ARTICLE 70: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Structuralism

Written by Dr. J.P. Nel

Imagine, conducting research on human behaviour while focusing on the context rather than the target group.

Do you think that our environment determines our behaviour?

And if so, to what extent and how?

For example, will it be possible to eliminate ills such as conflict, corruption, crime, and many more by changing the infrastructure of a city or country?

And what would be the impact if we were to change the language policy of a country?

I discuss the impact of structure on human behaviour in this article.

Structuralism focuses on the systems (structures) within society and the power relations within and among the parts (subsystems). In formalised structures, one can easily see the hierarchy of positions and levels of power. In this respect structuralism displays three main characteristics:

1.         It focuses on the structures in which humans interact rather than on human interaction as such.

2.         It analyses the relationships between the different elements of a conceptual system.

3.         It investigates human thinking, culture, behaviour and feelings within the boundaries of the structure in which people find themselves.

According to structuralism, underlying “structures” or “essences” determine the meaning of an event or phenomenon. For example, unchanging structures of grammar underpin all language (linguistics); economic structures or organisation determine social beliefs and behaviour (economics); hidden structures of the unconscious mind control behaviour (psychology; psychoanalysis).

Structuralists beliefs that no part in a particular system has any significance in and of itself – its identity is defined in terms of its relationship with all the parts of the system.

Research making use of the structuralist paradigm strives to identify the relationships that determine human interaction. The aim of such research should be the discovery of the factors that cause the people being investigated to act, think and feel the way they do. The physical actions are not important for research purposes but rather the relationships that support the actions. 

If you wish to use structuralism as a paradigm for your research, you will need to deconstruct the channels of power in your research target in order to be able to analyse and describe the relationships and interplay between the parts of the system. In most qualitative research it should not be necessary to emphasise any of the parts, but rather to show how the parts relate to each other. This means that you should follow a holistic approach by determining how the entire system functions rather than just certain parts. 

In qualitative research, structures have the characteristic of dealing with transformation of power positions or the maintenance and reproduction thereof in society. As a structure can only sustain itself by perpetuating a continuous sameness of its parts, structures actively strive to preserve their position, thus extending the oppression and power of the system. In other words, positions of power in society give people control over others (e.g. adults over children, managers over workers).

Education offers a good example of where structure impacts on the relationships between people interacting in the same social setting. Education is criticised for its social reproduction function where traditional power relations are maintained and nourished. Any form of discrimination is an example of this. The aim of the structuralist endeavour is to expose these power relations through critique of the system.

It is rather common practice for those in power to be unwilling to relinquish their power to others. The result of such resistance can often be damaging to the entire community by eroding the service role that the power structures should provide. This can lead to corruption, poor leadership, injustice towards certain groups in the community and a decline in economic prosperity with all the ills that come from that.

Structuralism is a form of critical research, including some elements of neoliberalism, post-colonialism, feminism, radicalism and romanticism. In this respect it especially supports post-structuralism. However, post-structuralism developed in reaction against structuralism because of the latter’s view that structures can be discovered, and its insistence on rigid power relations between the parts of the structure (post-structuralism questions the role of structure in human interaction).

Because of the fact that structuralism draws conclusions from relationships without also taking physical activities into consideration, it can lead to overgeneralisation – differences between different events or phenomena are not recognised because they are present in the actions and not the intangible factors.

Structuralism does not take history into consideration, which can be important in terms of the ontology of a research topic. The origin of a phenomenon is often important for its understanding.

Although structuralism is often used as a critical paradigm, researchers also tend to use it as a technicist paradigm, which can lead to social systems being interpreted as scientific phenomena stripped of the influence that affective factors have on social behaviour.


Structuralism focuses on structures as systems within society and the power relationships within and among the parts.

The identities of substructures are defined in terms of their relationships with all the other parts of the system.

Research making use of structuralism deals with the transformation, maintenance and reproduction of power positions in society, and to identify the relationships that determine human interaction.

Human relationships are regarded more important than human behaviour.

Structuralism is associated with neoliberalism, post-colonialism, post-structuralism, radicalism and romanticism.

Structuralism is opposed to post-structuralism.

Points of criticism against structuralism as a paradigm for research include that:

  1. Research can be too technicist.
  2. It can lead to overgeneralisation.
  3. It does not take history into consideration.

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