Differences between the Structuralism and Poststructuralism (in

a somewhat exaggerated form)
A Handout for HIS 389 (Clayton J. Whisnant)

Structuralism and poststructuralism have a great deal in common. Poststructuralism retains structuralism’s emphasis on
language; furthermore, they retain the structuralist belief that all cultural systems can be represented as “coded systems of
meaning rather than direct transactions with reality.” Moreover, many of the individuals commonly associated with
poststructuralism—Foucault, Baudrillard, even Barthes—began as structuralists and moved in the course of their thought
in a poststructuralist direction. However, there are some key differences that help us to define the terms, even though we
should understand them not as strict categories but as positions along a spectrum

Structuralism Poststructuralism
1. Structuralists tend to not doubt the existence of 1. Poststructuralists, on the other hand, do doubt the
“reality,” that is some material, human, or social- existence of reality, or at the very least they emphasize the
economic substratum that lies beneath the “ideas.” extent to which the widely understood difference between
“ideas” and “reality” is one constructed through discourse.
In other words, if there is a reality, it may have not bearing
on our sense of “truth” at all.
2. They tend to emphasize the coherence of a system as 2. They tend to emphasize the incoherence of the systems
that which allows for meaning to be constructed. of discourse, or at very least the tensions and ambiguities
created by the existence of multiple systems.
3. Similarly, structuralists tend to focus on how systems 3. Poststructuralists, on the other hand, will generally tend
set limits to what can be thought, said, meant. to focus on polysemy, that is the plurality of meaning and,
indeed, the tendency for meanings to mushroom out of
4. Structuralists have a tendency to be reductive; in other 4. Poststructuralist too will be reductive in their own way,
words, they tend to reduce many complicated but they try to keep in focus the differences that are being
phenomenon to a few key elements that they argue ignored in carrying out the reduction. These differences,
“explains everything.” they suggest, create cracks or fissures in the system that can
be utilized to challenge or even destroy the systems at
5. Structuralists are reductive because they are often 5. Poststructuralists have given up the search for “Universal
trying to find their own version of “Universal truths.” truths.” Whereas structuralists look for things that bind us
They are searching for “universal structures” that bind all together, poststructuralists tend to focus on that which
humans together at some level (Chomsky)--or at the very makes us different. In their minds, this emphasizes the
least, some basic structures that all members of a given malleability of human kind—a kind of revival of the
society (or possibly multiple societies) have in common existentialist “existence precedes essence” just in a new
(Levi-Strauss). guise.
6. They are radically anti-humanist; in other words, they 6. Poststructuralists are not humanists, exactly, since they
tend to suggest the power of systems to structure our also focus on the ways that language and discourse
thought, world-view, sense of self, etc. Nearly all power structures thought; however, they do tend to try to restore
is handed over to the system, to the point of being rather some small amount of power or creativity to the subject.
determinist. While they recognize the power of systems of thought and
action to set out the limits of the playing field, they want to
retain some small degree of spontaneity, or at least
unpredictability, for individuals moving within the playing
7. In short, structuralists focus on the monolithic 7. Poststructuralists focus more on the reader/speaker who
structure, that is the systems of meaning and how it is operating within the structure.

© 2012 Clayton J. Whisnant. All Rights Reserved
Citation: Clayton J. Whisnant, “Difference between Structuralism and Poststructuralism (in a somewhat exaggerated
form): A Handout for HIS 389,” last modified November 9, 2012,