Difference between structuralism and functionalism
Structuralism and functionalism are two approaches to psychology. They are also the two earliest psychological theories that have sought to explain human behavior in different ways and to approach the study of psychology from different perspectives. Structuralism appeared first and functionalism was a reaction to this theory.
Structuralism could be considered as the first formal theory in psychology that separated it from biology and philosophy into its own discipline. The structural psychology was first described by Tichener, a student of Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt created the first psychological laboratory, so Tichener’s ideas were highly influenced by the work done there (Goodwin, 2008).
Structuralism or structural psychology was an approach that attempted to analyze the human mind by establishing basic units within it. The focus was on these basic unit. The study of the mind was done through introspection to establish the link between different inner experiences, like feelings or sensations. Structuralism was the approach that led to the creation of the first psychological laboratory and the first attempts at a scientific study of the human mind. However, the issue with structuralism was that it was based on an inherently subjective technique – introspection. The participants had to focus on their feelings and sensations to report them to the experimenters, however, this approach was based on subjective measures only, which limited the accuracy of this approach (Goodwin, 2008).
Soon after it was introduced, structuralism became the subject of much criticism due to its lack of objectivity, so another theory was created as a response to structuralism (Schultz & Schultz, 2011).
Functionalism, on the other hand, proposes that consciousness could not have a basic structure, so it would not be useful to study it from this point of view. Rather, the idea behind functionalism is that it would be effective to study the functions and roles of the human mind rather than its structure. Functionalism was more focused on behavior (Goodwin, 2008).
Functionalism appeared as a reaction to structuralism, which was not accepted in America. Psychologists like William James criticized structuralism and proposed alternatives. James suggested that the mind and consciousness existed for a purpose, which should be the focus of the study. He also suggested that psychology needed to be practical rather than purely theoretical as was proposed in the structuralist approach. Functionalism also was focused on more objective aspects rather than introspection. James believed in consciousness, however, he could not find a scientific way to study it, so he chose to focus on behavior, which could be studied objectively (Schultz & Schultz, 2011).
With its practical approach, functionalism laid the groundwork for behaviorism, a theory that was very focused on objective measures of human behavior and on seeing the function rather than the structure of the human mind (Schultz & Schultz, 2011).
Both structuralism and functionalism were important theories in their time and were among the first formal psychological theories. Structuralism influenced the development of experimental psychology and was a theory that began shaping psychology as a separate field. Functionalism appeared as an answer to structuralism. It also influenced the development of behaviorism, a theory that was very significant in psychology. It can be said that the main difference between structuralism and functionalism is in what they study. Structuralism studies the human mind and the basic units that can be identified through introspection. Functionalism focuses on more objective forms of study and argues that it’s necessary to study aspects of the mind and behavior in terms of function. Both approaches have an important historical significance and have influenced the development of psychology.
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Goodwin, C. J. (2008). A history of modern psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons
Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S.E.. (2011). A History of Modern Psychology (11th ed.) Cengage Learning