If you want to truly understand something, try to
- Kurt Lewin
Field Theory - Kurt Lewin
Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) was a famous, charismatic psychologist who is now viewed
as the father of social psychology. Born in Germany, Lewin emigrated
to the USA as a result of World War II.
Lewin viewed the social environment as a dynamic field which impacted in
an interactive way with human consciousness. Adjust elements of the
social environment and particular types of psychological experience
predictably ensue. In turn, the person's psychological state
influences the social field or milieu.
Lewin was well known for his terms "life space" and "field theory".
He was perhaps even better known for practical use of his theories in studying group dynamics, solving
social problems related to prejudice, and group therapy (t-groups). Lewin sought to
not only describe group life, but to investigate the conditions and forces
which bring about change or resist change in groups.
In the field (or 'matrix') approach, Lewin believed that for change to
take place, the total situation has to be taken into account. If only
part of the situation is considered, a misrepresented picture is likely to develop.
Later on, yoda in Star Wars brought field theory back into vogue, with
his kind wish for Luke Skywalker, "may the force [field] be with you."
But likewise, Luke had to influence the force.
The following two passages offer a more detailed summary of Lewin's field
From Smith (2001):
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
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.
From Jones (n.d.):
Lewin is most renown for his development of the
field theory. The field theory is the "proposition that human
behavior is the function of both the person and the environment:
expressed in symbolic terms, B = f (P, E)." (Deaux 9) This means
that one’s behavior is related both to one’s personal
characteristics and to the social situation in which one finds
The field theory may seem obvious to us now, but most
early psychologist did not believe in behaviorism. Many
psychologists at the time believed in the psychoanalytic theory
that held human motives to be blind pushes from within. Lewin
thought of motives as goal- directed forces. He believed "that
our behavior is purposeful; we live in a psychological reality
or life space that includes not only those parts of our physical
and social environment that are important to us but also
imagined states that do not currently exist" (Tesser 340).
Lewin’s field theory lead to the development of actual field
research on human behavior. With boldness, Lewin manipulated
complex situational variables in natural settings. His approach
has guided experiments in the field of social cognition, social
motivation, and group processes. Most importantly Lewin helped
develop action research. Action research uses empirical social
research, social action, and controlled evaluation.