Kurt Lewin (/ləˈviːn/ lə-VEEN; 9 September 1890 – 12 February 1947) was a German-American psychologist, known as one of the modern pioneers of social, organizational, and applied psychology in the United States. Exiled from the land of his birth, Lewin made a new life for himself, in which he defined himself and his contributions within three lenses of analysis: applied research, action research, and group communication were his major offerings to the field of communication.
Lewin is often recognized as the "founder of social psychology" and was one of the first to study group dynamics and organizational development. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Lewin as the 18th-most cited psychologist of the 20th century.
Early life and education
In 1890, Lewin was born into a Jewish family in Mogilno, County of Mogilno, Province of Poznań, Prussia (modern Poland). It was a small village of about 5,000 people, about 150 of whom were Jewish. Lewin received an orthodox Jewish education at home. He was one of four children born into a middle-class family. His father owned a small general store, and the family lived in an apartment above the store. His father, Leopold, owned a farm jointly with his brother Max; however, the farm was legally owned by a Christian because Jews were unable to own farms at the time.
The family moved to Berlin in 1905, so Lewin and his brothers could receive a better education. From 1905 to 1908, Lewin studied at the Kaiserin Augusta Gymnasium, where he received a classical humanistic education. In 1909, he entered the University of Freiburg to study medicine, but transferred to University of Munich to study biology. He became involved with the socialist movement and women's rights around this time. In April 1910, he transferred to the Royal Friedrich-Wilhelms University of Berlin, where he was still a medical student. By the Easter semester of 1911, his interests had shifted toward philosophy. By the summer of 1911, the majority of his courses were in psychology. While at the University of Berlin, Lewin took 14 courses with Carl Stumpf.
He served in the German army when World War I began. Due to a war wound, he returned to the University of Berlin to complete his PhD, with Carl Stumpf (1848–1936) the supervisor of his doctoral thesis. Lewin had written a dissertation proposal asking Stumpf to be his supervisor, which Stumpf had accepted. Even though Lewin worked under Stumpf to complete his dissertation, the relationship between them did not involve much communication. Lewin studied associations, will, and intention for his dissertation, but he did not discuss it with Stumpf until his final doctoral examination.
Career and personal life
In 1917, Lewin married Maria Landsberg. In 1919, the couple welcomed their daughter Esther Agnes, and in 1922, their son Fritz Reuven was born. They divorced around 1927, and Maria immigrated to Palestine with the children. In 1929, Lewin married Gertrud Weiss. Their daughter Miriam was born in 1931, and their son Daniel was born in 1933.
Lewin had originally been involved with schools of behavioral psychology before changing directions in research and undertaking work with psychologists of the Gestalt school of psychology, including Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Kohler. He also joined the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin where he lectured and gave seminars on both philosophy and psychology. He served as a professor at the University of Berlin from 1926 to 1932, during which time he conducted experiments about tension states, needs, motivation, and learning. In 1933, Lewin had tried to negotiate a teaching position as the chair of psychology as well as the creation of a research institute at the Hebrew University. Lewin often associated with the early Frankfurt School, originated by an influential group of largely Jewish Marxists at the Institute for Social Research in Germany. But when Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 the Institute members had to disband, moving to England and then to America. In that year, he met with Eric Trist, of the London Tavistock Clinic. Trist was impressed with his theories and went on to use them in his studies on soldiers during the Second World War.
Lewin immigrated to the United States in August 1933 and became a naturalized citizen in 1940. A few years after moving to America, Lewin began asking people to pronounce his name as "Lou-in" rather than "Le-veen" because the misspelling of his name by Americans had led to many missed phone calls. Earlier, he had spent six months as a visiting professor at Stanford in 1930, but on his immigration to the United States, Lewin worked at Cornell University and for the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station at the University of Iowa. Later, he became director of the Center for Group Dynamics at MIT. While working at MIT in 1946, Lewin received a phone call from the director of the Connecticut State Inter Racial Commission requesting help to find an effective way to combat religious and racial prejudices. He set up a workshop to conduct a "change" experiment, which laid the foundations for what is now known as sensitivity training. In 1947, this led to the establishment of the National Training Laboratories, at Bethel, Maine. Carl Rogers believed that sensitivity training is "perhaps the most significant social invention of this century."
Following World War II, Lewin was involved in the psychological rehabilitation of former occupants of displaced persons camps with Dr. Jacob Fine at Harvard Medical School. When Trist and A T M Wilson wrote to Lewin proposing a journal in partnership with their newly founded Tavistock Institute and his group at MIT, Lewin agreed. The Tavistock journal, Human Relations, was founded with two early papers by Lewin entitled "Frontiers in Group Dynamics". Lewin taught for a time at Duke University.
Lewin died in Newtonville, Massachusetts, of a heart attack in 1947. He was buried in his home town. His wife died in 1987.
Lewin coined the notion of genidentity, which has gained some importance in various theories of space-time and related fields. For instance, he introduced the concept of hodological space or the simplest route achieved through the resolution of different field of forces, oppositions, and tensions according to their goals.
Lewin also proposed Herbert Blumer's interactionist perspective of 1937 as an alternative to the nature versus nurture debate. Lewin suggested that neither nature (inborn tendencies) nor nurture (how experiences in life shape individuals) alone can account for individuals' behavior and personalities, but rather that both nature and nurture interact to shape each person. This idea was presented in the form of Lewin's equation for behavior, B = ƒ(P, E).
First and foremost, Kurt Lewin was an applied researcher and practical theorist. Most scholars of the time reveled in the fear that devoting oneself to applied research would distract the discipline from basic research on scholarly problems – thus creating this false binary regarding for whom knowledge is created, whether it was for the perpetuation of the discipline or for application. Despite this debate within the social sciences at the time, Lewin argued that "applied research could be conducted with rigor and that one could test theoretical propositions in applied research." The root of this particular binary seemed to stem from the epistemological norms present within the hard sciences – where the distinction was much more pronounced; Kurt Lewin argued that this was contrary to the nature of the social sciences. Furthermore, with the help of scholars like Paul Lazarsfeld, there was a method through which money could be acquired for research in a sustainable manner. Lewin has encouraged researchers to develop theories that can be used to address important social problems.
To demonstrate his dedication to applied research and to further prove that there was value in testing his theoretical propositions, Lewin became a "master at transposing an everyday problem into a psychological experiment". Lewin, in his beginnings, took a seemingly banal moment between himself and a waiter and turned it into the beginnings of his field research. In this particular incident, Lewin reasoned that the "intention to carry out a specific task builds a psychological tension, which is released when the intended task is completed" in tandem with when Sigmund Freud theorized that "wishes persist until they are satisfied." This happenstance observation started the demonstration of the "existence of psychic tensions", fundamental to Lewin's field theory.
While applied research helped develop Lewin into a practical theorist, what further defined him as an academic and a forerunner was his action research – a term he coined for himself. Lewin was increasingly interested in the concepts of Jewish migration and identity. He was confused by the concept of how while an individual distanced themselves from performing the Jewish identity in terms of religious expression and performance, they were still considered Jewish in the eyes of Nazis. This concept of denying one's identity and the promotion of self-loathing as a form of coping with a dominant group's oppression represented the crisis of Lewin's own migration to the United States. Lewin, as his student and colleague Ron Lippitt described, "had a deep sensitivity to social problems and a commitment to use his resources as a social scientist to do something about them. Thus in the early 1940s he drew a triangle to represent the interdependence of research, training, and action in producing social change." This diagramming of an academic's interests and actions within this triangulation yields an interesting part of accessing Lewin and his contributions. Rather than noting social justice as the beginning or the end, it was ingrained in every single academic action that Lewin took. It was this particular world view and paradigm that furthered his research and determined precisely how he was going to utilize the findings from his field research. Furthermore, it all reflected upon Lewin the man and his way of coping with the events of his time period. This devotion to action research was possibly a way of resolving a dissonance of his own passage to America and how he left his own back in present-day Poland.
Prominent psychologists mentored by Lewin included Leon Festinger (1919–1989), who became known for his cognitive dissonance theory (1956), environmental psychologist Roger Barker, Bluma Zeigarnik, and Morton Deutsch, the founder of modern conflict resolution theory and practice.
Force field analysis
Force field analysis provides a framework for looking at the factors (forces) that influence a situation, originally social situations. It looks at forces that are either driving movement toward a goal (helping forces) or blocking movement toward a goal (hindering forces). Key to this approach was Lewin's interest in gestaltism, understanding the totality and assessing a situation as a whole and not focusing only on individual aspects. Further, the totality for an individual (their life space) derives from their perception of their reality, not an objective viewpoint. The approach, developed by Kurt Lewin, is a significant contribution to the fields of social science, psychology, social psychology, organizational development, process management, and change management. His theory was expanded by John R. P. French who related it to organizational and industrial settings.
Lewin, then a professor at MIT, first coined the term action research in about 1944, and it appears in his 1946 paper "Action Research and Minority Problems". In that paper, he described action research as "a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action" that uses "a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of the action" (this is sometimes referred to as the Lewinian spiral).
Lewin often characterized organizational management styles and cultures in terms of leadership climates defined by (1) authoritarian, (2) democratic and (3) laissez-faire work environments. He is often mixed up with McGregor with his work environments, but McGregor adapted them directly to leadership-theory. Authoritarian environments are characterized where the leader determines policy with techniques and steps for work tasks dictated by the leader in the division of labor. The leader is not necessarily hostile but is aloof from participation in work and commonly offers personal praise and criticism for the work done. Democratic climates are characterized where policy is determined through collective processes with decisions assisted by the leader. Before accomplishing tasks, perspectives are gained from group discussion and technical advice from a leader. Members are given choices and collectively decide the division of labor. Praise and criticism in such an environment are objective, fact minded and given by a group member without necessarily having participated extensively in the actual work. Laissez-faire environments give freedom to the group for policy determination without any participation from the leader. The leader remains uninvolved in work decisions unless asked, does not participate in the division of labor, and very infrequently gives praise.
An early model of change developed by Lewin described change as a three-stage process. The first stage he called "unfreezing". It involved overcoming inertia and dismantling the existing "mind set". It must be part of surviving. Defense mechanisms have to be bypassed. In the second stage the change occurs. This is typically a period of confusion and transition. We are aware that the old ways are being challenged but we do not have a clear picture as to what we are replacing them with yet. The third and final stage he called "freezing". The new mindset is crystallizing and one's comfort level is returning to previous levels. This is often misquoted as "refreezing" (see Lewin,1947). Lewin's three-step process is regarded as a foundational model for making change in organizations. There is now evidence, however, that Lewin never developed such a model and that it took form after his death in 1947.
Lewin's equation, B = ƒ(P, E), is a psychological equation of behavior developed by Kurt Lewin. It states that behavior is a function of the person in their environment.
The equation is the psychologist's most well known formula in social psychology, of which Lewin was a modern pioneer. When first presented in Lewin's book Principles of Topological Psychology, published in 1936, it contradicted most popular theories in that it gave importance to a person's momentary situation in understanding his or her behavior, rather than relying entirely on the past.
In a 1947 article, Lewin coined the term "group dynamics". He described this notion as the way that groups and individuals act and react to changing circumstances. This field emerged as a concept dedicated to the advancement of knowledge regarding the nature of groups, their laws, establishment, development, and interactions with other groups, individuals and institutions. During the early years of research on group processes, many psychologists rejected the reality of group phenomena. Critics shared the opinion that groups did not exist as scientifically valid entities. It had been said by skeptics that the actions of groups were nothing more than those of its members considered separately. Lewin applied his interactionism formula, B = ƒ(P, E), to explain group phenomena, where a member's personal characteristics (P) interact with the environmental factors of the group, (E) its members, and the situation to elicit behaviour (B). Given his background in Gestalt psychology, Lewin justified group existence using the dictum "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts". He theorized that when a group is established it becomes a unified system with supervening qualities that cannot be understood by evaluating members individually. This notion – that a group is composed of more than the sum of its individual members – quickly gained support from sociologists and psychologists who understood the significance of this emerging field. Many pioneers noted that the majority of group phenomena could be explained according to Lewin's equation and insight and opposing views were hushed. The study of group dynamics remains relevant in today's society where a vast number of professions (e.g., business and industry, clinical/counseling psychology, sports and recreation) rely on its mechanisms to thrive.
The most notable of Lewin's contributions was his development of group communication and group dynamics as major facets of the communication discipline. Lewin and his associated researchers shifted from the pre-existing trend of individualist psychology and then expanded their work to incorporate a macro lens where they focused on the "social psychology of small group communication" (Rogers 1994). Lewin is associated with "founding research and training in group dynamics and for establishing the participative management style in organizations". He carved out this niche for himself from his various experiments. In his Berlin research, Lewin utilized "group discussions to advance his theory in research." In doing so, there was certainly the complication of not knowing exactly whom to attribute epiphanies to as an idea collectively came into fruition. In addition to group discussions, he became increasingly interested in group membership. He was curious as to how perspectives of an individual in relation to the group were solidified or weakened. He tried to come up with the way identity was constructed from standpoint and perspectives. These were the beginnings of what ended up developing into "groupthink". Lewin started to become quite interested in how ideas were created and then perpetuated by the mentality of a group. Not included in this chapter is how important this became in looking at group dynamics across disciplines – including studying John F Kennedy and the way he tried to interact with his advisors in order to prevent groupthink from occurring.
- Lewin, K. (1935). A dynamic theory of personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Lewin, K. (1936). Principles of topological psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Lewin, K. (1938). The conceptual representation and measurement of psychological forces. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Lewin, K., and Gertrude W. Lewin (Ed.) (1948). Resolving social conflicts: selected papers on group dynamics (1935-1946). New York: Harper and Brothers.
- Lewin, K., and Dorwin Cartwright (Ed.) (1951). Field theory in social science. New York: Harper.
- Lewin, K. (1997). Resolving social conflicts & Field theory in social science. Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.
- Lewin, K., and Martin Gold (Ed.). (1999). The complete social scientist: a Kurt Lewin reader. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Lewin, K., (1980). Kurt Lewin Werkausgabe in German (Kurt Lewin Collected Works) Ed. Karl Friedrich Graumann, Stuttgart, Klett; 4 Issues, contains several works, which were published from the estate or never translated into english
- Lewin, K. (2009). Kurt Lewin Schriften zur angewandten Psychologie. Aufsätze, Vorträge, Rezensionen in German, Ed. Helmut E. Lück, Vienna, Verlag Wolfgang Krammer, ISBN 978-3-901811-46-3; contains several unpublished articles