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A methodological approach which has been employed in a wide range of fields (e.g. the social sciences, anthropology, literary criticism). It is generally accepted that structuralism can be traced back to Ferdinand de Saussure’s book Course in General Linguistics (1916), although the term itself was coined by Russian structuralist theorist Roman Jakobson. In his work, Saussure attempted to construct a scientific account of the process of signification which he termed semiotics – the science of signs. In Saussure’s view, all language (the definition of which includes forms of communication other than simply spoken language) can be analysed as a structural system of relations. Saussure held that meaning is determined by this relation, rather than by the referential function of the signs in language. A sign is thus held to have meaning because of its relationship to the other words, not because it refers to a particular object. In turn, Saussure argued for the view that language could be described in terms of one fundamental distinction: that between langue and parole. Langue constitutes the fundamental structural element of language (the network of meanings which must be in place at any given time if a speaker is able to speak), parole the actual use of these elements as they are actualised within any individual utterance.


An important notion within structuralism is that of binary opposition, which in effect contends that meaning is determined by the oppositional relationship which inheres between different signs (good-bad, light-dark, etc.) and exerts a fundamental determining force on the construction of meaning. This, in Jakobson’s view. Has been taken to constitute the fundamental structure of any language and has led to the development of a number of critical approaches, such as the structuralism of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss which concentrates on elucidating the universal structures which operate in human society and culture.


Structuralism can therefore be described as an attempt to elucidate the objective conditions which constitute all linguistic and social relations. As such, it put forward a claim to be regarded as an objective science. A number of criticisms of the structuralist approach have been put forth. In the wake of structuralism itself, an attack on the purported objectivity of its methods of analysis was made by such writers as philosopher Jacques Derrida (see, for example, his essay “Force and Signification” in Writing and Difference (1967) associated with post-structuralism.