To answer this question we should begin with the observation that world sociology as we have find it today, including that of the US, is highly influenced by European sociology.
Some of the European social thinkers such as Habermas, Lyotard, Baudrilard, Foucault and Bourdieu have taken a new approach towards the understanding of society. Structuralism is one of the recent efforts to construct a theory. In the following paragraphs, we discuss some of the factors which are responsible for the emergence of structuralism:
(i) Denial of Sartre’s Existentialism:
Sartre was a French philosopher. In his earlier work he focused on the individual level, especially on individual freedom. He adhered to the -view that people are not subject to any social loss.
Or, a man cannot justify his actions by reference to anything outside himself. Sartre argued that the individual is free. His existence is defined by and through his own acts.
In other words, one is what one does. This is the crux of Sartre’s existentialism. He attacks the sociologist’s view of social structure which is argued to be objective. For him, “people are free, they are responsible for everything they do, they have no excuses, if they do wrong”.
Thus, the emergence of structuralism in France is a reaction to the existentialism of Sartre-a denial of it.
Yet another reason for the rise of French structuralism is Sartre’s humanism. In his later work, he provided a critique of dialectical reason as he was against Marxism. The Marxists emphasized the role of power in social structure.
This was not acceptable to Sartre. He contested it. Through the predominance of individual he pleaded for humanism. Structuralism, therefore, has also come about as a revolt against humanism that is, protecting the freedom of the individual.
Structuralism that we find in various forms has resulted out of different intellectual and historical conditions which prevailed in Europe. As a matter of fact, social anthropology in Europe since its beginning and particularly after the post-war period was strongly associated with structuralism.
The emergence of structuralism is basically against Sartre’s existentialism and humanism. In our country admittedly, structuralism came as a reaction and revolt to structural- functional analysis.
Functionalism in India first came through the influence of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, that is, British social anthropology; later on it influenced Indian social anthropology through functionalism of Merton and Parsons. This kind of British- American structure functionalism was opposed by structuralism of Louis Dumont.
French structuralism was influenced by phenomenology also. Edmund Husserl, who had a great influence on Derrida, was the leading phenomenologist.
Though he does not have any direct influence on structuralism, he created a favourable situation for the development of the structural theory. Husserl was struggling to study the basic structures of human consciousness.
He was committed to penetrating the various layers constructed by actors in the real world to get to the essence of the structure of consciousness. His interest has been to find out the pure form of consciousness stripped of all biographical and cultural content. Ritzer has defined the structure of consciousness as given by Husserl:
For Husserl, consciousness was not a thing or a place but a process. Consciousness was found not in the head of the actor but in the relationship between the actor and the objects in the world. For him consciousness is always something of some object. Consciousness is found in the relationship: it is not interior to the actor; it is relational.
What Husserl means by consciousness is that is establishes a relationship between the actor and the object. According to him, consciousness is a process that gives meaning to objects. For instance, an actor develops a consciousness that bureaucracy is corrupt.
This consciousness is about the object, that is, bureaucracy. Further, the actor develops another consciousness that women are good managers of an industrial concern. This is again a consciousness about the concern as an object.
Tomorrow, the consciousness may change and the actor might say that bureaucracy is hard working, it is goal-oriented. Further, he may develop a consciousness that women turn out to be bad managers. Thus, consciousness is a process and relational between actor and object.
Husserl’s phenomenology contributed a lot to the formation of structuralism. Husserl was basically a humanist and existentialist but he does talk about the structure of human consciousness which is situated in the structure of society.