Kurt Lewin was born to German Jewish parents in 1890 in what is now Poland. He was educated in Berlin before attending the University of Freiburg as a medical student and moving to Munich to study biology. As a soldier in the German Army he gained his PhD in 1916 under the supervision of empiricist Carl Stumpf who was a formative influence upon not only Lewin but also Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka; two founders of the Gestalt movement within psychology. Previously drawn to Watsonian behaviourism, Lewin became immersed in Gestalt theory, an influence which can be seen in his later work on hodological space (Bargal, Gold & Lewin, 1992).
Three years after the end of hostilities Lewin was appointed Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at Berlin University in 1921 (Bargal, Gold & Lewin, 1992), emigrating to England in 1933, and then to America to avoid the Nazi pogrom in Germany. Whilst in transit Lewin met briefly with a young Eric Trist who had read some of Lewin’s work and went on to treat shell-shock survivors after WW2 (Bargal, Gold & Lewin, 1992).
In American Lewin taught at Cornell before a teaching position at the University of Iowa graduated into a Professorship, which in 1944 allowed Lewin to co-found the Centre for Group Dynamics at MIT, where, amongst others he heavily influenced the work of psychologists such as Leon Festinger who went on to have significant ongoing influence in the field of social and cognitive psychology (Sheehy, Chapman & Conroy, 2003).
Lewin’s research was prolific and influenced successive generations of psychologists, earning him the title ‘The Father of Social Psychology’. His studies on Leadership Styles, utilising a summer camp of boys led him, somewhat unsurprisingly considering his brush with Nazism to conclude that Democracy was the predominant leadership style within groups, a fact which no doubt endeared him to his new nation (British Library, 2019).
Fritz Perls, the co-creator of Gestalt Therapy cites Lewin’s research on ‘Life Space’ also known as hodological space as influential in his research, but Lewin was far more prolific going on to publish several highly influential works including his Force Field Theory, study on group decision making, interdependence studies on groups and group dynamics (Britannica, 2019).
Lewin’s study of change management via his ‘Three Step model’ remains in use today, Professor Edgar Schein commented that the seminal nature and unique depth of insight of Lewin’s concepts and methods are so profound that they continue to enrich our understanding of how change happens and what role agents can and must play (Cummings, Bridgman & Brown, 2015).
Lewin’s T-Group method was closely tied to his Action research, wherein he pioneered the process of making changes within a group and simultaneously observing the results, a practice since implemented in many fields of human endeavour to achieve transformative and dynamic change (Dickens & Watkins, 1999).
Lewin died in 1947 at the relatively young age of 57; this early death obfuscated his influence upon many aspects of social psychology and specifically human managerial relations in the US and UK (British Library, 2019). Nonetheless, Kurt Lewin remains a unique and key figure within the scholarly history of modern psychology.
Bargal, D., Gold, M., & Lewin, M. (1992). Introduction: The Heritage of Kurt Lewin. Journal Of Social Issues, 48(2), 3-13. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1992.tb00879.x
Britannica. (2019). Frederick S. Perls | German American psychiatrist. Retrieved 1 December 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederick-S-Perls
British Library. (2019). Kurt Lewin: Change management and group dynamics thinker. Retrieved 1 December 2019, from https://www.bl.uk/people/kurt-lewin
Cummings, S., Bridgman, T., & Brown, K. (2015). Unfreezing change as three steps: Rethinking Kurt Lewin’s legacy for change management. Human Relations, 69(1), 33-60. doi: 10.1177/0018726715577707
Dickens, L., & Watkins, K. (1999). Action Research: Rethinking Lewin. Management Learning, 30(2), 127-140. doi: 10.1177/1350507699302002
Sheehy, N., Chapman, A., & Conroy, W. (2003). Biographical dictionary of psychology (1st ed.). London: Routledge.