Kurt Lewin: His Impact on American Psychology, or Bridging the Gorge between Theory and Reality (Deborah Ullman © 2000 )

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Any history of American psychology must include the contributions of one man who arrived in the United States as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany in the early 1930s and lived only until 1949: Kurt Lewin. Lewin was an experimental psychologist, an innovative researcher, a teacher with a zest for new areas of inquiry, and a pioneer in social psychology. He was close to the Gestalt psychology movement in Berlin and was a recognized philosopher of science (Schellenberg, 1978).

While Lewin was a scientist and a theoretician, his work was concerned with the actual circumstances of people's daily lives. His radical departure from orthodox research methodology sparked enthusiast ơic interest in his projects from students and colleagues who were dissatisfied with the apparent triviality of much experimental psychology at the time. Others questioned his social agenda as an interference with pure scientific inquiry (Allport, unpublished notes to Marrow, 1965). Lewin felt he was a part of "the mounting aspirations of research toward an understanding of actual events and particular cases" as opposed to abstractly defined classes of behavior (Lewin, 1935, p. 11). It was Lewin's ideas and research work, according to Edward Tolman, that contributed insights which, along with Freud's contributions, "first made psychology a science applicable to real human beings and to real human society" (Tolman, APA address, 1947 - quoted in Marrow, 1969, p.ix).

Lewin contributed new research ideas to American academic psychology including many questions concerning child development and human motivation. As an heir to the German experimental Gestalt revolution in psychological thought, Lewin directed the focus of the science of psychology, away from the statistical focus of the other experimentalists of his time and toward the whole-making processes in human motivation and emotion (Ash, 1995, p.268). His studies of leadership and group dynamics, which brought exacting scientific inquiry out of the laboratory and into the real life work place, was employed by the Office of Special Services during World War II and in numerous community and industrial settings (Marrrow, 1969, p. 156).

Lewin also contributed to the history of clinical psychology in America, and particularly the third force of Humanistic psychology. This is well documented by writers who credit certain of Lewin's ideas as central concepts or principles of the philosophy of Gestalt therapy. These organizing principles include attention to boundary functions, or how an organism behaves at the point of contact with its environment; field theory, the premise that we are always functioning in an interactive realm in which organism and environment are interdependent parts of the whole; and the tendency of unfinished business to hold our attention, although often out of awareness . Carl Rogers and Ruth Sanford (in Kaplan and Saddock, 1989, p. 1484) identify Lewin's work as parallel, if not a root, to client-centered psychotherapy. Rogers also believed that the sensitivity training groups which evolved out of Lewin's work in group dynamics were "perhaps the most significant social invention of this century" (Rogers in Marrow, 1969, p. 214).

Beyond Kurt Lewin's influence on American academic psychology and the, as yet, unwritten history of clinical psychology there is still another field in which Lewin plays a central role. This i s the field of organizational development, which grew out of social psychology, but certainly claims a life of its own as an economic and political force today.

Certain terms of psychological theory began with Lewin, including group dynamics, action research, life space, levels of aspiration, and field theory. But like the interdependent concept of his field theory that is of lively interest in postmodern philosophical circles today, Lewin wrote that he "...always found myself unable to think productively as a single person". In the story of Kurt Lewin's life lies clues to how this man's great contributions have been assimilated into American life while the contributor himself has been eclipsed by other personalities in the history of contemporary academic and clinical psychology.

His life and ideas-- in Germany

Lewin was born on September 9, 1890, or as he was fond of saying "the ninth nine of 90" in the village of Mogilno in Prussia, now part of Poland. He was the second oldest of four children in a middle class Jewish family. His father owned a small general store where his mother also worked. The family lived above the shop. They also owned a small farm outside of town where Kurt learned to enjoy nature while he was growing up. Kurt credited his energetic and articulate mother with instilling in him an appreciation for respectful non-hierarchical relations. When he was 15 years old the family moved to Berlin and he was enrolled in the Gymnasium. There he was introduced to Greek philosophy for which he maintained a life-long passion. In 1909 Lewin entered the University of Frieberg to study medicine, intending to become a country doctor. He transferred first to the University of Munich to study biology, then to the University of Berlin, where he worked toward his doctorate in philosophy, with a special interest in the theory of science (Marrow, 1969, pp. 3-9).

The educational system at the time regarded all subjects that were not medicine, religion, or law as part of the field of philosophy. There was a very lively intellectual environment in Berlin at this time including exploration of philosophy, political science, psychology and the natural sciences. One area of particular interest was the relationship of experimental psychology to philosophy (Ash, 1995, pp. 9, 266, see also Shane, 1997).

One of Lewin's professors directed him to the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin, then under the direction of Carl Stumpf, an experimentalist who had studied with Wilhelm Wundt, but who was less hierarchical in his teaching style. Here Lewin prepared to become a university professor á, despite the anti-Semitism throughout German universities, which he knew would limit his ability to obtain a position. His fellow students, which included a few women, engaged in long discussions about how to solve various social problems, including how to democratize Germany and how to change women's position in society. Between 1910 and 1912 these discussions involved Lewin and his friends with the young socialist movement. He and his fellow students organized an adult education program which they staffed themselves to serve working class women and men. This program was very popular and involved enthusiastic discourse among students and the student-teachers. Student enrollment grew with each semester (Marrow, 1969, p.7).

While beginning to search for laws and dynamics of human behavior, Lewin was particularly drawn to the neo-Kantian philosophers of science, especially Ernst Cassirer, and to those who were scouting out an integration of natural science and philosophy, including Carl Stumpf, who became Lewin's dissertation chair. Stumpf attracted a faculty to the Psychological Institute whose innovative research work became known as Gestalt psychology. These distinguished original thinkers included Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler. Lewin was remembered by colleagues from this community of intellectual inquiry as an exciting, unconventional, and perceptive student, and a brilliant thinker with an interest in connecting scientific psychology with the burning practical issues of the day (Marrow, 1969, 3-8).

When he completed his studies in 1914 Lewin volunteered to serve in the Kaiser's army. After serving near the war front for two years he was injured in combat. It was during his convalescence that he wrote the landmark 1917 article "War Landscape" which represents the earliest sketches of his concept of field theory (Marrow, 1969, pp.10-11).

In 1917 Kurt Lewin married a school teacher, Maria Landsberg, with whom he had two children. The marriage lasted barely ten years. During this time he wrote many journal articles and his ideas drew attention to the young professor. In 1921 he was appointed to lecture and offer seminars in both philosophy and psychology at the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin. Lewin's enthusiasm and informal manner attracted students into close-knit discussion groups, one of which met regularly in the Schwedische Cafe across from the Institute. This was called the Quasselstrippe, or the 'ramble on and talk freely group'(approximate translation from Marrow, 1969, p. 26).

Lewin oversaw many experimental investigations while in Berlin. Women participated freely in both collegial discussions and significant research in Lewin's circle . This was when women were still being excluded from Titchener's Society of Experimental Psychologists in America. One article from this period, in particular, presaged his work in the U.S. that would become known as 'action research.' This article was called "The Socialization of Taylorism." It addressed ideas on scientific management as conceived by Frederick Winslow Taylor, an American industrial engineer. While supporting Taylor's effort to discover quantitative ways to measure performance, Lewin criticized the goal of Taylorism, which was to increase profits. Lewin's interest was in improving workers' well-being and to this end he explored ways for scientists and workers to humanize the industrial workplace (Ash, 1995, p.265).

His Life and Work -- in America

His first trip to America was for a meeting of the International Congress of Psychologists at Yale in 1929. Before this meeting his ideas and research were reviewed by J. F. Brown, who had been one of Lewin's American students in Berlin. Brown's paper was published in The Psychological Review. It evaluated Lewin's overall contribution to psychology for English language psychologists for the first time. Brown felt that Lewin offered a bridge between the scientific methodology of the experimentalists who were investigating insignificant problems in the laboratory and psychoanalysis, which dealt with real problems but employed inadequate methods (Marrow, 1969, p.52). For the International Congress Lewin presented a film of a young child learning to sit on a stone and depicted the barriers and field forces at play. According to Gordon Allport this film and Lewin himself were the "hit" of the Yale meeting (Allport, unpublished notes to Marrow, spring, 1965).

In 1930 Lewin was invited to spend six months as a visiting professor at Stanford. This invitation was at the recommendation of the Director of the Psychological Laboratory at Harvard, Edwin Boring, who had heard Lewin at the Yale meeting. While Lewin was traveling to California he stopped in New York as a guest of the Colombia University Faculty Club, where he met and impressed a young pschology professor named Gardner Murphy. Murphy and others were eager to hear Lewin's first-hand report on recent political developments in Germany, which included a description of University of Berlin riots organized by Natzis in which one Jewish student was killed. This encounter also generated Murphy's interest in Lewin's research experiments at the Psychological Institute on environmental forces and child behavior (Marrow, 1969, p.65).

After his term at Stanford, his new wife, Gertrud, and their child, Miriam, headed east from California to go home to Germany ahead of Kurt. Lewin traveled back via Japan. While stopping over at the University of Tokyo he made contact with colleagues interested in his work. He learned of Hitler's ascendancy to power just as he boarded a train across Asia. His wife and daughter, whose departure was held up because the child was ill, had learned about Hitler's new position before leaving America and decided to stay in New England (Marrow, 1969, p.64-67). Lewin returned to Germany. Because of the combined efforts of the Committee on Displaced Scholars and one Ethel Waring, a specialist on child development at Cornell, Lewin was able to come back to America for a two year post at Cornell's School of Home Economics. Dr. Waring had been impressed with Lewin's work while she was visiting the Psychological Institute in Berlin, especially his film studies of children (Marrow, 1969, p. 74). When the funding for this Cornell position ran out, Lewin was able to obtain a faculty post at the University of Iowa, where he had access to the Child Welfare Research Station. This Iowa position was a result of the intercession of Lawrence Frank of the Rockefeller Foundation who obtained funding to cover Lewin's position. The year was 1935. Lewin would continue to use Iowa as his base of operation through 1944 (Marrow, 1969, p. 84). During those years he oversaw groundbreaking research, he worked with the US government, he wrote and published articles, and he lectured on issues of social concern all over the country.

Nineteen thirty-five marked the publication of a collection of Kurt Lewin's papers in English, A Dynamic Theory of Personality, which was put out by McGraw-Hill. One of these, published in 1936, concerned a comparitive psychology of German and American character based on observations of pre-school aged children. Gordon Allport felt this was one of Lewin's most important papers (unpublished notes to Marrow, spring, 1965). During his years as professor of child psychology at Iowa, Lewin attracted a lively community for informal discussions, an Iowa Quasselstrippe. This forum for the energetic exchange of ideas among his students was called the Hot Air Club and met on Tuesdays at noon upstairs at the Round Window Restaurant.

Even before he arrived in Iowa Lewin began to envision, and tried to raise funding for, a research center for exploring questions of discrimination and social equity. Early on he imagined this center would be in the new Jewish homeland at the University of Jerusalem. Lewin's vision developed over time into an American-based institute where scientific methods would be brought to play on how a democratic human community should be, how to address questions of democratic leadership, and what conditions are required for individual and group growth (Marrow, p.85).

Lewin was invited to be a visiting professor at Harvard University for the spring terms of 1938 and 1939. He offered his seminars at the Psychological Clinic rather than through the Psychology department. The clinic was directed by Henry Murray, whose own concepts about human personality had been guided, in part, by Lewin's theories (Murray, 1938, p.116). Murray's clinic was a more comfortable setting for Lewin's work than the department, whose interests seemed to Lewin to be more abstract and remote from the actual circumstances of daily life. At Harvard Lewin became close with Gordon Allport and engaged with Henry Murray. After completing his spring semester 1939 in Cambridge, Lewin was invited to the University of California at Berkeley to lecture in the summer school (Marrow, p. 136).

Lewin and his colleagues were among the many social scientists called in to help with the mobilization effort when the United States entered World War II. For Lewin shifting his situation from the academic environment to wrestling with actual major policy questions in Washington was a natural development. After he became a naturalized citizen in 1940 he had the prerequisite security clearance and was called on to consult on a wide spectrum of national problems related to the war effort. These ranged from how to increase the morale of the fighting troops and how to maximize the effectiveness of psychological warfare, to how to recondition the public's food consumption away from foods in short supply and toward food that was more available (Marrow, 1969, 153-154).

Lewin's background in real-life psychological research positioned him well, along with cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead and public-opinion researcher Rensis Likert, to work in teams on public policy issues. Years after working as part of a group to review Office of Naval Research policy, Rensis Likert recalled:

Lewin's ability to identify major problems on which research was needed made him an invaluable member...When a methodology was inadequate he devised a procedure as well as a general theory...to deal with the particular problem....

But, Likert went on to say:

...His willingness to move ahead even if the methods were tentative was a factor in the criticism aimed at him by some psychologists..., that his research had not adequately produced the large body of quantitative data required for his major conclusions. The soundness of his work, however, is amply demonstrated by the extent to which his central concepts have stood up as research on them...has been undertaken,.in the two decades since his death (Rensis Likert in an interview conducted by Marrow, 1969, p. 154-155).

While Lewin was leading teams of graduate students in child research in Iowa and commuting to Washington D.C. to consult with the OSS (Office of Special Services), he was also becoming a popular lecturer on minority problems and intergroup relations. He was all along thinking about his vision of a research institute to explore questions of human democracy and how to address group problems. He had made a convert of Maxwell Hahn, the director of the Marshall Field Foundation and been assured a certain amount of financial support when he set up his center. Lewin also found support from the American Jewish Congress for establishing a research center occupied especially with discovering the roots of anti-Semitism and other biases. These turned out to be two different projects that developed simultaneously. The next task was to find an academic institution for his research work on group dynamics. Lewin was drawn to two options: MIT and UC at Berkeley, especially the Berkeley option because of the weather. In the end MIT's Douglas McGregor informed him that a formal invitation was in the mail to establish his Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT. He accepted and two days later Edward C. Tolman at UC Berkeley informed him that they wanted to build Lewin's research center there. But it was too late. Lewin had made his commitment (Marrow, 160-165). Lewin left Iowa and went about the business of establishing his dream. This was 1945.

At the same time as he moved to MIT, Lewin was working on a project for the American Jewish Congress called the Commission of Community Interrelations (CCI), in New York. This was when Lewin delineated the combination of scientific experimentation and socially useful application he called "action research." This project provided the ideal opportunity for a broad application of action research and group dynamics (Marrow, p.162, 164).

The following year found Lewin and a set of colleagues from the Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT agreeing to conduct discussion groups on intergroup tension for the Connecticut Interracial Commission. Participants were 41 community leaders, including teachers, business leaders, social agency people, government and labor representatives who were to learn skills they could bring back to help with racial and religious tension in their communities. Lewin brought along a number of nonparticipant researchers whose task it was to observe the group dynamics as the community leaders and group facilitators were in their discussion groups. Each evening the nonparticipant observers gathered to discuss the research data acquired during that day's session. When the community leaders learned of these debriefing sessions some asked to attend (Huckabay, p.310).

Actually, the open discussion of their own behavior had an electric effect both on participants and the training leaders...Group members, when confronted more or less objectively with data concerning their own behavior and its effects...might achieve highly meaningful learnings about themselves...and about group behavior and group development in general (Bradford, Gibb, & Benne, 1964, p. 82-83).

This describes the birth of the first "T-group" or "basic skill training group", or "sensitivity group" with its powerful methodology for group practice. This experiment led to funding by the Office of Naval Research for the establishment of the National Training Laboratories by the summer of 1947 in Bethel, Maine (Huckabay, 1992, p.310, and Marrow, p. 212). Lewin died before the National Training Laboratories were established. NTL to this day plays a leading role in training consultants to business, governmental, and non-governmental organizations world-wide.

In Conclusion

Gordon Allport, when asked about what limited the accept-ability of Lewin's work, noted that Lewin's odd mathematics were off-putting (his topology and hodology). Gardner Murphy referred to the objections of some, to Lewin's focus on present-centered behavior rather than to historical explanations. Murphy felt, too, that Lewin had failed to persuade many psychologists of the non-utility of the reduction of wholes into component parts (Marrow, p.236). Also, according to Allport, Lewin's social agenda distressed some scientists who regarded him as a mere propagandist, rather than a true scientist (Allport unpublished notes to Marrow, spring, 1965). These characteristics of Lewin's work, and of the criticisms of it, identify his place in history.

Lewin died just before what Koch calls "...a massive reassessment of the positivist picture of inquiry..." which Koch traces to the early 1950s (1975, p.537).

Gertrud Lewin wrote in the Preface to Resolving Social Conflicts, the first of two volumes of papers written by Lewin in America and published posthumously, that her husband was "filled with the urgent desire to make use of his theoretical insight for building a better world" (1948, p.1). She describes Lewin's fondness for bridges and highlights his ongoing struggle "to build bridges across the gorge separating theory from the reality of the individual case" (1948, p.2).

Only hours before Kurt Lewin died of a massive heart attack, he spoke with long-time colleague Ronald Lippitt. Lewin explained:

The American cultural ideal of the self-made man, of everyone standing on his own feet, is as tragic a picture as the initiative-destroying dependence on a benevolent despot. We all need each other. This type of interdependence is the greatest challenge to the maturity of individual and group functioning (Marrow,.pp.225-226).

As I finish this discussion of Kurt Lewin's life and ideas, I am preparing to participate in a four day meeting to discuss field theory, how to develop psychological language to understand ourselves as truly interdependent beings, and how we can write about problems of concern from a field-based perspective. Others taking part in this small Cambridge meeting include writers from England, France, Australia, and the U.S. My involvement grows from craving tools for understanding a more field-theoretical way to experience myself and communicate about the subtle life of the body and spirit and their inseparability from the environment. This view implies certain imperatives regarding healing and health care with implications for reorganizing a vitally equitable human civilization. It is my hope that gorges will be bridged at our Cambridge Quasselstrippe.



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