Structuralism & Functionalism

In the last post, we spoke of the work of Wilhelm Wundt and his groundbreaking work in psychology. One of Wundt’s students was Edward Titchener (1867-1927). Titchener is remembered for bringing Wundt’s ideas to America and for his significant role in the development of the school of structuralism in psychology.


Structuralism is the study of the structure of the mind. Adherents to this school of thought believe that the mind is made up of associations of ideas and that understanding the mind means breaking down these relationships into ideas.

To break down these ideas, Titchener used a form of self-analysis called introspection. An example of this is showing participants a picture of a table. The participant would not say it is a table but would rather describe the table such as its color, shape, size, etc. These descriptions of the table were the ideas associated with it.

This approach to experimental research was groundbreaking during its time but had problems. It was difficult for people to ignore the literal meaning of the images they say. Structuralists also struggle with explaining the meaning behind the associations they found. As such, this approach fell out of use.


Around the same time as Titchener functionalism was developed. Functionalism is people’s mental processes and behavior helps them to adapt to their environment. This school of thought was most heavily supported by William James (1842-1910).

The functionalist view was influenced by Darwin’s ideas of evolution. They focused specifically on the mind’s adaptability for survival. As such, this school of thought was a product of its times.

Functionalism focused on seeing the mind as a whole rather than in the discrete parts that structuralist used. For them, the mind and body worked together. Therefore, introspection was not popular with functionalist as it divided up the processes of the human mind. While structuralist were inwardly focused functionalists were outwardly focused.

The decline of functionalism was due to its lack of focus. Since it was a holistic view, it was hard to see what they were focusing on in regards to the mind. Any school of thought the studies everything eventually leads to understanding nothing.


Structuralism and functionalism were two of the earliest schools of thought in psychology. In many ways, these two approaches were complete opposites of each other. These two extremes laid the groundwork for many major schools of psychology to come.

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