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Kurt Lewin: 1890–1947

The Practical Theorist
  • Bernard BurnesEmail author
Living reference work entry

Later version available View entry history

Abstract

Few social scientists can have received the level of praise and admiration that has been heaped upon Kurt Lewin. Edward Tolman, one of the most distinguished psychologists of his day, put his contribution to psychology on a par with that of Sigmund Freud (Tolman, Psychological Review 55:1–4, 1948). The distinguished scholar Edgar Schein (Organizational psychology, 3rd edn. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, p 239, 1988) called Lewin “the intellectual father of contemporary theories of applied behavioural science.” Recently, the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman (Foreword. E Shafir: The behavioral foundations of public policy. Princeton University Press, Princeton, p viii, 2013) declared that “We are all Lewinians now.” Tributes such as these, from such distinguished figures, show that Lewin made an outstanding and enduring contribution to the field of psychology. He is now best known for his work in the field of organizational change, but, as this chapter will show, he had a wider agenda aimed at resolving social conflict. Among the main factors that influenced and motivated his work were his application of Gestalt psychology to child psychology and the impact of the anti-Semitism he encountered growing up and working in Germany. On moving to the USA, he gravitated from studying child psychology in the laboratory to bringing about social and organizational change in the real world. His key contributions were the creation of planned change, his work on participative management, and countering religious and racial discrimination. He was also responsible for establishing important institutions, such as the National Training Laboratories and the Research Center for Group Dynamics. Lewin’s lasting legacy consists not just of his groundbreaking scholarly work but also of his example as a “practical theorist” who wanted to make the world a better place.

Keywords

Kurt Lewin Gestalt psychology Field theory Democratic participation Resolving conflict Planned change 

Introduction

Lewin was born in Mogilno, then in Western Prussia, where he received an Orthodox Jewish education. He completed a doctoral degree in philosophy and psychology at Berlin University in 1914 on the topic of “The Psychic Activity: On Interrupting the Process of the Will and the Fundamental Laws of Association’. After serving in the military during World War I, he was appointed as a researcher at the Psychological Institute of Berlin University and then, from 1926 to 1933, served there as a professor of philosophy and psychology. With the rise of Nazism, Lewin realized that the position of Jews in Germany was becoming untenable, and he moved to the USA. He was first employed as a “refugee scholar” at Cornell University. Then, from 1935 to 1945, he worked at the University of Iowa’s Child Welfare Research Station. Lewin died of a heart attack in 1947 at the age of 56 just after he had established both the Research Center for Group Dynamics (RCGD) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Commission on Community Interrelations (CCI) and laid the foundations of what was to become the National Training Laboratory (NTL).

I initially encountered Lewin’s work sometime in the 1980s. The first time I had to examine his work in-depth was when I was preparing the first edition of my book Managing Change (Burnes 1992). It was obvious to me that a serious examination of the change field could not be undertaken without reviewing Lewin’s contribution. However, the 1980s and 1990s were not good years for studying Lewin. This was a period when the received wisdom was that organizations, if they were to survive, needed to change in a rapid, large-scale, and continuous fashion. In such a context, Lewin’s small-group, slow, participative, and ethical approach to change was seen as outmoded or even just plain wrong in the first place. This view was perhaps most trenchantly summed up by Kanter et al. (1992, p. 10), who referred to his change model as a “quaintly linear and static conception” which was “wildly inappropriate.” It was also a period when it was very difficult to obtain Lewin’s publications or even identify the extent of his published work. The Internet was in its infancy; there were no effective search engines and little academic material available in digital format, especially if that material had been published some 50 or 60 years earlier. It took me over a decade of collecting, reading, and rereading Lewin’s work in order to gain a good understanding of the breath, depth, and profundity of his research. In the process, I was able to address and refute many of the criticisms levelled against him. Even now, after nearly three decades of studying Lewin, I am still finding new material and gaining new insights.

I have come to realize that there are three factors that one needs to take into account when studying Lewin. Firstly, for most of his life, Lewin’s research focused on child psychology rather than social or organizational change, and it is difficult to appreciate the basis and rationale for his later work on change unless one understands his work on child psychology. Secondly, though Lewin’s pioneering work on social, organizational, and behavioral change was only undertaken in the last 9 years of his life, it comprises an enormous number and variety of studies. As Table 1 shows, between 1938 and 1947, Lewin carried out an ambitious program of research which covered topics which went far beyond child psychology, including conflict in marriage, styles of leadership, worker motivation and performance, conflict in industry, group problem solving, communication and attitude change, anti-Semitism , antiracism , discrimination and prejudice, integration segregation, peace, war, and poverty. Table 1 does not encompass the full range of Lewin’s work at this time. The records of his work are scattered across numerous articles published by Lewin and his collaborators, notably Alex Bavalas , John R P French, and especially his friend and biographer Alfred Marrow . Much unpublished material can also be found in the Lewin, Marrow, and French archives, which are located in the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron. However, a great deal of Lewin’s research was never published, such as his secret work for the US war effort, or was published in the names of his collaborators and students. For example, one of the earliest and most cited articles on resistance to change, Coch and French (1948), was based on research directed by Lewin and based on his methods and theories. It would have been just as accurate, if not more so, for it to have been attributed to Lewin, Coch, and French. Lastly, at the time of his death, his work on change was very much a work in progress. Indeed, some elements, such as his three-step model of change, were barely covered in his writings.
Table 1

Kurt Lewin – key projects and events 1939–1947 (Adapted from Burnes 2007)

Date

Study/event

Location

Focus

Concepts

1938/1939

Autocracy-democracy

Iowa

The effects of different leadership styles on children’s behavior

Participation and group decision-making

1939

Employee turnover

Harwood

Employee retention

Changing supervisory behavior

1940/1941

Group decision-making

Harwood

Democratic participation and productivity

Participation and group decision-making

1941?

Training in democratic leadership

Iowa

Improving leadership behaviors and techniques

Sensitivity training

1942

Food habits

Iowa

Changing the food-buying habits of housewives

Participation and group decision-making

1942

Self-management

Harwood

Increasing workers’ control over the pace of work

Group decision-making

1944/1945

Leadership training

Harwood

Improving the interpersonal skills and effectiveness of supervisors

Role play

1944/1945

Commission on Community Interrelations (CCI)

New York

The problems and conflicts of group and community life

Action research

1945

Research Center for Group Dynamics

MIT

Understanding and changing group behavior

Action research

1946

Changing stereotypes

Harwood

Changing attitudes to older workers

Information gathering, discussion, and reflection

1946

Connecticut State Inter-Racial Commission

New Britain, Connecticut

Leadership training

Sensitivity training/role play

1947

National Training Laboratory

Bethel, Maine

Leadership training

T-groups (sensitivity training/role play)

1947

Overcoming resistance to change

Harwood

The impact of different approaches to change on productivity

Participative change/force field analysis

Therefore, in order to understand Lewin’s work, the reader needs to piece it together for themselves rather having it presented as a whole by Lewin. Even Marrow’s 1969 biography, The Practical Theorist: The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin , is a somewhat sketchy and partial account. Despite its title, as Marrow (1969: x) comments in its Preface, it does not attempt to provide a “complete summation and appraisal” of Lewin’s life and work, but instead is based on reminiscences supplied by a number of Lewin’s colleagues some 20 years after his death.

In writing this chapter, it has not been possible to draw on a rounded and agreed picture of Lewin’s life and work. Instead, it is based on my own attempts to understand the nature of Lewin’s work and how it was developed. The chapter begins by identifying the main influences on, and motivations for, his work. This section also shows how the focus of his work moved from studying child psychology in the laboratory to bringing about social and organizational change in the real world. The next section reviews his key contributions to the field of change and especially his contribution to the creation of organization development (OD). This is followed by a discussion of the new insights Lewin’s work provided into the nature of social and organizational change. The last section of the chapter examines his enduring legacy and especially the example he set as a “practical theorist” who worked to change the world for the better.

Influence and Motivations: From Gestalt Psychology to Democratic Participation

At the Psychological Institute of Berlin University, Lewin’s field of study was child psychology , an area in which he published many groundbreaking papers and where, in the 1920s and 1930s, he achieved worldwide distinction (Lindzey 1952). However, in the late 1930s, after his move to the USA, he began to change direction and use his theoretical insights to develop practical approaches to social and organizational change. He is now best known as the originator of planned change, which comprises field theory, group dynamics, action research, and the three-step model of change. In developing planned change, Lewin was influenced by four main factors.

Firstly, Gestalt psychology : At the Berlin Psychological Institute, Lewin worked with and was influenced by two of the founders of Gestalt psychology, Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Köhler . It was the holistic nature of Gestaltism which attracted Lewin. For psychologists, a Gestalt is a perceptual pattern or configuration which is the construct of the individual mind. It is a coherent whole which has specific properties that can neither be derived from the individual elements nor be considered merely as the sum of them. Through his work with Wertheimer and Köhler, Lewin came to appreciate that the piecemeal analysis of individual stimuli and actions could not give a true or accurate picture of the reasons why a person or group behaved as they did. Instead, he felt that Gestalt psychology, by seeking to understand the totality of a person’s situation, seemed much nearer to the way in which an individual actually experienced life. As such, it provided the theoretical understanding that allowed Lewin to construct much of his later work, especially field theory or topological psychology as he also referred to it.

Secondly, mathematics and physics: In developing field theory , Lewin was strongly influenced by the work of mathematicians and physicists. He argued that to be seen as a rigorous, scientific discipline, psychology had to represent behavior in mathematical terms. Lewin argued that mathematics allowed psychologists to develop an effective means of theory building, because it enabled the meaning of any concept to be derived from its relationship to other concepts, which he referred to as the “constructive method ” (Lewin 1942). Like other Gestaltians, Lewin was attracted by the parallels between the psychological concept of perceptual fields and the work that physicists were doing on field theory (Köhler 1967). However, in the pursuit of scientific rigor, he sought to take this parallel further than other Gestaltians by attempting to base his field theory on the same process of “mathematization” as in the physical sciences (Lewin 1949). In this, he was strongly drawn to the writings of the philosopher Ernst Cassirer , who tried to establish physics as the “paradigm science” (Danziger 2000). In particular, Lewin (1949, p. 35) saw Cassirer’s development of a “mathematical constructive procedure” as a way of determining the relationship between general psychological laws and individual behavior, which he saw as central to applying the constructive method to psychology.

Thirdly, child psychology : Lewin’s experimental studies of child psychology began at the University of Berlin and continued at the University of Iowa. Lewin’s studies focused on child development, especially the forces motivating children’s behavior at particular developmental stages. He observed that children developed at different rates and that some children might move from one stage to the next, but then regress back to the earlier stage. As Lewin (1941, p. 87) noted, “In psychology the term regression refers to a primitivation of behavior, a “going back” to a less mature state which the individual had already outgrown.” Drawing on Gestalt psychology and applying his field theory, Lewin sought to determine a child’s life space, i.e., identify the environmental forces shaping the child’s behavior in terms of progression and regression, which was a major break from established thinking on child development.

Of particular concern to Lewin was the behavior of children in conflict situations. He used field theory to understand how the strength and nature of positive and negative forces in a child’s life space generated conflict. In this respect, he drew particular attention to group membership, which he saw as playing a significant role in terms of a child’s behavior and development. He also came to recognize that the style of group “leadership” also strongly influenced a child’s behavior in terms of the degree of conflict (Lewin 1946). Lewin’s work on child psychology , especially in the areas of regression and conflict, has clear links with the unfreezing, moving, and [re]freezing elements of his later three-step model of organizational change.

The last influence was his experience of anti-Semitism : For a Jew growing up and living in Germany, discrimination was a fact of life. Indeed, as he commented to Marrow (1969), not only was anti-Semitism something he experienced everyday of his life in Germany, but by the time he left Germany, his own children, as Jews, were not allowed to attend the university where he taught. In 1933, Lewin decided that the situation for Jews in Germany had deteriorated to such an extent that the lives of his family were no longer safe and they must leave. Even though Lewin and his wife and children got out of Germany, others of his family did not. His mother and other relatives died in the Holocaust.

Given how well Lewin was regarded as a child psychologist, it seems strange that he should leave that behind and instead devote himself to studying and bringing about social, organizational and behavioral change in the real world. The impetus for this move arose from two main motivators.

The first motivator was combating social conflict . With his experience of anti-Semitism in Germany, the rise of Hitler, and the killing of millions of Jews in the concentration camps, it is not surprising that Lewin, like many at that time, felt passionately about the need to resolve social conflict in all its forms (Cooke 1999). Though he rarely spoke of how he had been affected by the Holocaust, he once commented to Marrow (1967, p. 146), who had warned him about overworking, that:

When you go to sleep each night, hearing the anguished screams of your mother as the brutal Nazis tortured her to death in a concentration camp, you can’t think of ‘taking it easy.’

Lewin’s antipathy to discrimination and persecution was reinforced and broadened by the widespread religious and racial discrimination he found in the USA. This can be seen in his role as chief architect of the CCI, which he established in 1946. Though it was founded and funded by the American Jewish Congress, its aim was the eradication of discrimination against all minority groups. As Lewin stated:

We Jews will have to fight for ourselves and we will do so strongly and with good conscience. We also know that the fight of the Jews is part of the fight of all minorities for democratic equality of rights and opportunities... (quoted in Marrow 1969, p. 175).

The second main motivator was promoting democracy. For Lewin, the scourge of Nazism could only be eradicated if Germany’s authoritarian and racist culture was replaced with one imbued with democratic values. Indeed, he believed that it would be impossible to prevent the worst extremes of social conflict in any country unless democratic values were spread throughout all the institutions of a society, whether they are public bodies or private enterprises. This is why, as the next section will show, the pursuit of “democratic equality of rights and opportunities” for all lies at the heart of Lewin’s approach to change. As his wife Gertrude wrote in the Preface to a volume of his collected work published after his death, Lewin was “… filled with the urgent desire to use his theoretical insight for the building of a better world” (Lewin 1948: xv).

Key Contributions: The Emergence of Planned Change

Lewin was a prolific researcher, writer, activist, and networker, the range of whose activities are only touched on in Table 1. Though his contributions to shaping our understanding and practice of change were many, the four described in this section help to explain why Lewin’s work had such an impact in his lifetime and why it has proved so enduring. The first two contributions arose from events in 1939 and were crucial in enabling him to turn his experimental and theoretical work on child psychology into a practical approach to bringing about social, organizational, and behavioral change in the real world. These events also allowed him to demonstrate his famous dictum that “there is nothing so practical as a good theory” (Lewin 1943/1944, p. 169). The two events were the publication of the Lewin et al. (1939) autocracy-democracy studies and the invitation from his close friend Marrow to carry out experiments in his family business, the Harwood Manufacturing Corporation.

The autocracy-democracy studies : These showed that children working in groups to achieve a common task behaved very differently depending on whether they worked under autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leadership (Lewin et al. 1939). Lewin et al. found that leaders who promoted democratic participation obtained far better results than autocratic or laissez-faire leaders. Consequently, if autocratic leaders or laissez-faire leaders wanted to improve the performance of their followers, they first had to reflect on and change their own behavior before attempting to change that of others. The implications of this research for Lewin’s future work were threefold:
  • It provided the theoretical basis on which Lewin built his participative-democratic approach to social and organizational change.

  • It initiated the participative management movement which grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s.

  • Its emphasis on the need for leaders to reflect on their own behavior led to the creation of T-groups through his leadership of the 1946 New Britain workshop and the creation of the NTL (Burnes 2007; Burnes and Cooke 2012; French 1982; Marrow 1969).

The Harwood studies : 1939 marked the formal beginning of Lewin’s relationship with the Harwood Manufacturing Corporation, which lasted until his death in 1947 (Marrow 1969). Its CEO, Alfred Marrow , asked Lewin to assist the company in overcoming the twin problems of low productivity and high labor turnover, which it was experiencing at its new plant. In essence, Lewin was asked to apply his theoretical insights and experimental approach to resolving the practical problems of industry. As Marrow (1969, p. 145) observed, “… experimentation at Harwood had to be subordinate to practical factory needs,” but between 1939 and 1947, Lewin carried out a wide range of interventions that eventually involved all of Harwood’s managers and workers. The key experiments concerned group decision-making, self-management, leadership training, changing stereotypes, and overcoming resistance to change (Marrow 1969).

Harwood was the main test bed for the elements that would comprise up Lewin’s planned approach to change, especially action research. As Marrow (1972, p. 90) stated:

We agreed that the emphasis was to be on action, but action as a function of research. Each step taken was to be studied. Continuous evaluation of all steps would be made as they followed one another. The rule would be: No research without action, no action without research.

Lewin maintained that action research was an iterative, learning process whereby those involved had to be free to analyze their current situation, identify the appropriateness of their current behavior, consider alternatives, and choose what action to take. Therefore, for Lewin (1946), change was a learning process , but to bring about change successfully, there had to be “felt need.” However, felt need only arises where individuals and groups feel they have a choice in whether to change or not, which emphasizes the importance of democratic participation to the change process (Carpenter 2013; Diamond 1992; Tversky and Kahneman 1981). It also shows the continuing influence of Gestalt psychology on Lewin’s work, which stresses that change can be successfully achieved only by helping individuals to reflect on and gain new insights into the totality of their situation.

Though the Harwood studies in themselves were significant (Dent 2002), it is best to see them as part of an interrelated set of research projects and events covering similar issues and adopting a similar approach that spanned both industrial and social settings (see Table 1). From these studies, Lewin developed a democratic-humanist approach to resolving social conflict and demonstrated that it could be effective in both industry and society at large. A key element in this respect was Lewin’s third main contribution to the development of our understanding of change – the New Britain workshop.

The New Britain workshop : In 1946, Lewin was asked by the Connecticut Interracial Commission to organize a training workshop to equip community leaders with the skills necessary to help black and Jewish Americans counter discrimination in housing, education, and jobs (Marrow 1967). Lewin saw this as an opportunity to put his democratic-humanist values into practice to help disadvantaged groups. The resultant workshop has become famous in the annals of behavioral science and can claim to be one of the foundation stones of the OD movement. What emerged from New Britain was both an approach to change – T-groups – and an organization for promoting that approach, the NTL. The creation of T-groups, where the T stands for training, has been described as one of the most important, and contentious, social inventions of the twentieth century (Burnes and Cooke 2012). In essence, the creation of T-groups was an extension of Lewin’s autocracy-democracy studies, which showed that leaders often needed to reflect on and change their behavior before they can change other people’s behavior. This can be seen in Burke’s (2006, p. 15) observation that in T-groups:

Participants receive feedback from one another regarding their behavior in the group and this becomes the learning source for personal insight and development. Participants also have the opportunity to learn more about group behavior and intergroup relationships.

Most of those who became leading figures in the OD movement were involved in the NTL and shared its zealot-like commitment to the promotion of T-groups, which created the conditions for the rapid expansion of OD in the 1960s. Though the dramatic growth of T-groups overshadowed other branches of OD, these were able to grow by virtue of their relationship to the T-group movement. Consequently, when the T-group bubble burst in the early 1970s, these other branches of OD, especially planned change, could fill the gap. Thus many of those involved in running T-groups transferred their efforts into providing other OD services to their clients, which ensured that OD continued to thrive and they continued to earn a living.

An inspirational figure: From the 1920s onward, Lewin was a leading international scholar with friends, collaborators, and admirers in countries as diverse as Japan, Russia, and the USA. As Marrow (1969: xi) noted, Lewin was a charismatic individual who:

… kept exchanging ideas with all sorts of men on all sorts of occasions – fellow professionals, students in his own and other fields, colleagues both sympathetic and unpersuaded by his theoretical position, research subjects, casual acquaintances.

The fact that in the last year of his life he was involved in establishing and running bodies as diverse as the RCGD, the CCI, and the NTL is a testament to his restless energy, the breadth of his interests, and circle of coworkers – not forgetting, of course, that those activities were additional to his other work, such as the Harwood studies. At the time of his death, it would have been very easy for Lewin’s work to collapse in on itself in the absence of the central figure around which it all revolved. That it did not, but instead grew, is a testament to the nature of Lewin’s legacy and, more importantly, to the inspirational figure that was Kurt Lewin. To quote Marrow ’s (1969, p. 232) biography once again:

Lewin left his mark on the thinking of a whole generation of social scientists. He put his stamp on a whole discipline, giving it a name (group dynamics), a scope (action research), and a purpose that transcended psychology itself by setting as its goal not only the study of man but the betterment of society.

New Insights: The Nature of Change

Though there are many areas where Lewin’s work can be seen to be groundbreaking and still relevant, from my own perspective, I believe that Lewin’s continuing influence can be attributed to three new insights he offered into the nature of social and organizational change.

Firstly, he showed that change can be viewed as a participative, learning process . This can be seen in his planned approach to change, which laid the foundations for how the field of change was to develop. His planned approach identified that successful change involves four elements: enabling those concerned to understand their current situation and behavior (field theory); assessing how they interact with each other (group dynamics); that change is an iterative, learning process of identifying, trying, and revisiting alternatives to the current situation (action research); and that successful change proceeds through three stages (unfreezing, moving, and (re)freezing). Above all, he showed that change could not be achieved unless those concerned could understand their current situation, evaluate alternatives, and choose the most appropriate. As Lewin maintained and subsequent research has confirmed, if people are enabled to learn about their current behavior and make choices over alternatives, their commitment to making the change work will be greatly enhanced (Burnes and Cooke 2013; Oreg et al. 2011). These are insights which are still highly relevant to social and organizational change today.

Secondly, Lewin made the case for a value-based, ethical approach to change and linked this to creating a better world. He argued that attempts to trick, manipulate, or coerce people to change were doomed to failure and would result in increased conflict and resentment. Instead, his approach to change was based on a set of radical values and utopian aspirations that sought to treat all people equally and fairly regardless of their race, religion, or social standing. This viewpoint underpinned his argument that only an approach to change based on democratic values, power equalization, and participation could achieve effective change. Even today, as we see civil strife, racism, and religious intolerance accompanied by autocratic and often unethical management of organizations, many may see such an approach as utopian. Yet, much research and many people’s everyday experience show that it is this lack of democracy and the lack of respect for human beings that bring about conflict (Burnes et al. 2016; Marrow 1969; Mirvis 2006).

Thirdly, Lewin did not draw a distinction between the laboratory and the real world or between theory and practice. Instead, Lewin (1943/1944, p. 169) argued, in the words of his famous dictum referred to earlier, that “there is nothing so practical as a good theory,” by which he meant that theories which cannot be turned into practical solutions to society’s ills are not good theories. Similarly, practices that are not based on sound theories are not good practices. Indeed, it was this characteristic which gave Marrow (1969) the title for his biography of Lewin: The Practical Theorist. In recent years, there has been much debate about how to achieve rigor and relevance – how to develop robust theories on which to build effective practices (Gulati 2007). Lewin addressed these issues in the 1940s and showed that not only can rigor and relevance be aligned, but that effective change cannot be achieved unless they are aligned. In so doing, he ushered in the age of the scholar practitioner, arguing that academics had a duty not just to study the world but also to help create a better world.

Legacies and Unfinished Business: The Challenge of Change

In the 70 years since Lewin’s death, sufficient time has elapsed to judge not only the originality and enduring relevance of his work but also how it has developed in the ensuing period. At the time of his death, Lewin’s approach to change was still a work in progress. After his death, his friends and colleagues enthusiastically carried on his work, most notably through the institutions he established, i.e., the RCGD, the CCI, and the NTL. Chief among his friends and colleagues was Marrow, who became Lewin’s foremost publicist and a key figure in the institutions he established, as well as continuing his work at Harwood. Other leading figures, such as Douglas McGregor and Herbert Shepard, working as change consultants at General Mills and Esso, respectively, developed their own Lewin-based approaches to OD while at the same time working closely with the NTL. Therefore, Lewin’s work, though unfinished, did not fragment or stagnate after his death. Instead, it took a number of separate forms that were linked by the close personal and professional links of the people and institutions involved.

However, there was one important area where these paths did diverge. Lewin had never drawn a distinction between work and the wider society, between resolving industrial conflict and resolving social conflict. For example, in tackling racism , he was active in combating it both in society, by promoting integrated housing, and in the workplace, through getting shops to hire and integrate black sales staff (Lippitt 1949; Marrow 1969). In contrast, those who carried on his work and their successors tended to focus either on organizational change, such as the RCGD, or social change, such as the CCI. The only real exception was Marrow , who straddled both camps with his role as CEO of Harwood and Chairman of the New York City Commission on Intergroup Relations (French 1979). Therefore, uniting the social and organizational wings of Lewin’s work constitutes a major area unfinished business.

In the organizational field, Lewin’s work has experienced peaks and troughs since he died. In the 1980s and 1990s, his group-based, participative, slow approach to change was seen by many as unsuitable to the nature of modern organizations. In its place, many tried to argue for rapid, large-scale, imposed change. Also, the popularity of the power-politics perspective on organizations seemed to undermine much of Lewin’s argument for a participative and ethical approach to change (Burnes 2004). In addition, many of Lewin’s original coworkers retired or died; Marrow died in 1978. However, over the last decade or so, interest in Lewin seems to have experienced something of a reemergence, especially among those industrial-social psychologists who focus their work on social concerns and the greater good of society (Olson-Buchahan et al. 2013), hence Kahneman ’s (2013: vii) assertion that “We are all Lewinians now.” It should also be pointed out that in some areas, such as social work and nursing, Lewin was never out of fashion. This is possibly because these are professions which have explicit ethical codes and standards, which align more closely with Lewin’s ethical values than those of many business organizations over the last few decades. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is much work left to be done to develop and utilize Lewin’s approach to change fully.

In examining his life and work, we can see that Lewin set an example for other scholars to follow. As a Jew growing up in Germany and losing his mother and other relatives in the Holocaust, Lewin was no stranger to hardship and tragedy in his own life. He also saw around him that he was not unique in this respect. He saw that social conflict was endemic in the world, but he did not believe that it was inevitable. He argued that conflict should be resolved and showed that it could be resolved. Lewin’s work offered many new and radical insights into understanding and changing the behavior of individuals and groups. He bequeathed us theories, tools, and techniques for doing so that are still proving effective today. However, one of his greatest legacies was the example he set as a scholar who encountered a hostile and dysfunctional world and chose to use his scholarly knowledge to achieve practical change in the real world. In so doing, not only did he inspire his friends and colleagues to do likewise but he also threw down a challenge to future generations of academics to follow suit. Today, we see that the world faces many difficult and dangerous challenges. It is just not enough for us as scholars to try to understand the nature of these challenges: like Lewin, we also have to work with others to resolve them.

So we can see that much of Lewin’s work was unfinished when he died and that there are areas that are unfinished today, especially the need to develop fully his planned approach to change and unite the social and organizational wings of his work. However, in terms of Lewin’s wider social agenda – his desire to resolve social conflict – we should see this not so much as unfinished business, but as challenge that Lewin has laid down to all of us to continue his work.

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Further Reading

  1. With any writer, a good place to start is usually their own work. However, for those unfamiliar with Lewin’s background and theories, I would suggest starting with Marrow’s biography of Lewin:Google Scholar
  2. Marrow, A. J. (1969). The practical theorist: The life and work of Kurt Lewin. New York: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
  3. Though this is out of print, it can be obtained through most libraries and can be bought from second-hand book sites such as Amazon, Abe Books, or Barnes & Noble.Google Scholar
  4. I would then advise moving on to some of the critiques of his work, notably the special issue of the Journal of Social Issues, 48 (2) (The Heritage of Kurt Lewin: Theory, Research and Practice) published in 1992 To mark (belatedly) the 100th anniversary of Lewin’s birth. The following articles should also prove useful:Google Scholar
  5. Burnes, B. (2004). Kurt Lewin and the planned approach to change: A re-appraisal. Journal of Management Studies, 41(6), 977–1002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Burnes, B. (2007). Kurt Lewin and the Harwood studies: The foundations of OD. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 43(2), 213–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Burnes, B. (2009). Reflections: Ethics and organisational change – time for a return to Lewinian values. Journal of Change Management, 9(4), 359–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. In terms of Lewin’s own work, there are three collections of his papers that provide a good coverage of his interests and contributions, as follows:Google Scholar
  9. Gold, M. (Ed.). (1999). The complete social scientist: A Kurt Lewin reader. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  10. Cartwright, D. (Ed.). (1952). Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers by Kurt Lewin. London: Social Science Paperbacks.Google Scholar
  11. Lewin, G. W. (Ed.). (1948). Resolving social conflict: Selected papers on group dynamics by Kurt Lewin. London: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  12. The collections edited by Dorwin Cartwright and Gertrud Lewin are out of print, but like the Marrow’s biography of Lewin, they can be obtained through most libraries and bought from second-hand book sites.Google Scholar
  13. One can also use Google Scholar or other search engines to identify those of Lewin’s publications that are accessible in journals, though this is not necessarily as easy as one might imagine. However, the following articles are accessible and a good place to start:Google Scholar
  14. Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics. Human Relations, 1(1), 5–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics II. Human Relations, 1(2), 143–153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lewin, K. (1946). Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2, 34–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Lewin, K., Lippitt, R., & White, R. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created ‘social climates’. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 271–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Stirling Management SchoolUniversity of StirlingStirlingUK

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