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Jakobson Roman(1896-1982) Russian-born, post-Saussurean theorist in LINGUISTICS and formalistic literary studies who had a major influence on the development of modern theoretical linguistics and STRUCTURALISM. In the analysis of literature and poetry, his approach was innovative, employing a 'S tructural’ analysis in which ‘form’ was separated from ‘content’. A founder member of the ‘Prague school’ of linguistics, his main technical contribution to linguistics was in the study of phonology (i.e. the sound systems of LANGUAGE), in which sounds were analysed to reveal a comparatively simple set of binary oppositions underlying human speech. More generally, in the analysis of languages and human sign systems (see also SEMIOTICS), he suggested the existence of ‘structural invariants’ and that the apparent differences between cultures were merely 'S urface’ features. Driven from Europe by Nazism, it was as a European cultural theorist in the New World that he had his widest influence. Among those profoundly influenced by his thinking were LÉVI-STRAUSS and CHOMSKY, who were his associates in New York. His emphasis on linguistic universals presented a contrast with the more culturally relativist view of language propounded by American anthropologists such as Boas and Sapir (see SAPIR-WHORF HYPOTHESIS). In his linguistic theories, the use of psychology was also different from the prevailing American view in the 1940s and 50s. While pioneering American theorists of linguistics, such as Leonard Bloomfield, were wedded to a behaviouristic view, Jakobson's emphasis was philosophically ‘rationalist’, with its emphasis on innate cognitive structures which were universal, rather than on an acquisition of language seen as arising primarily from interactions with the social environment and from stimulus and response. Especially as the result of Chomsky's success, it is Jakobson's rationalistic formalism which has, on the whole, triumphed in linguistics. But this formalism, and its associated concentration on the universal structures of language, while it saw off behaviouristic accounts, also contained limitations, e.g. the lack of any very adequate treatment of SEMANTICS and the contextuality of language, or of linguistic and social ‘creativity’ and ‘agency’. These overstatements and omissions were also to become ‘weaknesses’ of structuralism as this emerged as a modern movement, partly as a result of Jacobson's influence. See also STRUCTURE AND AGENCY, PRAGMATICS, POSTSTRUCTURALISM.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000