Kurt Lewin Research Paper

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1. Biography

Kurt Lewin was born on September 9, 1890 in Mogilno, a small town in the (then Prussian) province of Posen, now Poland. He was the second of the three children of Leopold and Recha Lewin who owned a general store and a small farm. Kurt was sent to a Gymnasium, a secondary school, in Posen until, in 1905, the whole family moved to Berlin, as did many ascending Jewish families living in the eastern provinces of the Reich and in Eastern Europe.

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In Berlin, Kurt Lewin attended the humanistic Kaiserin-Augusta-Gymnasium. In 1909 he took up university studies of medicine and biology in Freiburg and Munich, but in 1910 he was back in Berlin to take courses in philosophy and science. His special interest soon became philosophy of science, in which field the (neo-Kantian) philosopher Ernst Cassirer and the psychologist Carl Stumpf were most influential with regard to Lewin’s intellectual development. Stumpf, the director of the Psychological Institute and the patron of what was to become the Berlin school of gestalt psychology, became Lewin’s doctoral supervisor.

Since in 1914 Lewin volunteered for the army and soon did service on the Western Front, he was awarded his doctoral degree as a soldier in 1916. While on furlough from the front in 1917, he married Maria Landsberg, a fellow student from prewar days. The same year, 1917, was also the year of Lewin’s first two publications, which, in their dissimilarity, indicate the scope of Lewin’s interests: a paper on mental activities in the inhibition of processes of volition, based on his doctoral thesis, and an almost phenomenological paper on the ‘war landscape,’ foreshadowing Lewin’s later involvement in ecological problems.

Also predictive for Lewin’s further intellectual as well as social development were his extracurricular activities and associations as a student, as from early on he had engaged himself in socialist student groups which took an active interest in the social and, mainly, educational problems of workers in agriculture and industry. From this enduring interest resulted two early publications in ‘applied psychology,’ one on rationalization in agriculture, one on the socialization of the Taylor system. Many later publications followed as a result of his and other Jewish psychologists’ forced emigration to the USA.

Before the war ended Lewin was severely wounded and hospitalized. Decorated with the Iron Cross and promoted to the rank of lieutenant, he was discharged from military service.

In the following years, Lewin, who had returned to the Psychological Institute of Berlin University, and received his Habilitation in 1921, became assistant in the new department for applied psychology, a position which he held until his emigration in 1933. In 1927 he was appointed außerordentlicher Professor—a title, not a tenured position.

Although in close spatial and intellectual proximity with Kohler’s group of gestalt psychologists, Lewin, who concentrated on studies of will, affect, and action, soon gathered a group of young talented students around him, ‘whose background was more often than not female, Jewish, and eastern European’ (Danziger 1990, p. 173). Some of Lewin’s Berlin women students gained international recognition by their association with Lewin, and some shared his later fate as refugees. But it is fair to say that Lewin’s rapidly growing scientific reputation was also due to the works of his doctoral students, which Lewin represented at conventions and in journals, preferably in his own series in the journal Psychologische Forschung.

An important date in Lewin’s vita was 1929. In this year Lewin, who had separated and divorced from his wife Maria, remarried. His second wife, Gertrud, had been a friend of the family for several years. Professionally, 1929 was the year for which he received an invitation to attend the ninth International Congress of Psychology at Yale. This was shortly after J. F. Brown, an American who had studied with Lewin, had published a paper on ‘The methods of Professor Lewin’ in the 1929 Psychological Review, which had attracted the attention of US psychologists to the work of Lewin’s Berlin group. In Yale Lewin impressed his audience with a short paper on environmental forces (read in German) and an equally short, but self-made motion picture of an eighteen-month-old girl trying to sit on a stone for the first time in her life—one of the many films that Lewin found useful for the graphic representation of the life space (see below). According to G. W. Allport, who had witnessed Lewin’s performance in Yale, ‘This ingenious film was decisive in forcing some American psychologists to revise their own theories of the nature of intelligent behavior and of learning’ (quoted in Marrow 1969 50f.). It was his first encounter with a US audience that resulted in Lewin being invited as visiting professor by Stanford University in 1932.

It turned out that after this stay in Stanford Lewin would only briefly return to Berlin, as in January 1933 the Nazis seized power in Germany. On his return trip from California via Japan and the USSR Lewin decided that he and his family could not live in Nazi Germany. Fortunately, shortly after his return he received a cable informing him that Cornell was inviting him to join the faculty staff, which he gladly accepted—just in time.

From 1933 to 1935 Lewin then worked at the Cornell School of Home Economics. In 1935 he was offered a position at the Iowa University Child Welfare Research Station. For eight years he worked in Iowa as a professor of child psychology. It was in these years that Lewin taught excellent students who became his disciples and, later, colleagues; for example, Barker, Bavelas, Cartwright, Festinger, French, Lippitt, White, and Zander. It was also during this period that Lewin’s research interests shifted toward social psychological problems. In 1937 he became one of the founders of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, whose president he became in 1941.

This social engagement reflects Lewin’s increasing concern with the interaction between research and practice which led to his conception of ‘action research,’ and to the idea and foundation of the Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT in 1945, whose main research task was to be ‘the development of scientific methods studying and changing group life and the development of concepts and theories of Group Dynamics’ (quoted in Patnoe 1988, p. 9).

This institution framed the final period of Lewin’s life. In 1947, in the middle of a rather hectic spell of Activity, he died of a heart attack, on February 12 in Boston, at the age of 56. In the same year the Research Center moved to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where it still exists as a prominent place of social research.

2. Research Topics And Fields

Social interaction, mainly in small face-to-face groups, was such a driving force in Lewin’s professional life that it is difficult, often impossible, to single out and identify his strictly individual contribution to what the Berlin or Cornell or Iowa or MIT group produced. Conversely, psychological knowledge today owes a great deal to names such as Barker, Cartwright, Dembo, Festinger, French, Hoppe, Karsten, Kelley, Lippitt, Ovsiankina, Pepitone, Thibaut, Zeigarnik (an alphabetical, hence arbitrary, order of students and colleagues who worked with Lewin). From their oeuvre, whether published individually or as coauthors, whether during Lewin’s lifetime or thereafter, it would be difficult to do an auctorial analysis of variance. But it would be futile, too, since Lewin, at least, believed firmly in the creativity of dialogical thinking. Hence, Lewin is not only an author’s name, it is also a brand name for products of the interaction between Kurt Lewin and his associates.

If one is looking for a name designating the unity of products from Lewin’s groups the choice, after all, would be ‘field theory,’ which was also Lewin’s final preference although for many years the favorite was ‘topology.’ It has been stated frequently but is useful to repeat that ‘field theory is probably best characterized as a method: namely a method of analyzing causal relations and of building scientific constructs’ (Lewin 1997).

The conceptual tools of this metatheory and methodology (rather than theory and method) are found mainly in two monographs (Lewin 1936, 1938) and two anthologies (Lewin 1997, 1999). Lewin adopted the philosophical foundation of Ernst Cassirer’s (1953) distinction between ‘substance’ and ‘function,’ his theory of a historical transition from ‘thing-concepts’ to ‘relation(or function-) concepts’ and from an abstractionto a construction-mode of concept formation. Lewin applied this conception to psychology in his 1931 paper on the transition from an Aristotelian to a Galileian mode of thought (in Lewin 1935). For him psychology deals with relations or functions (rather than thing-like entities) which are basically dynamic i.e., forces.

In accordance with gestalt theoretical principles, every individual psychological instance (experience or behavior) is the result of an interaction of several features of a given whole or situation; ultimately, each behavior is determined by the total situation in which it occurs. For Lewin the total situation was the ‘life space’ organized by interdependent forces. In other words, the life space is the ‘totality of facts which determine the behavior (B) of an individual at a certain moment. The life space (L) represents the totality of possible events. The life space includes the person (P) and the environment (E). ‘B=f (L)=f (P, E)’ (Lewin 1936, p. 216).

It is this formula, which binds person and environment inextricably together, which has become a kind of shorthand for field theory: It is important to note that, owing to the principle of interdependence, neither person nor environment is granted independence. The field, which is structured into regions, paths, and barriers, is basically a field of forces (tendencies to change or to resist change). Some regions are attractive to the person (they have a positive ‘valence’). Others are repulsive (they have a negative ‘valence’). The person is also considered to be a differentiated region with similar structural and dynamic properties.

These formal characteristics of the life space may be sufficient to explain why Lewinian psychology, whether of learning, of memory, of decision, of action, or of social interaction and relations, is intrinsically dynamic and deals with tension systems (as in anger, aggression, regression, substitution, flight into irreality, etc.), with forces affecting the level of aspiration, conflict, decisions, pressure, resistance, and with styles of leadership or the social-emotional atmosphere of small groups. It was mainly the latter type of studies, their designation (of ‘authoritarian’ vs. ‘democratic’ vs. ‘laissez-faire’ styles of leadership), and, last but not least, the fact that they were published in the early war years, that attracted wide and lively public interest, curiosity, and critique. From these studies, in which things ‘happened’ that were not designed to happen (such as ‘laissez-faire’ in lieu of a ‘democratic’ style), moving toward the use of research for policies of social change, what Lewin has called ‘action research,’ was but a small, though consequent and innovative step. It was final confirmation for the interdependence that Lewin had postulated between theory and practice, basic research and applied science.

3. Assessment

A critical assessment of what in the first five decades after Lewin’s death has variously been called the Lewin tradition, legacy, or heritage is difficult because this is a multidimensional and multiperspectival task. It is multidimensional because of the many research fields in which Lewin was engaged, beginning with the general experimental psychology of learning, memory, affect, motivation, and action, through child and personality psychology, to social, mainly small-group psychology, education, and social change, as well as, from the start, metatheory and methodology. It is multiperspectival since, depending on which experts or resources are consulted at any given time, Lewin’s influence on present psychology will be differently evaluated.

It may be easy to neglect the temporal or epochal factor. While, in the first two decades after his death, Lewin’s or ‘Lewinian’ theory could rightly be named a ‘contemporary systematic framework,’ and ‘field theory’ occupied sizeable chapters in handbooks of social psychology, this situation had begun to change in the 1980s to such an extent that quite a few of the centennial retrospectives due in 1990 were celebrations with reservations (cf. Graumann 1992, Schonpflug 1992, Wheelan et al. 1990). Field theory was no longer one of the grand theories of (social) psychology (if indeed there were any great ones left). Topology and vector psychology were going out of fashion. Progress in mathematical psychology no longer included topology and hodology as Lewin (1936) had envisaged and practiced them. If Lewin identified himself and has been identified with topology and vector psychology, his significance for contemporary psychology has noticeably decreased. None of his influential disciples, who all remember Lewin drawing ‘bathtubs and eggs’ in class, has seriously pursued topology as a theoretical and methodological system. But, as outlined above, many of the ‘psychological concepts’ listed in Lewin’s ‘Topology’ of 1936 have not only survived but become common psychological knowledge.

What is more important for Lewin’s heritage and his presence in contemporary psychology is the diversity with which his oeu re has been handed down by his disciples and followers. To name but two traditions which may both rightly be called Lewinian, but in fact have little in common, there is, on the one hand, the prominent group of experimental social psychologists, going back to Lewin’s Iowa period (1935–44) and the beginnings of the MIT Research Center for Group Dynamics through Lewin’s death in 1947. On the other hand, there is the tradition in which group dynamics and action research have been seen essentially as means of changing human relations, individuals, groups, and societies. The journal Human Relations, founded by Lewin in cooperation with the Tavistock Clinic in London, has become an outlet for publications on applied group dynamics from which so-called ‘sensitivity training’ and resulting ‘encounter groups’ have gained the broadest notoriety by growing into a movement (cf. Back 1973).

But even if one stays within Lewinian experimental social psychology, the variance of derivations from Lewin’s original ideas is considerable. If one looks for the common element, most of Lewin’s senior disciples testify that it was Lewin’s ‘style’ and the ‘atmosphere’ he created around him—a thoroughly Lewinian remark since ‘Lewinian style included an appreciation and sensitivity to context—the interplay of person with environment’ (Patnoe 1988, p. 88, cf. Graumann 1992). What Patnoe (1988, p. 15) concluded from the testimonies of Lewin’s contemporaries, namely that ‘Lewin created his own microculture,’ has been taken by historiographers of psychology as an enduring characteristic of Lewin’s research style. Mitchell Ash (1995), who as a historian of gestalt psychology (and of other emigre psychologists after 1933) is interested in the role of milieu changes, states that Lewin, who had already established ‘a scientific microculture around him’ in Berlin (Ash in Schonpflug 1992, p. 20), accomplished the same in Iowa. The (sometimes very intense) interpersonal interaction in Lewin’s research group was not just different from the methods of the (other) gestalt theorists (Ash 1995, p. 272). For Kurt Danziger, who has specialized in the history of psychological research, Lewin developed an investigative practice that ‘departed fundamentally from the natural scientific model of experimentation’ (Danziger 1990, p. 175). Considering that Lewin’s Berlin experiments were not in social but in personality psychology, it is a striking innovation that even here (and in principle) the ‘investigative situation is recognized as intrinsically social, and in research on personality it must form part of the object of investigation’ (Danziger 1990, p. 175).

In anticipation of and in accordance with Lewin’s later theorizing, the experimental subject is not a decontextualized individual, but a person-in-a-situation, and an important interacting part of the situation is the person of the experimenter. It is here that the Galileian thought and postulate which gave birth to field theory have become instrumental in an innovative, psychologically autonomous research practice—a legacy of Lewin’s that psychologists still have to appropriate.


  1. Ash M 1995 Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890–1969: Holism and the Quest for Objectivity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  2. Back K W 1973 Beyond Words: The Story of Sensitivity Training and the Encounter Movement. Penguin, Baltimore, MD
  3. Cassirer E 1953 Substance and Function. Dover, New York
  4. Danziger K 1990 Constructing the Subject. Historical Origins of Psychological Research. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  5. Graumann C F 1992 Lewin 1990. In: Schonpflug W (ed.) Kurt Lewin. Leben, Werk und Umfeld. Lang, Frankfurt, Germany, pp. 223–30
  6. Lewin K 1935 A Dynamic Theory of Personality, 1st edn. McGraw-Hill, New York
  7. Lewin K 1936 Principles of Topological Psychology, 1st edn. McGraw-Hill, New York
  8. Lewin K 1938 The Conceptual Representation and the Measurement of Psychological Forces. Duke University Press, Durham, NC
  9. Lewin K 1981 Kurt Lewin Werkausgabe [ed. Graumann C F]. Huber, Switzerland
  10. Lewin K 1997 Resolving Social Conflicts and Field Theory in Social Science. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC
  11. Lewin K 1999 The Complete Social Scientist, 1st edn. [ed. M. Gold]. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC
  12. Marrow A J 1969 The Practical Theorist. The Life and the Work of Kurt Lewin. Basic Books, New York
  13. Patnoe S 1988 A Narrative History of Experimental Social Psychology: The Lewin Tradition. Springer Verlag, New York
  14. Schonpflug W (ed.) 1992 Kurt Lewin. Leben, Werk und Umfeld. Lang, Frankfurt, Germany
  15. Stivers E, Wheelan S A (eds.) 1986 The Lewin Legacy-Field Theory in Current Practice. Springer Verlag, Berlin
  16. Wheelan S A, Pepitone E A, Abt V (eds.) 1990 Advances in Field Theory. Sage, London
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