In the history of psychology there are few figures as important and influential as Kurt Lewin . This researcher was not only one of the driving forces behind Gestalt psychology, but is also considered the father of social psychology and organizational psychology.
Kurt Lewin was also the creator of the Field Theory , which has served as a basis for developing research into group dynamics, which is highly applicable in the organisational and business environment. To understand his legacy, we will now go back to the years when Kurt Lewin developed his ideas.
The early years
Kurt Lewin was born in 1890 into a Jewish family living in Mogilno, a town that at that time belonged to the kingdom of Prussia and is now part of Poland.
After he and his family moved to Berlin, Kurt Lewin began studying medicine at the University of Freiburg but shortly afterwards moved to Munich to pursue a degree in biology. Back in Berlin, and without having finished his training, he became more interested in psychology and philosophy, a discipline he began to study in 1911. At that time she had already begun to participate in initiatives linked to socialism, Marxism and the struggle for women’s rights, and she believed that applied psychology could help to promote reforms in favour of equality.
Forging Gestalt Psychology
With the outbreak of World War I, Kurt Lewin was sent to the front to serve as a gunner. However, he was immediately wounded, so he was left to convalesce for several days. At that time he began to describe the battlefield using topological terms that reminded him of the Gestalt theory that was being forged at that time, and which also reminded him of the topological theory that he would create somewhat later.
Once he had returned to Berlin, in addition to his doctorate in philosophy, Kurt Lewin began working at the Berlin Psychological Institute . It was there that he came into contact with two other great representatives of Gestalt psychology: Wolfgang Köhler and Max Wertheimer . The crossing of ideas between them allowed the ideas belonging to the Gestalt current to be consolidated and, at the same time, served as a breeding ground for the laboratory to be a place where young promises of European psychology, such as Bluma Zeigarnik, were to be formed.
Kurt Lewin in the United States
In 1933, when Hitler and the Nazis came to power, Kurt Lewin decided to move immediately to another country. He ends up emigrating to the United States after unsuccessfully trying to get a position as a university professor in Jerusalem, and thanks to Wolfgang Köhler’s contacts he manages to get a job at Cornell University and later move to Iowa University. In 1944 he became director of the Group Dynamics Research Center at MIT in Massachusetts.
During this time, Kurt Lewin works especially on social phenomena that have to do with social interaction, and researches everything from the effects that social pressure has on children’s eating habits to the work dynamics that are most effective in organizations. Therefore, the fields touched by Kurt Lewin went far beyond what was usually associated with the repertoire of activities of a psychologist, whether from the Gestalt movement or from any other school.
When Kurt Lewin died in 1947, he had already left open a door that would lead to the new branch of psychology: social psychology .
The Force Field Theory
In the years when Kurt Lewin lived in North America, behaviorism was the prevailing paradigm in the United States. Behaviorists understood that human behavior is the result of the way in which the environment influences individuals, but Lewin started from a vision of psychology very different from this one. He, like the representatives of the Gestalt in Europe, understood that people are not simply a passive agent that reacts to stimuli, but that they act according to the way in which they perceive that they themselves interact with the environment . The interaction was, therefore, the fundamental element from which Kurt Lewin started his analysis.
The Field Theory is his way of expressing the idea that psychology should not focus on the study of the person and the environment as if these were two pieces to be analyzed separately, but that it is necessary to see how they affect each other in real time. That’s why Kurt Lewin worked with categories like “living space” or “field”: what was interesting to him were the dynamics, the changes, and not the static images of what happens in each moment, which he understood only to describe what happens in each phase of a process, and not to explain.
To describe the processes of change, Kurt Lewin was inspired by the studies of physics and borrowed the idea of a force field . For him, group or individual behaviour can be understood as a process of change that leads from an initial situation to a different one. Thus, Lewin’s Field Theory establishes that what happens while this process of change is taking place happens within a dynamic field in which the state of each part of this force field affects all the others.
The most important variables that are acting in the fields or “living spaces” are, for Kurt Lewin, tension, force and necessity, thanks to which behavior has a purpose.
Kurt Lewin and action research
Kurt Lewin understood that, as in a field of forces all the parts affect each other, in order to understand human behaviour it is necessary to take into account all the variables that are intervening in real time in the actions of people and groups , from the space in which they find themselves to the temperature, the way in which they socialise among themselves, etc. Furthermore, these elements cannot be analysed in isolation, but rather we must focus on studying their interactions in order to have a holistic vision of what is happening.
But from this comes an idea that was revolutionary at the time: since what is being studied is not something isolated but interaction, we should not be afraid of affecting the object of study as researchers. Moreover, intervening in the force field allows us to introduce dynamics that will help us understand the mechanisms that work in it.
In short, according to Kurt Lewin, influencing these dynamics helps to have a true image of what is happening. This was crystallized in one of the most famous phrases of this psychologist: to understand a system, you have to change it . This is the principle of action research that Kurt Lewin proposed as an effective method to understand and improve social dynamics.