Structuralist and Post-structuralist analysis of survey below

First of all, one may argue with each of the opinions that responders voiced in my survey. This is not post-structuralist deconstruction yet, but it is a place to start. The scary terms in the title will be defined shortly.

  • “Grad students with minimal income and no family” – there are tons of professions that live basically on minimal wage, unless you hit the jackpot. Music journalists, movie actors, standup comedians, aspiring writers, software engineers and traveling salesmen. We’re in a good company. A structuralist approach will claim that feelings of people in all above groups are essentially the same, but more on that below.
  • “Talking to people … not… interesting. If they come and talk to us, of course we would keep the conversation” – there’s an inconsistency right here! This is more of a deconstruction – we find flaws in the text by careful examination of it, not even bringing in external evidence.
  • “A movie star!” – is an interesting substitute for real people who have to struggle with real problems, maybe very different from ours. It is somehow easy to think about movie stars.
  • “You meet a lot of people when you’re young, but then it shrinks to your coworkers and friends.” – that’s only true for introverts, as another voice pointed out.
  • “We can’t talk to people – in one minute we’re back to talking science.” – that’s just a TV trope, we’re not actually like this.
  • “There was a sci-fi book” which was obviously intended to be popular among scientists, thus exploited the stereotypical thing we can relate to.
  • “Extroverts are not in gradschool” – well, there was one right in that room, and the last two responses are from him.

The takeout message from the common sense approach is that grad students indeed perceive isolation from other sides of life, but are not very good at explaining the reasons for it. The attitudes fall into three categories: personal choice (this is interesting for me thus I’m here), born like this (I’m talented in this field not in others thus I’m here). The third category is not voiced easily, but shows up in the tone and details of responses: unfair rejection (they won’t talk to me so I’m here). Imagining that “a movie star won’t talk to you” is one of the examples.

Now lets look at the same text using structuralist tools. The term means for our purposes: we expect to find the same structure in the text as in other texts coming from seemingly unrelated sources. Or we split the text in pieces and use the templates already developed by famous structuralists for individual pieces of other texts.

Unfortunately we don’t have access to similar surveys made in closed groups like IT support, undergraduate students, students of other departments or less-known theater companies. We expect them to have the same uncertainty about how other people see them, the same societal pressure about low income and no way to support a family. They may have hard time talking to people who don’t know the inside jokes of their group.

What about monasteries? The book mentions a postapocalyptic version of them, where scientists are kept inside by force. In the real world it’s more of a conscious decision. The religious culture makes them hide away any regrets they may have about joining the monastery, so a similar survey may have only silence as an answer. Yet even our free and witty grad students hesitated about voicing their regrets, so the structure holds.

Let’s use a simple structuralist template signifier-signified to keywords in the responses.

  • “Hollywood” signifies “being born white and winning in random talent contest.”
  • “Gradschool” signifies “a way of avoiding real life for a few more years. And maybe, indefinitely.”

So what does “real life” signifies? It is just our impression about how other people are. And it is the key concept in structuralist psychoanalysis – from their point of view, all our problems stem from inconsistencies in our models of other people, and our desires for them.

The other is very flexible: its signifieds range from “people from other departments” to “Hollywood stars” to paternal figures of our subconsciousness. The famous discoveries made by structuralists are often about how the signified is shifting dynamically or even becomes a signifier-signified pair itself. An example of this kind of nesting is a flower on Valentine’s day which signifies just giving a flower which signifies passion. This kind of nesting is (arguably) in the other that responses mention. We think it signifies actual other people that we don’t know, but instead it signifies our model of them. The actual other people are likely not even aware that grad students living next block are feeling themselves isolated.

Another structuralist tool is to observe that a relation between the two parts A and B is the same as relation between C and D. It is very impressive for a non-math person to come up with a functor this way. I don’t see any functors in replies, maybe only between the surveys of different groups.

Finally, time for a Post-structuralist deconstruction. It basically starts with getting personal and points out that

  • I was concerned about forgetting how to talk to normal people, but not so much so after I stopped  dating a non-physics girlfriend.

can be read in two ways: is it the girlfriend that was leading to the concerns about how to talk, or the concerns about ‘nothing to talk’ led to stopping to date. In fact, the first thing that deconstruction notices is that the question “who we are” cannot be satisfactory answered. That is in the original books by Derrida. The self is impossible to pinpoint, there is always something unclear about the answer. We noted that indeed most of the responders hid their real feelings about the unfair rejection, societal pressure and a barrier before talking to other people (instead saying that it is uninteresting).

We assumed a working model of other but in fact it is all over the place. We would think of Hollywood stars instead of normal people, we wait for them to come talk to us, we can’t even explain how come we had a girlfriend in the first place! So a flaw in the imaginary model of other cannot by itself be our important finding – there are always flaws in one’s model of other, unless you talk to Sherlock Holmes.

Instead, our conclusion will be that there are easily falsifiable flaws in the way we think about our grad school, and for some reason our mind suppresses ways of thinking that may notice the inconsistensies. Like that there was an extrovert in the room. Note that the conclusion is on the meta-level compared to the “common sense” conclusion. We still do not know if it is a good idea to point out these inconsistencies to people, or it will just be irritating for them.


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