What Are The Differences Between Structuralism And Functionalism In Psychology?


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Structuralism and Functionalism are normally referred to in the same sentence, because these two schools of thought emerged at around the same time.

However, there are differences between the two: Structuralism concerns itself with identifying the elements of consciousness, whereas functionalism focuses on the purpose of that consciousness.

The School of Structuralism
Structuralism was the first school of psychology. It focused on breaking down mental processes - for example: Memory, association, and cognition - into their most basic elements. Essentially, it is the study of how we think, and why we feel the way we do.

Structuralism was founded upon many of the principles put forward by Wilhelm Wundt, who was the founder of the first psychology lab. His work was then expanded and formalised into an official school of thought by his student, Edward B Titchener.

The school of structuralism advocated the use of introspection (looking inwards), to determine how people thought the way they did.

This technique is fundamentally flawed however, because whilst self-knowledge is a useful skill in any psychological endeavour, introspection is by its very nature subjective, rather than objective.

The key criticism of structuralism was that its methods and results lacked reliability. This meant that, even when applying the same technique, it was still possible to produce a different result each time.

The School of Functionalism
The lack of satisfaction with the structuralist approach led to the establishment of a reactionary school of thought called functionalism. Functionalism concerned itself not with how consciousness worked, but why it exhibited the behaviours it did.

Functionalism was heavily influenced by the work of William James, and by Darwinian evolutionary theory. It had a profound impact upon educational thinking, in particular, John Dewey's idea that children should learn at the level for which they are prepared developmentally.

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