Kurt Lewin was a great innovater at his time in the field of Psychology. The theories he developed, the methods of reserch he used and the people he influenced all have had a profound impact on Psychology and even more specifically on Social Psychology.
Lewin was born in 1890 in what is now Poland but at the time was the Prussian province of Posen, in the village of Moglino and was the second of four children (Greathouse). His parents owned a general store, and a farm on the outskirts of the village. When Lewin was fifteen his family moved away from the small village, the farm and their store and went to Berlin.
It was in Germany was where Lewin began his formal education, but like most people he was unsure of what he really wanted to study at first. In 1909 Lewin began attending the University of Frieberg where he started to study medicine. This did not interest him so he transferred to the University of Munich where he tried to study Biology. Again Lewin decided that this was not for him so he transferred for the last time, this time to the University of Berlin where his study of Philosophy and Psychology began (Frostburg). Lewin was said to have “found many of (the school’s) department’s courses in the grand tradition of Wundtian psychology irreverant and dull (Greathouse).” He would eventually receive his Ph.D. in the “experimental study of associative learning” at the University of Berlin in 1916 (Jones).
Lewin was married twice in his life, the first time in 1917 to a schoolteacher named Maria Landsberg with whom he had the first two of his four children, but in 1927 they divorced. In 1929 he remarried to Gertrud Weiss who he had his third and fourth child with (Frostburg). But before Lewin actually received his degree, he served in the German Army during World War I. While in the service Lewin rose from the rank of private to Lieutenant and was wounded in battle (Jones). These experiences may have had a significant effect on his later research on group psychology.
After the war in 1921 Lewin began work at the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin, where he had the opportunity to work with Wolfgang Kohler and Wertheimer the developers of Gestalt Psychology . The emphasis that these men put on looking at the whole picture rather than the sum of its parts in regards to their research had a palpable impact on Lewin’s work for the rest of his life. In 1932, after several years of work with Wertheimer and Kohler in Germany, Lewin was invited to be a visiting professor at Stanford University (Patnoe pf.3). He stayed in the United States for six months and then moved back to Germany just as Hitler was coming to power. Being a Jew Lewin wanted to get out of the country as fast as possible. Luckily he was able to do this because of the Committee on Displaced Scholars (Frostburg).
Lewin’s first job after his immigration was at Cornell. There he did studies “concerning social pressure on eating habits in children (Patnoe pg.4).” During his time there Lewin published one of his eight books, “A Dynamic Theory of Personality.” After two years of work and the exhaustion of funds at Cornell, Lewin took a new position at The University of Iowa at their Child Welfare Research Station where he would stay for ten years (Frostburg).
In 1945 he moved back to the East Coast and established two new centers of research and study of his own; one at M.I.T., The Research Center for Group Dynamics and in New York, the Commission for Community Interrelations (Patnoe pg.8-9). His aspirations for the two centers were that they would corroborate “to combine scientific study with Action Research in an effort to answer questions about human affairs – particularly those regarding prejudice (Patnoe pg.9)” The Research Center at M.I.T. did the laboratory and field research side of the work while the Commission for Community Interrelations would test the theories the Resarch commision developed and “feed problems back to the M.I.T. experimenters (Patnoe pg.10).” This circular style of research, using experimentation to test hypothesies, was the first of its kind in psychology and it proved very effective. Lewin worked tirelessly in the laboratory, traveling between the two facilities and in raising funds for his research; so much so that many think that it heavily contributed to his death in 1947 at 56 years old of a heart attack (Patnoe pg.10).
Lewin’s most celebrated impact on the world of psychology was the development of his field theory. Field Theory “proposes that behavior is a function of the person interacting with the environment (Gazzaniga pg.414)” The importance of this was that it challenged the idea that all human actions are based on internal impulses. Lewin argued that our behavior is based on much more complicated factors like our environment and a person’s characteristics(Jones). However obvious or simple this idea may seem to us almost seventy years later this was truly a revolutionary idea for its time.
Even though Lewin’s Field Theory was a crucial step forward for Psychology and himself, it was not by any means his only significant contribution to the field. There was genius in his approach to his work. First of all he chose to establish the Research Center for Group dynamics at M.I.T., where the institution is known for their hands off policy in regards to their limitations on research and research methods. MIT’s stand on professor – adiministration relations was “we hired you because you are an expert in the field and if that’s what you want to do, ok (Patnoe pg. 14).” So this gave Lewin and his colleagues a great deal of freedom to brainstorm and try methods of research and experimentation that had never been tried before. This freedom allowed for what Lewin’s coworkers have called a “uniquely productive environment(Patnoe pg.14).” But, Lewin did not only accomplish this at M.I.T. he had been known to, raise the bar so to speak where ever he went. Students and colleagues working under at different times and at different institutions have said that they felt like the were “doing important work (Patnoe pg. 15).” and there is very little that can provide for a better working environment then honest pride in one’s work.
Kurt Lewin’s work in Child Psychology, Group Psychology, Social Psychology, the psychology of prejudice and his new methods of testing and retesting theories through Action Research were all groundbreaking at the time and continue to have their impact on the field today. But, Lewin was not only a genius in terms of his work in Psychology, he also had a great ability to make the people that he was working with better at their own work. Many of his students and colleagues went on to be some of the most influential minds in psychology. The group he worked with at MIT at the end of his life was especially influential. A study in 1984 showed that “eight of the ten most cited social psychologists are direct descendants of this line of researchers (Patnoe pg.11).” It is fair to say that Kurt Lewin was the father of modern Social Psychology.