Structural Anthropology

  • Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology says that there are deep seated structures in the human brain that cause us to make sense of the world by opposing one thing against another. The basic human cognitive operation is: This is not that.
  • What does this have to do with the study of sex and gender?
  • According to Levi-Strauss, it has to do with the origin of marriage in which women become symbols in a system of meaning. Women are the yellow light. They act as mediating symbols between groups of men.
  • Marriage is a symbolic system in which men exchange women to create alliances. This gives order and meaning to society, and establishes the difference between human beings and other animals.
  • According to Levi-Strauss the human brain is wired to think of nature and culture as the fundamental binary pair, and this goes on to shape the way we organize the world. We know something is natural because it does not belong in the category “culture” and we know something is cultural because it does not belong in the category “nature”.
  • Human beings however are at once natural and cultural. This paradox is resolved by the incest taboo, which is near universal law that prohibits mating with close kin.
  • The incest taboo overcomes nature by establishing orderly kinship relations required for culture to function. It is the mediator (yellow light) between the categories of nature and culture because it allows the natural act of mating to continue but in a way that is regulated by culture.
  • Therefore the incest taboo is foundational to very existence of marriage.
  • The essence of marriage is that it be governed by rules that call for the reciprocal exchange of women by men. This exchange creates alliances between otherwise unrelated groups of individuals. As a result society comes about into existence. This makes women into a sort of gift that men exchange among themselves to cement relationships and ensure group cohesion.
  • The gendered division of labor exists primarily to make women and men interdependent on each other. Since members of each sex perform tasks that are necessary to survival – even though it is not inherently natural that certain tasks be considered masculine and others feminine – men and women must exist in a reciprocal relationship with one another.
  • Therefore the subordinate status of women in society arises from the fact that human brains are structured in such a way as to perceive the world in terms of: This is not that. Humans are not animals, because we have incest taboos. Because we have incest taboos men must exchange women among themselves. Because men exchange women, unrelated groups form bonds among themselves thereby creating society. Therefore deep structures are revealed in the gendered division of labor.

Sherry Ortner

  • Sherry Ornter‘s “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture” represents a feminist appropriation of Levi-Strauss’s structuralism. In it Ortner attempts to explain why women are devalued and subordinated in cultures around the world.
  • Ortner was influenced Simone de Beauvoir‘s The Second Sex, in which the author famously wrote that “woman is not born but made.” This meant that de Beauvoir saw the social construction of gender as playing a greater role in shaping relations between men and women than biological differences of sex.
  • There was a process that every woman goes through in which she learns what her culture values or devalues, and what her society expects her behavior to be like. Western categories of thought like male and female, Self and Other, play a part in subjugating women. So it is not that people’s biology and sexual anatomy truly limits who they are and what they can, but what ideas their cultures have about bodies.
  • Ortner shared the structural orientation of Levi-Strauss insofar as she saw local manifestations of culture as elaborations upon or surfaces of universal structures. For Levi-Strauss women’s subordination grows out of their role as symbols in a system of exchange, which is itself an outgrowth of the way the human mind is organized. Ortner can be seen as bringing this same theory into conversation with the work of de Beauvoir.
  • Ortner argued that women are subordinated in diverse cultures around the world because they are perceived as being closer to the “nature” end of the binary opposition by virtue of their biological function of giving birth.
  • Since men lack the ability to give birth they exhibit their ability to create externally through the manipulation of symbols. Thus men transcend nature while women are rooted in nature.
  • The subordination of women to men originates not in some natural limitation but in women everywhere being thought of as natural. Since the realm of nature is conceptualized as being inferior to culture, which is the realm of men, women are thought to be inferior to men.
  • This relates to de Beauvoir’s work on theorizing the relationship between self and other. A man knows what he is by knowing what he is not. And a man is not a woman. Thus woman is defined as “the Other” because they are defined by their bodies. Men are defined by “the Self” because there are freed of bodily functions.


  • Structuralism was critiqued on the basis that the whole notion of thinking of things in terms of binary oppositions reproduces Western styles of thinking.
  • The post-structuralists draw heavily on the work done by the structuralists but they do not appeal to underlying structures of the brain. Instead post-structuralists see the common binary oppositions of male/ female; Self/ Other; mind/ body as representative of existing power relations in society.
  • Power is the ability to make other people do things. This sort of power operates on the micro-level of interpersonal relationships such as parent/child; husband/ wife; teacher/ student; boss/ worker; doctor/ patient.
  • This is a different way of conceptualizing power than theorizing it as emanating from the top down. At the top of society are powerful institutions run by powerful people that set up laws which people must obey. Instead this theory is saying that power goes from the bottom up. You have to look at the way individuals interact with each other according to certain socially prescribed rules. All of that provides the foundation that supports the powerful people and institutions at the top.
  • What Foucault was interested in was the relationship between language (which is a symbolic system) and discourse (an organized way of talking about things), and the relationship between discourse and power.
  • Foucault was interested in language as a productive system that creates people’s sense of who they are, or the relationship between language and identity. Foucault labeled this discourse.
  • Discourses are systems of knowledge, supported by institutions and practices that create a picture for people of what is true and what is not. Competing discourses are equivalent to competitions over defining truth. And by having the ability to define what is true and what is not, discourses are able to compel people to act in particular ways, in other words they are levers of power.
  • So the struggle for power can be understood as competing discourses and who has the right to determine what can and cannot be done by certain groups of people.
  • Anthropologists use Foucault’s post-structural social theory to identify influential discourses in society and to analyze the impact they have on people’s lives.

The Panopticon

  • For Foucault discourses could lay claim to power because they had the ability to produce knowledge. Truth is not something that is “out there” which science can go about discovering. Instead truth is something that is produced through a discourse we call science.
  • The classic example of this is the Panopticon, which Foucault details in his most influential book, Discipline and Punish.
  • The Panoticon was an ideal prison designed by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late 1700s. The concept was to build a prison that was circular in shape with a single watchtower in the middle. All of the prisoner’s cells would be open to view from the watchman, but they would be unable to tell whether or not they were being observed at precisely that moment.
  • Bentham suggested that the basic building plan would be applicable to all institutional buildings generally, such as hospitals, schools, and insane asylums – anywhere a manger was need to oversee the duties of behaviors of his subordinates.
  • The Panopticon works on the principle that if the prisoner thinks he’s being watched, he will behave himself. But since it’s impossible to watch all the prisoners all the time one must create the impression that the prisoner is being watched, whether or not that is actually the case. Overtime the prisoner becomes “disciplined” into behaving in a desirable way with the least amount of effort because he is monitoring his own behavior and not because he is actually being supervised.
  • So in the Panopticon, who is really watching the Prisoner? He is watching himself.
  • The Panopticon is a metaphor for the way society compels people to be “normal”. If you deviate from what is considered normal then there’s the possibility that you will be punished in one way or another. We as members of society are all put through a regime of discipline that compels us to conformity. When we deviate from what is considered normal we risk sanction.
  • Society has numerous ways to punish those people who are not normal. Gay people, for example, were considered to be suffering from mental illness until a few decades ago. Hence science, as a discourse, was mobilized by people in a position of power to justify their treatment of people who they deemed to be not-normal.
  • Foucault would say there is a “normalizing discourse” around homosexuality that defines the population as something that can be labeled and therefore known. Producing knowledge about these non-normal gay bodies is a way to seek to control them and force them to conform.
  • One of the major impacts of Foucault’s work has been a tendency in anthropology (and feminism more generally) to be suspicious to any claim made about people’s behavior based on it being “natural.” We now know that what is and is not considered natural is itself a product of power dynamics in society, that originate not from the top down, but from the bottom up.


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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