At the turn of the century, many advances in science were occurring due to a fundamental concept that philosophers of science refer to as "elementism". Elementism refers to the conception of complex phenomena in terms of basic parts or elements. This conception of science was leading to many important discoveries with important applications in areas such as the biological sciences in the late 1800s. It was at this time that, what most psychologists acknowledge as, the first "school of psychology" began. In 1879 Wilhelm Wundt began the first psychological laboratory in Leipzig, Germany. The school of psychology that Wundt began and championed all his life is referred to as "structuralism". For this reason, Wundt is often referred to as the father of structuralism.
Structuralism can be defined as psychology as the study of the elements of consciousness. The idea is that conscious experience can be broken down into basic conscious elements, much as a physical phenomenon can be viewed as consisting of chemical structures, that can in turn be broken down into basic elements. In fact, much of the research conducted in Wundt's laboratory consisted of cataloging these basic conscious elements. In order to reduce a normal conscious experience into basic elements, structuralism relied on a method called introspection. For example, one of Wundt's research assistants might describe an object such as an apple in terms of the basic perceptions it invoked (e.g., "cold", "crisp", and "sweet"). An important principal of introspection is that any given conscious experience must be described in it's most basic terms, so that a researcher could not describe some experience or object as itself, such as describing an apple as an apple. Such a mistake is a major instrospection faux pas and is referred to as the "stimulus error". Through introspection experiments, Wundt began to catalog a large number of basic conscious elements, which could hypothetically be combined to describe all human experiences.
Unlike other schools of psychology that I will discuss in the virtual lecture and in class, the school of Structuralism is, for the most part, completely dead in psychology. In fact, the school pretty much died with Wundt. One basic reason this occurred was that Wundt's methodology had a principal flaw that is not consistent with the main stream views of experimental psychologists today, and this had to do with subject agreement and reliability. Since psychology often deals with data that are difficult to describe in concrete terms, it is very important to make sure that multiple observers can agree independently on a phenomenon that is being experienced. This is referred to as reliability. In the contemporary study of sensory and perceptual phenomena, when observers view, touch, or taste some stimulus, researchers go to great lengths to make sure that the observers are not biased or influenced in their report of their experience. Further, agreement among observers in terms of what they are experiencing, is a prerequisite for considering the observations as valid. Unfortunately, Wundt's observers were students trained by Wundt, and, in fact, any disagreement was resolved by Wundt. Therefore, reliability or agreement among observers in Wundt's experiments only occurred due to bias induced by training. The use of trained observers, such as those in Wundt's laboratory is diametrically opposed to the current practice of using participants who know as little as possible about the phenomenon being studied in order to decrease bias, and increase objectivity. This is one reason why general psychology students often serve as subjects in psychology experiments.
A second criticism of structuralism, mainly leveled by behaviorists who came some years later, was that structuralist theory dealt primarily with "nonobservable" abstractions. Though participants could report on conscious experiences, these elements of consciousness themselves were thought to be unobservable theoretical constructions. The emphasis then, was on "internal" behavior. Interestingly, structuralism would eventually be vindicated in this internal behavior criticism, in that the cognitive psychologists, one of the most historically recent schools of psychology, have returned to elaborate speculation about internal, nonobservable phenomenon. Further, the basic structuralist notion that conscious experience can be broken down into fundamental elements is also consistent with contemporary research in sensory neuroscience. For example, cells have been identified in visual portions of the brain that respond to basic lines and shapes, and these are eventually combined in subsequent brain areas.