What is Structuralism?

As a general approach, structuralism suggests that meaning in communication is expressed according to the differences between individual ideas. Knowing how those ideas are meant to be differentiated—the overall "structure" behind the communication—is what drives proper understanding. This concept has been applied to various areas of study; because each application is different it can be difficult to understand.

The intellectual movement of structuralism is often considered to have begun with Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. He taught that language was a system of signs expressing ideas. He believed language conveys an underlying structure, but individual words are arbitrary signifiers. Structuralism holds that the way we understand an idea has less to do with the properties of the thing itself and more to do with the differences between that thing and everything else. In other words, we perceive something based on its position within our overarching "structure."

For example, English speakers perceive something specific when encountering the term "chair" because we know how that idea is different from those connected to English words such as "couch," "stool," or "bench." In another language, there might more or fewer words for various kinds of seating. So, the boundaries of when something—in English—changes from a "chair" to a "stool" might fall in entirely different places in, say, Spanish or Swahili. The structure of the words is subtly different in a different language—so the implied meaning is subtly different, and perfect one-to-one translations are not always possible.

Though structuralism started with the study of language, it has been expanded to anthropology, sociology, biology, psychology, and more. It's interesting to note that structuralism assumes all meaning is grounded in patterns, absolutes, and order in reality. So, structuralism is strongly compatible with the idea that there is one Creator who established these perspectives.

As with any philosophy, structuralism can be abused. For example, a shallow version of structuralism writes off the Bible as nothing more than the perspective of ancient people. Extreme structuralism could cause readers of the Bible to think they will never understand it, since they do not have a deep understanding of absolutely every aspect of the underlying culture. Or, because they cannot intimately understand the original languages in which the Bible was written.

It is essential to read the Bible in context, but that does not mean its truth is not applicable today. The general truths of the Bible are clear for the common reader, and ample study tools exist to help any who are interested have a deeper understanding of the linguistic, cultural, and historical context of the Bible.

Properly applying structuralism to biblical study is done through exegesis. Exegesis is studying the Bible by deriving meaning from the text (rather than eisegesis, which brings one's own meaning to a passage). A person using exegesis examines the various structures in the text, like language, culture, and history, for interpreting meaning. This is simply good Bible study—working to find the meaning that was originally intended rather than bringing one's own interpretation to the Bible.

Applying the concepts of structuralism to biblical studies, a reader seeks to understand the Bible within the structure or framework that it was written. From that understanding, we then draw conclusions and make applications. This is especially useful when the nuance of a single word seems to have major implications for the meaning of a text.

Related Truth:

What is cultural translation?

Why is context so important in studying the Bible? What is wrong with looking at verses out of context?

Textualism — What is it?

What principles are used in biblical exegesis?

Does the Bible say anything about multiculturalism?

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