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Structuralism in the United States

The plurality of disciplines involved in structuralism and the methodologies used reflects the heterogeneous nature of the classic definition of it, and some authors (such as Jean Piaget in psychology) prefer to insert structuralism into a long-term history of scientific ideas, as a contemporary manifestation of theories of knowledge, with a genealogy going back to Aristotle’s philosophy of form. In this line, structuralism is often considered by system historians as one of its precursor currents in the 1950s, alongside cybernetics and information theory in the United States.

The structure in the humanities

Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1973.
Credit: Bert Verhoeff / Anefo, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 license

(Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1973.)

The origins of the structuralist paradigm in ethnology and anthropology can be identified in certain authors influenced by methodological holism: Durkheim and Marcel Mauss in France, J. P. B. de Josselin de Jong in the Netherlands, and the American anthropologists heirs of the German historical school and Austrian (Robert Lowie, Alfred Kroeber, Franz Boas). Regularly reaffirming his intellectual debt to these great figures of the early 20th century, Lévi-Strauss developed structural anthropology from the 1950s onwards, breaking with the currents of Anglo-Saxon anthropology of the time (evolutionism , diffusionism, culturalism, functionalism).

Lévi-Strauss will considerably popularize the structuralist paradigm in his discipline, ethnology, and become its tutelary figure throughout the second half of the 20th century. He provided structuralism with a solid institutional foundation. It was also from this period that his name was associated with literary and semiotic structuralism, although he always denied any affinity with what he considers as an intellectual runaway unrelated to his scientific work.

In anthropology, after Lévi-Strauss who retired in 1982 (he died in 2009 at the age of 100), the structuralist paradigm retreats as elsewhere before methodological individualism. However, it is still undergoing some developments. A certain number of anthropologists take up, discuss and update Lévi-Straussian structural methodology, taking an interest in particular in his mathematical intuitions on the theory of groups.

In correlation with this mathematical filiation, the postulate of the universal combinatorics of a small number of irreducible differences to explain the facts of society continues to give rise (even if the reference to structuralism is not always explicit) to a certain number of contemporary works. anthropology, ethnology or history: the four fundamental “societies” (elementary universal forms of social bond).

Structuralism  in the United States

The end of the 1940s in the United States saw the very rapid development of several more or less competing theoretical currents, more oriented towards their practical and industrial applications, and using the term system rather than structure. These are mainly:

  • the theory of the general system, envisaged by Ludwig von Bertalanffy from the 1930s but formalized especially after the Second World War,
  • cybernetics, formalized in 1948 by Norbert Wiener and focusing on the behavior of a system under the influence of retroactive information (feedback),
  • information theory, developed by Claude Shannon the same year in The Mathematical Theory of Communication.

From the 1970s, these different currents tended to come together in a movement that would take the generic name of systemic (sometimes called second systemic, as opposed to the more static initial systemic), integrating two new concepts: communication and self-organization (or autonomy of the system). These two concepts join a broader scientific revolution including in particular the dissipative structures of energy described by the Nobel prize winner Ilya Prigogine, the theory of chaos, the theory of catastrophes of the mathematician and philosopher René Thom, the “second cybernetics” of the psychiatrist W. Ross Ashby (self-organization) and biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (morphogenesis and autopoiesis). This general movement is interested in the study of systems far from their point of equilibrium, and in the way in which a new equilibrium can emerge from such a situation. The term emergence appears to designate these new theories of form, and the properties arising from the spontaneous reorganization of a system.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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