Structuralists believe that things cannot be understood in isolation - they have to be seen in the context of the larger structures they are part of. Thus to understand a work of literature you have to situate it in the larger context of its genre, its theme, etc.
These structures are imposed by our way of perceiving the world rather than objective entities already existing in the external world.
Structuralism is not a set of beliefs, but two complementary practices: analysis and synthesis. The structuralist analyzes the products of human making into their smallest significant component parts, then tries to discover the principles of their articulation - how the parts fit together and function.
Two developments into analyzing systems of symbols lead to Structuralism:
Charles Pierce's Semiotics, analyzing the sign system into iconic signs, indexes and true symbols
Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistic theory stating that language systems are based on differences and distinctions:
a. Langue (system of language) vs. parole (instances of speech). A linguist infers a language's langue by analyzing many instances of parole.
b. synchronic (study of language at a specific time) vs. diachronic (study of changes within language). Saussure introduced the synchronic without neglecting the diachronic.
c. paradigmata (relation of items within the same category) vs. syntagmata (relation of items from different categories in a meaningful structure)
d. emes or basic units (locating the individual units of meaning within a system of differences): phonemes (smallest sound in language; like the p in pin), and morphemes (the smallest part that has lexical or grammatical meaning; like in painter, paint is the lexical morpheme, er is the grammatical morpheme)
Roman Jakobson: six factors defining the six functions of communication:
A sender (emotive function), having made contact (phatic function) with a receiver (conative function), sends a message...