RELATED TERMS: Semiotics; Sculpture; Narratology; Poststructuralism; Actantial model - Greimas

It is important to grasp the importance of structuralism for narrative environment design, not so much for what it is itself but for its relation to narratology and for the thinking that developed, more or less simultaneously, under the heading of poststructuralism.

French structuralism was inaugurated in the 1950s by the cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who analysed, using Saussure’s linguistic model, such cultural phenomena as mythology, kinship relations, and food preparation. In its early form, in the 1950s and 1960s, structuralism cut across the traditional disciplinary boundaries of the humanities and social sciences by claiming to provide an objective account of all social and cultural practices. It views cultural practices as combinations of signs that have a set significance for the members of a particular culture; undertakes to make explicit the rules and procedures by which the practices have achieved their cultural significance; and seeks to specify what that significance is, by reference to an underlying system of the relationships among signifying elements and their rules of combination (Abrams, 1999: 300).

The structuralist impulse was little understood in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-American academic cultures, where structure was considered the complement to function within a structural-functionalist paradigm, and hence an element in the functionalism that dominated and continues to dominate those cultures. This is particularly the case in design practices because, as Burkhardt (1988: 146) notes, “The birth of design is bound up with the birth of functionalism.”

The importance of structuralism, however, is not as a form of reductionism, i.e. the notion that all appearances or surface structures can be reduced to a few structural elements, but as a form of relational thinking. As such, structuralism serves as a critique of positivism, on the one hand, (i.e. a critique of the view that the world consists of fully-formed entities with predefined properties), and a critique of functionalism, on the other hand, (i.e. a critique of the view that an act is originary and is a simple cause which gives rise to a simple effect.

Structuralism opens up thought to the potential of network ontologies, that is, non-positivistic modes of existence, and network ‘causalities’, that is, forms of non-originary, co-implicated inter-action.

Structuralism and narratology

The word ‘narratology’ was first used by the Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov and has since made remarkable progress due to the works of such narratologists as Claude Bremond, A. J. Greimas, Roland Barthes, and Gerard Genette. It derived from Vladimir Propp’s study of Russian forktales and the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who had re-evaluated the Russian formalism of the 1910s to the 1930s.

A. J. Greimas, a linguist and semiotician, considered Propp’s morphology in connection with Lévi-Strauss’s structural analysis of myth. Through a consideration of Propp’s thirty-one functions, Greimas defined an actant as a fundamental role at the level of narrative deep structure. Greimas’ actantial model schematically shows the functions and roles that characters perform in a narrative. Greimas replaced Propp’s syntagmatic structure of narrative with a paradigmatic one: the establishment of the actors by the description of the functions and the reduction of the classification of actors to actants of the genre (Susumu, 2010).

Greimas also employed Souriau’s ‘catalogue of dramatic function, and in so doing found that the actantial interpretation could be applied to different kinds of narrative, not just folktale, and that Souriau’s results could be compared with those of Propp.

In this way, Greimas arrived at his first actantial model:

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Structuralism outside narratology

A good example of how structuralist thought, as relational thinking or the thinking of difference, is valuable outside of the domain of narratology can be found in Rosalind Krauss’ discussion of sculpture in what she calls the expanded field, which can be found in the MANE Compendium under the heading Sculpture.


Abrams, M.H. (1999). A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Burkhardt, F. (1988). Design and ‘avant-postmodernism’. In: Design after modernism, edited by J. Thakara. London, UK: Thames and Hudson, 145–151.

Susumu, O. (2010). Greimas’s actantial model and the Cinderella Story: the simplest way for the structural analysis of narratives [Thesis]. Hirosaki, Japan: Hirosaki University. Available from [Accessed 2 February 2016]