Structuralism and the Concern with Communication

Simon Fraser University


This paper evaluates the structuralist movement’s early (1945-1966) approaches to media and ideology. It discusses the intellectual development and some of the first applications of methods in the works of Louis Althusser and Roland Barthes as they ask whether it is possible for persons to escape ideology.

Keywords: structuralism, Barthes, Althusser, ideology



Developed in a post-war climate of ‘returns’ to Saussure, Marx and Freud (De George, De George, 1972; Dosse, 1997: 42), early forms of structuralism were directly concerned with aspects of communication: One need think of language, texts, and Russian folk tales. This interest was a subset of a broader investigation in how the mind operated and what factors contributed to the development or constraint of ideas.  Such was the interest in this project that structuralism came to dominate French intellectual life for almost thirty five years. Part of the reason for this excitement was that the new paradigm introduced the possibility of a ‘unified program.’ (Dosse, 1997: 26) In a way this desire for a unified program was seen as a means to fulfil the promise of Destutt de Tracy’s “science of ideas” – the ‘project left unfinished’ (Dosse, 1997: 26) – through offering the possibility of formalism in the understanding of the role of the unconscious in the underlying ordering of society (as in the case of Lévi-Strauss and Lacan). Jonathon Culler describes this as a search for a ‘general science of signs’ (Culler, 1976) that would allow for a general understanding of social life.

A cornerstone to such an exercise was a consideration of how ideas came both into existence and how they circulated. Consequently areas such as language, the mind, speech, media, and texts came under investigation. In evaluating structuralist approaches to the media and ideology, this paper will first outline the structuralist movement. Particular focus will be given to “early” structuralism, its intellectual development, and some of the first uses of the method. This early period, if one follows François Dosse, roughly corresponds to the period 1945 to 1966. (Dosse, 1997) This overview is required to compare how a common approach led Louis Althusser and Roland Barthes to the similar conclusion about the potential for persons to escape ideology.


Structuralism and Universals

Jean Piaget proposes that in ‘Anglo-Saxon countries the concept of structure tends to be reserved for observable relations and inter-actions.’ (Paiget, 1970: 102)[1] Understandably then it is not surprising that the term has caused confusion at times. (Bottomore, 1975) As considered by structuralists (broadly), a structure refers to the generative dynamic which produces the observable features of daily life.  Roman Jakobson in his conception and deployment of structuralism saw it as advancement in the social sciences akin to the paradigmatic shift from classical mechanics to the emerging quantum mechanics of the period. This comparison is clear in a speech given to the 1952 Conference of Anthropologists and Linguistics at Indiana University: ‘structural linguistics, like quantum mechanics, gains in morphic determinism what it loses in temporal determinism.’ (Jakobson, apud Dosse, 1997: 53) The comparison is deliberate in that the inquiry has moved from detailing the characteristics of the things which are directly observable, to examining the unseen forces which give rise to those characteristics. These forces, the structuralists proposed, were universal. It is thus not surprising then that in the exergue to Totemism Claude Levi-Strauss invokes Comte’s Cours de Philosophie posititive:

the laws of logic which ultimately govern the world of the mind are, by their nature, essentially invariable; they are common not only to all periods and places but to all subjects of whatever kind, without any distinction even between those that we call the real and the chimerical; they are to seen even in dreams. (Levi-Strauss, 1963: i)

In considering both Levi-Strauss and Jakobson, the term structuralism applies to a range of inquiries and the method and approach through by which one comes to examine the social universe. (Dosse, 1997: 43; also see De George, De George, 1972) In this sense it is less a conventional systematic philosophy per se, and more an epistemology.

At its core of structuralism is the use (and myth[2]) of Saussure’s linguistic system presented in the Course in General Linguistics as compiled by Saussure’s colleagues Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. This system was well regarded not for the demonstration to establish the arbitrary nature of the sign. Such a proposition had convinced a wide number of linguists by the close of the 19th century.  Instead, Saussure’s insight stems from the proposition that language is a system of values established first and foremost not by context or experience, but rather by difference. (Dosse, 1997: 44-47) Moreover these differences were without direct oppositions (if any opposition at all). Consequently in this model, values stem from relational elements. Lastly Saussure in considering that context and experience were less important implied that value systems did not have to be determined by historicity; instead something static lay beneath the surface appearance. Hence the laws of change in value systems were not held in local particularities or local meanings, but rather followed a code of sorts.  This in effect meant that the meaning of language emerged from conventional elements and not over-determined by a specific element. In evaluating these conclusions, Roman Jakobson considered Saussure’s model as pointing towards the ‘universal laws of language.’ (Jakobson, apud Dosse, 1997: 53)

This project of inquiry into signs, Saussure termed semiology – the ‘science that studies the life of signs at the heart of social life.’ (apud Dosse, 1997: 45) Amongst the several key points that Saussure makes, one which is stark is the desire to return to elementary units as opposed to the prevailing concepts on the day. In this way, Saussure argued for a consideration of foundations – implicit or explicit, conscious or unconscious – through by which the world comes to be constituted. It is this interest in foundation elements that comes to characterise both Barthes and Althusser’s thoughts on the forms by which the mind, both conscious and unconscious, is manipulated. The following sections elaborate on this dynamic.


Barthes’ Myth

After the Second World War, the French economy expanded significantly due to strong state lead growth and reconstruction efforts. Within this expansion, the media sector grew as well, fostering in an era of increased circulation of and access to mass media. (Caron, 1979: ch.14) If one considers that the growth of mass media was set within a climate of a consolidating French state and conflicts both in Indo-China and Algeria, then Barthes’ critique of mass culture through the use of an ideological critique can be viewed as an expressed distaste in the prevailing values circulating in the media, and in the society more broadly, particular those that endorsed the aforementioned processes. With the 1957 publication of Mythologies Barthes attempted to do just that.

The route of analysis and critique for Barthes was through the introduction of the concept of “myth”. Through a formalized study of myth in everyday life Barthes argued that myths distort people from grasping the real meaning behind a text. Consequently people were incorporated into believing and perpetuating partial beliefs. With hindsight, such a view is similar in some regards to Georg Lukacs’ argument about reification and false consciences in so far that there is a perpetuation of the partial at the expense of a greater understanding.

Myth itself as presented by Barthes is very technical and precise set of circumstances; it is a ‘type of speech’ and a component of the ‘science of signs’ as a ‘second order system’. (Barthes, in Eagleton, 1994: 162, 165) Building upon Saussure and Hjelmslev (whom Barthes does not cite (Dosse, 1997: 73)), he adopts the signifier and signified model of language and argues that the signifier can take on a particular value and denotations. In other words, these features of the signifier are open to flux and in turn have functional implications.  The signifier itself for Barthes emerges out of three possible avenues: 1) the ‘Latent or real meaning’ (Barthes, in Eagleton, 1994: 164) in and off itself; 2) behaviours; and 3) from a combination of the first two. It is this combination (3)) which Barthes refers to as “myth” in so far that through the fusion of both new (partial) values are created. Barthes implies that such revaluing can be used to deliberately mislead people.

According to Barthes (again borrowing concepts from Hjelmslev), myth functions in both the realm of metalanguage and of language-object. These functions somewhat correspond to connotation and denotation.[3] Barthes further makes a distinction between a plane of language and the plane of myth. This distinction makes the sign of language into the signifier of myth. In different words Barthes presents the signifier in language as meaning, whereas in myth it is a form. (Barthes, in Eagleton, 1994) In myth the original meaning becomes distorted as the new form develops. In doing so, the new form retains the original concept (the signified) but replaces it with new content. This process in turn alters the various possible connotations and denotations, and hence the information that the signifier signals.

Having established that the arrangement and / or the selection of a particular signifier will influence the particular denotative value of the signified, Barthes argues that in the new form the meaning is both itself displaced and its history alienated. For clarification, the form ‘does not suppress the meaning, it only impoverishes it […] los[ing] its value.’ (Barthes, in Eagleton, 1994: 167) Here the meaning is kept but barely retained in order to for the form to become parasitic while the myth ‘appropriates’ meaning (Barthes, in Eagleton, 1994: 168) leaving the concept half-amputated’ and ‘deprived of meaning.’ (Barthes, in Eagleton, 1994: 171) In this way the myth distorts the original value, but does not erase it altogether – as Barthes points out Myth hides nothing’ (Barthes, in Eagleton, 1994: 170), but in the distortion myth makes it harder for the meaning’s history to be seen.

In using Barthes’ myth to analysis media and ideology, two factors must first be taken into account: 1) Barthes proposes that the choice of signifier demonstrates the particular values of a society; and 2) media conveys signs. Hence the choice of which signs to convey demonstrates the values of a society. However, as presented above, the signifier can emerge out of three avenues (real meaning, behaviour, or a combination thereof). In the case of media then the deliberate choice to create or perpetuate myth through the impoverishment of meaning and alienation of that meaning’s history would constitute the function of ideology. In linking back to concepts above, ideology would be the not the real values innate within the meaning, but rather the deliberate attempt (through behaviour) to distort those meaning’s connotations and denotations. To some extent this manipulation is reminiscent of one of Marx’s conceptions of ideology in that objects (and even subjects) have been manipulated by various forces as not to be seen as having a particular history. However where Marx would argue that the object’s history is unseen due to a degree of fetishism present in a capitalist economic system, Barthes implies that in the circulation of myth the object’s meaning comes to be unrecognised and unseen even though such meaning is still accessible in that it is still somewhat present in the object.

To briefly critique the above argument, one of Barthes cornerstone propositions is that the signified can be represented by any number of signifiers. In this line of argument, the selection of the various signifiers comes to present the values operating in a particular society. Furthermore the selection of one signifier as opposed to another could be accounted for by taking account of the structural relations within said society. However his proposition that there is a relationship of many signifiers to one signified begins to seem preposterous if one considers that different combinations and configurations that language that could create the signifier generates are certainly not equal in terms of values and various forces. This does not necessarily imply that they do not create the same signified, it is a bit of a stretch to argue that they all absolutely point to a specific signified. While multiple signifiers might approximate or highlight differing aspects of a signified concept, these signified are nonetheless incongruent. Different signifiers bring different conceptions into mind. In coming to reflect upon the distortion of meaning then, seeing that the signified components are also in flux and not stable, there is little ground upon which Barthes could argue about the distortion of meaning (implying that there is a real meaning with which to begin) as opposed to that there are constant changes in meaning and that no meaning is “correct.” One can recover aspect of Barthes if one jettisons his “many signifiers one signified” approach and limits myth to the study of which values are privileged in a particular society due to the manipulation of form.


Althusser and the ISA

The Introduction to For Marx opens with Althusser making the claim that French intellectuals have for the most part always been in service of the state. (Althusser, 1969,, accessed 19 March 2009) He calls this the ‘French misery’ (Althusser, 1969,, accessed 19 March 2009) and polemically asks where ‘where were our theoreticians’ (Althusser, 1969,, accessed 19 March 2009) for the French working classes:

In Germany there were Marx and Engels and the earlier Kautsky; in Poland, Rosa Luxemburg; in Russia, Plekhanov and Lenin; in Italy, Labriola, who (when we had Sorel!) could correspond with Engels as equal to equal, then Gramsci. Who were our theoreticians? (Althusser, 1969,, accessed 19 March 2009)

In attempting to account for ‘pitiful history of French philosophy’ (Althusser, 1969,, accessed 19 March 2009) and the role of intellectuals as reactionaries in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Althusser turned his attention to the role of social structures in society and the ideas they happened encourage or discourage.  This question itself is situated in a series of questions regarding the both nature of the conditions of production and the relations thereof.

The result was the conceptual distinctions between ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) and repressive state apparatuses (RSAs). (Althusser, 1970,, accessed 19 March 2009) In developing this distinction, Althusser makes use of Marx’s base/superstructure model and moulds it slightly into ‘real infrastructure’ and ‘ideological superstructure.’ (Piaget, 1970: 125) Althusser himself terms the superstructure the state apparatus.  For the base, the relations and unity of economic (re)production exist. The superstructure itself is divided into two levels: the ‘politico-legal’ and ‘ideology’. These levels equate to the mechanisms, organizations and forces available to the RSA and ISA respectfully.

Ideology itself is made up of various discourses (religious, ethical, political and so on). The relationship between this superstructure and the base, Althusser regarded as such:

It is possible to say that the floors of the superstructure are not determinant in the last instance, but that they are determined by the effectivity of the base; that if they are determinant in their own (as yet undefined) ways, this is true only insofar as they are determined by the base. (Althusser, 1970,, accessed 19 March 2009)

While these two levels or ‘floors’ responded to the base, they did have power in the degree to which they managed to co-opt labour power to maintain the prevailing base dynamic:

[T]he reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order, i.e. a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for the domination of the ruling class ‘in words’. In other words, the school […] teaches ‘know-how’, but in forms which ensure subjection to the ruling ideology. All the agents of production […] must in one way or another be ‘steeped’ in this ideology in order to perform their tasks ‘conscientiously’. [emphasis in original] (Althusser, 1970,, accessed 19 March 2009)

Thus with Althusser structures become both plural and distinctive but they still remain in service of a greater totality. In this way structures became a ‘kind of “division of labour.”’ (Althusser, 1970,, accessed 19 March 2009) This division of labour had three distinct propositions: 1) the state apparatus used both repressive force to maintain itself as well as ideology. The difference between the RSA and the ISA was the ratio of force to ideology mechanisms; 2) RSAs were normally centralised in political control whereas ISA were distributed throughout the society and controlled by social elements; and 3) RSAs were controlled by members of the state (in contemporary France the representatives of the class in power), while conversely ISAs were enforced by the ruling class itself.

Through introducing these categorical differences, Althusser was able to retain the class characteristics in the struggle over the mode of production but nevertheless positing ideology as a fairly autonomous function (outside of a direct state apparatus), and not entirely reducible to economic determinism per se. In splicing these two features, ideology became a terrain in which the production of society was undertaken. In terms of work regarding the media, using an ISA approach allowed one to evaluate how seemingly visibly autonomous organizations were in service of a particular value set and its mode of production. Consequently this opened up avenues for researchers to explore the media in ways other than more traditional political economy evaluations over ownership and interest.

Another important concept in Althusser’s work is interpellation. (Althusser, 1970,, accessed 19 March 2009) In this concept, the subject is “hailed” into a specific subject position by the forces of either the RSA, the ISA or even by the economic base. Here the subject is ‘recruited’ to fill a specific role. Prior to this hailing, the individual is always-already subjects’ even before birth. (Althusser, 1970,, accessed 19 March 2009) Here the media then has an ISA and has a role to play in hailing subjects. In this conception then, ideology (irrespective of the existence of the media) is a means to reproduce the society and is in existence both before the individual and before the subject. As Althusser concludes ‘ideology is eternal’ (Althusser, 1970,, accessed 19 March 2009) and there is no way to escape it. This totalising category creates the impression of an impotent individual who is unable to escape the circumstances of their existence. And if they did manage to do so that individual would have to contend with the potential violence of the as well as the significant force of the base. Yet Althusser leaves the door ajar in that he considers the power of the base to based upon its effective ability to reproduce itself. Hence if one was able to contest ideology – as it is a distributed force – one could thereby influence the mode of production away from its existing pattern.

Through presenting the above argument, Althusser expanded the scope both for critique and for contesting the mode of production and arguably came to be seen as the ‘supreme saviour of Marxism’ (Dosse, 1997: 293).  In this vain, he managed to use structuralism to present Marxism ‘as the only form of thinking that could manage a global synthesis of knowledge and [thereby] set itself at the center of structural paradigm.’ (Dosse, 1997: 293) Nevertheless the nature of the struggle over ideology is still class based.[4] Furthermore due to the difficulty in effecting the ability of the mode of production to reproduce itself through convention means in order to have any significant change, class struggle needs to resolve itself through a revolutionary break.


A Common Attribute and Critique

There are some parallels between Barthes’ myth and Althusser’s ISA beyond that of the common methodological set of tools which they used to create their arguments. Considering brevity, the key one perhaps would be the notion of “hindering” which is a common attribute in each set of writing. For instance Barthes argues that myths hinder the circulation of the true meaning and Althusser’s distortion is over the particular role in which the ISA comes to hinder potential change to the dominate mode of reproduction. Both versions of the hindering process allude to a particular set of interests held by a particular set people who wish to advance their interests at the expense of others – hence the desire to hinder other forces within a particular environment.  Holding to this conception, the structuralist conception of ideology then is the undue or excess advancement of one set of interests which occurs at the expense of other interests.[5]  Moveover it is the attempt to co-opt others into supporting those particular interests even though those interests might not seem “natural” to their various class/subject positions. In this way, ideology broadly conceived by structuralism could be considered as the means by which the unconsciousness comes to be manipulated through the use of communication techniques.[6]

While endorsing the view that ideology is a means by interests come to secure their continued existence, the above conception of ideology is limited to some degree. While it can be critiqued in a number of ways due for brevity the critique will be limited to two points: 1) the implication that the “natural mind” can exist; and 2) stemming from the position of the natural mind, that there are class / subject positions that hold a “nature” set of interests.  To address the first point, the notion that the natural mind is possible is facile in that it denies that all thoughts that occur in that mind are natural. Additionally, the conception of a natural mind introduces a set of criteria to determine what is natural and what is unnatural. Following from work done by Foucault propose that criteria and classification are directly related to power and interests. Hence the distinction between what is natural and unnatural merely repeats the dynamics and practice which critiques of ideology bring into question. Hence all thoughts are natural as should be recognised as such. Evaluations of those thoughts then are best evaluated using ethics as opposed to some natural/unnatural distinction.

The belief that people have particular class or subject position and that these positions have pre-determined interests and goals denies that people might have multiple subject positions and interests that are influenced by forces outside of the pure economy. In this way, the focus on identity is important to consider. Additionally it does not consider that one set of interests might use or find alliances with other interests. As an example, the state might require parents to send their children to school in order to give them the basic skills required by the economy, however parents might wish to send their children to school so as to provide them with tools so that they might be able to improve themselves and their lot. Thus stark evaluations of interests and groups is one-dimensional.

Of particular concern would be when the “natural mind” and the ideals of a particular subject positions are combined. This combination makes for a model of human interaction that would be prone to miss certain aspects of behaviour as well as fail to account for certain actions.  Hence, when attempting to account for certain actions, it would be more likely that a certain action would be considered as ideological, but this would occur at the expense of attempting to account for the whole action. Hence if one returns to ideas used by Lukacs, such a partial account of ideology would itself be ideological.

In presenting how ideas circulate within a society, or are hindered from circulating therein, Barthes and Althusser certainly provide some very insightful tools for analysis. Both provide a means to evaluate the linkages between the micro and the macro. However they still nevertheless fail to consider how various interests come to use another to their own ends. In doing so they do not give sufficient attention to the micro interests, and consequently underestimate the role of these interests.



ALTHUSSER, L., 1969, For Marx, sourced from

ALTHUSSER, L., 1970, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ Lenin and Philosophy, sourced from

BARTHES, R., 1994, ‘Myth Today’ in EAGLETON, T. (ed), Ideology, London, Longman

BOTTOMORE, T., 1975, ‘Competing Paradigms in Macrosociology’, Annual Review of Sociology, 1, p.191-202

CARON, F., 1979, An Economic History of Modern France (translated by Bray, B.) New York, Columbia University Press, chapter fourteen

CULLER, J., 1976. Saussure, Hasscocks, Harvester Press

DE GEORGE, R. and DE GEORGE, F. (eds), 1972, The Structuralists: from Marx to Lévi-Strauss, Garden City: Anchor Book

DOSSE, F., 1997, History of Structuralism, Vol.1 The Rising Sign (translated by Glassman, D.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

GADET, F., 1989, Saussure and Contemporary Culture (translated by Elliott G.), London, Radius

LEVI-STRAUSS, Claude, 1963, Totemism (translated by Needham, R.) Boston, Beacon Press

PIAGET, Jean, 1970, Structuralism (translated by Maschler C.), New York, Basic Books



[1] Piaget does however make mention that Talcott Parsons’ work goes beyond ‘modest empiricism’ and that Parsons’ attempt to link functions to values ‘should be taken seriously’ (1970, 102). The reason for admiration is Piaget proposition that ‘[social] structures, no matter how “unconsciousness,” express themselves sooner or later in the form of norms or rules to which individuals are, to a greater or lesser extent, subject’ (1970, 103). However the qualification that Piaget inserts is as structures generate rules, so those same structures will come to change functions and values.

[2] The invoking of Saussure linguistics as a return at times seems to be myth. As Françoise Gadet points, the Course in General Linguistics it had little impact in its early years after publication. She argues that the book had little impact in its field during from 1916 to 1960.  To support this proposition Gadet examined the history of publication of the Course in General Linguistics: only five editions were published between 1916 and 1955, along with another five editions between 1955 and 1963. In combination, these total print runs tallied to approximately 20’000 copies.  However from 1964 to 1985 there were twenty three reprints only for an additional 150’000 copies in circulation. Gadet, Fr. (1989: 11, 113)

[3] For brevity the technical relationship between metalanguage and the language-object against connotation and denotation cannot be dealt with in this paper. The author is aware that he is making a gross simplification in collapsing the one set of concepts into the other.

[4] See the post script in Althusser, (1970) ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’

[5] Such a reading of ideology, interests and resources conceives interests as being located within a zero-sum game.

[6] It is importance to note that not all theorists in the structuralist current endorsed the positions held by both Barthes and Althusser, therefore it would be rash to argue that their conceptions of ideology are exhaustive representations of that particular current.