Kurt Lewin

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Kurt Lewin (Mogilno)

Kurt Tsadek Lewin (born September 9, 1890 in Mogilno , Posen Province ; died February 12, 1947 in Newtonville , Massachusetts ) was a German social psychologist. He is considered one of the most influential pioneers in psychology . He is one of the founders of modern experimental social psychology and, together with Max Wertheimer , Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka , belongs to the "big four" of the Berlin School of Gestalt Psychology . His name is still associated with " field theory in the social sciences". The 3-phase model he developed was named after Lewin .


Kurt Lewin grew up in a Jewish family. The job of his father Leopold is called "landowner and merchant". His mother Recha Engel died in a concentration camp in 1944 . He had a sister (Hertha Putzrath née Lewin) and two brothers (Egon and Fritz). Kurt Lewin married Maria Landsberg in 1917 and Gertrud Weiss (1896–1987) after the divorce in 1929. He had four children: Esther Agnes and Reuven Fritz from his first marriage and Miriam Anna and Daniel Meier from his second marriage.

In 1905 the von Mogilno family (now Poland) moved to Berlin, where Lewin attended the Kaiserin-Augusta-Gymnasium until February 1908 . In April 1909 he began studying medicine in Freiburg i. Br., Moved a semester later to Munich and then to Berlin, where he finally switched to psychology and philosophy under Carl Stumpf . His teachers included the philosophers Alois Riehl , Benno Erdmann , Jonas Cohn , Heinrich Rickert and Ernst Cassirer as well as the physicians and physiologists Heinrich Wilhelm Waldeyer and Ludwig Haberlandt .

With the outbreak of World War I, Lewin volunteered for military service and served until the end of the war. He was badly wounded in 1918; it was not until 1919 that he was released from the hospital , awarded the Iron Cross . Due to the outbreak of the war, he was unable to complete his doctorate, the experimental work of which he carried out between 1912 and 1914. That is why he received his doctorate in 1916 with a thesis on the "Basic Law of Association". In 1920 he submitted a monograph with the name “ The Concept of Genesis in Physics, Biology and Development History ” as a habilitation thesis. This book later became known as "Genesis Script". However, the book met with incomprehension from the reviewers and was therefore withdrawn; instead, the path to a cumulative habilitation was taken . The core of this cumulative habilitation was a significantly expanded version of his doctoral thesis.

At the beginning of the 1920s he began teaching at Berlin's Friedrich Wilhelm University . Until his emigration to the USA in 1933 he was to teach and research at this university. Together with Wolfgang Köhler , Kurt Koffka and Max Wertheimer , he formed the Berlin School of Gestalt Psychology during this time . In addition to many other works, he began his “Investigations on Action and Affect Psychology” in 1926, which lasted well into the 1930s and consists of over 20 different individual experimental psychological studies. He performed the theoretical evaluation primarily in the monographs “Principles of Topological Psychology” and “The Conceptual Representation and the Measurement of Psychological Forces”. The experimental work was carried out by his doctoral students (see below German research group). Some of them are among the most important works within experimental psychology (on psychological satiety , which can be seen as the beginning of burnout research, on the Zeigarnik effect , on the Ovsiankina effect ).

In view of the political situation, Lewin made contacts in the USA early on. In 1932 he was invited to a six-month visiting professorship at Stanford University . In 1933 he finally emigrated and received a two-year contract at Cornell University in Ithaca; from there he moved in 1935 to the University of Iowa . He stayed there for nine years, until in 1944 he got a job and an institute at MIT , the Research Center of Group Dynamics. In 1947 he died of heart failure from overwork in Newtonville near Boston. At that time he was one of the most famous psychologists in the world.

The experimental, tested, dynamic individual psychology that he had developed in Germany is the theoretical foundation with which the experimental research of the small group began in the early 1940s. The starting shot was the experiment "patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created 'social climates" "carried out with Ralph White and Ronald Lippitt , in which the question of the behavior and work performance of a small group, under variation of leadership styles, was democratic, authoritarian and laissez-faire, is checked. Modern management style (economy) and educational style (pedagogy) research is based on this experiment . Since it is about the clarification of the dynamic behavior of groups, this whole area is also called group dynamics . From this experiment until his death, he and his American research group (see below) carried out the often first experimental processing of central topics of social psychology and the like. a. Group and leadership, motivation, opinion and attitude change. On this basis, they also developed numerous methods, such as sensitivity training or the T (rainings) group (also known as the sensitivity training group ), which is a basic model of every self-help group. The extent of the innovations in social techniques that came from Lewin and his group is still a matter of dispute; opinions on this range from "very little" to "central to the history of science".

Lewin used film as a method of documentation early on. In his books he used a lot of graphic representations for the precise presentation or illustration of his ideas.

His theoretical writings in the German language are mainly known through the anthologies "The solution of social conflicts" (1953) and "Field theory in the social sciences" (1963). Lewin's grave is in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Problems with the factory access

Access to and overview of Lewin's work is characterized by a number of difficulties, which make the exact context of the work and the overall work of Lewin still a question of research.

  1. Kurt Lewin emigrated to the USA in 1933, from which time he published in English. Due to the emigration and the language barrier, his work and the reception of the work is divided into two parts, the “German” Lewin, as an important gestalt psychologist , and the “American” Lewin, as the founder of experimental social psychology .
  2. Almost at the same time as his emigration, Lewin changed research topics. In Germany he dealt with individual psychological research topics and philosophy of science, in the USA he and his research group dealt with everything related to the topic of small groups, such as: group and leadership, behavioral changes, group performance, communication, etc.
  3. Lewin was a firm believer in the experimental and mathematical method in psychology, which made central parts of his work unusually demanding.
  4. He represents this approach in an independent, scientific-theoretical work of the highest level. His best-known essay is the "Transition from the Aristotelian to the Galilean way of thinking in biology and psychology", which deals with the differences between the ancient and the modern conception of science since Nicolaus Copernicus , Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei . In his “ Genesis Script ” he developed the concept of gene identity . The exact content and the interpretation of his entire philosophy of science are still largely unexplored.
  5. As a gestalt psychologist he took a different theoretical approach than behaviorism , the other great experimental psychological direction of his time.
  6. The members of the research groups he founded have often become experts in their field themselves. The fact that Lewin worked on a wide range of topics enabled them to work in a variety of scientific fields, for example in psychotherapy , organizational research and communication research . Therefore, the corresponding technical historiography, which only represents the part of Lewin's work used for one's own subject, may appear distorted.

Lewin's influence

Lewin built two different, influential research groups during his lifetime.

In Germany these included: Bluma Zeigarnik ( Zeigarnik effect ), Junius F. Brown (reality and unreality), Gita Birenbaum (forgetting a statement), Tamara Dembo (psychodynamics of anger), Ferdinand Hoppe (level of aspiration), Maria Ovsiankina ( Ovsiankina effect ), Georg Schwarz (relapse after getting used to it), Sara Fajans (success and failure), Anitra Karsten ( mental satiety ).

After his emigration to the USA, his most famous employees included u. a .: Alex Bavelas, Roger Barker, Tamara Dembo, Dorwin Cartwright, Leon Festinger , Jerome D. Frank , Harold H. Kelley, John RP French, Mary Henle , Ronald Lippitt, Alfred Marrow, Stanley Schachter , John W. Thibaut, Alvin F. Zander

In addition to these two research groups directly influenced by him, there is also the “Topology Group”, which existed from 1933 to 1965. Here, researchers interested in the same topics met regularly. a .:

Roger Barker, Richard S. Crutchfield, Erik H. Erikson , Sibylle Escalona, Fritz Heider , Donald K. MacKinnon, Kurt Koffka , Wolfgang Köhler , Margaret Mead , Gardner Murphy , Edward. C. Tolmann , William Stern and Beatrice Anne Wright .

Lewin belonged to the core group of participants in the influential Macy conferences until his death .

In addition, before his emigration, Lewin was in contact with a group of Soviet psychologists, which is now known as the Cultural History School . Levin and the Russian psychologists Lev Semjonowitsch Wygotski and Alexander Romanowitsch Lurija met in Berlin, Moscow and the USA. In addition, Lewin's doctoral students Bluma Zeigarnik and Gita Birenbaum returned to the Soviet Union after his emigration and worked there with members of the cultural and historical school.

The field theory

Field theory can be seen as one of Kurt Lewin's most important contributions to psychological and social science research . This theory, which is over 70 years old, does not explicitly belong to the current theories in the social sciences and is relatively little researched and further developed. Due to the historical significance of Lewin's overall performance, however, they are often referred to.

The field theory is mainly in the published 1936 Principles of Topological Psychology (German 1969 Broad topological psychology in this English only contribution), The Conceptual representation and the measurement of psychological Forces been developed (1938) and in numerous later published articles. There is no complete account of his theory written by himself because of his early death. A current introduction can be found with Helmut E. Lück.

Six essential points of his theory are repeatedly cited as characteristic:

  1. The constructive method: The transition from a classifying to a constructive or genetic method is necessary.
  2. The dynamic approach: Similar to psychoanalysis , constructs and methods are to be developed that deal with the forces underlying behavior.
  3. The Psychological Approach: For a psychological field theory it is necessary to understand the field not in objective physical terms, but to describe it in the way in which it exists for the individual at the given time.
  4. The starting point of the analysis is the overall situation: parts must be understood as aspects of an overall situation.
  5. Behavior as a function of the current field: the psychological past and future determine what is psychologically present, as they represent fields that influence the current field.
  6. The mathematical representation of psychological situations: For Lewin, vector representations and topologies are superior to all other conceptual systems.


  • The mental activity in the inhibition of volitional processes and the basic law of association. In: Journal of Psychology. (1917), 77, pp. 212-247.
  • “Geneseschrift”: The term genesis in physics, biology and development history. Berlin 1922 and KLW Vol. 2
  • Idea and task of comparative science. Weltkreis, Erlangen 1926.
  • Intent, will and need: with preliminary remarks about the psychic forces and energies and the structure of the soul . Springer, Berlin 1926.
  • The psychological situation with wages and punishment . Leipzig 1931.
  • The transition from the Aristotelian to the Galilean way of thinking in biology and psychology. 1931, (PDF; 175 kB)
  • A dynamic theory of the imbecile. 1933, (PDF; 393 kB)
  • Principles of topological psychology . New York 1936; German: Fundamentals of topological psychology . Bern 1969.
  • The conceptual representation and the measurement of psychological forces . Durham, 1938.
  • Resolving social conflicts: selected papers on group dynamics . Harper, New York 1948.
    • German: The solution of social conflicts. Selected Treatises on Group Dynamics . Christian, Bad Nauheim 1953, 1968. (with Gertrud Weiss Lewin and Herbert Alfred Frenzel , foreword by Max Horkheimer). In the chapter entitled The Special Case of Germany , Lewin dealt with the question of how post-war Germany could be democratized through re- education .
  • Field theory in the social sciences. Selected theoretical writings. Hans Huber, Bern 1963; 2., unchanged. Edition 2012, ISBN 978-3-456-85076-4 .
  • Law and Experiment in Psychology . Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1967.
  • Kurt Lewin work edition (KLW). Edited by Karl Friedrich Graumann, Klett, Stuttgart from 1980; 4 volumes have been published, other planned volumes will not appear, but some articles that have already been prepared for this purpose have appeared in the following anthology "Applied Psychology".
  • Writings on applied psychology. Articles, lectures, reviews , ed. and introduced by Helmut E. Lück, Verlag Wolfgang Krammer, Vienna 2009, ISBN 978-3-901811-46-3 .

See also


Broadcast reports

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Lewin, Kurt. In: Lexicon of German-Jewish Authors . Volume 16: Lewi – Mehr. Edited by the Bibliographia Judaica archive. Saur, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-598-22696-0 .
  2. Helmut E. Lück: Kurt Lewin - an introduction to his work. Beltz Verlag, Weinheim / Basel 2001, p. 167.
  3. ^ The psychological activity in the inhibition of volitional processes and the basic law of association. In: Journal of Psychology. 77, pp. 212-247.
  4. Kurt Lewin: The concept of genesis in physics, biology and history of development: an investigation into comparative science. Berlin 1922. Cumulative habilitation = an (inaugural) habilitation in which a bundle of several scientific papers is presented instead of a habilitation thesis.
  5. Joachim Bauer : Work. Why our happiness depends on it and how it makes us sick. Karl Blessing Verlag, Munich 2013, p. 86
  6. ^ The Research Center is now at the University of Michigan. (Research Center website)
  7. ^ Journal of Social Psychology. 10, 1939, pp. 271-299.
  8. ^ Kurt Lewin: Hanna and Hans. ( Memento from August 25, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) Films on psychologie.fernuni-hagen.de
  9. ^ Alfred J. Marrow: Kurt Lewin - Life and Work. Beltz Verlag, Weinheim / Basel 2002, Appendix and Simone Wittmann: Kurt Lewin's early work. Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt / M. 1998, appendix.
  10. Marrow (2002), p. 179ff and p. 358f.
  11. Yasnitsky, A. (2011). Vygotsky Circle as a Personal Network of Scholars. Restoring Connections Between People and Ideas (PDF; 617 kB) . Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 45, 422-457.
  12. Helmut E. Lück: Kurt Lewin - an introduction to his work. Beltz Verlag, Weinheim / Basel 2001, p. IX
  13. Helmut E. Lück: Kurt Lewin - an introduction to his work. Beltz Verlag, Weinheim / Basel 2001.
  14. Original source field theory of learning. In: Kurt Lewin works. Vol. 4, pp. 157-162.
  15. Kurt Lewin: Der Sonderfall Deutschland (1943) ( Memento from June 3, 2016 in the Internet Archive )