There are multiple theories and approaches within psychology. Throughout history, different ways of seeing and studying the human mind have been born and disappeared . Initially the concern of the scholars of the psyche was to study what the mind is and how it is configured, looking for its nuclear elements and basic structure.

However, apart from this approach called structuralism, another one appeared in which the main concern was to investigate not so much what or how it was, but what it is for and what functions it has. We are talking about John Dewey’s functionalist theory .

What is functionalism in psychology?

In the field of psychology, functionalism is a current of thought or approach that proposes the need to study psychic phenomena from the functions they perform, and not from their structure . Instead of how, it focuses on what the different psychic functions exist for. This movement has as its main object of study the consciousness as an act, and asks what we do and why.

The mind is considered to have the main purpose of adapting the internal structure to the environment . At this point we can observe a strong influence of evolutionary theories, which together with the pragmatism of the time would end up shaping this current of thought. This comes from the hand of a great interest in the effects of the environment on the psyche and the evolution of man. It is based on the idea that behavior cannot be explained as an automatic response to a stimulus, being the mind a complex system in which different processes and interrelated states occur.

One of its main characteristics is the use of non-introspective methodology to objectively study the consciousness and the rest of the psychic phenomena, accepting any methodology as long as it has useful results. However, the experimental introspection that used to be used from the structuralist perspective would be rejected as it is considered invalid and natural (although William James will defend the use of untrained introspection).

This approach to the study of the psyche would end up using association as the main way to explain complex behaviour. This makes us think of later schools of thought such as behaviourism , of which in fact functionalism is partly a precursor. This is because functionalism would end up being integrated in different schools and serving as a precursor to the development of different theoretical models, such as the previously mentioned behaviorism or Gestalt psychology.

The functionalists would be pioneers in the study of learning , and it would be from them that the first mental tests would begin to appear (appearing with Cattell). Individual differences and the study of psychopathology would also be driven by this current of thought.

The Origin of Functionalism: William James

William James is considered the founding father of functionalism , even though he never considered himself as such and rejected the separation of psychology in schools of thought. This author considers that the main objective or function of consciousness is to choose behaviour in a way that allows us to survive and adapt as best as possible.

Consciousness is a phenomenon that emerges from action : we are continually making associations, changing focus and performing different mental operations in a flow that cannot be stopped.

William James’ main focus of interest was the modulation of the latter in an adaptive way in different contexts, being interested and researching in a profuse way aspects such as habit formation. He believed that psychology should focus on day-to-day experiences rather than on abstract phenomena and constructs (which are still products of the mind).

In addition, this researcher considered it difficult to observe psychic alterations that were not directly observable through behavior or physiological change, and that the psyche and the processes we carry out have an evolutionary sense that allows survival or otherwise would have disappeared.

I would also observe and take into account the emotions within the mental processes, as well as the existence of reflex arcs in the face of emotional stimuli. He conceived emotion as a consequence of an automatic reaction , appearing first the physical reaction and then the emotional reaction.

John Dewey and his functionalist theory

John Dewey is another of the great founding fathers of psychological functionalism . This important psychologist would coincide and start working together with one of William James’ disciples, James Angell (who greatly expanded functionalism to different fields), and would be one of the main promoters of the use of pragmatism and the functionalist approach in the educational field. In fact, together they would make the University of Chicago the center of the functionalist school.

This author considered education and learning as key elements for the human being and his development, being very involved in the achievement of social changes.

Dewey worked and analyzed in some of his most important works aspects such as the reflex arc , reaching the conclusion that the traditional structuralist vision based on dividing it into independent fragments such as sensation, idea and action was not capable of explaining the phenomenon, being useful only as a mere description. From a pragmatic and functional point of view, John Dewey considered the need to understand the arc as a whole, more than the simple sum of its parts.

He advocated a molar and dynamic approach, in which account should be taken of behaviour as it works rather than random divisions and the fact that it evolves and varies over time. If you look at the whole picture, you can see the biological and adaptive role of the physical reaction. He also considers, like James in his vision of the functioning of emotional reactions, that it is behaviour that makes it possible to give meaning to sensations .

Taken to the world of education, proposes that this type of separation into differentiated parts is what generates school failure , by not allowing the representation of a whole that integrates all the information. Simple memorization is neither functional nor useful, given that it does not have a meaning that allows for survival. He advocated a change in education that would have the stimulation of thought and exploration, versatility and activity. It also advocated inclusion.

During much of his career he played an influential role in educational psychology and psychopedagogy . In fact, he would go so far as to advise the governments of countries such as China and Russia.

The contrast with structuralism

The main ideas of functionalism emerged at a time when the predominant position was mainly structuralist, emerging as a reaction to it. Functionalism proposed that instead of analyzing what and how the psyche is, the function or meaning of the psyche and mental processes should be studied.

Titchener, the main founder of the structuralist school , intended to study the human mind from the basic elements or “atoms” that make it up. However, functionalism considered that such elements do not exist, being the psyche something fluid and dynamic that cannot be divided or stopped.

Moreover, from structuralism, consciousness would be understood as made up of different types of phenomena: sensations, affects and ideas. Functionalism considers that this division does not allow taking into account the totality of the consciousness as it is and therefore does not allow a valid explanation of the phenomenon, as it happened in the case of the reflex arc with Dewey.

Likewise, while structuralism had an essentially theoretical focus, the functionalist theory of John Dewey and other researchers close to his perspective was more focused on analyzing and providing a practical response to the events that occur in daily life.

Bibliographic references:

  • García, L.; Moya, J. & Rodríguez, S. (1992). History of Psychology. (Vols. I-III). Siglo XXI: Madrid.
  • .

  • Hothersall, D. (2004). History of psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.