Kurt Lewin


(1890-1947)

Compiled by Julie Greathouse (May 1997)

Lewin





Biography
Theory
Time Line
Bibliography


Kurt Lewin is universally recognized as the founder of modern social psychology. He pioneered the use of theory, using experimentation to test hypothesis. He placed an everlasting significance on an entire discipline--group dynamics and action research.
Lewin was born in the village of Moglino in the Prussian province of Posen in 1890. He completed his requirements for a Ph.D. in 1914, at the outset of WWI. Two years later, in 1916, his degree from the University of Berlin was conferred. Lewin immigrated to the United States in 1933, where he became a citizen in 1940.
While at the University of Berlin, Lewin "found many of the department's courses in the grand tradition of Wundtian psychology irrelevant and dull" (Hothersall, 1995, p.239). His thinking was changing to emphasize social psychological problems. He is well known for his term "life space" and work on group dynamics, as well as t-groups. Lewin's commitment to applying psychology to the problems of society led to the development of the M.I.T. Research Center for Group Dynamics. "He wanted to reach beyond the mere description of group life and to investigate the conditions and forces which bring about change or resist it" (Marrow, 1969, p.178). Lewin believed in the field approach. For change to take place, the total situation has to be taken into account. If isolated facts are used, a misrepresented picture could develop.
Lewin authored over 80 articles and eight books on a wide range of issues in psychology. Although no prestigious university offered him an appointment, and the American Psychological Association never selected him for any assignment or appointed him to any committee of any significance, his everlasting presence has left him in the ranks of Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner.


Group Dynamics

"The creation of an empirically verifiable theory, Lewin knew, was the essence of science; research, therefore, had to be guided by the need to develop an integrated concept of the processes of group life" (Marrow, 1969, p.183). With this in mind, Lewin established the Research Center on Group Dynamics at Massachusetts's Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). The following six major program areas were developed...

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

"The chief methodological approach would be that of developing actual group experiments of change, to be carried on in the laboratory or in the field" (Marrow, 1969, p.179). Group life was to be viewed in its totality, not on an individual basis. Lewin vowed that C.C.I. would not just find working methods, but would not quit until these methods were put into action. The group dynamic studies should be carried out in real life situations, concentrating on fighting prejudice. Going along with these, Lewin and his colleagues established three major research areas of priority (Marrow, p.192):
(1) "The conditions which improve the effectiveness of community leaders who are attempting to better intergroup relations,"
(2) "The effect of the conditions under which contact between persons from different groups takes place."
(3) "The influences which are most effective in producing in minority-group members and increased sense of belongingness, and improved personal adjustment, and better relations with individuals of other groups".

Lewin's group dynamics has been utilized in such areas as educational facilities, industrial settings, and communities. Great improvements have been made in these areas of interest throughout the twentieth century.

Examples of Lewin's Theory

(1) Gang Behavior: Religious services had been disturbed on Yom Kippur by a gang of Italian Catholics. Lewin assembled a group of workers comprised of Catholics, Jews, Negroes, and Protestants. The groups first action was to get the four young men who were arrested for the crime put into the custody of local priests and the Catholic Big Brothers. Next, they involved as many community members as possible to make improvements more likely. It was decided that the act was not one of anti-Semitism, but one of general hostility. Likewise, it was not a problem that could be solved by sending the men to jail. The solution was to eliminate the frustrations of community life by establishing better housing, enhancing transportation, and building recreational facilities. These would allow members of different backgrounds and groups to integrate.

Plans were put into motion to get the projects completed. The members of the gang kept in contact, and within a year, conditions had improved greatly. There seemed to be no change in attitude toward the Negroes and Jews, but aggression towards them had ceased.

(2) Law and Social Change: Lewin believed that prejudice caused discrimination, not resulted from it, and altering that behavior could change attitudes. "He held that if universities were required by law to admit students on merit and not on the basis of race or religion, the practice would bring new and more favorable attitudes" (Marrow, 1969, p.204). If the support of discrimination is taken away, the base will be weakened. Discrimination could be overcome by enforcing legislation with community education. Using this, the Medical School of Columbia University was sued for their quota on how many Jews were permitted to enroll. The case was settled out of court, which led to the revision of quotas in leading colleges and universities throughout the United States.

(3) Integration of Negro Sales Personnel: Facts were compiled about department stores not hiring Negro personnel because the customers may object to it. Customers were interviewed who had dealt with Negro clerks, those who had dealt with white clerks, and white persons on the street. Those twelve who responded in a prejudiced manor were asked if they would continue to shop at that particular store with Negro sales people. They said no, but previously five of them had been observed shopping at a counter with a Negro sales person. Over sixty percent of the others surveyed said they would still shop at the department store.

It was concluded that even if a customer is prejudiced, it did not influence where they shopped, or who they purchased goods from--a white or Negro clerk. Therefore, fear of sales declining was not supported by the evidence.


Time Line of Lewin's Life

1890 Born in Moglino, Prussian province of Posen
1914 Enters Army for four years during WWI
1916 Completed Ph.D., University of Berlin
1917 Married Maria Landsberg
1919 Daughter, Agnes, born
1921 Privatdozent, University of Berlin
1922 Son, Fritz, born
1924 Student Bluma Zeigarnik completes study on recall of uncompleted tasks
1927 Promoted to Ausserordentlicher Professor
1929 Remarried Gertrud Weiss
1931 Daughter, Miriam, born
1932 Visiting Professor, Stanford University
1933 Son, Daniel, born
1933 Fled Germany to United States
1933 Faculty, Cornell University
1935 Published "A Dynamic Theory of Personality"
1935 Professor, University of Iowa
1936 Published "Principles of Topological Psychology"
1940 Becomes American citizen
1942 President of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues
1944 Organized Research Center For Group Dynamics,M.I.T.
1944 Established Commission on Community Interrelations (C.C.I.)
1944 Mother killed in Nazi Extermination camp
1946 Published Psychological Problems in Jewish Education
1946 Published "Frontiers in Group Dynamics"
1947 Created National Laboratories Training
1947 Died


Bibliography

Hothersall, David. (1995). History of Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. pp. 239-253.
Marrow, Alfred F. (1969). The Practical Theorist: The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Schultz, Duane P., and Sydney Ellen Schultz. (1994). Psychology and Work Today. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. pp. 204.
T-Group Theory and Laboratory Method. (1964). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Worchel, Stephen, and Wayne Shebilske. (1992). Psychology: Principles and Applications. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. pp. 604.



[History Home Page] [Psychology Department Home Page]