A Brief History and Characterization

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1 Gough, Noel. (in press). Structuralism. In Kridel, Craig (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Curriculum Studies. New York: Sage Publications. STRUCTURALISM Structuralism is a conceptual and methodological approach to describing and analyzing a variety of objects of inquiry including, for example, cultures, economics, language, literature, mythologies, politics, and societies. A structuralist analysis assumes that these objects of inquiry can be characterized by underlying structures conceived as systems of interrelated parts and that they can be defined (at least in part) by relationships among these constitutive elements. Structuralist assumptions (concerning both the existence of underlying structures and the methods by which they should be analyzed) developed within what we now tend to label Continental (that is, non-anglophone European) philosophy much of it French during the early decades of the twentieth century, but the influence of structuralism on both Continental and Anglo-American scholarship became much more prominent after World War II. From the late 1940s through the 1970s (and to a diminished extent beyond), structuralist thought had a significant and explicit purchase on disciplines such as anthropology, cognitive development, literary criticism, mathematics, political science, and sociology. In retrospect, we can also discern implicit structuralist assumptions in the literatures of educational research and curriculum inquiry during this period. For example, two of the most influential curriculum texts in the immediate post-wwii era were Ralph Tyler s 1949 Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction and Benjamin Bloom et al. s 1956 Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Neither of these texts proselytizes for structuralism and nor do they cite structuralist literatures, but both texts appear to be replete with structuralist assumptions and to invoke structural principles in their reasoning. Exposing, naming and criticizing the structuralist assumptions that continue to pervade contemporary curriculum texts, discourses and practices has largely fallen to scholars who adopt poststructuralist positions. A Brief History and Characterization One of the earliest influences in the development of structuralism was Ferdinand de Saussure s Course in General Linguistics, a text published posthumously in 1916 that was compiled by his colleagues from students notes of a series of lectures he gave at the University of Geneva from 1906 to Saussure applied structural analysis only to linguistic systems but many Continental philosophers and intellectuals chose to apply his reasoning more widely, and his assumptions and methods were subsequently modified and extended to other disciplines and to nonlinguistic phenomena. Structuralism was increasingly taken up within fields such as anthropology, psychoanalysis, literary theory, and architecture, to the extent to which it became an influential intellectual movement that, by the 1960s and 1970s, had to a large extent eclipsed phenomenology and existentialism. Structuralism assumes that all human social activities the clothes we choose to wear, the books we write, the cultural rituals we practice constitute languages and that their regularities can therefore be codified by abstract sets of underlying rules. Thus, for example, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan asserted that the unconscious was structured like a language, and Michel Foucault s early writings characterized knowledge as what can be spoken of in a discursive practice. We can therefore appreciate some of the distinctive properties of structuralism and its effects by considering a number of Saussure s assumptions, assertions and methods and seeing how some or all of these appear to underlie the reasoning and arguments of educational texts such as Tyler s rationale for curriculum development and instruction and Bloom s taxonomy of educational objectives. According to Saussure, language is structured prior to its realization in speech or

2 writing. Language consists of a set of signs, each of which is constituted by a signifier (a sound or inscribed image) and a signified (a concept or meaning). Other scholars use different words for signifier and signified, and most add a third aspect to Saussure s linguistic sign so as to include nonlinguistic objects or referents. For Saussure, signs are arbitrary because a word (signifier) is linked to a concept or meaning (signified) by the conventions and common usages of a particular speech community. Signs do not exist outside of a system and a word s meaning is determined by its relationships to, and differences from, other words, with the result that binary distinctions or oppositions tend to determine the content and normative commitments of the structure. Saussure also distinguished langue (language) from parole (speech) and his structural linguistics focuses on language (the totality of signs that constitute a natural language, such as French or English) and not on particular utterances. Saussure s analytic method examines language at one moment in time a static snapshot of a constantly changing system which moved semiology from diachronic to synchronic analysis. Thus, Saussure s structuralist linguistics appears to be ahistorical, a much-criticized (especially but not only by poststructuralists) characteristic that it shares with many other manifestations of structuralist thought. Finally, structuralist analysis of sign systems focuses on describing and mapping relationships, categories and classifications and thus tends to represent itself as an ideologically neutral method. The cloak of ideological neutrality has led some critics to associate (or conflate) structuralism with positivism, but not all knowledge claims that arise from structuralist arguments can be taken as positivist. When structuralist thought is applied to studies of society and social relations the individual human subject is decentered. Structuralism questioned the salience of individual agency and sought to explain social interaction in terms of its predetermination by underlying social structures. For example, during the 1940s Claude Lévi-Strauss initiated a program of structural anthropology that sought to identify the structures that determine cultural practices and myths across societies. In his 1949 book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, Lévi- Strauss applied structuralist reasoning to his examination of kinship systems across cultures and demonstrated that social arrangements that appeared to be very different could plausibly be understood as permutations of a small number of underlying kinship structures. By the early 1960s, many Continental scholars were working with structuralist ideas, although many resisted being labeled as such and some eventually became more identifiable as poststructuralists. For example, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida explored structuralist approaches to literary criticism (although Derrida now is chiefly associated with deconstruction, which is a complex response to several theoretical and philosophical movements, especially phenomenology, psychoanalysis and structuralism) and, as already noted, Jacques Lacan applied Saussure s structuralism to psychoanalysis. Methods of structural analysis (as distinct from structuralist assumptions) appear to have informed Jean Piaget s studies in developmental psychology, although he is more likely to have described himself as constructivist. Foucault explicitly denied his affiliation with structuralism in his later works, but his 1966 book, The Order of Things, seeks to explain how structures of epistemology (episteme) in the history of science have determined the ways in which we imagine knowledge and knowing. Thomas Kuhn also investigated the structured production of scientific knowledge and methods in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which demonstrated how the conventions of scientists speech communities shape standard practice and discourage deviations from normal science under most circumstances. Louis Althusser also decenters the human subject in his structuralist interpretation of Marxism, in which he argues that individual agency and social interaction is predetermined by social structures, namely, ideological state apparatuses that reproduce capitalist relations of exploitation in the interests of the ruling class. 2

3 3 Structuralist thinking in curriculum Cleo Cherryholmes clearly demonstrates (in his 1988 book, Power and Criticism) that many of the characteristics of structuralist thinking described above are pervasive (albeit unacknowledged) ways of thinking about education. Structuralist thinking in education foregrounds order, organization and certainty, which Cherryholmes illustrates by exposing the structuralist assumptions, methods and reasoning in Tyler s Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction and Benjamin Bloom et al. s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Tyler s rationale is an approach to thinking systematically about curriculum and instruction that unequivocally imposes structuralist assumptions on those who use it by requiring them to: 1. Define learning objectives 2. Select useful learning experiences 3. Organize experiences to maximize their effect 4. Evaluate the process and revise where needed The structuralist characteristics of this rationale include: 1. The four steps define and regulate curriculum, but the individual steps have no meaning outside of the system in which they are located; their curricular meanings are determined by the relationships among steps in the process. For example, learning objectives have little meaning when considered in isolation, but become meaningful in a systematic structure of organized learning experiences and evaluation. Similarly, an evaluation instrument has no meaning in isolation but becomes significant in the context of learning objectives and experiences. 2. Binary distinctions and oppositions (many of which are tacit) determine the content and normative commitments of Tyler s rationale: purposeful/purposeless, organization/disorganization, accountability/nonaccountability, continuity/discontinuity, sequence/nonsequence, evaluation/nonevaluation. Readers are left in no doubt as to which term in each pair is valued by the structure. 3. Tyler s rationale is ahistorical insofar as objectives, learning experiences, their organization, and evaluation are analyzed by reference to an immediate situation rather than to their historical antecedents. 4. Tyler s rationale is represented as an ideologically neutral design process. 5. Tyler s rationale decenters the agency of teachers and learners by assuming that structural relations among objectives, learning experiences, their organization, and evaluation determine the curriculum and its meanings. The full title of Bloom et al. s 1956 book, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. The Classification of Educational Goals, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain, excessively overdetermines its structuralist credentials (even though its authors do not cite a structuralist literature). The book begins with an epigraph that quotes Webster s New Collegiate Dictionary s (1953) definition of taxonomy as the classification, esp. of animals and plants according to their natural relationships, a definition that emphasizes that a taxonomy is more (that is, more structured) than a simple classification. The authors aspire to constructing a taxonomy in which the order of its terms corresponds to some real (their scare quotes) order among the phenomena represented by the terms. But the authors also recognize that taxonomies are social constructions and admit that (quoting directly from p. 13) the determination of classes and their titles is in some ways arbitrary. This juxtaposition of their acknowledgment of the arbitrariness of a sign with their desire for a sign to represent something that is real, is an eloquent (though almost certainly unintended) reminder of structuralism s limitations and contradictions.

4 4 Drawing further on Cherryholmes s analyses of selected educational texts, Bloom et al. s taxonomy exemplifies several characteristics of structuralist reasoning: 1. As the authors admit, the particular form of the taxonomy is arbitrary. 2. The meaning and value of any one educational objective is determined by its relationships with other objectives (since assumptions about real or natural relationships are a guiding principle of the taxonomy); these meanings and values are produced in large part by binary distinctions between the taxonomy s categories, such as, comprehension/knowledge, application/comprehension, analysis/application, and so on (with the normative commitments being clearly signaled by the first-named terms in each pair being at a higher level in the taxonomy than the other). 3. Human actors (teachers and students) are decentered because curricular values and meaning are located in structures external to individuals. 4. The authors repeatedly and emphatically assert the taxonomy s value neutrality, claiming that it is purely descriptive. Structuralism Now Many contemporary scholars now reject an overly deterministic interpretation of underlying structures and instead seek a more dialectical, or mutually constitutive, relationship between agency and structure. For example, Anthony Giddens argues for structuration theory in sociological analysis as one way to avoid privileging either structure or agency. He suggests that individual actions are informed by social interaction and an awareness of structural contexts, that is, the interactions between individual agency and structural contexts determine both processes and outcomes. Foucault also reconceptualized the relationships of structure and agency by addressing questions about (for example) how structures appear to determine some things and not others, how agency is provided to some and denied to others, and how relationships between structure and agency come to be discursively constituted. Foucault s emphasis on determining historically located relationships between language, knowledge, power, and institutional practices, clearly distances his work from the ahistorical tendencies of earlier structuralists. Many critics of structuralism now identify themselves as poststructuralists. The terms structuralism and poststructuralism are not binary opposites and indeed they have a number of continuities. Structuralists and poststructuralists share the view that the objects, elements and meanings that constitute our existential reality are social constructions they cannot be presumed to exist independently of human perception and activity. For example, a strictly structuralist orientation in semiotics would seek to identify and describe the codes and systems of signification with which we articulate experience and produce meaning. A poststructuralist orientation in semiotics would be more concerned with refining and critically analyzing the stories that structuralist semioticians construct stories that purport to describe and explain the structures of other stories. Poststructuralist criticism is concerned with the extent to which analyses of narrative constructions are caught up in the processes and mechanisms they are analyzing. Poststructuralists are thus suspicious of the view that anyone can get outside a cultural discourse or practice to describe its underlying rules and norms. For example, an analysis of political structures in a society cannot situate itself outside of these same political structures because it will necessarily be caught up in the processes and forces it attempts to describe, and will itself involve a political move or stance. Therefore, one way to investigate political structures and forces is to analyze the analyst s own stance and seek to determine how her or his analytical discourse is worked by the structures and forces it is analyzing. Structuralist assumptions have influenced contemporary thinking in education in

5 5 significant ways, although in many instances they are not identified as such by those who endorse them implicitly through their prescriptions and actions. As Cherryholmes points out, structuralism is consistent with teaching for objectives, standardized assessment, quantitative empiricism, systematic instruction, scientific management, and bureaucratic rationality. Such consistencies might alarm many critical-reconceptualist curriculum scholars, but they should also provide them with sufficient grounds not to dismiss structuralism as a failed (or fossilized) philosophy. Structuralist assumptions are alive and well, but they are not necessarily dangerous; only if they remain unacknowledged might they also be immune to criticism. Noel Gough, La Trobe University, Australia See also: Phenomenological Research; Philosophical Foundations of Curriculum Studies; Poststructuralist Research; Tyler Rationale Further Readings Althusser, Leon. (1971). Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays. London: New Left Books. Bloom, Benjamin S., Engelhart, Max D., Furst, Edward J., Hill, Walker H., & Krathwohl, David R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. The Classification of Educational Goals, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Company, Inc. Cherryholmes, Cleo. (1988). Power and Criticism: Poststructural Investigations in Education. New York: Teachers College Press. Foucault, Michel. (1970/1966). The Order of Things: An Archaelogy of the Human Sciences (Alan Sheridan-Smith, Trans.). London: Tavistock Publications. Giddens, Anthony. (1984). The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1st ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Lacan, Jacques. (1977). Ecrits. London: Tavistock. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1949/1969). The Elementary Structures of Kinship (J. Bell, J. von Sturmer & R. Needham, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press. Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1916/1974). Course in General Linguistics. London: Fontana. Tyler, Ralph W. (1949). Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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