In the early 20th century, a linguist called Ferdinand de Saussure tried to answer a simple question: how do signs make meaning? Why does this beard totally say "hipster"?
Saussure said that every sign is divided into two parts: the signifier (the face-fur itself), and the signified (the idea of a pretentious PBR-drinker who lives in Bushwick)
He also said signs are arbitrary. In other words, there's nothing inherent about a beard that means hipster – the signifier could just as easily have been wearing a blanket, or having blue hair.
And signs aren't simply labels for real things – they actually constitute reality. Japan has different signs for hipster than bushy beards. And the concept of hipster those signs create is different, too.
A key insight of Saussure is that signs make meaning through difference. A bushy beard only means "hipster" because we have shaved faces to compare them to.
Each sign we use is chosen from what Saussure called a paradigm of available options: for example, the full hipster-beard, mutton-chops, moustache, clean-shaven, braided, etc.
Once we've chosen a sign, we arrange it with other choices – tatts, a vintage shirt, a digital watch, etc – in an arrangement called a syntagm. Another example of a syntagm is this sentence.
Combining signs into different syntagms can radically change the meaning – a beard, some normcore glasses, and a couple of monitors makes a sysadmin, not a hipster.
This invisible structure of paradigm and syntagm is how we make meaning – which is why Saussure's ideas are called structuralism. (Take a swig of PBR, we are nearly through Part 1!)
In the 50s and 60s, structuralism became a popular tool for analysing culture (not as popular as beards). Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss used it to understand kinships and myth, while Roland Barthes applied it to photos and fashion.
But by the 1970s, some French thinkers decided structuralism was, like, totally over (even though many of them were structuralists themselves.) Post-structuralism was born!