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Origins of Psychology: Structuralism and Functionalism

Origins of Psychology: Structuralism and Functionalism

Author: Erick Taggart

Distinguish between structuralism and functionalism.

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Source: Image of Wilhelm Wundt, CC,\\ ; Image of William James PD-1923 Image source: Public Domain (prior to 1923)

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Hello, Class.

To better understand what psychology is, we need to understand the origins of psychology, and look at some important figures and key terms in the history of psychology.

The person that we call "The father of psychology" is Wilhelm Wundt. Wilhelm Wundt, in 1879, set up a laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, where he studied the conscious experience, and different reactions to stimuli. He wanted to understand, what are the behaviors and mental processes underlying our human experience?

Wundt is what we refer to as a structuralist. What is structuralism? Take a look at the word, "structure," inside of it. In other words, buildings. It refers to its definition. Structuralism is a psychological theory which tries to figure out what the basic elements, or building blocks, of behavior and mental processes are. Which is to say, it's kind of like trying to find the atoms that make up different molecules.

This is an important philosophy, because it helped to advance a lot of the key concepts that we're going to be learning about in psychology. Things like understanding the structure of the brain. How neurons constitute the entire brain and nervous system. Or trying to understand basic personality types, which help to construct a person as a whole. And we'll get to those at a later date.

Structuralism is one of two opposing philosophies. The second one introduces another figure in psychology. William James was a student of Wundt, and was also the first American to study psychology, and to bring it to the United States as a major area of study.

James is what we refer to as a functionalist. Functionalism-- as opposed to structuralism, which tries to break down the behavior and mental processes into their component parts-- understands instead, that the mental experience is more a stream, or a flow, of consciousness, which is irreducible. It can't be broken down any further. Another way of looking at is that functionalist understand the evolutionary, or natural selection, of humans mental experiences over time.

Because of this, a lot of functionalism informed our use of animals in our studies, as a way of studying and understanding behavior, as well as informing current areas of study in educational and industrial psychology. And we'll be getting more into each of those areas as we move further through the course.

To review, in this lesson we learned about Wilhelm Wundt, who was the father of psychology, in 1879, setting up his laboratory in Germany. Wundt. Was also a structuralist. Structuralism, again, was the theoretical perspective that different mental phenomena can be broken down into their more basic, component parts, and studied in that way. And that was opposed to functionalism, which says that different mental processes cannot be broken down. And in fact, they are a stream or a flow of consciousness.

So these two theoretical perspectives will inform our further investigation into different theoretical perspectives, that you'll be seeing in the future.

Terms to Know

Perspective that mental processes cannot be broken down and instead are a steady flow of consciousness.


Theoretical perspective that mental phenomena can be broken down into basic parts.

People to Know
Wilhelm Wundt

The father of psychology, Wundt was a structuralist who set up a research laboratory in Germany 1879

William James

A student of Wilhelm Wundt’s, James was a functionalist and the first American to study psychology