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Famous Psychologists - Kurt Lewin

Famous Psychologist: Kurt Lewin

Famous Psychologists - Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin is often considered to be the father of social psychology, and one of the first researchers to study group dynamics and organizational development. 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.

Kurt Lewin

Kurt Zadek Lewin (September 9, 1890 - February 12, 1947), a German-born psychologist, became one of the pioneers of social psychology.

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.

The following has been adapted from the Wikipedia: Kurt Lewin website. 

Lewin became associated with the early Frankfurt School, originated by an influential group of largely Jewish Marxists at the Institute for Social Research in Germany. But when Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 the Institute members had to disband, moving to England and America. In that year, he met with Eric Trist, of the London Tavistock Clinic, who he impressed with his theories, which Trist went on to use in his studies on soldiers during the second world war.

While working with a group at MIT in 1946, Lewin received a phone call from the Director of the Connecticut State Inter Racial Commission, requesting his help in finding an effective way to combat racial and religious prejudices. He set up a workshop to conduct a 'change' experiment, which laid the foundations for what is now known as sensitivity training. This led to the establishment, in 1947, of the National Training Laboratories, at Bethel, Maine. Carl Rogers wrote of sensitivity training as "perhaps the most significant social invention of this century."

Following the second world war Lewin was involved, along with Dr Jacob Fine at Harvard Medical School, in the psychological rehabilitation of former occupants of displaced persons camps. When Eric Trist, and A T M Wilson wrote to him proposing the establishment of a journal in partnership between their newly founded Tavistock Institute and his group at MIT, Lewin agreed, and the Tavistock Journal Human Relations was founded, with two early papers by Lewin entitled "Frontiers in Group Dynamics".

Lewin coined the notion of genidentity (1922), which has gained some importance in various theories of space-time and related fields. He also proposed Herbert Blumer's interactionist perspective of 1937 as an alternative to the nature versus nurture debate, in that he suggested that neither nature (inborn tendencies) nor nurture (how experiences in life shape individuals) alone can account for individuals' behavior and personalities, but rather that both nature and nurture interact to shape each person. Prominent psychologists mentored by Kurt Lewin included Leon Festinger (1919 - 1989), who became known for his cognitive dissonance theory (1956), environmental psychologist Roger Barker, and Bluma Zeigarnik.

Muskingum.edu: Kurt Lewin

The following has been adapted from the Muskingum.edu: Kurt Lewin website.

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".  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:    

(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

Additional Information

For more information about Kurt Lewin and mental health treatment, please click on the websites listed below.

Muskingum.edu: Kurt Lewin
Kurt lewin: groups, experiential learning and action research

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