SOC 320 CU Health & Medical Sociological Theory Discussion

SOC 320: Sociological TheoryRobert E. L. Roberts
Instructor’s Comments
Topic 14: Structuralism and Post-Structuralism
In this topic, we address another important movement in contemporary sociological
theory: post-structuralism. My comments provide a brief overview of the main tenets
of a post-structuralist vision of social life. I will begin by describing the evolution of
post-structuralism out of “structuralist” social thought. I will conclude with a few
thoughts on the work of Michel Foucault. My comments about Foucault will
complement, rather than supplant the excellent discussion in Seidman.
To begin with, do not confuse structuralism with structural functionalism (S-F). There
are some similarities, but the former does not share very much with the latter way of
looking at the world. The notion of “structure” in S-F is this: structures emerge to
enable/encourage the adaptive (functional) channeling of human energy and action.
In a sense, structures exist in order to ensure that we do not devolve into the chaos of
individualist hedonism.
By contrast, the structuralist view of “structure” is that of a set of universal and
invariant laws of human thought (and, by default, behavior) that give rise to the
social environments that we occupy. One way to think about this is to imagine that
there is a “code” or blueprint for human life that is somehow hardwired into our
bodies and psyches that accounts for everything that we think and do, including the
societies that we create.
Structuralist theorists argue that we can figure out the invariant laws of human life by
examining very closely the societies and social relations that we inhabit. The idea is
similar to the notion that you can reverse engineer a software program or other
technology product by studying what it does. You then build new code (or integrated
circuits, or some other platform), testing its performance as you build it against the
original. Over time, you will be able to develop something that performs like the
original, but based on your own coding (this is how PC clones were created in the
image of the original IBM machines). From the standpoint of a structuralist social
theorist, one could “reverse engineer” the “program” (set of laws that guide) human
life by developing theories and then testing their “fit” to the actual experiences of
humans. Eventually, it is thought, we should be able to infer from our observations a
very accurate picture of the laws that produce social life, as we know it.
The roots of structuralism lie in linguistics, wherein structuralist scholars like Saussure
attempted to understand the determinative structures of language–rules embedded
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
in the structure of language that constrained human thought. Have you ever
wondered what thought would be like if you did not have a language. Try this
exercise: close your eyes and try to stop thinking. What do you notice? What are
thoughts? Do you experience a running narrative in your mind?
In simple terms, a social structuralist understanding of human life could be based on
the assumption that thought is nothing more than internalized language. If one can
decode the limits and laws of language then, in theory, one would be able to
understand the limits and determined nature of human thought and action. The
structuralists chose this route for their investigation of human life, and adopted
scientific methods as their preferred mechanism for discovering the laws embedded in
language. Thus, structuralism is a highly positivistic endeavor and one that assumes
that human thought and action is totally determined by some underlying structure
embedded in language (or, in some other realm, like the “unconscious” from which the
“rules” that we might discover in language ultimately originate).
The structuralists have “discovered” many “laws” of language that they think help us to
understand the nature of human life. I will describe one of those insights as an
example. Structuralist theory argues that the meanings that any symbolic
representation (e.g., a word, gesture, hieroglyph, etc.) has are generated in relation
to some other symbols. In a simple sense, the word “woman” gains meaning through
its relation to other words like “man,” “girl,” “boy,” “human,” etc. The structuralists
argue that this dependency of symbols on others symbols functions to “fix” the
meanings of all of the symbols. In other words, the limits and contours of the
meanings that are associated with any symbol shape and are shaped by the limits and
contours of meanings associated with other symbols. Language, then, is like a web of
associations among symbols whose meanings fix all of the meanings of the other
symbols. The meanings of any one symbol can’t be changed without changing the
meanings of all of the other symbols that help to define the first symbol. For
example, if one attempts to “change” the meanings associated with the symbol
“woman,” then one also has to change the meanings associated with “man,” etc. The
structuralists argue that through socialization, all of us internalize a fixed web of
associations that limit the ways that we construct the world and, thus, limit and
constrain our behaviors in that world. These limits and constraints then manifest
themselves in stable patterns of behavior that we experience as “society.”
One of the interesting things about the structuralist approach is that it leaves no room
for human agency (it’s really a radical rejection of agency for structure). From this
perspective, the individual merely runs on the software of language. What may
appear to her or him as “free will” is nothing more than a part of the program that
gives the machine (human) running it the impression that she or he is autonomous and
unique. Thus, structuralists “de-center” individuals in the analysis of human life,
opting, instead, to focus on the structures that exist in language. People don’t matter
in a structuralist analysis as much as language does. In some ways, individuals are
seen as “written” by the linguistic structures that give shape to their thoughts and
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
Post-structuralist (PS) theory represents a rejection and extension of structuralist
thought. The post-structuralists agree with the structuralists insofar as they see
language as the primary focus for sociological investigation (a de-centering of the
human subject).
The PS theorists reject two important dimensions (among others) of structuralist
thought. The first has to do with structuralists’ belief that they can use objective
scientific methods to discover the hidden rules of language that structure human
experience. From the structuralists’ perspective, life is nothing more than a “game”
played by the rules that are inherent in language. Scientific objectivity, however, is
seen as a way to discover the contours of the “game.” The PS theorists reject the
notion that science provides an objective standpoint from which to observe/discover
the rules of language that rule us. The argument is that science itself is nothing more
than a language (or at least derivative from a broader set of linguistic rules). If
language constrains us to see things in its own image, how can science not do the
same? From the PS standpoint, structuralists are just as controlled by language
structures as the rest of us…science does not give them a way out.
The second critique of structuralism is its insistence that the meanings of symbols are
“fixed” in their relationships to other symbols. The PS theorists argue that meanings
are never “fixed” (the same for all people across time and place). Rather, they see
meanings as inherently fluid. Think of the various meanings that people give to the
word “cat.” It can mean a treasured family member, a stray animal, a jungle dwelling
giant, a bulldozer, etc. Thus, they argue, symbols are much more pliable and
malleable (though still constraining) from a PS standpoint.
A distinguishing feature of PS is the notion that power is involved in the production
and reproduction of meanings. If we begin with the assumption that meanings are
fluid then any sense that a meaning is fixed must require the operation of power (to
fix the meanings). Feminists (like Gilman) long recognized the operation of power in
fixing meanings given to the symbol “woman” (remember the discussion of wrong
ideas?). So post-structuralists tend to see an inherent intertwining of knowledge and
power. Knowledge, in many ways, represents the fixing of meanings about
experiences (otherwise, why would you need experts to teach you things in college?).
The PS theorists argue that knowledge itself is therefore a manifestation of power,
and not merely some neutral information that is discovered and transmitted from
“knowers” to learners.
This belief thus brings a new and, perhaps, more disturbing meaning to the old cliché:
“Knowledge is Power.” In common parlance, this phrase is taken as an encouragement
to gain as much knowledge as possible, because having more knowledge will give a
person more power. In many ways, this is true…but the post-structuralists offer a
counterpoint that argues that the quality of the knowledge matters. What if the
knowledge one internalizes actually disempowers the person in some ways? The postCopyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
structuralists argue that knowledge doesn’t strictly confer power to its possessor, but
instead exerts its own power on the person who “possesses” it…because the beliefs
and worldviews that particular forms of knowledge encourage come to shape the way
people think and act. It is a little like a virus that takes over a cell and uses the cell’s
“machinery” to produce more and more viruses. From this perspective, knowledge
has similar tendencies, because it “takes over” the productive capacities of the human
brain/body to produce more and more knowledge. Eventually, knowledge exerts its
power by influencing the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of those it inhabits.
Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault left us with a very rich set of theoretical insights. I have chosen to
include him in the post-structuralist section, but that is really an oversimplification of
his work. (Clearly, my attempt to “fix” his meanings under the sign of poststructuralism is a manifestation of power. The question is: will he remain contained
by my imposed meaning? One reason for including him in this section is that his early
work was fairly structuralist and his later work incorporated some of the poststructuralists’ ideas.
I think one of the most distinctive features of Foucault’s theorizing is his concern with
articulating the ways that people govern themselves and others through the
production of knowledge. Foucault’s central argument was that knowledge and power
are inherently intertwined (along the lines that I described above in the poststructuralist section). He generally equated power with the ability to control and
transform human life. Like the structuralists, he argued that one could see the
operation of power by examining its effects in the way people make sense of and act
in their worlds. He was concerned that people were becoming more and more like
their own jailers, monitoring and sanctioning themselves and their behaviors at
increasing levels of intensity. He even goes so far as to argue that power (this ability
to control people) has become disconnected from its old roots in the threat of
physical force (which privileged physical strength, control of weapons, and control of
armies/militias/police) to become a “free floating” force to which we were all
Let me try to explain that last idea. Foucault argued that there was a tendency in
Western civilization to make people the objects of knowledge. This was exemplified
in the evolution of the human sciences, which aimed to know everything possible
about the human experience. Fields like medicine, biology, psychology, and sociology
turned a powerful inquisitive eye on people, inspecting us from every vantage point.
Moreover, within each field, waves and waves of new researchers are continually
trained to intensify the scientific gaze into our experiences. The end result is that we
learn to problematize everything about ourselves. Am I eating the right things? Am I
getting too much sun? Do I have a self-esteem problem? Am I inherently intelligent
(as indicate by my IQ score)? Am I happy? Is my relationship working? And on and on
it goes. The more the human sciences discover about us: the more anxious we feel
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
about things we never would have thought about if not for the new knowledge (read
power) produced by science.
Foucault’s point is that the human sciences are being pushed toward greater and
greater scrutiny of human life in a way that feels “natural” or logical, but is really
nothing than the operation of power (this unseen force) that controls us, training our
gaze inward and ultimately outward to evaluate others. In five major works, he notes
the presence of this trend in medicine (The Birth of the Clinic), psychiatry (Madness
and Civilization), criminology (Discipline and Punish), science (The Order of Things),
and sexuality (The History of Sexuality). His structuralist roots leave him somewhat
pessimistic about our ability to resist successfully this operation of power. Yet his
post-structuralist leanings lead him to suggest that people constantly attempt to
resist this pernicious onslaught the human sciences unleashed in their many forms.
Rather than defeating these powerful forces, however, Foucault sees them as
mutating endlessly in forms we may not fully be able to imagine at this point. Thus,
we can resist a particular form of power/knowledge, but it will surely transform itself
into another system of conceptual (and behavioral) constraint. That is a bit
nightmarish, is it not?
Foucault’s vision is more similar to critical theory (CT) than structural functionalism,
but different in crucial ways. Recall that CT focuses on the distorting effects of
cultural processes (like language, mass media, etc.) on human consciousness. The
basic idea for the CT perspective is that the powerful political and economic groups
that control cultural outlets like television, print media, and advertising manipulate
us in ways that support their interests. Thus, we feel the desire to drink a Sprite or
Pepsi, buy a Lexus, shop at H&N, vote for Clinton or Trump, and so on. This
manipulation of human consciousness through distorting communication processes
implies that power is something that human beings wield–groups have “power”
because they can exert their will through the manipulation of culture. Yet, Foucault’s
approach is radically different. The knowledge is the powerful agent, not people.
How does Foucault’s approach differ from the CT approach? Well, he essentially
rejects the notion that people actually have control over power/knowledge. Like the
structuralists, Foucault sees human consciousness as somewhat driven by linguistic
codes and the logical operation and extensions of those codes. When one “de-centers”
the individual (subject) from the heart of one’s analysis, it becomes difficult to argue
that individuals (or groups) have agency–the ability to freely choose to act outside
the constraints of the system of knowledge (or language) in which one is embedded.
Thus, power/knowledge takes on a kind of “free floating” characteristic, not tied to
the free volition of any particular actors. In this sense, those people who the CTs see
as exerting power through the control of media are, in Foucault’s view, like
marionettes themselves being pushed and pulled by the logic of the system of
knowledge that surrounds them.
Foucault’s analysis of the human sciences provides an interesting example.
Remember he saw the rise of the human sciences as a kind of leading edge of the
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
operation of power/knowledge. His argument was that at some point in our
development the idea emerged (out of the possibilities available in our system of
knowledge) that we could gain a deep understanding of human life by training the
gaze of science on our minds and bodies. This small piece of “code” then unleashed a
progressing obsession with scientifically “knowing” ourselves that has culminated in
the huge numbers of researchers in medicine, biology, psychology, sociology, social
work, education, anthropology, economics, political science, exercise physiology,
nutrition, and related disciplines. Each year a new set of newly minted Ph.D.s joins
the army of existing scholars, each of whom is charged with the task of discovering
“something new” about human life. Certainly, their discoveries have a tremendous
amount of power insofar as they change the way we and the professionals we give
sovereignty over our bodies and minds view ourselves and behave. An example: for a
number of years research on aging seemed to suggest that taking dietary supplements
of anti-oxidants (e.g., Vitamin E, selenium, beta carotene) slowed the aging process.
Many people began to follow this suggestion, taking supplements daily, which fueled
an industry that created these supplements. However, a recent study, much
publicized, offered evidence that anti-oxidant supplements did not have the
beneficial effect implied by the earlier research. This caused people to change the
way they viewed their supplement intake and will have ripple effects on the
supplement industry. Foucault sees all of these changes–the gaze we cast on our
bodies and diets, the scaling up and down of industrial production–as effects of
power/knowledge. More importantly, Foucault does not see anyone knowingly
“manipulating” ideas in order to advance their agenda in this scenario. Scientists are
convinced they are “objectively” gathering information about the human body. This
information quest, however, is seen as driven by the logic of human inquiry that
emerged from our knowledge system. There is a smoking gun, but no one pulled the
You may think that Foucault was being overly structuralist in his views on the
operation of power. There is much debate about whether we should eschew the
notion that powerful interests do manipulate culture in ways that reflect agency (not
just the mindless running of the “code” of power/knowledge). I think the most useful
concept is Foucault’s articulation of one way that power operates in society. I think
his insight that power operates by making all of us hyper-visible objects of an
insatiable scientific inquiry is brilliant. This adds to earlier theories of power that
emphasized physical coercion and mental distortion. Certainly there is much
evidence that brute force and brainwashing are still operating in contemporary
society. What Foucault does is provide us with another window into the ways that
people can be oppressed. In this world, an over obsession with our minds and bodies
is another leverage point for the power that oppresses. Am I too thin? Too anxious?
Do I eat the right foods? Is my income big enough? Is my cholesterol level too high?
Am I as smart as I could be? Are my bones too brittle? Is my breath its freshest? Do I
obsess too much about things? Am I happy enough? And, on it goes…
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
Discussion Questions
(1) What are some examples of how the rise of the human sciences has increased
your own self-scrutiny? Draw from Foucault’s theory of power/knowledge in
framing your answers.
(2) What are your thoughts about the notion that power/knowledge is somewhat
“free floating” or, in other words, not something we can say is exerted by a
particular person or group? It’s kind of like a software code (perhaps artificial
intelligence) that’s taken on a life of its own and can be seen through its effects
on people. If one believes this is happening, what does that mean for the notion
that people can change the world for the better?
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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