Structuralism and Functionalism

When scientific psychology emerged in the latter part of the nineteenth century, enormous advancements in chemistry and physics were being made in analyzing complex compounds (molecules) into their elements (atoms). These successes encouraged psychologists to look for the mental elements of which more complex experiences were composed. If the chemist made headway by analyzing water into hydrogen and oxygen, perhaps the psychologist could make progress by considering the taste of lemonade (perception) as a molecule of conscious experience to be analyzed into elements (sensations) such as sweet, bitter, cold, and whatever that could be identified by introspection. This was the approach taken by Wundt and his students; its major proponent in the United States was E.B. Titchener, a Wundt trained psychologist at
Cornell University. Since the goal was to specify mental structures, Titchener introduced the term structuralism to describe this brand of psychology.
But there was vigorous opposition to the purely analytical character of structuralism. William James, a distinguished Harvard University
psychologist was impatient with the restrictions on psychology as it was developing under the structuralists. James felt that less emphasis should be placed on analyzing the elements of consciousness and more emphasis should be placed on understanding its fluid, streaming, personal character. His principal interest was in studying how the mind worked so that an organism could adapt to its environment. Because
James asked how consciousness functions (particularly the adaptive process), his approach to psychology was named functionalism. James’ writing on habits as a mode of adaptation helped set the stage for a Psychology that included the learning process as a central topic of study, interest in adaptation was influenced by Darwin’s theory of
natural selection. Consciousness evolved, so the argument ran, only because it served some purpose in guiding the activities of the individual. With this emphasis on the functional role of consciousness came a recognition that the introspective method of structuralism was too restrictive. To find out how the organism adapts to its
environment, the functionalists argued that data derived from introspection had to be supplemented by observations of actual behavior, including the study of animal behavior and the development of behavior (developmental psychology). Thus, functionalism broadened the scope of psychology to include behavior as a dependent variable. But along with the structuralists, functionalists still regarded psychology as the science of conscious experience and the principal investigative method
as introspection. Structuralism and functionalism played important roles in the early
development of psychology. Because each viewpoint provided a systematic approach to the field, the two were considered competing schools of psychology. As psychology developed, other schools evolved and vied for leadership. By 1920, structuralism and functionalism were being displaced by three newer schools: behaviorism, Gestalt psychology, and psychoanalysis.

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