The Chicago School of Functionalism: Psychologists & Research

The Chicago School of Functionalism: Psychologists & Research
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  • 0:03 Taking Things Apart
  • 0:52 Structuralists &…
  • 2:06 Chicago School of…
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

John Dewey, James Rowland Angell, and Harvey Carr were scientists who helped found the Chicago school of functionalism as a research focus in the study of psychology. In this lesson, we'll discuss the school and the contributions of these men.

Taking Things Apart

If you found a device of some kind, like an old radio, and wanted to know how it worked, how would you find out? Would you take it apart and look at its pieces? Would you play with it and see what happens? Would you look at how it fits into its surroundings? Or would you close your eyes and try to imagine what it's like?

Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection, which aimed to explain the mechanism of evolution (including human evolution), helped psychologists take some rather different views about how the human mind works. Darwin proposed that the human brain is an end by-product of a long line of increasingly complex organisms. There is nothing magical, spiritual, or mystical about it. It's just a biological machine. It can be studied, taken apart, and analyzed.

Structuralists & Functionalists

Structuralists chose exactly this approach as they tried to figure out the human mind. Structuralists wanted to take the brain apart, see how the individual parts work, and attempt understand the nerves, synapses, and the various parts which they believed would eventually allow us to understand the brain itself. They also argued that researchers must examine experiences from birth to death and see how the brain changes. As you study the structure of the brain, you can begin to see the big picture.

Functionalists, however, saw the whole question from a different point of view. Don't ask what the brain's made of or why it works the way it does, but rather, focus on how the brain works and look at it as part of a big, developing system. At the University of Chicago, champions of the functionalist approach to psychology became so prominent that the Chicago school of functionalism appeared, not as a formal brick-and-mortar institution but rather as a specific school of thought. It served as a cornerstone of the research and philosophy spearheaded by such noted researchers and practitioners as John Dewey, James Rowland Angell, and Harvey Carr. In this lesson, we'll discuss the contributions these men made to establish functionalism as an accepted psychological research approach.

Chicago School of Functionalism

The well-accepted works of Charles Darwin had promoted the idea that organisms of all kinds advanced into more complex organisms in response to internal and environmental pressures. Spurred on by the ideas of naturalist William James and philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, prominent psychologists such as James Rowland Angell, Harvey Carr, and John Dewey applied Darwin's philosophy to their research of the human mind. Why couldn't the mind be studied from a functionalist approach? Instead of trying to study the workings of the 'machine,' why not study what it did?

John Dewey

John Dewey presented his reflex arc philosophy, stating that all living creatures dwell in a constant state of sensory input, such as vision or hearing. This is followed by a mediated state where the mind 'decides' what to do. Then comes a muscular response, such as turning to look, jumping, or hiding. Whenever muscles respond, they cause the environment to change. This means that the sensory inputs received by the organism also change, and the creature understands at some level the impacts of its actions. It doesn't just react, it learns. As it adapts, a new creature is formed, leading to a change caused by physiological responses to pressures from the environment. This philosophy formed an effective foundation for a Darwinian approach to the study of psychology. It made sense, and Dewey felt that there was an underlying flow of consciousness, part of all of nature, that was driving all creatures upward toward a more advanced state. They were all learning together, almost as a team.

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