What Were Functionalism and Structuralism?

How Structuralism and Functionalism influenced modern psych

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee 

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Structuralism and functionalism were the two earliest schools of thought in psychology. When psychology was first established as a science separate from philosophy, the debate over how to explain human behavior and analyze the mind began. As a result, different approaches and perspectives emerged.

Both functionalism and structuralism made important contributions to the development of modern psychology. In order to get an idea of how the field of psychology emerged and got to where it is today, it can be helpful to look at these older perspectives and the impact that they had.

What Was Structuralism?

Structuralism emerged as the first school of thought in psychology. Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of the first experimental psychology lab, advocated some of the ideas associated with the structuralist school.

Structuralism was the first school of psychology and focused on breaking down mental processes into the most basic components. Researchers tried to understand the basic elements of consciousness using a method known as introspection.

One of Wundt's students, Edward B. Titchener, would later go on to formally establish and name structuralism, although he broke away from many of Wundt's ideas and at times even misrepresented the teachings of his mentor. Wundt's theories tended to be much more holistic than the ideas that Titchener later introduced in the United States.

Strengths

Structuralism is important because it is the first major school of thought in psychology. The structuralist school also influenced the development of experimental psychology.

While Wundt's work helped to establish psychology as a separate science and contributed methods to experimental psychology, Titchener's development of structuralism helped establish the very first "school" of psychology. Structuralism itself did not last long beyond Titchener's death.

Criticism

By today’s scientific standards, the experimental methods used to study the structures of the mind were too subjective—the use of introspection led to a lack of reliability in results. Other critics argue that structuralism was too concerned with internal behavior, which is not directly observable and cannot be accurately measured.

What Was Functionalism?

Other theories also surfaced to vie for dominance in psychology. In response to structuralism, an American perspective known as functionalism emerged from thinkers such as the evolutionist Charles Darwin and William James. Functionalists sought to explain mental processes in a more systematic and accurate manner.

Other important functionalist thinkers included Edward Thorndike, John Dewey, Mary Whiton Calkins, Harvey Carr, Hermann Ebbinghaus, and John Angell.

Rather than focusing on the elements of consciousness, functionalists focused on the purpose of consciousness and behavior. Functionalism also emphasized individual differences, which had a profound impact on education.

Strengths

Functionalism was an important influence on psychology. It influenced the development of behaviorism and applied psychology. Functionalism also influenced the educational system, especially with regards to John Dewey’s belief that children should learn at the level for which they are developmentally prepared.

Criticism

Functionalism was criticized perhaps most famously by Wundt. "It is literature. It is beautiful, but it is not psychology," he said of functionalist William James’ book The Principles of Psychology.

Structuralism vs. Functionalism

While these two schools of thought served as the foundation for the future developments of psychology, there were important differences between the two.

Structuralism
  • Focused on breaking things down to their smallest parts

  • Examined the capabilities of different parts of the mind

  • Used introspection to study feelings and sensations

Functionalism
  • Focused on how things worked together

  • Examined how the mind functions in different environments

  • Used objective techniques to explore memories and emotions

Influence on Psychology

In 1906, Mary Whiton Calkins published an article in Psychological Review asking for a reconciliation between these two schools of thought. Structuralism and functionalism were not so different, she argued, since both are principally concerned with the conscious self.

Despite this, each side continued to cast aspersions on the other. William James wrote that structuralism had "plenty of school, but no thought," while Wilhelm Wundt dismissed functionalism as "literature" as unscientific.

Eventually, both of these schools of thought lost dominance in psychology, replaced by the rise of behaviorism, psychoanalysis, humanism, and cognitive psychology through the beginning and middle part of the twentieth century.

A Word From Verywell

While neither of these early schools of thought remains in use today, both influenced the development of modern psychology. Structuralism played a role in the drive to make psychology a more experimental science, while functionalism laid the groundwork for the development of behaviorism.

By understanding these two schools of thought, you can gain a greater appreciation of how psychology developed into the discipline it is today.

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