Kurt Lewin and field theory: the birth of social psychology

In the history of psychology, there are few figures as important and influential as Kurt lewin. This researcher was not only one of the promoters of Gestalt psychology, but he is also considered the father of social psychology and organizational psychology.

Kurt Lewin was also the creator of Field theory, Which served as a basis for the development of research on group dynamics, very applicable in the organizational and commercial environment. Then, to understand his legacy, we will go back to the years when Kurt Lewin developed his ideas.

The first years

Kurt Lewin was born in 1890 to a Jewish family living in Mogilno, a city that at the time belonged to the Kingdom of Prussia and is now part of Poland.

After he and his family moved to Berlin, Kurt Lewin started studying medicine at the University of Freiburg, but soon after moved to Munich. to undertake a degree in biology. Back in Berlin, and without having completed his training, he became more interested in psychology and philosophy, a discipline that he began to study in 1911. By this time, he had already started to participate in initiatives related to the socialism, Marxism and struggle. for women’s rights, and he believes that applied psychology could be useful in pushing for reforms in favor of equality.

Forging the psychology of Gestalt

With the outbreak of World War I, Kurt Lewin was sent to the front lines to serve as a gunner. However, he was immediately injured and therefore remained recovering for several days. At that point, he began to describe the battlefield using topological terms that reminded him of what would be done from Gestalt theory, which at that time was being forged, and also reminded topological theory that he himself would create something later.

Once back in Berlin, in addition to a doctorate in philosophy, Kurt Lewin started working at the Berlin Institute of Psychology. It was there that he came into contact with two other great representatives of Gestalt psychology: Wolfgang kohler I Max Wertheimer. The exchange of ideas between them made it possible to consolidate the ideas belonging to the Gestalt current and, at the same time, served as a breeding ground for the laboratory to be a place where they would form young promises of European psychology, like Bluma. Zeigarnik.

Kurt Lewin in the United States

In 1933, when Hitler and the Nazis came to power, Kurt Lewin decided to immediately move to another country. He ended up emigrating to the United States after trying unsuccessfully to find a job as a university professor in Jerusalem, and thanks to Wolfgang Köhler’s contacts, he managed to find a job at Cornell University and relocate more late in Iowa. In 1944, he became director of the Group Dynamics Research Center at MIT in Massachusetts.

During this time, Kurt Lewin works in particular on social phenomena related to social interaction and studies the effects of social pressure on the eating habits of children with the most efficient work dynamics in organizations. As a result, the areas Kurt Lewin touched on went well beyond what was once associated with a psychologist’s repertoire of activities, whether from the Gestalt mainstream or any other school.

When Kurt Lewin died in 1947, he had already left a door open which would make room for the new branch of psychology: social psychology.

The theory of the force field

In the years that Kurt Lewin lived in North America, behavioralism was the dominant paradigm in the United States. Behaviorists understood that human behavior is the result of how the environment influences individuals, but Lewin took a very different view of psychology. He, like the representatives of Gestalt in Europe, understood that people are not just a passive agent who reacts to stimuli, but they act according to how they perceive they themselves interact with the environment. Interaction was therefore the fundamental element from which Kurt Lewin started in his analyzes.

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 they were two pieces to be analyzed separately, but should see how they affect each other in real time. This is why Kurt Lewin worked with categories like “living space” or “field”: what interested him was the dynamics, the changes, and not the static images of what is happening at every moment. , which he said only served to describe what happens at each step of a process, not to explain.

To describe the processes of change, Kurt Lewin was inspired by the study of physics and borrowed the idea of ​​the force field. For him, group or individual behavior can be understood as a process of change that leads from one initial situation to another. Thus, Lewin’s field theory asserts that what happens as this process of change takes place takes place in a dynamic field in which the state of every part of that force field affects all the others.

The most important variables that act in fields or “living spaces” are, for Kurt Lewin, tension, strength and necessity, through which behavior has a purpose.

Kurt Lewin and action research

Kurt Lewin understood that, like in a force field, all parts influence each other, to understand human behavior it is necessary to take into account all the variables that intervene in real time in the actions of individuals and groups, From the space they are in to the temperature, how they socialize, and so on. Moreover, these elements cannot be analyzed in isolation, but rather must focus on studying their interactions in order to have a holistic view of what is happening.

But from there comes an idea which at the time was revolutionary: as what is studied is not something isolated but of interaction, one should not be afraid to affect the object of study as as researchers. In addition, intervening in the force field allows us to introduce dynamics that will help us understand the mechanisms that work there.

In short, according to Kurt Lewin, influencing these dynamics allows us to have a true picture of what is happening. It 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 for understanding and improving social dynamics.

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