ARTICLE 62: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Post-structuralism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


I don’t like this paradigm.
Too many authors wrote about it and twisted the nature and elements of the paradigm to fit their own agendas.
No wonder Michel Foucault denied supporting structuralism and, by implication, post-structuralism.

Besides, it is not the mode of communication that defines a philosophical point of view, but rather how it understands and uses meaning.

Despite my reservations about post-structuralism, I would like to invite you to judge for yourselves if the paradigm is the one for your research.


Post-structuralism is a critical point of view that questions the validity in structures, such as culture and language. It is applied mainly in the field of languages and linguistics. It is in fact a reaction against the notion that structure is required for investigation and comprehension.

The purpose of post-structuralism is to interpret, understand and shape our social environment.

Post-structuralism does not have as a purpose the achievement of generalisation. This is because the structures of meanings are not universal and do not reflect a generally applicable and valid definition of human beings or societies.

It provides clarity on the significant role of ethical choice, that is deciding what the meaning of an event or phenomenon is without having to fall back on moral or political principles.

For post-structuralism, disruption is often seen as having a positive meaning because disruption can lead to renewal and change. Text as a construction of human beings is therefore fallible and the original meaning of the author is not easy to determine. Therefore, text needs to be “deconstructed” continually. Not having certainty about what authors originally meant by what they wrote leads to a constant stream of interpretations rather than fixed meaning.

According to post-structuralism, identifying and creating knowledge requires actually experiencing a phenomenon or event, which is typical of phenomenology, as well as an analysis of the different parts making up a system, which would be the structure in the case of structuralism.

Written documents are regarded as more accurate evidence for research purposes than the spoken word. Therefore, literature study is preferred over interviewing, a stance that is shared with ethnomethodology.    

Post-structuralism grew out of, and in response to, the philosophy of structuralism. It is a loose connection of authors and ideas, holding the general view that “structures” are not easily discovered. Post-structuralism is closely linked to the post-modernist paradigm in the sense that both believe that disruption can lead to improvement.

Post-structuralism is often criticised and rejected because of the underlying structure or text that is slippery and deep; and authorial intentions that are hard to unravel. It argues about limits, but the limits are not defined or even explained. It presupposes a core, but the core is not defined, let alone explained, making it easy to bend arguments to fit personal preferences or points of view labelling it post-structural. However, apart from linguistics it also has an influence on other disciplines, for example art, culture, history and sociology.

Post-structuralism should be adopted with great caution because it is interpreted and, therefore, used in many different ways by different people to support controversial points of view. Post-structuralists can overturn assumptions about purity in morals, about essences in terms of race, gender and backgrounds, about values in art and politics and about truth in law and philosophy.

The end-result of this approach is that no link can be found between the core and the limits and you can set your own limits and core without paying much attention to coherence or corroborated truth.



  1. Questions the validity of structures.
  2. Is a critical point of view.
  3. Believes that text is fallible.
  4. Focuses mainly on language and linguistics.

Knowledge is gained through experience and the analysis of structures.

The written text is regarded as a better source of data than the spoken word.

Post-structuralism is associated with post-modernism and structuralism.

It is opposed to modernism.

Criticism against post structuralism includes:

  1. That its use of personal preferences as data can damage the accuracy of research findings.
  2. Coherence and corroboration are neglected.
  3. It is hard to unravel the intentions of writers with what they wrote.
  4. And different researchers interpret post-structuralism differently.
Continue Reading