Structuralism v. Functionalism in Psychology

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  • 0:00 Structuralism Vs Functionalism
  • 0:46 Structuralism in Psychology
  • 2:25 Functionalism in Psychology
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Did you know that structuralism and functionalism are considered the first two schools of thought in the field of psychology? In this lesson, we will discuss structuralism, how it differs from functionalism, and some of the thinkers who spearheaded them both.

Structuralism vs. Functionalism

Imagine that in a high school chemistry class, the teacher asks her students for the best way to define water. One student, Mike, says that the way to define water is to break it into its basic components; he defines it as two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. His classmate, Susan, disagrees with him, and says that the best way to define water is to look at its purpose. She describes it as a liquid without taste or color that serves as the main component of lakes, rivers, oceans, and streams, as well as the fluids in most living organisms, including human beings. Mike's definition is closely aligned with that of structuralism, while Susan's definition demonstrates the principles of functionalism.

Structuralism in Psychology

Structuralism is regarded as the first school of thought in the field of psychology. Just as Mike broke water down into its basic components, so were structuralists concerned with breaking down the mind into its fundamental parts, or 'structure.' Structuralism began with the work of Wilhelm Wundt, who created the first psychology lab back in 1879. However, it was Wundt's student, Edward Titchener, who first came up with the term 'structuralism' and popularized the school of thought.

Titchener, whose ideas were different from those of his teacher, felt that psychology should focus on studying both the mind and the consciousness. He viewed consciousness as the combination of all of our mental experiences at any one point in time. The mind, then, was the accumulation of all of our experiences throughout our lives. Titchener and his fellow structuralists believed that by breaking the mind down into its basic parts, we could discover how mental processes are structured and learn about higher thinking.

According to Titchener, the conscious mind was made up of three components, or 'structures': sensations, which are produced by sensory information, images, which are mental imagery of ideas, and affections, or the elements that make up emotions. Titchener used a process called introspection to break down the human consciousness into these basic components. Introspection refers to having people look inside themselves in order to gain a better understanding of their current emotions or thoughts. However, introspection was viewed as too subjective by some psychologists, since we all have our own perception of things. One of the biggest critics of structuralism was William James, who played a key role in the development of functionalism.

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