Structure: method or subversion of the social sciences?

It seems there’s no longer any real doubt as to the answer to this question, and that it is doubly negative. ‘Structuralism’, or what was designated as such mainly in France in the 1960s and 1970s (setting aside the question of other uses), is no longer regarded as a truly fertile method in the domains of sociology and anthropology, nor in those of linguistics and psychology, even if many of the concepts and schemata of thought that it put into circulation are still recognizable. A good portion of those who had enthusiastically adopted its language and objectives have turned away from it, in some instances towards methodologies that are more positivist, statistical or explicative, and in others towards participative inquiries, seeking a more immediate contact with ‘experience’. But one couldn’t really say it represented a ‘subversion’ either, since – apparently at least – the social and human sciences are holding up very well and still enjoy the same institutional legitimacy.

The moment has thus arrived to start singing the ‘swansong’, and probably to take note of a ‘collective shipwreck’, to use the expressions advanced by the sole work on the question available today, which is, truth be told, extremely mediocre.1 Our point of view will be different, for we figure that the question of identifying the exact content of the enterprise or intellectual adventure called ‘structuralism’ is still largely open to discussion and full of enigmas. But this question is itself indissociable from the question of knowing under what other forms and what other names the questions that gave rise to this enterprise are still posed today. We might even say it’s a question of knowing under what forms and names they can resurface, as soon as it becomes clear that the good health of the ‘social sciences’, the unity of their field, and the compatibility of their ‘methods’ are in truth extremely fragile. The problem of subversion thus presents itself again, but in a more ominous atmosphere, for we are no longer in a conjuncture of the ‘triumph’ of this project of scientific knowledge: in many respects we risk entering into the ‘liquidation’ phase, to invoke a more or less expedient term of inventory. The first condition for seriously discussing the lessons of structuralism is to realize that no unitary position was ever constituted under this name, not even in the sense of the extension of a model. Structuralism does not designate a school, then; it designates a movement, within a given intellectual conjuncture. And what characterizes it above all, to borrow a key expression from Foucault, are its ‘points of heresy’.2 These appear to turn mainly on three large questions: that of the constitution of the subject, that of the theoretical break or cut [coupure] of knowledge, and that of the universality of human nature. But before going further, we must first say a few words concerning what constitutes, prior to these divergences, the epistemological background common to the major ‘structuralist’ endeavours. In spite of what has been put forth (and has been particularly supported by the received idea according to which structuralism has its roots in the generalization and exportation throughout the human sciences of a linguistic model, with the Saussurean theory of language and its typical dichotomies – synchrony/ diachrony, language/speech, signifier/signified, and so on, – constituting in this respect at once the prototype of a structuralist approach and its logical organon), I don’t believe it is necessary to emphasize here before all else the primacy of the question of the sign and structures of signification. Or, rather, the importance of this question comes second, on the basis of an actively sought original solution to the methodological dilemma that was constitutive of the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and that continues to accompany their institutional development. […]



1. François Dosse, Histoire du structuralisme, 2 vols, Editions La Decouverte, Paris, 1991 and 1992; republished Librairie Garnier–Flammarion, Paris, 1995. François Dosse, The History of Structuralism, 2 vols, Volume 1: The Rising Sign, 1945–1966, and Volume 2: The Sign Sets, 1967–present, trans. Deborah Glassman, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1997. [Balibar’s reference to the ‘swansong’ alludes to Dosse’s Baudelairean titles for the two volumes in French; the title of the second volume, le chant du cygne, forms a homophonic pun with the title of the first, le champ du signe, the field of the sign. Trans.] 2 Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses. Une archéologie des sciences humaines, Gallimard, Paris, 1966; The Order of Things, Random House, New York, 1970.

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