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Structuralism and Functionalism

Early Schools of Thought

By

Edward Titchener

Edward B. Titchener established the school of thought known as structuralism.

When psychology was first established as a science separate from biology and philosophy, the debate over how to describe and explain the human mind and behavior began. Structuralism emerged as the first school of thought and some of the ideas associated with the structuralist school were advocated by the founder of the first psychology lab, Wilhelm Wundt. One of Wundt's students, an man named Edward B. Tichener, would later go on to formally establish and name structuralism, although he broke away from many of Wundt's ideas.

Almost immediately other theories surfaced to vie for dominance in psychology. In response to structuralism, an American perspective known as functionalism emerged under the influence of thinkers such as Charles Darwin and William James.

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. William James wrote that structuralism had "plenty of school, but no thought" (James, 1904), while Wilhelm Wundt dismissed functionalism as "literature."

Eventually both of these schools of thought lost dominance in psychology, replaced by the rise of behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and humanism.

Structuralism

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. Wilhelm Wundt, founder of the first psychology lab, is often associated with this school of thought despite the fact that it was his student Edward B. Titchener who first coined the term to describe this school of thought.

While Wundt's work helped to establish psychology as a separate science and contributed methods to experimental psychology, Wundt himself referred to his view of psychology as volunteerism and his theories tended to be much more holistic than the ideas that Titchener later introduced in the United States. Titchener's development of structuralism helped establish the very first "school" of psychology, but structuralism itself did not last long beyond Titchener's death.

Major Structuralist Thinkers

Criticisms of Structuralism

  • 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.

Strengths of Structuralism

  • Structuralism is important because it is the first major school of thought in psychology.

  • Structuralism also influenced experimental psychology.

Functionalism

Functionalism formed as a reaction to the structuralism and was heavily influenced by the work of William James and the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. Functionalists sought to explain the mental processes in a more systematic and accurate manner. 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.

Major Functionalist Thinkers

  • William James
  • John Dewey
  • Harvey Carr
  • John Angell

Criticisms of Functionalism

  • "It is literature. It is beautiful, but it is not psychology," said Wilhelm Wundt of functionalist William James’ The Principles of Psychology (Fancher, R.E., 1996).

Strengths of Functionalism

  • Influenced behaviorism and applied psychology.

  • 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.

References:

Calkins, M. W. (1906) A reconciliation between structural and functional psychology. Psychological Review, 13, 61-81.

James, W. (1904) The Chicago school. Psychological Bulletin. 1, 1-5.

Fancher, R. E. (1996) Pioneers of Psychology. New York: Norton.

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