Structuralism is, broadly defined, an approach to human activity that sees it as analyzable in terms of networks of relationships; objects derive meaning from their positions in these relationships. Structural analysis attempts to equalize all texts (and forms of texts) by reducing them to the same underlying universal system. This system was articulated through the vocabulary of classical structural linguistics. The linguistic terminology found in Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics (compiled posthumously by his students and published in 1915) was particularly influential on the shape of the structuralist method. The ideas collected in this volume seek to outline a modern linguistics, but simultaneously envisage the conceptual framework for a general science of signs: "semiology" in his parlance. As a "science of signs, signifiyers, and signifying systems," semiotics—as semiology is now more commonly called—had a profound role in both structuralist and poststructuralist thought.
Saussure's semiotics was quickly appropriated by thinkers seeking a rigorous system to decipher myths and literature, particularly by Russians and Czechs. Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale (1929), for example, dissected the general structure of one hundred Russian folktales by determining which elements were constant and which were variable. Propp concluded that nearly all the tales in his analysis had the same basic structure. The various characters could fit into several categories of dramatis personae (hero, villain, victim, and so on); the various events contained in the stories could be classified into thirty-one possible actions and always occurred in the same order.
Although Propp and others pioneered a structuralist approach in the 1920s, it would take until the 1960s for structural analysis to take root and blossom in Western Europe and North America as a method for understanding a whole range of cultural phenomena. In the 1960s French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss applied Saussurean principles to his study of mythology and kinship systems. His bold transfer of structural-linguistic logic began the drive toward structural analysis in a host of fields, including literature and film studies.
In his anthropological work, Lévi-Strauss sought a unifying system that could explain why similar myths appear in very different cultures. Myths derive their significance, according to his research in Structural Anthropology (1963), not from their individual elements, but rather from "bundles of relations." Applying to diverse mythologies Saussure's insights into binarism (that language derives meaning from difference: the word apple is insignificant and arbitrary as an individual unit; only because it is unique vis-à-vis the word pear and every other word can it be meaningful for human interaction), Lévi-Strauss demonstrated how myths function like Saussure's theory of language. No individual part of a myth has meaning in isolation; it acquires significance only in its relationship to the other elements in the myth's structure. Following from this, a single myth is first meaningful when it is situated among other myths, social practices, and kinship systems. For Lévi-Strauss, myths are universal, timeless stories whose ultimate function is to represent the resolution of social conflict.
Structuralist analysis became fashionable. Reflecting the method's quest for the universal, scholars began ferreting out underlying systems in all sorts of fields. Applying structuralist methodologies to individual literary works and genres, Tzvetan Todorov claimed that narrative fiction can be studied on three levels: the semantic (the content), the syntactic (structures, relations, and combinatory rules), and the rhetorical (diction, point of view). Todorov identified cultural laws that appear and drive every story, hidden codes operating silently just below the texts' surfaces but made legible by the structuralist method's deductive impulse.
Since structuralism's appeal lay in its ability to apply systematic, scientific rigor to fields traditionally analyzed in highly subjective and even impressionistic ways, it is no surprise that the 1960s saw structural analysis move from established academic departments such as literature and anthropology to areas hitherto deemed unworthy of scholarly inquiry. The early work of Roland Barthes, for example, extended structuralist thought to a variety of contemporary systems including advertising, fashion, and food. It was in this period that structuralism seemed the logical methodology for addressing another cultural phenomenon just beginning to be taken seriously: film. The insights of pioneers such as Lévi-Strauss and Todorov provided exciting possibilities for film scholars. The network of repetitions and differences that structural analysis systematizes could be used to create "scientific" interpretations of films that could supplant journalistic-style "film appreciation" criticism (the dominant mode of film analysis through the mid-1960s). Film studies would thus enjoy a significant but brief encounter with structuralism, approaching cinema with structuralist-informed genre analyses, auteurist criticism, and narrative investigations. Jim Kitses pioneered this approach in Horizons West (1969), looking at the genre of the western.
Will Wright's Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western (1975) was another important structuralist genre analysis. Drawing heavily on Saussurean linguistics, Lévi-Strauss's conceptual structure of tribal myths, Propp's morphology of the Russian folktale, and the political and economic theories of John Kenneth Galbraith and Jürgen Habermas, Wright outlines the "structure" of the western film. Among the sixty-four top-grossing westerns released since 1930, Wright proposed that fifty-five of them conformed to one of four basic plot lines. Wright's structural analysis of the western's thematics made an easy transition from Propp and Todorov's studies; here, too, the task was to deduce a formula for a genre. Wright's scheme of narrative function echoed Propp's list of thirty-one possible actions in the folktale. Symptomatic is the extent to which literary, social, political, and economic theory informed Wright's study. Even through the 1970s, film scholars sought to justify and ground their analyses in theoretical insights derived within "established" fields.
Auteur-structuralism, practiced most famously in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's monograph Luchino Visconti (1967) and then subsequently theorized by Peter Wollen in his book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969), sought an underlying structure of stylistic or thematic motifs as the defining characteristic of the film author's work. These characteristics were not always immediately apparent, nor was the author necessarily aware of them. Film scholars also used structuralist insights to perform individual film analyses. Raymond Bellour's 1972 study of The Birds (1963), for example, breaks down the Bodega Bay sequence into a shot-by-shot analysis; Peter Wollen's 1976 investigation of North by Northwest (1959) performs a "morphological analysis" of the film in the spirit of Propp.