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STRUCTURALISM: The idea in sociology, anthropology, literary theory, or linguistics that the best way to understand a cultural artifact (like family units, religious rites, or human language) is not to define each component individually, as its own unique element, but rather to define each component by its relationship to other parts of the same structure. To give a rough example, consider a concept like "father" in American society. If we were attempting to define this concept and how the role functions in American society or in a traditional family from the 1950s, a nonstructuralist might define a father as "a male adult figure who provides income for the family and who serves as an authority figure or protector." Such a definition seeks to define the role based on what it does or what it is, per se. In contrast, a structuralist might instead seek to define a "father" by showing the relationship that figure would have in the larger structure of the family, i.e., a "father corresponds to a mother, but is of opposite gender, and the two together may have children, forming a larger structure called a family, and within that family the father traditionally protects the children and labors outside the household while the mother nutures them within the home." For the structuralist, it makes no sense to define a father without considering the other parts of the family structure and explaining the father's role in relationship to those other parts. The role of father cannot exist if the roles of mother and children do not exist. They are interdependent in ontology.
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Claude Leví-Strauss and other structuralists proved especially influential in cultural studies, literary theory, and interpretation of mythology. A common approach to understanding narrative structure in folklore and stories is to use structuralism. We might, for instance, apply it to Tolkien's Silmarillion, noting the connections of the Valar and the Maiar in relationship to Ilúvatar, and how Melkor is defined completely by his rebellion against Ilúvatar while the Valar are defined completely by their obedience to him, and so forth. Oppositional binaries in the creation account there rely on opposites for contrast (hot versus cold) just as in the Old Testament creation story, oppositional binaries between light/dark or land/sea or male/female only have existence because they appear in contrasting pairs, and so forth.