Kurt Lewin is widely acknowledged as a seminal theorist (Smith, 2001) who made an indelible impact on the field of psychology through his work on the cognitive and motivational processes of individuals, the dynamics of intra- and intergroup relationships, and the relevance of psychology for social programs (Lewin, 1998, p. 105). Lewin is also credited for his pioneering work in the area of experiential learning and action research (Smith, 2001). It is the objective of this paper to trace Lewin's contribution to the field of psychology from both a historical as well as present day perspective.
The influence of Kurt Lewin's life on his work
It would be useful to begin a historical perspective of Kurt Lewin's work with an analysis of his biography in order to examine the influences, if any, of his personal life on the theories that he later went on to develop. As it happens, in Lewin's case, his personal experiences did play a major role in the formulation of some of his concepts such as field theory, styles of leadership and the interdependence of fate and task in group dynamics (Smith, 2001). Therefore, the description of Lewin's life that follows is structured to draw correlations between his life and the theories that he is now accredited with.
Kurt Lewin was born on September 9, 1890 in the village of Mogilno in Prussia (now Poland). His family moved to Berlin when he was 15 years of age, where the young Kurt was enrolled in the Gymnasium. He graduated from the Gymnasium in 1909, and began his further education at the University of Berlin, with the intention of becoming a country doctor (Lewin, 1998, p. 110). Although Lewin began his career as a student of medicine and biology, he soon became interested in socialist movements, probably due to his personal interest in combating the anti-Semitism trends of that era (Smith, 2001). This interest led to his switching to the study of philosophy and psychology. This inference can particularly be drawn because the Lewins were one of only about 35 Jewish families in Mogilno. Further, when Kurt Lewin was a young student, Germany was a hierarchical society where the Christians and the landed gentry tended to look down on the working poor and minority groups such as Jews. In fact, it was in this social climate that Kurt Lewin first noticed that relationships were far less hierarchical in the tiny Jewish community (Lewin, 1998, p. 109-110), which probably led to his later theorizing about group fate and task interdependence. Thus, it can be said that Kurt Lewin's childhood experiences and observations laid the foundation for his lifelong interest in social psychology and group dynamics.
It can also be inferred that Lewin's early grounding in physics, chemistry, neurology, and physiology played a definitive role in enabling his later work in topological psychology: "The term 'topological psychology' is used to refer to that part of theoretical psychology which is based upon concepts of mathematical topology. It is to be complemented by vector psychology."(Lewin, 1936, p. 7) Of course, there can be little or no doubt, that Lewin's tutelage under Carl Stumpf, a strong supporter of experimental psychology (Lewin, 1998, p. 111), also influenced to a large extent his commitment to scientific investigations of human psychology.
Lewin's scientific approach is significant because, at that time, most psychologists believed that topics such as needs, will, hopes, fears, aspirations, and feelings of reality and unreality were inherently impossible to study in a scientific manner. Influenced by the Gestalt school and Professor Cassirer, the distinguished phenomenological philosopher, however, Lewin began to violate these methodological taboos and challenge them throughout his career (Lewin, 1998, p. 111). Lewin's approach was based on the fundamental principle that psychology would never gain the respect of a science unless it was able to develop theories and constructive concepts that were methodologically sound. Thus, Lewin advocated the development of constructive concepts based on: a theoretical framework of psychological processes, which were logically consistent, and, at the same time, adapted to the special properties of the "psychological life space"; the characteristics of both the person and the environment; a set of limited assumptions; and a method of successive approximation. By adopting such an approach, Lewin believed that it was possible to arrive at empirical theories of causal relationships, which further research could then validate or use as first approximations (Lewin, 1936, p. 1-7).
Although his peers treated Lewin's approach with some amount of skepticism, he went on to prove that it was possible to study so called intangible psychological issues objectively through experimentation and research. Indeed, it can be said that Lewin's pioneering work in this area was probably his biggest general contribution to the field of psychology. Interestingly, Lewin's migration to America and his experiences with American culture proved to be yet another influence on his work, leading to an increased focus on social psychology, group processes, and the psychological issues associated with minority -- especially Jewish -- identity. One result of this area of interest was the work Lewin did on the nature of democracy, styles of leadership, and group dynamics (Lewin, 1998, p. 113-115).
Thus, it is evident that Lewin's life experiences were central to his interest and work in the areas of social psychology; group dynamics; styles of leadership; and action research. The next section of this paper discusses the historical impact of Lewin's work in some of these areas.
Kurt Lewin: Pioneering work and contributions to the field of psychology
Although Lewin did a great deal of work in the area of individual motivation and cognitive processes, he is best known for his formulation of field theory. Lewin's field theory has its roots in the Gestalt school of thought, which believed in the principle that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." In fact, some scholars believe that Lewin's field theory is so closely related to the mainstream of Gestalt psychology that it is nothing but a part of the Gestalt movement. However, it is nevertheless acknowledged that the work has sufficiently autonomous features to be considered independently and that it was the first theory to lead to the extension of the Gestalt viewpoint into social psychology (Chaplin & Krawiec, 1974, p. 54, 147).
Lewin's field theory was able to find applications to social psychology because of its emphasis on needs, will, personality, and social factors. The fundamental idea was that behavior (B) is a function (F) of an interaction between a person (P) and that person's environment (E). Thus, field theory is expressed as a mathematical equation: B = F (P, E). The important point to note, here, is that the environment in Lewin's theory is a perceptual or psychological environment, which has certain structural and dynamic properties. The former determines goals with positive or negative valences while the latter comprises of driving and restraining forces. Individuals are seen to behave differently depending on the way tensions between perceptions of the self and of the environment are resolved. According to field theory, therefore, the whole psychological field, or "life space," within which people act has to be viewed, in order to understand behavior (Lewin, 1998, p. 105-107; Weiner, 1980, p. 144-151).
It is evident from the preceding description that Lewin's field theory emphasizes on the study of behavior as a function of the total social and physical situation. Further, since the theory also involves the study of psychological factors such as needs (Smith, 2001), it is apparent that there are significant differences between Lewin's work and Gestalt theory, which stresses only on physiological constructs in studying human behavior (Chaplin & Krawiec, 1974, p. 333). However, the importance of Lewin's field theory lies not so much in the fact that it was unique but in the considerable amount of behavioral research that it led to. For instance, to name just one example, the theory that activation of one region puts that region under tension till the activation disappears implied that a person should remember activities that correspond to regions under tension better than activities that correspond to regions where the tension has dissipated. Zeigarnik (1927) put this theory to test and found that the memory for unfinished tasks was higher than that for finished ones; a finding that corresponded to the implications of field theory (Lewin, 1998, p. 108). In fact, it is said that few theoretical approaches have been as fruitful as Lewin's field theory in terms of the body of experimental work instigated by it (Weiner, 1980, p. 154).
Perhaps it was the integrating of insights from topology (e.g. life space), psychology (e.g. need, aspiration), and sociology (e.g. force fields or group pressures) that resulted in lending the power of relevance and application to Lewin's work (Smith, 2001). Or, perhaps it was the fact that Lewin's work formed the bridge between the mechanistic, drive reduction theories of Hull and Freud to the cognitive, expectancy-value framework advocated by John Atkinson, Julian Rotter and Lewin himself (Weiner, 1980, p. 141). Whatever the reason,…