4 minute read

Structuralism and Poststructuralism

AnthropologyDerrida And Deconstruction

At first sight, Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology (1967), which makes the provocative claim for the logical priority of writing (or at least "archè-writing") over speech, might not seem a likely candidate for a work that would influence anthropological thinking. Derrida's point is, first of all, that writing reveals the spaces, silences, and erasures that speech conceals; second, that there is an apparent gap in time and space, a différance, between the enunciation and reception of a written text, whereas speech gives the illusion of immediacy. Derrida's purpose is to radically call into question the relevance of authorial intention and the possibility of any fixed meaning. Texts, written or spoken, must be interpreted not only in terms of what they "say" but of what they keep silent, and with respect to other texts before and after. Derrida's approach to texts, "deconstruction," lays bare the internal contradictions of any text, precluding the attribution of definitive meaning, intentional or otherwise.

The term deconstruction has been used so loosely by many anthropologists that it has lost any clear referent—an ironic fate for a concept intended to challenge the fixity of meaning. More specifically, Derrida's skepticism about intentionality in the interpretation of texts has fueled "postmodern" critiques of anthropological representations of the "other." Derrida's wordplay and elliptical style have inspired new forms of anthropological writing, best exemplified by the work of Michael Taussig.

Ultimately, both structuralism and poststructuralism have contributed to tendencies on the part of many (but by no means all) anthropologists to call into question the characterization of their discipline as "science" and to reposition themselves more centrally in the humanities—structuralism through its emphasis on the decoding of symbols, a domain often considered antithetical to strictly "scientific" approaches; and poststructuralism by forcing anthropologists to call into question their own practices of representation. Critics from within the humanist camp, however, have pointed out that both structuralism and poststructuralism are theoretically de-humanizing (that is, ignoring or minimizing the impact and importance of human agency), most obviously in Derrida's critique of human intentionality but also, at least implicitly, in the work of Lévi-Strauss and Foucault. At best, such theories make any consideration of human agency problematic; at worst, they leave no place for it at all.


Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus, eds. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger, 1966.

Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Paul Rabinow. Michel Foucault, beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: An Essay on the Caste System. Translated by Mark Sainsbury. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. London: Tavistock, 1972.

——. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1977.

——. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977. Translated and edited by Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Héritier, Françoise. Two Sisters and Their Mother: The Anthropology of Incest. Translated by Jeanine Herman. New York: Zone Books, 1999.

Heusch, Luc de. The Drunken King, or, The Origin of the State. Translated and annotated by Roy Willis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Hugh-Jones, Stephen. The Palm and the Pleiades: Initiation and Cosmology in Northwest Amazonia. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Leach, Edmund. Claude Lévi-Strauss. Revised edition. New York: Viking, 1974.

——. Culture and Communication: The Logic by Which Symbols Are Connected. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

——. Rethinking Anthropology. London: Athlone Press; New York: Humanities Press, 1961.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Translated by James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon, 1969.

——. From Honey to Ashes. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. London: J. Cape, 1973.

——. The Naked Man. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. London: J. Cape, 1981.

——. The Origin of Table Manners. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. London: J. Cape, 1978.

——. The Raw and the Cooked. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

——. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Manganaro, Marc, ed. Modernist Anthropology: From Fieldwork to Text. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Ortner, Sherry. Sherpas through their Rituals. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Rabinow, Paul. French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Taussig, Michael T. Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.

——. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Robert Launay

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to SwiftsStructuralism and Poststructuralism - Anthropology - Followers And Critics, Poststructuralism And Anthropology: Foucault And His Impact, Derrida And Deconstruction, Bibliography