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The Theorists – Kurt Lewin

There are a number of individuals who throughout the history and emergence of Organisation Development have made a significant contribution to both the academic theory and practice of the field of OD.

Kurt Lewin 1890 – 1947


Kurt Lewin – In Brief

Kurt Lewin, author of over 80 articles and eight books on a wide range of issues in psychology is recognised as the founding father of modern social psychology.  He was a seminal theorist who deepened the understanding of groups, experiential learning, and action research.   Through his pioneering use of

of theory and using experimentation to test hypothesis he contributed an everlasting significance on an entire discipline–group dynamics and action research.

Lewin is well known for his term “life space” and was committed to applying psychology to the problems of society led to the development of the M.I.T. Research Center for Group Dynamics where six major program areas were developed;

  • Group productivity: why was it that groups are so ineffective in getting things done?
  • Communication: how influence is spread throughout a group.
  • Social perception: how a person’s group affected the way they perceived social events.
  • Intergroup relations.
  • Group membership: how individuals adjust to these conditions.
  • training leaders: improving the functioning of groups (T-groups).

Believing in the field approach, Lewin proposed that for change to take place, the total situation has to be taken into account arguing that if only isolated facts are used, a misrepresented picture could develop.

Kurt Lewin – Life and Times

  • 1890 – Born  in the village of Moglino in the Prussian province of Posen
  • 1909 – Entered University of Frieberg to Study Medicine, transferring to the University of Munich to study biology
  • 1914 – Completed his requirements for a Ph.D.
  • 1916 – Conferred his degree from the University of Berlin
  • 1921 – Joined the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin – where he was to lecture and offer seminars in both philosophy and psychology
  • 1930 – Spent six months as a visiting professor at Stanford
  • 1933 – Emigrated to the United States  working at the Cornell School of Home Economics
  • 1935 – Moved to University of Iowa published his first collection of papers in English – A Dynamic Theory of Personality and developed his interest in social processes
  • 1940 – Became a US citizen and became involved in various applied research initiatives linked to the war effort
  • 1944 – Founded he Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT.
  • 1946 – Notion of T-groups emerged
  • 1947 – Set up the National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine.  However, Lewin died of a heart attack in Newtonville, Mass. on February 11, 1947, before the Laboratories were established.

Key Contributions

  1. Action Research Theory
  2. Change Theories – Planned Change
  3. Group Dynamics
  4. Field Theory
  5. Experiential Learning
  6. T-Groups

Lewin made defining contributions to a number of fields. He had a major impact on group theory and how to work with groups.  A pioneer of action research he demonstrated the use of controlled experimentation to explore complex social phenomenon and he helped to move social psychology into a more rounded understanding of behaviour.

The consistent theme in all Kurt Lewin’s work was the integration of theory and practice.  65 years after his death it is a lesson that Lewin can still teach Organisation Development Practitioners.