Barthes And Structuralism

Structuralism is essentially the study of Saussure’s linguistics applied to the study of the underlying structure of a society’s means of communication(s) that give that society’s words contextual meaning.1 Roland Barthes may not have been the first to analyse Saussure, but he penetrated its implications more than anyone at the time.  Barthes defined structuralism as a conjunction of linguistics and semiotics, as the ideological consequences of popular sociological elements (Mythologies), and as a critique of culture and society (Elements of Semiotics).

Before Mythologies, Barthes began studying the written word, realizing that conventions influence both language and thought resulting in literary efforts that embrace pedestrian conventionality more than originality.2 These ideas were expanded in Michelet, a critical analysis of the French historian as he began to link linguistics and semiotics into what would become the synthesis of structuralism.

Barthes focused on an analysis of language in sentence structure as well as larger societal narratives in “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” where he broke narratives down to three basic elements:  Functions, Actions, and Narration, and studied the linguistic structure of narratives for the prejudices, biases, and point of view in the semiotics of each word and each sentence.  His interest in semiotics and structuralism aided his overall critique of the symbols inherent in French society.

This dissection of definition and social intent continued and expanded with Mythologies, a collection of monthly articles dissecting the symbols behind what everyone in French society had taken for granted up until that point.  In the common symbols of his day, he saw the cultural converted into the natural, converting it into a tool of French nationalist, and sometimes colonialist, propaganda to manipulate the people of France into a popular and nationalist frenzy where the people blindly support the powers that be without question.  He broke these cultural mythological symbols down into a bite-sized monthly analysis that even the daily newspaper reader could appreciate.  His goal, however, was not exactly to introduce his radical political agenda in the guise of criticism of popular culture to the public, but to “decode the function of myth as rendering social reality ‘natural’. (Elliott 2009: 66)  The result did in fact introduce the public to Barthes and his structuralist analysis, in digestible bites.  While they may have enjoyed it, the analysis also made them reconsider those cherished symbols of Frenchness.

It is precisely this analysis of daily culture that cemented his commitment to structuralism, however briefly.   He approaches subjects as incongruous as The Great Family of Man to The World of Wrestling and even stops to analyze the Brain of Einstein.  Consider Toys, “French toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life: the Army, Broadcasting, the Post Office….”4 or Wine and Milk, “Being essentially a function whose terms can change, wine has at its disposal apparently plastic powers: it can serve as an alibi to dream as well as reality, it depends on the users of the myth. For the worker, wine means enabling him to do his task with demiurgic ease (‘heart for the work’).”

Bathes decodes cherished beliefs for the sake of understanding the elements at the core, elements that have been exploited to promote propaganda aims at several points in historical France and elsewhere.  While structuralism has been blamed for apolitical neutrality, that seems an unreasonable assumption after reading the entries in Mythologies where cherished beliefs are exposed for the political and commercial agenda they hide and the underlying purpose used to create such mythologies laid bare for all to see.   For example, Barthes lays bare the French colonialist agenda used to great effect in on the cover of Paris Match with the image of a black French soldier respectfully saluting the French flag, all while the Algerian fight for independence was portrayed as against France’s “altruistic” intentions. (Elliott 2009: 68).

Myth, according to Barthes, exists to “make us feel socially ‘ordinary’ or “natural’.  The strength of structuralism is in its breaking down of cherished mythological elements that were created in the short and long-term deliberately and sometimes unconsciously to control the public, high and low.  Structuralism for Barthes breaks down the myths of everyday life and lays it all bare and reveals the machinations of those mythologies for all to question, to analyse.  His structuralism and his discussion of it breaks each down to the basis of a historical and cultural convention or standard. (Elliott 2009: 68)

This particular mythology is predicated upon the ideological language of transcendence and universality, the American flag, apple pie, and NASCAR, for instance, signifying the righteousness of the American Way.  While Barthes argues for two types of language, one that is free, artificial and poetic, there is an other that is fixed with rules allowing for no change in any form.  It is this area that structuralism shows its true ability according to Barthes, allowing for the in depth analysis of ideology, myth, and popular culture and how each introduction of newer and better technology is linked to established ideology and mythology, one that coincidentally sells that new technology rather effectively.

While Barthes later admits to limitations of his structuralism, he fails to realise that he is analysing a society’s system of differences that it creates while the overriding ideology manifests itself through the closure of those differences, to naturalize the social reality of those differences.  His structuralist analysis is not ideal for all analysis, but his methods do strip bare the state’s and media usage of accepted norms absorbed into a propaganda campaign that none detect as abnormal but a select few.

With Elements of Semiology, Barthes framed the method of structuralism in the context of mass media, much like McLuhan did on a much larger scale in Understanding Media, though Mcluhan is never classified as a structuralist.  Barthes went further than Mythologies to emphasize the power of deadly and apathetic structures upon human lives.  He begins this further defining of structuralism by explaining it through the referencing of Saussure’s linguistic analysis that meaning is determined through an opposition of signs within a linguistic and cultural system.

But he made structuralism his own by pushing Saussure a little further to the edge in at least two areas, the power of unconscious convention and the power of systematic convention, as well as considering the limitation of such a structural critique of meaning. (Elliott 2009: 65)  Thus he sowed his own seeds for disillusionment in structuralism but failed to realize that such a systematic analysis includes vital methods for analyzing the structure of society and how media and government manipulate in the name of culture and patriotism.

What Barthes proposed was not exactly something new.  The first admitted sociologists considered it.  “The sociological scope of the language/speech concept is obvious. The manifest affinity of the language according to Saussure and of Durkheim’s conception of a collective consciousness independent of its individual manifestations has been emphasised very early on.”5 He just codified it into a structure that could be used to study the machinations of society and how it controls the individuals in it.

Naturally, Elements of Semiology was not just a functional analysis of language.  It was a further extension of Barthes’ critique of culture and society. “In the car system, the language is made up by a whole set of forms and details, the structure of which is established differentially by comparing the prototypes to each other (independently of the number of their ‘copies’); the scope of ‘speech’ is very narrow because, for a given status of buyer, freedom in choosing a model is very restricted.” (Barthes 1968).  He insisted that semiotics be considered a subcategory of linguistics, and as such, still married to Structuralism, given his belief that structuralism and semiotics serve to critique society from a general cultural standpoint that is entirely valid to analyse group behavior, but not individual behavior.

Barthes came to Structuralism gradually through the study of writing and as a reaction to the established trends of existentialist philosophy and the contemporary established forms of writing.  He wanted to find what was original in writing and so continued to argue against the conventions of both language and style.  Finding Saussure and structuralism was a natural extension of this exploration.

Barthes applied Sasussure’s linguistics to the deep analysis of society and its underlying culture, studying the point where linguistics joined semiotics to give analysis of society’s culture a critical basis.  He joined the mass media and contributed critiques of popular culture and introducing structuralism to a wider public.  He took the study of semiotics and pushed it beyond the boundaries of language study to critique the larger elements in society.  While possibly biased, he caused the public to think.


  1. Elliott, A. (2009). Contemporary Social Theory:  An Introduction. (p. 55). New York: Routledge
  2. Ribiere, M. (2012, July). Roland Barthes: The Early Years: Writing Degree Zero. Retrieved from
  3. Barthes, R., & Duisit, L. (2008, August 18). An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative. Retrieved from
    1. Barthes, R. (2012, August 3). Mythologies. Retrieved from
    2. Barthes, R. (1968). Elements of Semiology. Retrieved from