Structuralism and Functionalism in Psychology

This is where the story begins. Psychology was not a field that was being scientifically studied before the formation of structuralism and functionalism

Structuralism and Functionalism in Psychology Structuralism and Functionalism in Psychology

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Table of contents

    Wilhelm Wundt, the first man to introduce structuralism, changed all of that when he began to study the human mind within a controlled setting, in his laboratory in Germany. Functionalism, first proposed by American philosopher William James, would soon emerge as a response to this approach. Structuralism and functionalism would set the stage for other schools of thought to follow, and also have a major impact on education, mental health treatments, and psychological research methods used today.

    • What is structuralism?
    • What is functionalism?
    • Who were influential figures in structuralism and functionalism?
    • What contributions have structuralism and functionalism had to the field of psychology?

    What is the Difference Between Functionalism and Structuralism in Psychology?

    Structuralism, based on the ideas of William Wundt and formalized by Edward B. Titchener, focuses on studying the basic components of mental processes using introspection. Functionalism, established by William James, focuses on the "why" of mental processes as a whole, and how they interact with the subject's environment.

    Structuralism

    Functionalism

    First example of experimental psychology in a lab settingHeavily influenced by Darwinism and natural selection

    Focused on introspection, on subjects such as thoughts/feelings/sensations

    Focused more on introspection and behavior

    Focused on basic components of mental processes

    Focused on how basic components of mental processes functioned as a whole

    Sought to breakdown and quantify mental processes

    Sought to understand the how and why of the mental process as it relates to the environment

    Key Players of Structuralism in Psychology

    A famous master and the disciple who forged his own way are the key players in this approach.

    Wilhelm Wundt

    The foundations of structuralism in psychology were first established by German physiologist, Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920). Wundt is often referred to as the "Father of Psychology". He published Principles of Physiological Psychology in 1873, which would later be considered the first psychology textbook. He believed that psychology should be the scientific study of the conscious experience. Wundt sought to quantify the basic components of thought, to understand and identify the structures of conscious thought. This can be compared to how a chemist seeks to understand the basic elements of an object to understand its structure. This approach led to the development of structuralism.

    Structuralism is a school of thought that seeks to understand the structures of the human mind by observing the basic components of consciousness.

    Wundt sought to study the human mind like any other natural occurrence, as a scientist might. He began his structuralism research by conducting experiments with his students as subjects. For example, Wundt would have his students react to some stimulus such as a light or a sound and measure their reaction times. Another research technique he would use is called introspection.

    Introspection is a process by which a subject, as objectively as possible, examines and explains the components of their conscious experience.

    When using this technique, Wundt would also use his students as observers. Each observer would be trained in how to identify their conscious experience, in an attempt to reduce subjective responses. Wundt would measure and quantify the results.

    Edward B. Titchener

    While Wundt's ideas created the framework for structuralism, his student Edward B. Titchener was the first to use the term and formalize it as a school of thought. Titchener is responsible for continuing Wundt's basic ideas and use of introspection as a primary investigative method, but would go on to formalize his methods. For example, Titchener believed consciousness was too difficult to quantify; instead, he focused on observation and analysis.

    Titchener identified three basic states of consciousness:

    • Sensations (taste, sight, sound)
    • Images (ideas/thought)
    • Emotions

    Titchener would then observe the following properties of the states of consciousness:

    • Quality

    • Intensity

    • Duration

    • Clearness (or attention)

    A researcher might set out a table of fruits and vegetables and ask the observer to explain their sensations, ideas, and emotions. The observer might say the apples are crisp, red, and juicy. They might further say they feel satisfied, or state their thoughts regarding the value of an apple.

    Key Players of Functionalism in Psychology

    The two key players in the functionalist approach to psychology are William James and John Dewey.

    William James

    William James, an American philosopher often referred to as the "Father of American Psychology", took the opposite approach to structuralism in understanding the conscious mind. Influenced by Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, James sought to observe how consciousness interacted with its environment as a means of survival. He believed that psychology should focus on the function, or the why of behavior and conscious thought. This is the basis of functionalism as a school of thought.

    Functionalism is a school of thought that focuses on how mental processes as a whole allow an organism to fit into and interact with its environment.

    Rather than focusing on the basic components of mental processes as Wundt and Titchener did, James wanted to focus on the whole system of mental processes. This would set an important precedent for other schools of thought, such as Gestalt psychology. Functionalists sought to find the meaning and purpose of mental processes and behavior, rather than simply understanding and identifying our conscious experiences.

    John Dewey

    American philosopher John Dewey was another key player in the establishment of functionalism as a school of thought. Dewey believed that there is intersectionality between philosophy, pedagogy, and psychology, and that they should work together. Dewey agreed with James' view that psychology should focus on how mental processes allow an organism to survive its environment. In 1896, Dewey wrote a paper entitled "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology", where he adamantly disagreed with the structuralist approach. In his opinion, structuralism completely disregarded the importance of adaptation.

    One of Dewey's most important contributions would be his work in education. His ideas found that students would learn best when they could interact with their environments, and engage in learning through experimentation and socialization.

    An Example of Functionalism in Psychology

    The functionalist's approach seeks to understand how behavior and mental processes interact with our environment.

    A researcher using functionalism might attempt to understand how the mind experiences pain, and how that experience functions as part of our environment. Does pain produce feelings of fear or anxiety?

    Person touching their calf due to pain. StudySmarterFunctionalism would look at how this person and their calf pain are interacting with the environment. pexels.com

    Evaluating Functionalism and Structuralism in Psychology

    Structuralism and functionalism were the first schools of thought in psychology. They laid an important foundation for other schools of psychology that followed.

    Contribution of Structuralist Psychology

    Unfortunately, after the passing of Titchener, structuralism and the use of introspection as a primary research technique dissolved. Other schools of thought that would follow found many holes in structuralism as an approach. Behaviorism, for example, found the use of introspection led to unreliable results, as mental processes were far too difficult to measure and observe. Gestalt psychology, another school of thought, felt that structuralism focused too much on the basic components of mental processes, rather than how the basic components formed the whole.

    However, structuralists were the first to study the mind and observe psychology within the setting of a laboratory. This set the stage for all forms of experimental psychology that would later follow. Introspection would also become a launching pad for psychological theories and treatments still used today, such as psychoanalysis and talk therapy. Therapists often use introspection as a means of guiding a patient to a deeper level of self-awareness.

    Contribution of Functionalist Psychology

    Functionalism's contribution to psychology is significant. Functionalism is the origin of modern-day fields such as evolutionary psychology.

    Environmental Psychology is a psychological approach that focuses on how an organism's mental processes are a function of its evolutionary survival.

    Dewey's functionalist approach to understanding learning is considered foundational to the educational system today. He believed students should learn at the pace of their developmental preparedness, and was the first to propose the idea that "seeing is doing". Dewey's research found that students learn best by engaging with their environment and through socialization.

    Functionalism also set the stage for behaviorism. Many functionalists focused on behavior because it is easier to observe than thoughts or feelings. Edward Thorndike's "Law of Effect", which states that behavior is more likely to be repeated when followed by positive or rewarding stimuli, was heavily influenced by functionalist ideas.

    Structuralism and Functionalism in Psychology - Key takeaways

    • Wilhelm Wundt was the first to introduce structuralist ideas. His student Edward Titchener was the first to formally use structuralism as a term.

    • Structuralism is a school of thought that seeks to understand the structures of the human mind by observing the basic components of consciousness.

    • Introspection is a process by which a subject, as objectively as possible, examines and explains the components of their conscious experience. It was primarily used by Wundt and Titchener.

    • Functionalism is a school of thought that focuses on how mental processes as a whole allow an organism to fit into and interact with its environment and has contributed to the development of other schools of psychology, such as Behaviorism, and Gestalt psychology.

    • Structuralism and its use of introspection was the first example of experimental psychology. It has influenced psychological treatment methods such as psychoanalysis and talk therapy.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Structuralism and Functionalism in Psychology

    What are structuralism and functionalism in psychology?

    Structuralism and functionalism are two separate schools of thought in psychology. They are considered foundational to the study of modern psychology.

    How did structuralism and functionalism influence early psychology?

    Functionalism is the origin of modern-day fields such as evolutionary psychology. It also set the stage for behaviorism, as many functionalists focused on behavior; it is easier to observe than thoughts or feelings.  Structuralism's use of introspection influenced psychoanalysis. 

    What is functionalism theory in psychology?

    Functionalism is a school of thought that focuses on how mental processes as a whole allow an organism to fit into and interact with its environment. 

    What is the main idea of structuralism in psychology?

    Structuralism is a school of thought that seeks to understand the structures of the human mind by observing the basic components of consciousness.  Wilhelm Wundt sought to study the human mind like any other natural occurrence, as a scientist might.

    How is education an example of structural functionalism?

    Education is an example of structural functionalism because schools' role in socializing young people in turn helps society function better as a cohesive whole.

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    Who identified the four properties of the states of consciousness?

    Which of the following is not one of the four properties of states of consciousness?

    Who believed that there is intersectionality between philosophy, pedagogy, and psychology, and that they should work together?

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