chapter  7
29 Pages


We left social theory at the end of Chapter 5 in the grip of the ‘linguistic turn,’ refashioning concepts taken from the study of language and extending these ideas to other aspects of social activity. In the perspective of structuralism, language is form not substance. Words, as the reader will remember, cannot mean their objects. A ‘tree’ is what it is because it is not ‘fl ee’ or ‘bee,’ and likewise ‘bee’ is what it is because it is not ‘she’ or ‘he,’ and on and on in an endless chain of signifi cation. Suddenly, things look more complex. If a signifi er only refers us to another signifi er, and if we can never arrive at an ultimate signifi ed, what are we to make of the structuralist insistence that language forms a stable system? How are we to understand the structuralist account of meaning in terms of systemic structures? Is there not a tension between the structuralist emphasis on the differential nature of meaning on the one hand, and the presumption that as speakers or writers we have no choice but to follow patterns of meaning already established in language as a closed system?