Skip to main content

Lewin, Kurt

LEWIN, KURT

(b. Mogilno [present-day Poland], 9 September 1890; d. Newtonville, Massachusetts, 11 February 1947),

psychology, social science, philosophy of science, psychological field theory, topological psychology, group dynamics.

Lewin was the creator of psychological field theory, a pioneer of action research in psychological social science, and a founder of group dynamics. He combined thinking from psychology and philosophy of science throughout his career. His aims were to link theoretical insight with empirical research in the study of motivation, child development, and social behavior, as well as to humanize the workplace and the school with the help of social science. To him these tasks were not opposed; as he often said, nothing is as practical as a good theory.

Lewin was born in Mogilno (now Poland), which was then in the Prussian province of Posen. He was the second child and eldest son of a Jewish family, and knew Yiddish and Hebrew as well as German. His father owned a small general store and a farm outside the town. He was sent to Gymnasium in Breslau and studied medicine briefly in Freiburg im Breisgau before transferring to Berlin, where he studied with the philosopher and psychologist Carl Stumpf and the neo-Kantian philosophers of science Ernst Cassirer and Alois Riehl. He received his doctorate in 1916, while on leave from military service during World War I, and earned the right to teach (Habilitation) in Berlin in 1921. From that time until he resigned for political reasons in 1933, he was Dozent and senior assistant (Oberassistent) in the department of applied psychology at the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin; he received the title of associate professor in 1927. He married Maria Landsberg in 1917 and had two children with her; after they divorced he married Gertrude Weiss in 1929 and had two children with her. His career after 1933 will be detailed below.

Philosophy of Science . In the 1920s Lewin elaborated a comparative theory of science. Instead of establishing ideal norms for the sciences and humanities according to their subject matter, he based his approach on the concepts scientists actually construct. He was inspired to do this by Cassirer’s comparative and historical treatment of scientific concepts in Substance and Function (1910). His first and most extensive attempt to realize this program was a book on the concept of time series in physics and biology published in 1922. For Lewin, when physicists refer to a particle of matter persisting in a series of instants, this constituted as much a “genetic” (meaning a temporal) series as a reference to the path of energy from a lump of coal to a power plant and thence to a light bulb. In both cases what he called “genidentity” (Genidenität) is attributed to the object in question. Correspondingly, when an egg develops into a chicken, biologists speak of the life history of a single organism, even though egg and chicken might have no molecules in common, except perhaps in the germ cell; moreover, in evolutionary theory biologists construct historical series of species linked by descent, even though there may be no proven material linkages between them. Thus, in physics and biology entities defined as existing continuously over time differ according to the point of view required by the scientific task at hand. In the 1920s Lewin extended this pluralistic, pragmatic analysis to other disciplines, but chose not to publish the resulting texts.

Lewin was in contact with the founders of the logical empiricist movement, particularly Hans Reichenbach, with whom he had been involved in the Socialist youth movement before World War I. When Reichenbach organized the Society for Scientific Philosophy in Berlin in the late 1920s, Lewin participated actively. He shared the logical empiricists’ interest in illuminating the conceptual foundations of science by examining actual scientific concepts, but rejected Rudolf Carnap’s and Otto Neurath’s call for a unified science based on physical language.

Lewin presented his view of psychology’s place in his philosophy of science in two essays: “Law and Experiment in Psychology” (1927), and a paper on the transition from “Aristotelian” to “Galilean” thinking in psychology (1931), which first appeared in the journal Erkenntnis, the organ of the logical empiricist movement. In the 1927 paper he noted that what appears to be a unitary behavioral event may be the result of multiple psychological processes. Though this statement appears to deny the possibility of causal explanation in psychology, it could also be true of physical events and processes. A rolling ball, for example, appears to be a single series of events, yet a complete physical analysis shows it to be the product of multiple forces in interaction. A child’s behavior in a given situation can also be seen as a product of interacting forces. Thus, in Lewin’s view, it is possible to derive causal laws for psychology without reducing psychical phenomena to physical events. Instead, he posited “event types” (Geschehenstypen) as the appropriate explanatory objects for psychology, and hoped that laws for such “event types” would eliminate factors such as previous experience or heredity from psychological explanations.

In the 1931 paper, Lewin opposed the idea that psychology is or ought to be limited to statistical laws. He called such claims “Aristotelean,” because they referred to typological categories such as “the obstreperous three-year-old,” or to specific populations, such as one-year-old children in Vienna and New York in 1928. Modern physics, in contrast, derives universal mathematical laws from concrete, albeit ideal cases. Lewin proposed to create a “Galilean” or dynamic psychology, in which, instead of computing statistical averages from as many given cases as possible, researchers would recreate and analyze ideal-typical person-environment interactions in the laboratory. For him analysis of such interactions was a necessary basis for deriving formal, ultimately mathematical, descriptions of their dynamics. He understood this procedure to be analogous to the way in which Galileo had deduced the laws of free fall and projectile motion from mathematically derived “pure cases.”

Research and Theory on Volition and Motivation . Lewin’s early research challenged associationist theories of volition. Narziss Ach had suggested in 1910 that “determining tendencies” stimulated by an experimenter’s instruction inhibit subjects’ ability to recall associative connections they had already learned; the resulting delay in carrying out the instruction would thus be a measure of will. In his dissertation (published 1917) Lewin set out to improve this measure by asking observers to learn lengthy series of meaningless syllables, then instructing them either to reverse or rhyme the syllables. The prediction was that they would either take longer to complete the second task or give wrong answers. To his surprise, there was generally no inhibitive delay, and only a few errors. In further studies, using different instructions (for example, to rhyme syllables in a specific way), he found that subjects made few errors even with only a few repetitions during the training period. Lewin concluded that Ach’s associationist view of will was untenable, because the predicted effects failed to occur even under optimal conditions, and decided that more work was needed on the relation of motivation and volition.

Lewin’s subsequent studies of motivation and action during the 1920s combined affiliation with and independence from the Berlin school of Gestalt theory, whose leading thinkers Wolfgang Köhler and Max Wertheimer were Lewin’s colleagues at the time. In papers titled “Preliminary Remarks on the Structure of the Mind” (author’s translation) and “Intention, Will, and Need” (both 1926), Lewin accepted the Gestalt theorists’ claim that actions, like acts of perception, are structured wholes (his term was “action wholes”), but he enriched their conception of behavior in two respects. First, he focused on the way situations appear to the actor at a given time, which he called their “psychological reality”; he suggested, further, that the psychical person is itself a complex, “layered” whole. The needs that influence a person’s interaction with the (perceived) environment can come from more superficial or deeper layers of the self. Thus, the totality of forces present in the psychical field at a given time controls the direction of action; and this totality is not limited to perceived objects and their relations to an actor, but can include objects and needs of which the actor is not conscious.

Lewin did not call this approach “field theory” at this time, but the expression “field forces” is ubiquitous in his German work. A frequently cited example of the impact of such forces is what he called the “demand character” of objects. The roots of this concept are already visible in an essay called “Kriegslandschaft” (1917; Warscape), written while he was at the front. That a house might appear to someone as a source of firewood, for example, would be barbarous in peacetime, but quite normal and maybe even necessary in war. The example he used in 1926 was a “peace thing”: a mailbox has a different relation to me when I have a letter in my hand than when I do not. In the former case, the mailbox seems almost to jump out of the environment and announce its presence.

Lewin attributed such phenomena to what he called “quasi-needs,” contending that objects related to them exert greater psychological “force” at particular times than at others. To account for these he suggested that “tension systems” emerge in specific “regions” of the self; these function in the same way as the tensions caused by real needs, transforming the psychical environment in accordance with a person’s current intentions. The satisfaction of such needs reestablishes personal equilibrium at a lower level of tension. Of course, the “tension” in such systems is not directly measurable, as is the tension in a coiled spring.

Lewin’s students in Berlin elaborated these ideas in empirical studies published in the journal Psychologische Forschung, in a series he edited entitled “Studies on the Psychology of Action and Emotion” (author’s translation). Among the studies were Bluma Zeigarnik’s investigation of memory for completed and uncompleted tasks (1927), the work of Anitra Karsten on “psychical satiation” in repetitive tasks (1928), Tamara Dembo’s study of the dynamics of anger (1931), and Ferdinand Hoppe’s work on the role of “level of aspiration” in task completion. These studies contained richly detailed descriptions of motivated actions, achievement, and task interruption, derived with the help of an interactive methodology of Lewin’s invention. Dembo’s experimental design, for example, involved an actual struggle between subject and experimenter, who deliberately frustrated subjects’ efforts to complete the assigned task, then prevented them from leaving the room.

Psychology in Practice . Lewin’s choice of topics clearly indicated his desire to connect scientific psychology with practical issues. He expressed that wish as early as 1920, in an essay entitled “The Socialization of the Taylor System” (author’s translation), published just after the abortive German revolution in a series entitled “Practical Socialism” (author’s translation), edited by his friend and independent Marxist thinker Karl Korsch. Lewin did not object in principle to Taylorism’s attempt to discover quantitative laws of performance that could rationalize production and thus increase output. Instead he criticized capitalism’s use of that effort to maximize profit rather than workers’ well-being. Under socialism, he argued, workers could be assigned to jobs according to their abilities in a cooperative effort involving management, workers, and psychologists; thus both productivity and job satisfaction would be enhanced.

Humanizing the workplace and the school remained Lewin’s aim throughout the 1920s and beyond, and his choice of basic research topics was clearly related to this purpose. In a 1928 essay, for example, Lewin suggested on the basis of Karsten’s study of “satiation” that the psychological meaningfulness of a task to a worker can vary significantly even if productivity in output remains the same. This can have significant impact on the quality of performance, and even on physical fatigue. Thus, monotonous factory or school work alone does not cause psychological satiation; the decisive difference is the involvement of the person’s self or ego. In the same year, in a paper on the textile industry published together with applied psychologist Hans Rupp, Lewin elaborated an analysis of work as a process, an “action whole” (Geschehensganze) that constitutes man and machine as a dynamic unity. In his view, it was important to consider the work process as a whole and not only to measure results or the times of individual motions of workers, because the purpose is to reshape that process itself.

At this stage, Lewin confined himself to the behavior of individuals in simply structured environments. This was true also of the film of a small child’s problem-solving behavior, with which he introduced himself to American colleagues at the International Congress of Psychology in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1929. However, he always made it clear that other people are important parts of such environments. In the late 1920s and the early 1930s, he extended his thinking to pedagogy, speaking, among other things, of the importance of the “social atmosphere” of a school for educational success. He also described the behavior of children in conflict situations in ways that included relations with significant other people such as parents and teachers within the (subjective) field of children’s action. However, he did not investigate social psychological questions or have the idea of working with groups as units before leaving Germany.

After 1933 . Because Lewin had served at the front during World War I, he was nominally exempt from the provisions of the Nazi civil service law of 7 April 1933, which mandated the dismissal of persons of Jewish descent from state employment. His institute head, the Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler, wished to retain him in Berlin, but Lewin recognized the danger for Jews who remained in Germany. In a moving letter to Köhler dated 20 May 1933, which he never sent but which was discovered in his papers after his death, he wrote, “Everything within me rebels against the idea of leaving Germany despite all logical arguments,” and yet,

The actual loss of civil rights of the Jews has not abated, (but) is increasing daily and will no doubt be carried out completely in the peculiarly systematic German way, whether slowly and methodically, or in periodic waves … I cannot imagine how a Jew is supposed to live a life in Germany at the present time that does justice to even the most primitive demands of truthfulness.

Shortly after he left his position in Berlin, Lewin received a stipend at Cornell University, where he worked on children’s eating habits with support from the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars and the Rockefeller Foundation. Lawrence K. Frank, a foundation official who had met Lewin in Berlin and had been impressed by his experiments with children, then obtained a new grant in 1935 that sent Lewin to the Child Welfare Research Station at the University of Iowa. There he soon received a tenured appointment, rose to the rank of full professor in 1939, and remained until 1944. Both the Cornell center and the Iowa station were participants in a large-scale research program in child development that had been maintained with Rockefeller funding since the mid-1920s.

Because of his rapid integration into this network, Lewin refused the offer of a professorship from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which, as a Zionist, he would have preferred to accept. For this position he devised an ambitious research program, including, for example, studies of the relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. But the Jerusalem offer included no laboratory facilities, and Lewin’s efforts to raise money for these from private donors failed.

Nonetheless, Lewin took up the problems of minorities soon after his emigration. In a 1935 paper on social-psychological problems of a minority group, the topic was clearly the Jews. Here, Lewin extended the concept of “life space,” which he had already employed before 1933 to describe the subjective location of human-environment interactions, to human-human relationships under the heading “social space.” He argued that precisely Jews who wished to assimilate to a predominant culture had difficulty in forming clear identities, because their location on the boundary between groups did not allow them to develop a feeling of belonging to either group. Roots of the concept of “marginal man,” later articulated by Seymour Martin Lipset and others, can be seen here.

After moving to Iowa, Lewin took up the topic of cultural differences in education. This issue had obvious relevance in a research center for child welfare, but biographical factors plainly contributed to the choice: His younger children were reaching school age and the international situation literally demanded such comparisons. In this context, what he called the “range of free movement” became the fundamental feature of educational systems. The presence of hierarchical structures even in the “democratic” educational style of the United States, and the reliance of American teachers on externally mandated teaching plans and techniques gave American children, in Lewin’s opinion, the support they needed to act independently in a heterogeneous social system, while rigidity and strict obedience were the educational norms in the comparatively homogeneous German social system.

From such considerations, and also on the basis of conversations that Lewin had with American collaborators in Iowa, came the studies of “democratic” and “authoritarian” leadership styles in children’s play groups that made Lewin famous in America. In the “authoritarian” group both the task—making theater masks—and the way it was to be accomplished were defined step by step by the group leader, who intervened only to criticize the children’s work. In the “democratic” group, the leader participated as a fellow group member, for example in decisions about how and with what materials to make the masks; he was allowed to give technical advice, but only when asked and then only in the form of presenting alternatives from which the group then chose.

In this work Lewin transferred the approach he had called “Galilean” in the early 1930s—the construction of ideal-typical person-environment interactions—to the behavior of groups. The “Lewin, Lippitt, and White” study, as it came to be known, acquired an almost mystical aura as the first group experiment in the history of social psychology. To visualize their approach, Lewin and his collaborators made a demonstration film that presented the behavior of the children’s groups in often amusing scenes and was soon much in demand. The ideological resonances of this research were obvious in the late 1930s; one reason for the rapid success of the Iowa group’s work was the support it seemed to provide for the hope that “democratic” leadership is indeed possible.

The politically progressive psychologists who founded the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in 1936 shared this hope. Moved in part by impatience with their discipline’s slow response to the problems of the Depression, the organization’s members advocated social research for social change, if necessary by abandoning professional objectivity and distancing methodologies. Lewin was among the founders, and was elected president of the society in 1942–1943.

Building on this foundation, Lewin developed an ambitious program in the late 1930s and 1940s that he called “action research,” to be conducted not in laboratories but in factories and communities. Early work along these lines at the Harwood Manufacturing Corporation reflected the roots of this approach in Lewin’s Taylorism study of 1920, but he soon applied it to minority group issues as well. That program, organized within the framework of a Commission on Community Interrelations (CCI) and funded largely by the politically liberal American Jewish Congress, aimed both to study the social psychology of racism and anti-Semitism and at the same time to work toward changing racist and ethnically prejudiced social relations by deriving concrete practical guidelines from observations of group behavior and reflections on that behavior by the group members themselves. In a 1946 paper Lewin himself described all this as “research for social engineering.”

By this time, Lewin had already moved from Iowa to the East Coast. Beginning with a visiting professorship at Harvard in 1939–1940, he expanded his contacts through work on morale research during World War II, including a programmatic essay on transforming Germany after Allied victory. In 1944 he accepted a professorship established for him at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he founded an interdisciplinary Research Center for Group Dynamics.

Lewin never gave up hope of unifying theoretical and applied psychology. The means was to be topology, with the aid of which he hoped to achieve a mathematically rigorous representation of psychological dynamics. By the late 1920s, he had begun to transform this abstruse branch of mathematics into a device for the formal representation of psychological field forces and concrete psychological situations as well as the structure and internal dynamics of personality. In Principles of Topological Psychology (1936) he elaborated this approach in detail, with the hope of moving eventually to a process—rather than a performance-oriented concept of psychological measurement.

Impact . After Lewin died from a heart attack in 1947, at the age of fifty-seven, his prestige reached its high point. Edward Tolman went so far as to call him the most important thinker in the history of psychology after Sigmund Freud. Many Lewinian terms, including “level of aspiration,” “life space,” and “marginal affiliation,” and slogans such as “nothing is as practical as a good theory” entered the vocabulary of American psychology, and later returned to Europe via translations into German and other languages. The Research Center for Group Dynamics, which moved from MIT to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor shortly after his death, still existed in the early twenty-first century; Lewin’s reputation as a founder of experimental social psychology seems secure. Nonetheless, his experiments with “authoritarian” and “democratic” groups, though greatly admired, did not become exemplars for research design. Rather than study groups as wholes, mainstream social psychologists generally examine the influence of groups on the behavior of individuals. However, some of Lewin’s collaborators were instrumental in establishing the T-group and group dynamics movements in the 1950s, and others were among the founders of the approach called “ecological psychology” in the 1960s.

Lewin’s idea of a “topological and vector psychology” has come to be regarded as a blind alley. In the 1930s few psychologists outside Lewin’s immediate circle understood what he was talking about, and rivals willingly seized on disparaging remarks by mathematicians about his unsophisticated use of topology. Seen in historical context, his “Galilean” research program paralleled and competed with Yale psychologist Clark Hull’s equally ambitious, and disappointing, effort to derive general laws of behavior deductively in a manner allegedly analogous to Isaac Newton’s system of the natural world.

In the 1970s and 1980s Lewin’s program for making psychology an agent of social change was sharply criticized from the left as a reformist project that would not change fundamental power relations. Since the 1990s action research has experienced a comeback as a results-oriented approach to understanding political conflict.

Lewin’s fecund metaphors and brilliant individual insights, as well as his ability to inspire talented researchers, made him a success in Berlin, in the United States, and then internationally. He established an independent research base in America, but it was his cogent criticism of predominant styles of thought and practice in American psychology and his effort to develop concrete alternatives that gained him a hearing. At the same time, his support for U.S. democracy and his optimism about the practical potential of social science impressed the progressive segment of his discipline. His early work in the philosophy of science has never been translated into English and thus remains largely unknown outside Germany. For historians of science, his career exemplifies the deep connection of modern social science with social practice and also shows how a Jewish scientist created new science after reflecting on his own persecution under Nazism.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

A collection called the Kurt Lewin Papers is located in Ohio at the Archives of the History of American Psychology, University of Akron. This consists primarily of materials used by Alfred Marrow to prepare his biography of Lewin (see below). Other collections of Lewin manuscripts and correspondence are located at the Institute for History of Modern Psychology in Passau, Germany, and the Distance University (Fernuniversität) in Hagen, Germany.

WORKS BY LEWIN

Die Sozialisierung des Taylorsystems: Eine grundsätzliche Untersuchung zur Arbeits- und Berufspsychologie. Praktischer Sozialismus 4. Berlin: Weltkreisverlag, 1920.

Der Begriff der Genese in Physik, Biologie und Entwicklungsgeschichte: Eine Untersuchung zur vergleichenden Wissenschaftslehre. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1922. Reprinted in Kurt-Lewin-Werkausgabe, vol. 2, pp. 47–318.

Gesetz und Experiment in der Psychologie. Berlin: Weltkreis-verlag, 1927. Reprinted in Kurt-Lewin-Werkausgabe, vol. 1, pp. 279–320.

Die Entwicklung der experimentellen Willenspsychologie und die Psychotherapie. Leipzig: Hirzel, 1928.

Die psychologische Situation bei Lohn und Strafe. Leipzig: Hirzel, 1931. Reprinted in Kurt-Lewin-Werkausgabe, vol. 6, pp. 113–168.

A Dynamic Theory of Personality: Selected Papers. Translated by Donald K. Adams and Karl E. Zener. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1935.

Principles of Topological Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1936.

Experimental Studies in the Social Climates of Groups, Parts I and II. 1938. This film is available in several locations. The original is located at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa. Restored copies are available at the University Archives, University of Iowa, Iowa City. An unrestored copy is located at the Archives of the History of American Psychology, University of Akron, Ohio.

With Ronald Lippitt and Robert K. White. “Patterns of Aggressive Behavior in Experimentally Created ‘Social Climates.’” Journal of Social Psychology 10 (1939): 271–299.

Resolving Social Conflicts, Selected Papers on Group Dynamics [1935–1946]. Edited by Gertrude Weiss Lewin. New York: Harper, 1948.

Field Theory and Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers. Edited by Dorwin Cartwright. New York: Harper, 1951.

Kurt-Lewin-Werkausgabe. Edited by Carl-Friedrich Graumann. Vols. 1, 2, 4, and 6. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta; Bern: Huber, 1981–1982. Four of eight projected volumes published.

“Everything within Me Rebels: A Letter from Kurt Lewin to Wolfgang Köhler.” Translated by Gabriele Wickert and Miriam Lewin. Journal of Social Issues 42 (1986): 40–47.

The Complete Social Scientist: A Kurt Lewin Reader. Edited by Martin Gold. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1999.

OTHER SOURCES

Ash, Mitchell G. Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890–1967: Holism and the Quest for Objectivity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995. See especially chapter 16.

———. “Cultural Contexts and Scientific Change in Psychology: Kurt Lewin in Iowa.” American Psychologist 47 (1992): 198–207. Reprinted in Evolving Perspectives on the History of Psychology, edited by Wade E. Pickren and Donald A. Dewsbury. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2001.

———. “Learning from Persecution: Émigré Jewish Social Scientists’ Studies of Authoritarianism and Anti-Semitism after 1933.” In Jüdische Welten, edited by Beate Meyer and Marion Kaplan. Juden in Deutschland vom 18. Jahrhundert bis in die Gegenwart. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2005.

Back, Kurt. Beyond Words: The Story of Sensitivity Training and the Encounter Movement. Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1973.

Bargal, David. “Kurt Lewin and the First Attempts to Establish a Department of Psychology at the Hebrew University.” Minerva 36 (1998): 49–68.

———. “Personal and Intellectual Influences Leading to Lewin’s Paradigm of Action Research.” Action Research 4, no. 4 (2006): 367–388.

Cravens, Hamilton. Before Head Start: The Iowa Station and America’s Children. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Danziger, Kurt. Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of Psychological Research. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

———. “The Project of an Experimental Social Psychology: Historical Perspectives.” Science in Context 5 (1992): 309–328.

———. “Making Social Psychology Experimental: A Conceptual History, 1920–1970.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 36 (2000): 329–347.

De Rivera, Joseph, ed. Field Theory as Human-Science: Contributions of Lewin’s Berlin Group. New York: Gardner, 1976.

Habermas, Tilmann. “Eine nicht ganz zufällige Begegnung: Kurt Lewins Feldtheorie und Siegfried Bernfelds Psychoanalyse im Berlin der späten 20er Jahre.” Zeitschrift für Psychologie 209 (2001): 416–431.

Journal of Social Issues 42, nos. 1–2 (1986). Special issues on Kurt Lewin.

Lück, Helmut E. Kurt Lewin: Eine Einführung in sein Werk. Weinheim: Beltz, 2001.

Marrow, Alfred. The Practical Theorist: The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin. New York: Basic, 1969. Appendices include an incomplete biography of Lewin’s works; summaries of the Berlin experiments; members of the “Topology Group” (1935); studies done under Lewin’s direction in Iowa; CCI publications; and publications of the Research Center for Group Dynamics, 1945–1950.

Métraux, Alexandre. “Kurt Lewin: Philosopher-Psychologist.” Science in Context 5 (1992): 373–384.

Patnoe, Shelley. A Narrative History of Social Psychology: The Lewin Tradition. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1988.

Schönpflug, Wolfgang, ed. Kurt Lewin: Person, Werk, Umfeld: Historische Rekonstruktionen und aktuelle Wertungen aus Anlass seines hundertsten Geburtstags. Vol. 5 of Beiträge zur Geschichte der Psychologie. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1992.

Schwermer, Josef. Die experimentelle Willenspsychologie Kurt Lewins. Meisenhein am Glan: Hain, 1966.

Stivers, Eugene H., and Susan A. Wheelan, eds. The Lewin Legacy: Field Theory in Current Practice. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1986.

Tolman, Edward C. “Kurt Lewin (1890–1947).” Psychological Review 55 (1948): 1–4.

Van Elteren, Mel. “Karl Korsch and Lewinian Social Psychology: Failure of a Project.” History of the Human Sciences 5 (1992): 33–61.

Wittmann, Simone. Das Frühwerk Kurt Lewins: Zu den Quellen sozialpsychologischer Ansätze in Feldkonzept und Wissenschaftstheorie. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1998.

Mitchell G. Ash

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lewin, Kurt." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lewin, Kurt." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lewin-kurt

"Lewin, Kurt." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lewin-kurt

Lewin, Kurt

Lewin, Kurt

WORKS BY LEWIN

SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) was born in Mogilno, Prussia. After studying at the universities of Freiburg and Munich, he completed his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Berlin in 1914. He taught in Berlin from 1921 to 1933, at which time he left Germany. In the United States he was a visiting professor at Stanford and at Cornell before becoming professor of child psychology in the Child Welfare Research Station of the State University of Iowa in 1935. In 1945 he left Iowa to found the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also served as a visiting professor at the University of California in Berkeley and at Harvard.

During his thirty years of scientific work, Lewin’s theoretical interests and the focuses of his research shifted several times. At first he was concerned with the study and analysis of the cognitive processes of learning and perception; with the dynamics of individual motivation and emotion; and with the interpersonal processes of reward and punishment, conflict, and social influence. In his next phase, he conducted and stimulated research on group phenomena such as leadership, social climate, group standards, and values. Finally, he was led to an examination of the social restraints imposed on groups by technology, economics, law, and politics. Although his interests changed and developed, he nevertheless carefully adhered to a central theoretical tenet: that to represent and interpret faithfully the complexity of concrete reality situations requires continual crossing of the traditional boundaries of the social sciences, rather than a progressive narrowing of attention to a limited number of variables.

The theory that requires this interdisciplinary approach to psychological and social reality has at various times been referred to, by Lewin himself and by others, as “dynamic theory,” “topological psychology,” and “field theory.” Field theory was Lewin’s final preference. Briefly stated, it holds that events are determined by forces acting on them in an immediate field rather than by forces acting at a distance. Field theory may be characterized as a method of analyzing causal relations and building scientific constructs, that is, a theory about theory building, or a metatheory. At the same time, Lewin’s field theory is a set of constructs, developed through empirical research, for describing and interpreting psychological and social phenomena.

Field theory as metatheory . The major tenets of field theory as metatheory for social science have been identified by Cartwright (1959, p. 7).

(1) The full empirical reality of human experience and behavior—not just certain abstract aspects that are most accessible or easy to manipulate—must be comprehended in a scientific manner. The observation of behavior in a real-life setting (what has been called naturalistic observation) and phenomenological analysis are procedures that may prevent scientific formalization from focusing on trivial aspects of human behavior.

(2) The language of concepts that is developed must be “two-faced,” providing both a rigorous terminology for describing the behavioral events of the real world and a set of theoretical constructs that can be related to each other logically in the formulation of lawful regularities about the causation of behavioral events.

(3) The concepts must “fit” the nature of psychological phenomena, which they will not do if they are simply borrowed from physical or biological science. Presuppositions about the ultimate unity of science should not be allowed to distort the development of concepts that are intended to describe psychological phenomena (emotions, hopes, fears, illusions) rather than biological or physical processes.

(4) Lewin’s principle of concreteness states that effects “can be produced only by what is ’concrete,’ i.e., by something that has the position of an individual fact which exists at a certain moment” (1936, p. 32). From this important principle Lewin derived several of his basic ideas: that every behavioral event must be viewed as caused by several interdependent features of the total concrete situation of that moment; that the dynamics of a behavioral event cannot be adequately comprehended by the specialized concepts of a particular discipline or scientific specialty, for example, cognition, learning, economics, or political science; that the “life space” or concrete field of all coexisting psychological facts is quite different from the quantified dimensions of that situation; that causation is a contemporary process—“Since neither the past nor the future exists at the present moment it cannot have effects at the present”(ibid., p. 35).

(5) Mathematics provides basic tools for developing a formal systematic theory of psychological processes, but this does not mean that all phenomena can be treated quantitatively. Non-Euclidean geometry seemed to Lewin the most appropriate mathematical tool for treating many empirical aspects of human behavior in terms of psychological space.

(6) Basic research that is generated by the need to develop field theoretical concepts should be of great practical value in the world of action. To Lewin this meant that there “is nothing as practical as a good theory.” He demonstrated this again and again in his own contributions to the understanding of many critical social problems, such as autocracy, self-hatred, scapegoating, intergroup conflict, industrial inefficiency, conservative food habits, and child rearing. [SeePrejudice.]

Experimental research . In his search for a comprehensive conceptual grasp of significant psychological events and processes Lewin instigated and led many research programs, Often they were carried on by his students after he himself had turned his attention to new problems.

His first research sequence began with an experimental critique of the work of Ach (1910) on “associative bonds” in the process of remembering. Lewin moved beyond structural concepts of remembering to such notions as intention to recall and expectation about events. Basic work was done by Ovsiankina (1928) and Zeigarnik (1927), who demonstrated experimentally that the tendency to recall interrupted tasks is stronger than the tendency to recall completed tasks and that there are forces acting toward resuming and completing interrupted activities.

This work on psychological interruption and on the forces acting toward resumption and completion led directly to another program of research that represents an early experimental investigation of motivational concepts. The research sought to discover whether the completion of a task different from the interrupted one can reduce the tendency to resume the interrupted one. In other words, can one task have substitute value for another? Lewin’s students Lissner (1933) and Mahler (1933) demonstrated that tasks of different degrees of similarity and different degrees of reality have different types of substitute value. An important series of studies by Adler (1939), Cartwright (1942), and Sliosberg (1934) further developed this area of inquiry.

Lewin’s interest in the internal dynamics of motivation led him to initiate another series of studies on the psychological process of satiation. Karsten (1928) and other students (Freund 1930; Kounin 1941; Seashore & Bavelas 1942) discovered that the time it takes to become satiated with a task depends on the over-all meaning context of the activity, on ego involvement in the activity, on the physiological state of the person, and on the degree of rigidity of interpersonal psychological systems.

Another important series of studies of motivational dynamics dealt with frustration and regression. Again, Lewin’s plan of research was primarily carried out by others. Dembo’s initial work in Berlin (1931) consisted of careful observational studies of the symptoms of emotional tension as contrasted to the symptoms of task- or problem-solving tension that occurred when subjects were assigned impossible tasks. The symptoms observed included anger, aggression, regression, substitution, and flight from reality. Later studies by Barker, Dembo, and Lewin (1941) and by Wright (1942) established important connections between frustration and intellectual regression as measured by the developmental level of play activity before and after frustration situations.

Dembo (1931) and Hoppe (1931) did valuable research on the concept of level of aspiration, and again other research developed from it. After Jerome Frank, one of Lewin’s students, presented a summary in English of the German research (1935 a; 1935 b), a flood of studies by American investigators followed. The early research indicated that the experience of success or failure depends to a very significant degree upon the person’s aspiration rather than upon some objective standard of performance. There was also clear evidence that the motivation for success or achievement of individuals leads them to set levels of aspiration that do not guarantee easy success. This line of inquiry has been the springboard for much of the current advanced theoretical work on social comparison processes, self-evaluation, and discrepancies between ideal self and actual self.[seeAchievement Motivation.]

The phenomena of decision making and conflict resolution were the focuses of another important series of investigations by Lewin and his students. These inquiries demonstrate the effect on decision making of the strength of the valences of the alternatives, the reality level of the choice situation, the difference in a choice between negative and positive alternatives, and attitudes of cautiousness and risk taking.

As Lewin’s interests changed from individual to social psychology, his approach to decision making and conflict also changed. His famous series of studies of group decision making (1953) demonstrates the influence on individual behavior of participation in group discussions and decisions. Group discussion affects such phenomena as parental behavior, eating habits, and amount of effort on the production line. Later work on patterns of intergroup conflict derived from this work on individual decision making.

As he moved into social psychology, Lewin’s research interests focused on the phenomena of social perception, social values, social influence, cooperation, and competition. In all these areas he instigated important research. His students demonstrated experimentally that the expectation or perception that another person is “warm” or “cold,” high or low in power, or an insider or outsider greatly influences interpersonal attitudes and behavior (Kelley 1950; Pepitone 1950; Thibaut & Riecken 1955).[seePerception, articles onPerson Perceptionand Socialperception.]

His move from Germany to the United States stimulated Lewin’s interest in the comparative analysis of personal values as they relate to cultural differences and social norms. Several of Lewin’s papers ([1935–1946] 1948, pp. 3-68) deal with the development of a definition of values and with approaches to change in cultural values. This was perhaps the beginning of his focus on the theory of planned change and social action, which became increasingly important in the later years of his career. His work on values moved from methodological work on the content of values (as developed in Kalhorn 1944; White 1951) to work on the development of the value of “fairness,” which he conducted by means of experimental situations with children of different ages, and then to an important series of studies on the development and functioning of group standards or group norms. The experimental field studies of the influence of group standards on work output in a factory (Coch & French 1948) and on behavior of residents in a housing project (Festinger et al. 1950) led to a basic theoretical paper in 1947 by Lewin (see in [1939–1947] 1963, pp. 188–237) on the quasi-stationary equilibrium as a tool for conceptual analysis of the field of forces determining behavior in a given social setting and situation. [seeMoral Development.]

Perhaps Lewin’s best-known contributions to social psychology and group dynamics are those focusing on authority and social influence. Initially, a series of children’s groups were studied to see what effect different styles of leadership might have on the social–emotional atmosphere of a group, on its work productivity, and on the personal adaptation of members. There followed basic work on social influence, with laboratory studies of status hierarchy and communications channels; field studies of behavioral contagion and influence structures; and studies of the patterns and bases of influence in military units and in the working relations among the members of professional teams, such as those composed of psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, or social workers. [seeLeadership.]

In the later years of his career, Lewin and his co-workers became interested in the problem of what they called psychological ecology. Thus, in his work on the maintenance and change of food habits (1943), Lewin constructed a theory of social channels and “gatekeepers” to account for the ecological processes by which particular foods reach the table and come in contact with the consumer. He showed that a number of cultural, economic, and technological factors combined to influence this series of decisions. This approach has been greatly developed and extended by Lewin’s student and co-worker Barker, in his series of field studies of the psychological ecology of children and adults in a number of communities and a variety of social settings (Barker & Wright 1954).

Major concepts . In all his work, Lewin maintained an active interplay between the construction of theory and the concrete analysis of human behavior in all its complexity. It is possible here to indicate only briefly some of the concepts that became important in Lewin’s comprehensive conceptual system. Probably the most widely known Lewinian concept is that of psychological life space. This fundamental notion refers to the totality of events or facts that determines the behavior of an individual at a given time. It is related to the basic tenet that causation is a contemporary process, and it has, therefore, created much active controversy in the field of psychotherapy. Defending the importance of this concept, one psychoanalyst (Ezriel 1956, p. 32) has asserted that the unconscious structures the analyst uncovers in working with a patient are active in the present and are not necessarily replicas of past realities and reactions.

The life space includes two major components: the person and the psychological environment. The latter is conceived to be the environment as it exists for the individual. Lewin assumed that an understanding of the interaction between the person and the psychological environment would permit the understanding and prediction of the person’s behavior.

The concepts that Lewin developed to deal with the psychological and social processes of the life space can be classified as structural concepts, having to do with the arrangement and relationship of the parts of the life space, and dynamic concepts, dealing with tendencies toward change or resisting change. The basic structures of the life space are region and boundary, and derived from these are degree of differentiation, centrality, path, and psychological distance. The principal dynamic processes are interdependence, tension, force, field of forces, equilibrium, and power. Lewin also introduced two dimensions of the life space: a vertical dimension of degrees or levels of reality and a horizontal dimension of time perspective. Lewin’s studies demonstrated that psychological processes vary with different levels of reality: the processes involved in assessing facts or expectations are different from those involved in fantasies or wishes. The use of the concept of time perspective was related to Lewin’s field-theoretical stress on the interpretation and prediction of behavior in ahistorical terms.

When he first made contributions to social psychology, Lewin was content to treat the facts of interpersonal relations as social facts in the life space of each individual. For example, the fact of group membership and its implications for behavior then seemed quite satisfactorily represented as regions in the life space of the person. But as he added such new problems as group goals, group decision making, and group problem solving, it became necessary to relate life spaces to one another, that is, to construct a social space or a social field in which social, economic, political, and physical facts have objective, or at least inter-subjective, reality, rather than only individual psychological reality. In some of his final papers ([1939–1947] 1963, pp. 170–237), Lewin was beginning to grapple with the challenging problems of defining social space and social field-theory and of relating these concepts to those of psychological space. He was indicating some of the ways in which the behavioral sciences might go beyond empirical unity to the achievement of conceptual unity.

Social action and social problem solving . Lewin 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 (or education), and action in producing social change. He saw every practical problem as requiring basic conceptual analysis, research, and a “change experiment.” The concept of action-research as a method of planned social change was developed and clarified in the period when he was helping found the Commission on Community Interrelations of the American Jewish Congress and establishing the Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT.

Lewin may well have been a bit optimistic when he asserted in 1945 that “leading practitioners” in government, agriculture, industry, education, and community life seemed to have an increasing awareness of the need for a “scientific level of understanding” and that they seemed to accept the dictum that “nothing is as practical as a good theory.” Yet the success of the National Training Laboratories, which he helped establish in 1946 and 1947, does seem to vindicate his optimism. First held at Bethel, Maine, the summer after Lewin’s death, these sessions have since expanded into a nationwide network serving the needs of professional men. They provide a link between these professional men and the resources of the behavioral sciences and the growing technology of re-education of attitudes, values, and behavior.

Persisting influence . Current research directly derived from Lewin’s work is being carried on by Cartwright and his colleagues, who are working on the development and use of mathematical concepts that are coordinated with life-space phenomena; at the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the University of Michigan (it was founded by Lewin at MIT and moved to Michigan after his death) and at university centers founded by some of his students, for example, by Festinger, Schachter, Deutsch, Thibaut, and Kelley; by Barker and his colleagues, working on psychological ecology; by French, Bavelas, Marrow, Cook, and others, who are coordinating organizational field experiments; and by Lippitt and his colleagues at the Center for Research on Utilization of Scientific Knowledge, the title of which is a key to its activities.

Ronald Lippitt

[See alsoField Theory. Other relevant material may be found inDevelopmental Psychology; Gestalt Theory; Groups; Systems Analysis, article onPsychological Systems; Thinking, article onCognitive Organization AND Processes.]

WORKS BY LEWIN

1917 Die psychische Tatigkeit bei der Hemmung von Willensvorgangen und das Grundgesetz der Assoziation. Zeitschrift fur Psychologic 77:212-247.

(1935-1946) 1948 Resolving Social Conflicts: Selected Papers on Group Dynamics. New York: Harper.

1936 Principles of Topological Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

(1939-1947) 1963 Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers. Edited by Dorwin Cart-wright. London: Tavistock.

1941 Barker, Roger; Dembo, Tamara; and Lewin, KurtFrustration and Regression: An Experiment With Young Children. University of Iowa Studies in Child Welfare, vol. 18, no. 1. Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press.

1943 Forces Behind Food Habits and Methods of Change. National Research Council,Bulletin 108:35-65.

(1945) 1948 Lewin, Kurt; and Grabbe, Paul Conduct, Knowledge, and Acceptance of New Values. Pages 56–68 in Kurt Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts: Selected Papers on Group Dynamics. New York: Harper. → First published in Volume 1 of the Journal of Social Issues.

1953 Studies in Group Decision. Pages 287–301 in Dorwin Cartwright and Alvin Zander (editors), Group Dynamics: Research and Theory. Evanston, 111.: Row, Peterson. → Selections from writings first published between 1943 and 1947.

SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ach, N. 1910 Über den Willensakt und das Temperament: Eine experimented Untersuchung. Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer.

Adler, D. L. 1939 Types of Similarity and the Substitute Value of Activities at Different Age Levels. Ph.D. dissertation, State Univ. of Iowa.

Barker, Roger G.; and Wright, Herbert F. 1954 Mid-west and Its Children. Evanston, 111.: Row, Peterson.

Cartwright, Dorwin 1942 The Effect of Interruption, Completion and Failure Upon the Attractiveness of Activities. Journal of Experimental Psychology 31: 1-16.

Cartwright, Dorwin 1959 Lewinian Theory as a Contemporary Systematic Framework. Volume 2, pages 7–91 in Sigmund Koch (editor), Psychology: The Study of a Science. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Coch, Lester; and French, John R. P. Jr. 1948 Overcoming Resistance to Change. Human Relations 1: 512-532.

Dembo, Tamara 1931 Der Ärger als dynamisches Problem. Untersuchungen zur Handlungs- und Affektpsychologie, 10. Psychologische Forschung 15:1-144.

Deutsch, Morton 1954 Field Theory in Social Psychology. Pages 181–222 in Gardner Lindzey (editor), Handbook of Social Psychology, Volume 1: Theory and Method. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Escalona, Sibylle 1954 The Influence of Topological and Vector Psychology Upon Current Research in Child Development: An Addendum. Pages 971–983 in Leonard Carmichael (editor), Manual of Child Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Wiley.

Ezriel, H. 1956 Experimentation Within the Psychoanalytic Session. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 7:29-48.

Festinger, Leon; Schachter, Stanley; and Back, Kurt (1950) 1963 Social Pressures in Informal Groups: A Study of Human Factors in Housing. Stanford Univ. Press.

Frank, Jerome D. 1935 a Individual Differences in Certain Aspects of the Level of Aspiration.American Journal of Psychology 47:119-128.

Frank, Jerome D. 1935 b The Influence of the Level of Performance in One Task on the Level of Aspiration in Another. Journal of Experimental Psychology 18: 159-171.

Freund, Alex 1930 Psychische Sattigung im Menstruum und Intermenstruum. Untersuchungen zur Hand-lungs- und Affektpsychologie, 7. Psychologische Forschung 13:198-217.

Hoppe, Ferdinand 1931 Erfolg und Misserfolg. Untersuchungen zur Handlungs- und Affektpsychologie, 9. Psychologische Forschung 14:1-62.

Kalhorn, Joan 1944 Values and Sources of Authority Among Rural Children. Pages 99–152 in Kurt Lewin et. al., Authority and Frustration. University of Iowa Studies in Child Welfare, vol. 20. Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press.

Karsten, Anitra 1928 Psychische Sattigung. Untersuchungen zur Handlungs- und Affektpsychologie, 5. Psychologische Forschung 10:142-254.

Kelley, Harold H. 1950 The Warm–Cold Variable in First Impressions of Persons. Journal of Personality 18:431-439.

Kounin, Jacob S. 1941 Experimental Studies of Rigidity: 1-2. Character and Personality 9:251-282. → Part 1: The Measurement of Rigidity in Normal and Feeble-minded Persons. Part 2: The Explanatory Power of the Concept of Rigidity as Applied to Feeblemindedness.

Leeper, Robert W. 1943 Lewin’s Topological and Vector Psychology: A Digest and a Critique. Eugene: Univ. of Oregon.

Lissner, Kate 1933 Die Entspannung von Bediirfnissen durch Ersatzhandlungen. Untersuchungen zur Handlungs- und Affektpsychologie, 18. Psychologische Forschung 18:218-250.

Mahler, Wera 1933 Ersatzhandlungen verschiedenen Realitätsgrades. Untersuchungen zur Handlungs- und Affektpsychologie, 15. Psychologische Forschung 18: 27-89.

Ovsiankina, Maria VON 1928 Die Wiederaufnahme unterbrochener Handlungen. Untersuchungen zur Handlungs- und Affektpsychologie, 6. Psychologische Forschung 11:302-379.

Pepitone, Albert 1950 Motivational Effects in Social Perception. Human Relations 3:57-76.

Seashore, Harold C.; and Bavelas, Alex 1942 A Study of Frustration in Children. Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology 61:279-314.

Sliosberg, Sarah 1934 Zur Dynamik des Ersatzes in Spiel- und Ernstsituationen. Untersuchungen zur Handlungs- und Affektpsychologie, 19. Psychologische Forschung 19:122-181.

Thibaut, John W.; and Riecken, Henry W. 1955 Some Determinants and Consequences of the Perception of Social Causality. Journal of Personality 24:113-133.

White, Ralph K. 1951 Value-analysis: The Nature and Use of the Method. Glen Gardner, N.J.: Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.

Wright, M. Erik 1942 Constructiveness of Play as Affected by Group Organization and Frustration. Character and Personality 11:40-49.

Zeigarnik, Bluma 1927 Das Behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen. Untersuchungen zur Hand-lungs- und Affektpsychologie, 3. Psychologische Forschung 9:1-85.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lewin, Kurt." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lewin, Kurt." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/lewin-kurt

"Lewin, Kurt." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/lewin-kurt

Lewin, Kurt

Lewin, Kurt 1890-1947

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kurt Lewin was a psychologist with wide-ranging interests in psychological theory, child development, personality, social psychology, and social issues. He was born on September 9, 1890, to a Jewish family in Prussia. His family moved to Berlin in 1905 to provide access to better educational institutions for their children. Lewin entered the University of Berlin in 1910 and completed requirements for the PhD in 1914, under the direction of Carl Stumpf (18481936), director of the psychology laboratory since 1894. Lewin then enlisted in the kaisers army as a private, rose to the rank of lieutenant, was wounded in combat and awarded the Iron Cross. After discharge from the military, he returned to the university and began lecturing and conducting research, receiving an appointment as privatdozent in 1921. He was promoted to Aussenordenlicher Professor in 1927. In 1932 Lewin accepted an appointment as visiting professor at Stanford University. His sojourn allowed him to form friendships with a number of American psychologists who assisted him in immigrating to the United States after Adolf Hitler (18891945) and the Nazis took control of Germany in 1933. Lewin held a two-year appointment at Cornell University, moved to the University of Iowa from 1935 to 1944, and then to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1944 until his death, from a heart attack, on February 12, 1947.

While in Berlin, Lewin began to study psychological issues considered too complex by the experimental psychologists of the time. He was interested in child development, human motivation and emotion, and personality. He considered the development of theories about these processes to be critical, and the use of experiments to test theory-based hypotheses as essential to progress in psychology. Lewins overarching theoretical approach was field theory, which asserted that human behavior was a function both of the person and the environmental forces acting on the person at the time, giving rise to his famous equation B (behavior) = f (function)[ P (person), E (environment)]. He and his students designed experiments in which theoretically defined variables were manipulated by complex changes in the social and physical environment. Theories focusing on complex intrapsychic processes and equally complex experimental manipulations were Lewins unique contributions to the psychology of his time, as well as his legacy in the psychology that would develop after his death. Two books, A Dynamic Theory of Personality (1935) and Principles of Topological Psychology (1936), provide systematic treatments of his approach. His many experimental reports display his innovations in research methods. Early criticisms of Lewins work focused on the difficulty and unfamiliarity of the concepts he employed, as well as the complexity of the experimental protocols he used. Over time, these criticisms faded as the psychological issues he explored became important research topics, while the details of his theoretical work received less and less attention. His style of experimentation was adopted by his students and colleagues, notably Leon Festinger (19191989), and became a robust tradition in social psychology.

Lewin had a lifelong dream of establishing a research institute that would conduct applied research focused on social issues such as prejudice, intergroup conflict, and social change. He succeeded in establishing the Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT in 1944, and the Commission on Community Interrelations for the American Jewish Congress in 1945 in New York. An outgrowth of this work was the development of the National Training Laboratories, within which the T-group, or sensitivity training, was created.

Lewin is regarded by many social psychologists as the father of their discipline. He is certainly one of the fields towering ancestral figures, for two reasons. His unique combination of theory with bold experimentation provided the conceptual and methodological tools to study complex human social interaction. And, from his days in Berlin until his death in Massachusetts, he attracted and inspired dozens of students who used those tools to develop many of the central theories and findings in social psychology, including group dynamics, level of aspiration, social comparison processes, and action research.

SEE ALSO Social Psychology

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Lewin, Kurt. 1935. A Dynamic Theory of Personality. Trans. Donald Adams and Karl Zener. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lewin, Kurt. 1936. Principles of Topological Psychology. Trans. Fritz Heider and Grace M. Heider. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Marrow, Alfred J. 1969. The Practical Theorist: The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin. New York: Basic Books.

Darwyn E. Linder

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lewin, Kurt." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lewin, Kurt." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/lewin-kurt-0

"Lewin, Kurt." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/lewin-kurt-0

Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin

The German-American social psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) carried out researches that are fundamental to the study of the dynamics and the manipulation of human behavior. He is the originator of field theory.

Kurt Lewin was born in Mogilno, Prussia, on Sept. 9, 1899. He studied at the universities of Freiburg and Munich and completed his doctorate at the University of Berlin in 1914. He taught in Berlin from 1921 until the advent of Hitler to power in 1933, when he emigrated to the United States. He was visiting professor at Stanford and at Cornell before receiving an appointment as professor of child psychology in the Child Welfare Research Station of the State University of Iowa in 1935. In 1945 he left lowa to start the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also served as visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Harvard.

At lowa, Lewin and his associates conducted notable research on the effect of democratic, autocratic, and laissez-faire methods of leadership upon the other members of groups. Largely on the basis of controlled experiments with groups of children, Lewin maintained that contrary to popular belief the democratic leader has no less power than the autocratic leader and that the characters and personalities of those who are led are rapidly and profoundly affected by a change in social atmosphere. In effecting such changes on human behavior patterns, Lewin argued, the democratic group that has long-range planning surpasses both the autocratic and laissez-faire groups in creative initiative and sociality. As a general rule, he contended, the more democratic the procedures are, the less resistance there is to change.

The central factors to be considered if one wishes to transform a nondemocratic group into a democratic one are ideology, the character of its members, and the locus of coercive physical power within the group. Although coercive physical power is thus not the only factor to be considered, Lewin warns against the naive belief in the goodness of human nature, which overlooks the fact that ideology itself cannot be changed by teaching and moral suasion alone. It can be done only by a change in the distribution of coercive physical power. But he also warns that democratic behavior cannot be learned by autocratic methods. The members of the group must at least feel that the procedures are "democratic."

Lewin was a Gestalt psychologist, and that approach materially influenced him when he originated field theory. Strictly speaking, field theory is an approach to the study of human behavior, not a theory with content which can be used for explanatory, predictive, or control purposes. His work in this area has been judged as the single most influential element in modern social psychology, leading to large amounts of research and opening new fields of inquiry. According to Lewin, field theory (which is a complex concept) is best characterized as a method, a method of analyzing causal relations and building scientific constructs. It is an approach which maintains that to represent and interpret faithfully the complexity of concrete reality requires continual crossing of the traditional boundaries of the social sciences, rather than a progressive narrowing of attention to a limited number of variables. The theory, which thus requires an interdisciplinary approach to the understanding of concrete reality, has also been termed dynamic theory and topological psychology. It holds that events are determined by forces acting on them in an immediate field rather than by forces acting at a distance. In the last analysis, it is a theory about theory building, or a metatheory.

Lewin believed that a social scientist has an obligation to use his resources to solve social problems. He helped found the Commission on Community Interrelations of the American Jewish Congress and the National Training Laboratories. Shortly after his death on Feb. 12, 1947, the Research Center for Group Dynamics was moved to the University of Michigan, where it became one of two divisions of the Institute for Social Research and continued to exercise an important influence.

Further Reading

The first serious biography of Lewin is Alfred J. Marrow, The Practical Theorist: The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin (1969). A brilliant exposition of Lewin's theory is provided by Robert W. Leeper in Lewin's Topological and Vector Psychology: A Digest and a Critique (1943).

Additional Sources

Marrow, Alfred Jay, The practical theorist: the life and work of Kurt Lewin, New York: Teachers College Press, 1977, 1969. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Kurt Lewin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Kurt Lewin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kurt-lewin

"Kurt Lewin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kurt-lewin

Lewin, Kurt

Kurt Lewin

1890-1947
American social psychologist who carried out researches that are fundamental to the study of the dynamics and the manipulation of human behavior. He is the originator of field theory.

Kurt Lewin was born in Mogilno, Prussia, on September 9, 1899. He studied at the universities of Freiburg and Munich and completed his doctorate at the University of Berlin in 1914. He taught in Berlin from 1921 until the advent of Hitler to power in 1933, when he emigrated to the United States. He was visiting professor at Stanford and at Cornell before receiving an appointment as professor of child psychology in the Child Welfare Research Station of the State University of Iowa in 1935.

In 1945 he left Iowa to start the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also served as visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Harvard.

At Iowa, Lewin and his associates conducted notable research on the effect of democratic, autocratic, and laissez-faire methods of leadership upon the other members of groups. Largely on the basis of controlled experiments with groups of children, Lewin maintained that contrary to popular belief the democratic leader has no less power than the autocratic leader and that the characters and personalities of those who are led are rapidly and profoundly affected by a change in social atmosphere. In effecting such changes on human behavior patterns, Lewin argued, the democratic group that has long-range planning surpasses both the autocratic and laissez-faire groups in creative initiative and sociality. As a general rule, he contended, the more democratic the procedures are, the less resistance there is to change.

The central factors to be considered if one wishes to transform a nondemocratic group into a democratic one are ideology, the character of its members, and the locus of coercive physical power within the group. Although coercive physical power is thus not the only factor to be considered, Lewin warns against the naive belief in the goodness of human nature, which overlooks the fact that ideology itself cannot be changed by teaching and moral suasion alone. It can be done only by a change in the distribution of coercive physical power. But he also warns that democratic behavior cannot be learned by autocratic methods. The members of the group must at least feel that the procedures are "democratic."

Lewin was a Gestalt psychologist, and that approach materially influenced him when he originated field theory. Strictly speaking, field theory is an approach to the study of human behavior, not a theory with content which can be used for explanatory, predictive, or control purposes. His work in this area has been judged as the single most influential element in modern social psychology , leading to large amounts of research and opening new fields of inquiry. According to Lewin, field theory (which is a complex concept) is best characterized as a method, a method of analyzing causal relations and building scientific constructs. It is an approach which maintains that to represent and interpret faithfully the complexity of concrete reality requires continual crossing of the traditional boundaries of the social sciences, rather than a progressive narrowing of attention to a limited number of variables. The theory, which requires an interdisciplinary approach to the understanding of concrete reality, has also been termed dynamic theory and topological psychology. It holds that events are determined by forces acting on them in an immediate field rather than by forces acting at

a distance. In the last analysis, it is a theory about theory building, or a metatheory.

Lewin believed that a social scientist has an obligation to use his resources to solve social problems. He helped found the Commission on Community Interrelations of the American Jewish Congress and the National Training Laboratories. Shortly after his death on February 12, 1947, the Research Center for Group Dynamics was moved to the University of Michigan, where it became one of two divisions of the Institute for Social Research and continued to exercise an important influence.

See also Gestalt psychology

Further Reading

Leeper, Robert W. Lewin's topological and vector psychology: a digest and a critique. 1943.

Marrow, Alfred Jay, The practical theorist: the life and work of Kurt Lewin, New York: Teachers College Press, 1977.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lewin, Kurt." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lewin, Kurt." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lewin-kurt

"Lewin, Kurt." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lewin-kurt

Lewin, Kurt

Kurt Lewin (lōō´Ĭn), 1890–1947, American psychologist, b. Germany, Ph.D. Univ. of Berlin, 1914. He taught at the Univ. of Berlin before coming to the United States in 1932. He was professor (1935–44) of child psychology at the Univ. of Iowa and director (from 1944) of the research center for group dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Influenced by Gestalt psychology, he was concerned with problems of motivation of individuals and of groups as determined by the context of a given situation. His work opened up a new realm of psychological investigation. His writings include A Dynamic Theory of Personality (tr. 1935), Principles of Topological Psychology (1936), The Conceptual Representation and Measurement of Psychological Forces (1938), and Resolving Social Conflicts (1947).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lewin, Kurt." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lewin, Kurt." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lewin-kurt

"Lewin, Kurt." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lewin-kurt

Lewin, Kurt

Lewin, Kurt (1890–1947) A German-born social psychologist who moved to America in the early 1930s and worked mainly at the University of Iowa and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His holistic field theory, derived from Gestalt theory but with added social and motivational elements, sees individual behaviour as a function of the psychological field or life-space–that is, the individual and an environment, which is perceived by the individual in terms of his or her needs and goals.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lewin, Kurt." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lewin, Kurt." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lewin-kurt

"Lewin, Kurt." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lewin-kurt