Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Kurt Lewin: Field theory, Group dynamics, Democracy

Original source (lightly edited on this page): http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-lewin.htm

Kurt Lewin: Field theory, Group dynamics and Democracy in groups

Field theory


Here we will note only the key elements of Kurt Lewin’s field theory. To begin it is important to recognize its roots in Gestalt theory. (A gestalt is a coherent whole. It has its own laws, and is a construct of the individual mind rather than ‘reality’). For Kurt Lewin behaviour was determined by totality of an individual’s situation. In his field theory, a ‘field’ is defined as ‘the totality of coexisting facts which are conceived of as mutually interdependent’ (Lewin 1951: 240). Individuals were seen to behave differently according to the way in which tensions between perceptions of the self and of the environment were worked through. The whole psychological field, or ‘lifespace’, within which people acted had to be viewed, in order to understand behaviour. Within this individuals and groups could be seen in topological terms (using map-like representations). Individuals participate in a series of life spaces (such as the family, work, school and church), and these were constructed under the influence of various force vectors (Lewin 1952).

Hall and Lindzey (1978: 386) summarize the central features of Kurt Lewin’s field theory as follows:
  • 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, and
  • The concrete person in a concrete situation can represented mathematically.
Kurt Lewin also looked to the power of underlying forces (needs) to determine behaviour and, hence, expressed ‘a preference for psychological as opposed to physical or physiological descriptions of the field’ (op. cit.).

In this we can see how Kurt Lewin drew together insights from topology (e.g. lifespace), psychology (need, aspiration etc.), and sociology (e.g. force fields – motives clearly being dependent on group pressures). As Allport in his foreword to Resolving Social Conflict (Lewin 1948: ix) put it, these three aspects of his thought were not separable. ‘All of his concepts, whatever root-metaphor they employ, comprise a single well-integrated system’. It was this, in significant part, which gave his work its peculiar power.
Group dynamics

It is not an exaggeration to say that Kurt Lewin had a profound impact on a generation of researchers and thinkers concerned with group dynamics. Brown (1988: 28-32) argues that two key ideas emerged out of field theory that are crucial to an appreciation of group process: interdependence of fate, and task interdependence.

Interdependence of fate. Here the basic line of argument is that groups come into being in a psychological sense ‘not because their members necessarily are similar to one another (although they may be); rather, a group exists when people in it realize their fate depends on the fate of the group as a whole’ (Brown 1988: 28). This is how Lewin (1946: 165-6) put it when discussing the position of Jews in 1939:

[I]t is not similarity or dissimilarity of individuals that constitutes a group, but rather interdependence of fate. Any normal group, and certainly any developed and organized one contains and should contain individuals of very different character…. It is easy enough to see that the common fate of all Jews makes them a group in reality. One who has grasped this simple idea will not feel that he has to break away from Judaism altogether whenever he changes his attitude toward a fundamental Jewish issue, and he will become more tolerant of differences of opinion among Jews. What is more, a person who has learned to see how much his own fate depends upon the fate of his entire group will ready and even eager to take over a fair share of responsibility for its welfare.

It could be argued that the position of Jews in 1939 constitutes a special case. That the particular dangers they faced in many countries makes arguing a general case difficult. However, Lewin’s insight does seem to be applicable to many different group settings. Subsequently, there has been some experimental support for the need for some elementary sense of interdependence (Brown 1989).

Task interdependence. Interdependence of fate can be a fairly weak form of interdependence in many groups, argued Lewin. A more significant factor is where there is interdependence in the goals of group members. In other words, if the group’s task is such that members of the group are dependent on each other for achievement, then a powerful dynamic is created.

These implications can be positive or negative. In the former case one person’s success either directly facilitates others’ success of, in the strongest case, is actually necessary for those others to succeed also… In negative interdependence – known more usually as competition – one person’s success is another’s failure. (Brown (1989: 30)

Kurt Lewin had looked to the nature of group task in an attempt to understand the uniformity of some groups’ behaviour. He remained unconvinced of the explanatory power of individual motivational concepts such as those provided by psychoanalytical theory or frustration-aggression theory (op. cit.). He was able to argue that people may come to a group with very different dispositions, but if they share a common objective, they are likely to act together to achieve it. This links back to what is usually described as Lewin’s field theory. An intrinsic state of tension within group members stimulates or motivates movement toward the achievement of desired common goals (Johnson and Johnson 1995: 175). Interdependence (of fate and task) also results in the group being a ‘dynamic whole’. This means that a change in one member or subgroups impacts upon others. These two elements combined together to provide the basis for Deutch’s (1949) deeply influential exploration of the relationship of task to process (and his finding that groups under conditions of positive interdependence were generally more co-operative. Members tended to participate and communicate more in discussion; were less aggressive; liked each other more; and tended to be productive as compared to those working under negative task interdependence) (Brown 1989: 32; Johnson and Johnson 1995).

Democracy and groups

Gordon W. Allport, in his introduction to Resolving Social Conflicts (Lewin 1948: xi) argues that there is striking kinship between the work of Kurt Lewin and that of John Dewey.

Both agree that democracy must be learned anew in each generation, and that it is a far more difficult form of social structure to attain and to maintain than is autocracy. Both see the intimate dependence of democracy upon social science. Without knowledge of, and obedience to, the laws of human nature in group settings, democracy cannot succeed. And without freedom for research and theory as provided only in a democratic environment, social science will surely fail. Dewey, we might say, is the outstanding philosophical exponent of democracy, Lewin is its outstanding psychological exponent. More clearly than anyone else has he shown us in concrete, operational terms what it means to be a democratic leader, and to create democratic group structure.

One of the most interesting pieces of work in which Lewin was involved concerned the exploration of different styles or types of leadership on group structure and member behaviour. This entailed a collaboration with Ronald Lippitt, among others (Lewin et. al 1939, also written up in Lewin 1948: 71-83). They looked to three classic group leadership models - democratic, autocratic and laissez-faire – and concluded that there was more originality, group-mindedness and friendliness in democratic groups. In contrast, there was more aggression, hostility, scapegoating and discontent in laissez-faire and autocratic groups (Reid 1981: 115). Lewin concludes that the difference in behaviour in autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire situations is not, on the whole, a result of individual differences. Reflecting on the group experiments conducted with children he had the following to say:

There have been few experiences for me as impressive as seeing the expression in children’s faces change during the first day of autocracy. The friendly, open, and co-operative group, full of life, became within a short half-hour a rather apathetic looking gathering without initiative. The change from autocracy to democracy seemed to take somewhat more time than from democracy to autocracy. Autocracy is imposed upon the individual. Democracy he has to learn. (Lewin 1948: 82)



Further reading and references

Bogdan, R. C. and Biklen, S. K. (1992) Qualitative Research for Education, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Bradford, L. P., Gibb, J. R., Benn, K. D. (1964). T Group theory and laboratory method, New York: John Wiley.

Brown, R. (1988) Group Processes. Dynamics within and between groups, Oxford: Blackwell.

Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical. Education, knowledge and action research, Lewes: Falmer Press.

Correy, S. M. (1949) ‘Action research, fundamental research and educational practices’, Teachers College Record 50: 509-14.

Deutch, M. (1949) ‘A theory of cooperation and competition’, Human Relations 2: 129-52

Elliott, J. (1991) Action Research for Educational Change, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Gastil, J. (1994) ‘A definition and illustration of democratic leadership’ Human Relations 47/8: 953-75. Reprinted in K. Grint (ed.) (1997) Leadership, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gold, M. (ed.) (1999) The Complete Social Scientist. A Kurt Lewin Reader.

Hall, C.S. and Lindzey, G. (1978) Theories of Personality 3e, New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Johnson, D. W. and Johnson, R. T. (1995) ‘Positive interdependence: key to effective cooperation’ in R. Hertz-Lazarowitz and N. Miller (eds.) Interaction in Cooperative Groups. The theoretical anatomy of group learning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kariel, H. S. (1956) ‘Democracy unlimited. Kurt Lewin’s field theory’, American Journal of Sociology 62: 280-89.

Kemmis, S. and McTaggart, R. (1988) The Action Research Planner, Geelong, Victoria: Deakin University Press.

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning. Experience as the source of learning and development, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall.

Lewin, K. (1935) A dynamic theory of personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lewin, K. (1936) Principles of topological psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lewin, K. (1948) Resolving social conflicts; selected papers on group dynamics. Gertrude W. Lewin (ed.). New York: Harper & Row, 1948.

Lewin, K. (1951) Field theory in social science; selected theoretical papers. D. Cartwright (ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Lewin, K. and Lippitt, R. (1938) ‘An experimental approach to the study of autocracy and democracy. A preliminary note’, Sociometry 1: 292-300.

Lewin, K., Lippitt, R. and White, R. (1939) ‘Patterns of aggressive behaviour in experimentally created “social climates”’, Journal of Social Psychology 10: 271-99.

Lewin, K. and Grabbe, P. (1945) ‘Conduct, knowledge and acceptance of new values’ Journal of Social Issues 2.

Lippitt, R. (1949) Training in Community Relations, New York: Harper and Row.

McTaggart, R. (1996) ‘Issues for participatory action researchers’ in O. Zuber-Skerritt (ed.) New Directions in Action Research, London: Falmer Press.

Marrow, A. J. (1969) The Practical Theorist. : The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin, New York: Basic Books

Reid, K. E. (1981) From Character Building to Social Treatment. The history of the use of groups in social work, Westpoint, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Schein, E (1995) 'Kurt Lewin's Change Theory in the Field and in the Classroom: Notes Toward a Model of Managed Learning', Systems Practice, http://www.solonline.org/res/wp/10006.html

Stringer, E. T. (1999) Action Research 2e, Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage.

Ullman, D. (2000) 'Kurt Lewin: His Impact on American Psychology, or Bridging the Gorge between Theory and Reality', http://www.sonoma.edu/psychology/os2db/history3.html

Webb, G. (1996) ‘Becoming critical of action research for development’ in O. Zuber-Skerritt (ed.) New Directions in Action Research, London: Falmer Press.

Winter, R. (1987) Action-Research and the Nature of Social Inquiry. Professional innovation and educational work, Aldershot: Avebury.

Yalom, I. D. (1995) The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy 4e,New York: Basic Books.

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