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Kurt Lewin

"If you want truly to understand something, try to change it"

Kurt Lewin's (1890-1947) work had a profound impact on social psychology and, more particularly for our purposes here, on our appreciation of experiential learning, group dynamics and action research.

Good information on Kurt Lewin can be found at:

The Kurt Lewin Institute.

'Life-space' and Field Theory

Based on Gestalt (wholeness) theory, Lewins concepts of lifespace and his field theory emphasized the effect of all factors on behavior. Perceptions of self and environment were factors, as were the various 'life-spaces' each individual participated in; work, family, church, school, etc.

The central feature of field theory were:
  • Behaviour is a function of the field that exists at the time the behaviour occurs
  • Analysis begins with the situation as a whole from which are differentiated the component parts
  • The concrete person in a concrete situation can represented mathematically

Lewins approach involved a wider variety of influences than anyone before him; and this approach gave his work an appeal and power, raising it above those that preceeded him. It increased our awareness of ourselves and the roots of behavior in group settings, which is the next point.

Group Dynamics

Much of the following and more can be found here

Lewins research and intervention efforts were centered around group dynamics, and emphasized that group life was to be viewed in its totality, not just with regard to the individuals.

His emphasis was on the following three areas:

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.

He delved into the deeper reasons for group behavior, helping those involved to see for themselves the roots of their own actions. In one famous case, religious services had been disturbed on Yom Kippur by a gang of Italian Catholics. Lewin assembled a group of workers comprised of Catholics, Jews, Blacks, 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.

Lewins intervention in this case is in stark contrast to todays 'zero-tolerance' approach, which only displays a lack of willingness to work with people in difficult situations, and also a lack of patience and skill that seems to be characteristic of modern politics. Schools that encounter difficult students merely suspend them, shifting the burden of these students onto the police, or onto society in general.

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