Graziano and Raulin (8th ed)Graziano & Raulin
Research Methods (8th edition)

V. FUNCTIONALISM

The laboratory study of consciousness, which was introduced by Wundt in 1879, was the dominant perspective in psychology into the early 20th Century. One of Wundt’s students, Titchener, brought this perspective to the United States, modifying Wundt’s psychology into an approach called structuralism, which became the dominant American psychology for nearly two decades. 

Structuralism, as defined by Titchener, was the objective laboratory study of human consciousness, with the purpose of discovering the basic elements of consciousness and, therefore, its structure. It focused, then, on discovering details of consciousness, and thus had a strong molecular character. Structuralism was in the pure science tradition and, like Wundt’s approach, had little concern for any practical application of psychology to the solution of human problems. This, however, was to change.

Ironically, Titchener may have been, although not by design, a major factor in turning American psychology away from his own structuralism. In 1898, Titchener compared his structural approach, which he believed was the only correct focus of psychology, with what he termed a functional approach, which he believed was misguided. By drawing so clear a distinction between the structural and functional approaches to psychology, Titchener actually helped to define a new direction that became known as functionalism, and which ultimately replaced Titchener's structuralism.

The nature of U.S. culture was to focus on useful and practical applications of knowledge as quickly as possible, and the new psychology was no exception. Beginning around 1900, some American psychologists, even those trained by Wundt, became increasingly critical of Wundt’s and Titchener’s detailed focus on basic elements of consciousness in order to understand its structure. They maintained that what is important is to study how consciousness functions with regard to the real world, rather than how it might be structured. Very quickly American psychology began to focus on how consciousness functions in the person’s adaptation to the environment. 

Clearly, this new direction in American psychology had a pronounced environmental dimension. It asked, for example, how does the organism use its consciousness to succeed in its environment? How does it solve problems? How does it learn new skills? Functionalism was aimed at the adaptive skills that are rooted in conscious activity and are used to cope with environmental challenges.

Thus, American psychology began asking questions about how to measure the different aspects of consciousness and how to use those measures to predict success in such real-world environments as school, work, and personal life. American psychologists became increasingly interested in the processes of thinking, learning, memory, intelligence, and adaptation in general. Soon, psychologists began to consider how the findings of laboratory psychology might be applied to the solution of human problems, such as those posed in education, child development, and even psychopathology. 

A case-in-point is E. L. Witmer, a psychologist trained by Wundt.  Witmer was interested in consciousness in children. In the 1890s, Witmer began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. In one class, so goes the story, a student posed to him an interesting problem. She said she was teaching a young pupil who had great difficulty learning to read. Could Dr. Witmer use his knowledge of psychology to help this child learn? Witmer was intrigued, and thus began his long program of applied work with children.

This was the spirit of functionalism. The very questions for proper research were changed from “What is the structure and organization of consciousness?” to “What is function of consciousness in the organism’s adaptation to the real world?” American psychology surged in mental testing and prediction of achievement and in applied clinical, counseling, educational, industrial, and military psychology. Functional psychology came to dominate American psychology and still dominates it.

Functionalism created many applied positions in public schools and clinics, and the number of psychologists graduating from the universities increased. Women psychologists, however, were virtually shut out of university faculty and research positions, because of the rampant male sex-biases from the 1880s into the 1920s (with some exceptions). Although not accepted for faculty positions in universities, women were accepted in the applied areas--schools, hospitals, clinics, and industry. It was primarily in those areas that women psychologists made their contributions to the field. In this section you will find:

Angell, James R. Galton, Francis Witmer, E. Lightner
Cattell, James McKeen Hall, G. Stanley  
Dewey, John James, William  

 

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