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Sociological Theory, 6/e
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Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and the Emergence of Postmodern Social Theory
Sociological Theory

Chapter 17 Chapter Summary

The concept of modern social theory presents the possibility of a postmodern social theory. Indeed, postmodernism has had wide-ranging effects on a number of disciplines, including sociology. Because of the multidisciplinary nature of postmodernism, it is necessary to think of postmodern social theory rather than postmodern sociological theory, with the basic distinction resting on the various sources of input in social theory.


Structuralism emerged from a reaction against the humanism of Jean-Paul Sartre's (1905-1980) existentialism. Sartre assailed the idea of structures that overly determine the behavior of individuals, of having actors without agency. Structuralism emerged in the 1960s, and was based on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure(1857-1913). Saussure's work was oriented to understanding the structures underlying languages. Thus, structuralism is associated with the linguistic turn. Saussure focused on the relationship between the formal, grammatical system of language (langue) and the everyday usage of language (parole). Parole was of little interest to linguists, who should be concerned with understanding the determinant laws that govern langue. Langue is conceptualized as a system of signs whereby each sign may be understood by its relationships to other signs within the system. This system of signs is a structure, a structure that affects society by shaping relationships of signs within the system and our understanding of the world. Saussure focused on the creation of difference, particularly through binary oppositions (e.g., hot/cold) , which have meaning only in relation to one another. The idea of semiotics extended the analysis of sign systems to various dimensions of the social world.

Structuralism also influenced anthropology and Marxism. In the former case, the work of Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-) exhibits this influence. Levi-Strauss attempted to extend structuralism to anthropology, focusing on communication. He reinterpreted social phenomena for their effects on communication. Structural Marxism took from structuralism an interest in the historical origins of structures, but continued to focus on social and economic structures.


Poststructuralism loosened the moorings underlying systems of signs. Rather than seeing stable relationships of signs, they saw chaotic and highly variable context-dependent systems. In their view, such structures could not have the coercive power over individuals that the structuralists attributed to them. Jacques Derrida(1930-), perhaps the originator of poststructuralism, has argued against the notion of logocentrism. By logocentrism Derrida meant the coercive, limiting effects of the search for universal systems of thought that would reveal "truth." Instead, Derrida attempts to deconstruct, or uncover, hidden differences that underlie logocentrism. At the heart of the notion of logocentrism is the silencing of voices by intellectual elites in the creation of the dominant discourse. Derrida argues for a decentering, so that previously excluded or silenced voices may contribute. While the ultimate result of this is unclear, Derrida privileges a movement away from any sort of silencing, a movement away from the fallacy of universal truth, and movement towards a society characterized by participation, play, and difference.

Michel Foucault

Perhaps the most recognizable figure associated with poststructuralism is Michel Foucault(1937-1984). Foucault incorporated a variety of theoretical insights, particularly from Karl Marx(1818-1883), Max Weber(1864-1920), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Like Nietzsche, he was particularly interested in the relationship between power and knowledge.

Foucault's early work focused on the structures that underlie the limits of discourse and the ways in which discourses create "truth." Thus, much of Foucault's work focuses on discourses related to the creation of the human sciences, such as psychology. Foucault's work during this period ranged from investigating medical discourses and the construction of normative understanding of people (normal versus pathological) and ultimately into the problematic surrounding the emergence of people as both subject and object of knowledge.

In addition, Foucault's later, less structuralist work sought to create a genealogy of power, a type of historical analysis that does not seek invariable laws of social change, but rather recognizes the contingency of history. Substantively, Foucault's genealogy questioned the ways in which knowledge and power interpenetrate in certain types of practices, such as the regulation of the body, governing bodies, and the formation of the self. Thus, it asks how people govern themselves and others through the production of knowledge. Foucault pays particular attention to the techniques that are developed from knowledge and to how they are used to control people. For Foucault, history is punctuated with changing forms of domination.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault reinterprets the transformation of crime and punishment, shifting the explanation away from humanistic concerns and towards the need to rationalize the functions of discipline and punishment. Foucault attempts to highlight the multivalent, multidimensional nature of this transformation by acknowledging the relationship between the new techniques of punishment and discipline with the encroachment of power throughout society. These "micro-physics of power" were based on hierarchical observation, normalizing judgments, and examination, and they were originally taken from the military. These find their ultimate expression in the Panopticon, a structure designed by Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) for observing criminals. The characteristics of the panopticon are important, because it allows for the shift in regulatory power to the individual, as they now self-monitor their behavior. Foucault is also interested in the relationship between sex and power. Here again he reinterprets history to show the ways in which medicine is more concerned with morality than with sexuality.

Actor-Network Theory

Actor-network theory extends semotics to focus on material objects rather than just symbols. Actor-network theory sees sign as emerging from the context in which entities are located. Actor-network theory attempts to understand action, less from the perspective of the actor, but rather in terms of its location within a network and its relationship to non-material objects. From this perspective, non-material objects are capable of action (as actants), although objects are considered inferior partners to humans. The interactions of these components are viewed not as consistent and patternable networks, but rather as a fluid combination of interactions at various levels of social life that are performed by actors and actants. Actor-network theory breaks down many analytical distinctions used in other social theories, such as micro/macro and agency/structure, to help make sense of social phenomena.

Postmodern Social Theory

Postmodern social theory has received a tremendous level of attention and has diversified to such an extent that it is difficult to make easy, overarching generalizations, particularly since there are substantial points of disagreements between various postmodern thinkers. Indeed, it is still debated whether postmodernism represents a distinct phase in history or a new society of sorts, or whether it simply extends modernism. Still another perspective sees modernism and postmodernism less as competing periods of history and more as sets of principles that critically engage one another.

In order to better engage the variants of this discipline, it is useful to distinguish between postmodernity, postmodernism, and postmodern social theory. Postmodernity refers to that which comes after modernity, conceptualized as another epoch of history. Postmodernism refers to cultural products, while postmodern social theory refers to a way of questioning the world different from modern social theory. Understood in this way, the postmodern represents a new historical epoch, new cultural products, and a new type of theorizing the social world, one that emerged from the acknowledgment of modernity's failures sometime between the Kennedy/Johnson administrations and the Reagan administration. Postmodern social theory rejects the ambitions and techniques of modern social theory, moving away from grand narratives and universalistic, rational theorizing and towards a deconstruction of universal truths, a decentering that is attuned to difference and locality.

Moderate Postmodern Social Theory: Frederic Jameson

Frederic Jameson sees postmodernism as an extension of modernity. In his view, capitalism still dominates social life. Jameson makes the claim that while there have been significant cultural changes, these are still the expression of the same sort of economic structures discussed by Karl Marx. Thus, despite attempts by the postmodern social theorists to use Marx as an archetype of modernist grand narratives, Jameson uses Marx's theory to help explain postmodernity. These cultural changes represent capitalism's expansion into the last uncommodified areas of life that is typical of "late capitalism." Late capitalism follows Marx's market capitalism and V. I. Lenin's (1870-1924) imperalist stage of capitalism. He also identifies cultures with specific economic structures, such as postmodern culture in multinational capitalism.

Jameson characterizes postmodern society with four elements: (1) superficiality and lack of depth; (2) the waning of emotion or affect; (3) a loss of historicity; and (4) new technologies. A consequence of this is that people are unable to make sense of an increasingly complex society. He proposes the creation of cognitive maps to help us navigate the postmodern society, including its spatial dimensions. These maps bring about a certain form of consciousness (e.g., class consciousness) to help us understand our position within a complex system.

Extreme Postmodern Social Theory: Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard's work grew increasingly postmodern over his life, and although rooted in sociology, it can no longer be termed anything but postmodern. While his early work sought to synthesize Marx's work and semiotics, he came to view Marx as limited to the extent that his views replicated worldviews and an analytical orientation antithetical to change. Rather than replicating this, Baudrillard proposed the notion of symbolic exchange, involving an uninterrupted cycle of gift giving, as an alternative.

Baudrillard sees modern society as dominated by media, information, technology, and their supporting structures. These create a code of production, leading to an explosion in signs. Signs are no longer attached to anything real, but rather are self-referential, imploding the relationship between signs and reality. Baudrillard also characterized the postmodern world by simulations and hyperreality. The former refers to the creation of simulacra, which attempt to reproduce reality. The latter is a description of the social world in which simulations and simulacra are privileged, where they become real and predominate.

Unlike Marxists, Baudrillard saw little revolutionary activity on the part of workers or the masses; rather, he saw them as being increasingly passive. They are inundated with signs, simulacra, and hyperreality by a media willing to provide the masses with titillation. Thus, life is led toward nihilism and meaninglessness. Baudrillard promotes symbolic exchange as an alternative to the consumer culture of contemporary society. Despite this proposition, Baudrillard is not optimistic about the future.

Postmodern Social Theory and Sociological Theory

In many ways, postmodern thought is simply not commensurate with sociological theory. Its aversion to grand narratives refutes much of what sociology has been and tries to do. However, some authors have attempted to apply postmodern concepts to provide fruitful sociological analyses. George Ritzer's coupling of Weber and disenchantment in looking at the new means of consumption helps us understand the processes involved in re-enchantment, such as the use of simulations and implosion in Las Vegas.

Criticisms of Postmodern Social Theory

Postmodernism is criticized for being untestable, unsystematic, overly abstract, relativistic, pessimistic, and without vision. Nevertheless, there is some question as to what is the appropriate metric of success, as postmodernism has certainly posed a number of important and interesting questions to social theory.