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