Kurt Lewin

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Kurt Zadek Lewin (September 9, 1890 - February 12, 1947), was a German-born psychologist, one of the pioneers of contemporary social psychology. He advocated Gestalt psychology and is well known for his development of the concept of the psychological "field," or "lifespace," within which each person lives and acts. Lewin believed that in order to understand or predict human behavior, it was necessary to consider the totality of their lifespace. In this way, Lewin proposed that people develop understanding of their world, physical, mental, and social, through continuous interaction between their existing memories, desires, and goals and their environment. Lewis also initiated the notion of "action research," which involves a cycle of reflection on the results of planned action leading to improved planning and more effective behavior. His work on group dynamics led to greater understanding of the relationship between attitudes (and prejudice) and behavior, bringing hope that through a dynamic process of modifying the environment and the behavior of individuals, that humanity can break down the barriers that divide different groups of people and learn to live in harmony.


Kurt Zadek Lewin was born on September 9, 1890, into a Jewish family in Mogilno, Poland (then in Posen, Germany). Lewin joined the German armed forces when World War I began. But due to a war wound, he returned to Berlin, to complete his Ph.D., where he studied mathematics, physics, and psychology. He received his doctorate in 1914, with Carl Stumpf as the supervisor of his doctoral thesis.

In the following years, Lewin became involved with the Gestalt group led by Wolfgang Köhler. He also became associated with the early Frankfurt School, originated by an influential group of largely Jewish Marxists at the Institute for Social Research in Germany. When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the Institute members had to disband, moving to England and America. In England, Lewin became influential in the founding of sensitivity training through the Tavistock Clinic in London.

Kurt Lewin achieved international fame and spent several years as a visiting professor at Stanford and Cornell. He immigrated to the United States in August 1933, and became a naturalized citizen in 1940. From 1935 to 1944, Lewin worked at the University of Iowa, where he made innovative studies of childhood socialization. In 1944, he went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to lead a research center devoted to group dynamics, which continued this work after his death.

Lewin died in Newtonville, Massachusetts, of a heart-attack in 1947. He was buried in his home town.


Kurt Lewin’s views were a product of the active model of the mind prevalent in German philosophy. Certain parallels can be seen in between Sigmund Freud and Lewin in their formulations within the German tradition. Lewin was most directly influenced by the specific principles of the Gestalt movement and, although much of his work was done independently, he contributed heavily to applications of Gestalt principles that are prevalent to this day.

Lewin taught that the restriction of psychological descriptions to group averages or statistical summaries loses sight of the individual. According to Lewin, even if all the general laws of human behavior were known, the psychologist would still need to appreciate the individual’s interactions with the environment to make any meaningful predictions.

Field theory

"Field theory," an application derived from Gestalt theory involving a view of social activities and personality dynamics, received a most articulate expression in Kurt Lewin’s work. In the Gestalt tradition, Lewin argued that personality should be viewed in the context of a dynamic field of individual-environmental interactions.

Lewin believed this "field" to be a Gestalt psychological environment existing in an individual's or in the collective group’s mind at a certain point in time that can be mathematically described in a topological constellation of constructs. Lewin’s model of the "interactive field" of an individual is based on his notion of "hodological space," which is defined as a geometrical system emphasizing a) movement along psychologically directed pathways, b) the dynamics of person-environment interactions, and c) the person’s behavior at environmental obstacles or barriers. The person is viewed in terms of an individual life space, containing not only the predominance of the present hodological space with psychologically directed pathways of movement, but also representations of the past experiences and future expectations.

This "field" is very dynamic, changing with time and experience. When fully constructed, an individual's "field" (Lewin used the term "life space") describes that person's motives, values, needs, moods, goals, anxieties, and ideals. Lewin believed that changes of an individual's "life space" depend upon that individual's internalization of external stimuli (from the physical and social world) into the "life space."

Although Lewin did not use the word "experiential," (see experiential learning) he nonetheless believed that interaction (experience) of the "life space" with "external stimuli" (at what he called the "boundary zone") were important for development (or regression). For Lewin, development (including regression) of an individual occurs when their "life space" has a "boundary zone" experience with external stimuli. It is not merely the experience that causes change in the "life space," but the acceptance (internalization) of external stimuli.

Force field analysis

Kurt Lewin developed force field analysis as 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). This principle is a significant contribution to the fields of social science, psychology, social psychology, organizational development, process management, and change management.

Kurt Lewin applied these principles to the analysis of group conflict, learning, adolescence, hatred, morale, German society, and so forth. This approach allowed him to break down common misconceptions of many social phenomena, and to determine their basic elemental constructs.

Action research

Kurt Lewin was the first to coin the term “action research” 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.”

Action research is research that each person can do to his or her own practice, that “we” (any team or family or informal community of practice) can do to improve its practice, or that larger organizations or institutions can conduct on themselves, assisted or guided by professional researchers, with the aim of improving their strategies, practices, and knowledge of the environments within which they practice.

Group dynamics

"The creation of an empirically verifiable theory, Lewin knew, was the essence of science; research, therefore, had to be guided by the need to develop an integrated concept of the processes of group life" (Marrow 1969, p.183). Based on this, Lewin established the Research Center on Group Dynamics at MIT to address the following issues:

  1. Group productivity: Why was it that groups are so ineffective in getting things done?
  2. Communication: How influence is spread throughout a group.
  3. Social perception: How a person's group affected the way they perceived social events.
  4. Intergroup relations.
  5. Group membership: How individuals adjust to these conditions.
  6. Training leaders: Improving the functioning of groups (T-groups).

"The chief methodological approach would be that of developing actual group experiments of change, to be carried on in the laboratory or in the field" (Marrow 1969, p.179). The group dynamic studies were carried out in real life situations, concentrating on fighting prejudice. Lewin was determined that this research program would not only find working methods, but would work to put these methods into action.


Kurt Lewin's Field Theory reflects an interesting application of Gestalt theory on personality and social behavior. Lewin’s views fascinated many psychologists because of the complex behaviors that can be considered in the context of life space. As the behavioristic model of psychology expanded to include cognitive variables, Lewin’s teachings were readily adopted to develop a comprehensive theory of behaviorism. Prominent psychologists mentored by Kurt Lewin included Leon Festinger, who became known for his cognitive dissonance theory (1956), and environmental psychologist Roger Barker.

Lewis was an early pioneer of the study of group dynamics and organizational development. His research program focused particularly on the study of prejudice and behavior related to it. Studies included gang behavior and the effect of negro sales personnel on sales. Lewin believed that prejudice caused discrimination, not resulted from it, and altering that behavior could change attitudes. "He wanted to reach beyond the mere description of group life and to investigate the conditions and forces which bring about change or resist it" (Marrow 1969, p.178).

Lewin's notion of "action research" can change the entire sense of social science, transforming it from reflective knowledge about past social practices formulated by a priesthood of experts (research Ph.D.s) to an active moment-to-moment theorizing, data collecting, and inquiring occurring in the midst of ongoing lives. “Knowledge is always gained through action and for action. From this starting point, to question the validity of social knowledge is to question, not how to develop a reflective science about action, but how to develop genuinely well-informed action—how to conduct an action science” (Torbert 1991).

Action research is not only a research that describes how humans and organizations behave in the outside world but also a change mechanism that helps human and organizations reflect on and change their own systems (Reason & Bradbury, 2001). Theories that have developed using Lewin's action research approach include:

  • Chris Argyris’ "Action Science" (Argyris 1970, 1980)
  • John Heron (1996) and Peter Reason’s (1995) "Cooperative Inquiry"
  • Paulo Freire’s (1970) "Participatory Action Research"
  • William Torbert’s (2004) "Developmental Action Inquiry"

Since action research is as much about creating a better life within more effective and just social contexts as it is about discovering true facts and theories, it should not be surprising that it has flourished in Latin America, Northern Europe, India, and Australia as much or more than within university scholarship in the U.S.

Major works

  • 1936. Lewin, K. Principles of Topological Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • 1939. Lewin, K., R. Lippitt., and R. White. "Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates," Journal of Social Psychology (10): 271-299.
  • 1943. Lewin K. "Defining the Field at a Given Time," Psychological Review (50): 292-310.
  • 1946. Lewin, K. "Action Research and Minority Problems," Journal of Social Issues (3).
  • [1951] 1997. Lewin, K. Field theory in social science. (D. Cartwright, ed.) New York: Harper & Row. Reprinted in Resolving Social Conflicts & Field Theory in Social Science. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. ISBN 1557984158.
  • 1959. Lewin, K. A Dynamic Theory of Personality. McGraw-Hill.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Argyris, C. 1970. Intervention Theory and Method. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Argyris, C. 1980. Inner Contradictions of Rigorous Research. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  • Ben-David, J. and R. Collins. 1966. "Social factors in the origin of a new science: The case of psychology," American Psychological Review (31): 451-465.
  • Blumental, A.L. 1970. Language and Psychology: Historical Aspects of Psychlinguistics. New York: John Wiley.
  • Boring, E.G. 1950. A History of Experimental Psychology Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Brennan, J.F. 1982. History and Systems of Psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  • Cartwright, D. [1951] 1997. Field Theory in Social Science and Selected Theoretical Papers-Kurt Lewin. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.
  • Heron, J. 1996. Cooperative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition. London: Sage.
  • Leahey, Th. H. 1991. A History of Modern Psychology. Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Marrow, Alfred J. [1969] 1984. The Practical Theorist: The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin. ISBN 0934698228
  • Marrow, Alfred J. 2002. Kurt Lewin. Beltz. ISBN 340722754X
  • Reason, P. 1995. Participation in Human Inquiry. London: Sage.
  • Reason & Bradbury. 2001. Handbook of Action Research. London: Sage.
  • Torbert, W. 1991. The Power of Balance: Transforming Self, Society, and Scientific Inquiry.
  • Torbert, W. & Associates. 2004. Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership.
  • White, Ralph K. and Ronald O. Lippitt. [1960] 1972. Autocracy and Democracy. ISBN 0837157102

External Links

All links retrieved June 16, 2018.


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