Functionalist Perspective of Inequality & Gender Roles

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  • 0:03 Mental States & Functionalism
  • 0:49 Role of Behavior
  • 1:47 Gender Roles & Inequality
  • 2:46 Leading Female Psychologists
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll go over functionalism, which argues that mental states are determined by the function of a behavior. We'll also discuss how feminist psychologists disputed claims that women are biologically inferior to men.

Mental States & Functionalism

What makes a mental state a mental state? This might seem like an odd question, but it's one that functionalist psychologists spent a lot of time exploring. Functionalism is a perspective developed in the ninteenth century in American psychology that seeks to explain our mental states as resulting from the particular role they might play in society. Functionalism developed in many ways as a response to structuralism, which was an effort to understand consciousness. Functionalists thought that the data and methods structuralists used to understand the basic components of our consciousness were unreliable. How can you really study something you can't see, like consciousness?

Role of Behavior

According to functionalism, you need to observe particular behaviors to understand mental states. This is because functionalists believed that the point of understanding consciousness is to understand the behavior that a mental state produces. According to this perspective, each behavior serves a particular role. So, to get back to the question about what makes a mental state a mental state: functionalists believe a thought is a thought because of its cognitive function. Confusing? Let's look at an example. Functionalism would suggest that feeling happy is determined by a need to express happiness to someone in a particular situation. Their goal was to understand the purpose of a behavior or a mental state, not its internal structure.

So what does this have to do with gender inequality? During the time that functionalists were writing, some dominant ideas and theories about women often assumed they were inferior when compared to men.

Gender Roles and Inequality

Popularized by physician and writer Havelock Ellis in the late nineteenth century, the variability hypothesis proposed that men are more likely to demonstrate greater variation in their range of abilities compared to women. This means that men are more likely than women to be extremely intelligent, while also more likely to be mentally handicapped. According to Ellis, this wide range made men biologically superior to women. This is what accounts for their different roles in societies and explains why women are unequal.

This perspective, which was also reinforced by leading scientists of the time like Charles Darwin, helped to reinforce women's inferior position in society. As women were not as capable as men, their primary roles were that of wife and mother. So what did female scientists have to say about this? Let's look at some of the reactions from leading female psychologists at the time.

Leading Female Psychologists

Perhaps one of the most important challengers to the variability hypothesis was Leta Stetter Hollingworth. Hollingworth was interested in debunking certain ideas that stemmed from the variability hypothesis. In the mid-1900s, during the time she was in graduate school completing her doctorate, she conducted experiments that refuted parts of the variability hypothesis. In one such study, she measured male and female babies and found them to be very similar in physical size.

Others had previously hypothesized that males exhibited more variability in size which related to their greater mental abilities. But, Hollingworth demonstrated that there were also social and cultural factors that explained differences between men and women, such as how women's roles as wives and mothers limited their chances to be equal with men.

Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley, another important figure in feminist psychology, was also writing in the early 1900s. Like Hollingworth, Woolley conducted research that challenged dominant views about women at the time. Woolley felt that existing research on sex differences did not have the data to support the arguments.

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