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Structuralism vs. Formalism: What's the Difference?

Edited by Janet White || By Harlon Moss || Published on December 1, 2023
Structuralism analyzes cultural phenomena through underlying structures, while formalism emphasizes the form and style of artistic works over content.

Key Differences

Structuralism is an intellectual movement that views cultural phenomena as parts of a larger, overarching system or structure. Formalism, in contrast, focuses on the formal elements of art and literature, like style and technique, rather than content or context.
In structuralism, the belief is that elements of culture can be understood by examining their relationship to the overall structure. Formalism, however, argues that the aesthetic value of a work lies in its form, such as the use of language in literature, rather than its relation to external factors.
Structuralism often involves the analysis of language, culture, and society to understand the underlying structures that shape them. Formalism, on the other hand, emphasizes the intrinsic qualities of a work, like composition and design, especially in visual arts.
The approach of structuralism is to uncover the structures that underpin various aspects of society and culture. Formalism, conversely, is more concerned with the individual qualities and craftsmanship of artistic works.
Structuralism has been influential in fields like anthropology and linguistics, focusing on patterns and relations. In contrast, formalism has had a significant impact on literary criticism and art analysis, highlighting the importance of form.

Comparison Chart


Underlying structures in culture
Form and style of artistic works

Key Approach

Analysis of relationships within a system
Emphasis on intrinsic qualities


Anthropology, linguistics
Literary criticism, art analysis


Cultural elements understood through structures
Aesthetic value lies in form


Patterns and relations in society
Craftsmanship and composition

Structuralism and Formalism Definitions


Structuralism is the study of underlying structures in cultural systems.
Structuralism helps analyze language's role in cultural contexts.


Formalism emphasizes the form and style of artistic works.
Formalism analyzes a poem's structure rather than its content.


Structuralism seeks to understand parts of a system in relation to the whole.
In structuralism, myths are analyzed as parts of a cultural system.


Formalism values the craftsmanship and composition in art.
Formalism appreciates the intricate brushwork in a piece of art.


Structuralism examines how various elements of a culture interrelate.
Structuralism explores the relationship between language and thought.


Formalism focuses on the aesthetic elements of art and literature.
In formalism, the technique in a painting is more important than its subject.


Structuralism involves analyzing patterns and relations in social phenomena.
Structuralism can reveal the underlying patterns in social behaviors.


Formalism is concerned with the intrinsic qualities of a work.
Formalism dissects the use of meter and rhyme in poetry.


Structuralism is a method of interpreting human culture and cognition.
Through structuralism, linguists decipher the structure of languages.


Formalism studies art and literature independently of external context.
Formalism approaches a novel focusing on narrative style over historical context.


A method of analyzing phenomena, as in anthropology, linguistics, psychology, or literature, chiefly characterized by contrasting the elemental components of the phenomena in a system of binary opposition and examining how the elemental components are combined to make larger units.


Rigorous or excessive adherence to recognized forms, as in religion or art.


An instance of rigorous or excessive adherence to recognized forms.


Does structuralism consider the content of cultural products?

It's more focused on the structures and relationships within the culture.

What is formalism's main concern in literature?

It's concerned primarily with literary techniques and style.

How does formalism approach art?

Formalism focuses on the form, style, and technique of artistic works.

Can structuralism apply to language?

Yes, it's often used to analyze the structures of language.

Does formalism disregard the meaning of a text?

It doesn't disregard meaning but prioritizes form over content.

Is formalism limited to visual arts?

No, it applies to literature, music, and other art forms as well.

Can structuralism be applied to everyday life?

Yes, it can be used to analyze everyday social and cultural patterns.

How does formalism view a painting?

Formalism evaluates a painting based on its composition and technique.

How does formalism treat historical context in literature?

It typically analyzes the text independently of historical context.

What is structuralism?

It's the study of the underlying structures in cultural and social systems.

How does structuralism affect the study of myths?

It analyzes myths as parts of larger cultural and social structures.

Does structuralism look at individual elements in isolation?

No, it examines elements in relation to the overall structure.

What distinguishes formalism in poetry analysis?

It emphasizes poetic structure, form, and technical aspects.

What's the role of structuralism in understanding human cognition?

It helps in understanding how cognitive processes are structured.

How does structuralism interpret social behaviors?

It looks at behaviors as part of larger social structures.

What fields is structuralism influential in?

It's influential in anthropology, linguistics, and sociology.

Can formalism apply to film analysis?

Yes, it can focus on cinematic techniques and visual style.

Is structuralism still relevant in contemporary studies?

Yes, its concepts are still applied in various fields.

Does formalism value the emotional impact of art?

While not its focus, it doesn't completely disregard emotional impact.

Can formalism be combined with other literary theories?

Yes, it can be used alongside other approaches for a more comprehensive analysis.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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