Kurt Lewin's constructive method rule

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This article by Dr Jean Neumann of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations is the final part of a four-part series summarising selected principles from Kurt Lewin's work that are used by the Tavistock Institute in their consulting, research and evaluation work. Each article demonstrates Kurt Lewin’s continuing relevance today, using examples from the archive and from more recent projects. This article looks at Lewin's constructive method rule. Other articles in the series look at Lewin's dynamic approach rule, field theory, and contemporaneity rule.

Aiming for a useful conceptualisation of the problem or challenge facing an organisational client enacts the constructive method rule. In a dynamic theory of psychological processes, both the environment and the people involved are inseparably bound up together (Lewin, 1935, p.241). Scholarly practitioners, thus, investigate the particular nature of this co-existence by making a proper translation from phenomena to concepts ’through the process of conceptualization’ (Lewin, 1997, p.160).

Lewin’s constructive method rule prioritises the creation of concepts, however intangible, that seem necessary for explanation (Gold, 1992). At minimum, we aim for thick, rich descriptions of the total situation as it is being experienced by the people involved. The overall purpose or objective of the consultancy guides the inquiry, as do the resource limitations negotiated for the project. In order for the conceptualisation to be useful, it must represent psychological processes not as single isolated facts but in their mutual dependence as expressions of a concrete situation’ involving definite people in a definition condition (Lewin, 1936, p.2).

The more the conceptualisation shows how ‘the different facts in an individual’s environment are related to the individual’ (Lewin 1936, pp.12-13) the more client system members feel understood and able to explore together how to make use of the concepts. At minimum, such a conceptualisation helps clients and consultants search for an understanding of the total situation. Practically and somewhat unexpectedly, it also provides a reframed goal to guide actions for change and development. Instead of struggling, for example, to convince each other to aim for change in a preferred way, stakeholders find a joint goal that is wider or deeper in how it helps connect their differences towards something mutual.

Within the Tavistock Institute’s archive, studies conducted over several years in the 1970s by John Friend, Alan Hickling and others at the Operations Research Unit exemplify the constructive method rule. Major action research projects on policymaking in city government required observing and understanding the behaviour of groups involved in complex planning tasks (Friend, 1997). Examples included agreeing strategy for investing scarce resources across multiparty collaborations (e.g. building roads and schools) and interorganisational processes in regional development. These researchers created numerous innovative ways to conceptualize the issues that contributed to a new view of connective planning called strategic choice. Two conceptualisations proved particularly useful: the management of uncertainty in planning, and a new approach to mapping perceptions of complex problems called ‘analysis of interconnected decision areas’ (AIDA). This work also contributed to the development and dissemination of large group interventions internationally.

A recent project at the Tavistock Institute concerns a government funded evaluation of local community projects for prevention of violent extremism. Giorgia Iacopini, Laura Stock, Kerstin Junge, Camilla Child and colleagues undertook both outcome and developmental evaluation research within and between two local authorities. The overall purposes of these studies are:

  • understanding local differences and respective communities,
  • the handling of controversial issues within and across boundaries, and
  • working with different views on prevention of violent extremism.

Relevant stakeholders include: youth services, social workers, police partners, religious organisations, equalities and cohesion specialists, young people and their families and others in the community. Early on, very different perceptions surfaced from different agencies. Indeed, the mismatch between expectations and multiple voices led to an important working conceptualisation: delivery on objectives under different assumptions and from different rationales. Under this initial overall conceptualisation, a more nuanced exploration of differences – by occupational background, role in community, risk perceived and experienced – can be explored, including movement towards more useful and mutual expectations for the prevention of violent extremism.

Thus, Kurt Lewin’s constructive method rule helps scholarly practitioners of organisational development and change to ‘create concepts, however intangible, that seem necessary for explanation’. The principles of field theory, by definition, make construction and deduction of an endless variety of different situations possible (Lewin, 1936). In selecting methods and concepts, we take a very pragmatic stance: We look for ways to represent the interrelationships and connections between people and their environment with an eye towards action. The purpose of conceptualisation is to enhance both the atmosphere for action and the degrees of freedom possible in the particular situation.

Books

Lewin, K. A dynamic theory of personality – selected papers. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1935 
London Reference Collections Shelfmark: W.P.10156/7
Document Supply Shelfmark: 153.7 *678*

Lewin, K. Principles of topological psychology. New York: McGraw Hill, 1936
Document Supply Shelfmark: Document Supply W7/2445 or 150 *681*

Book chapters

Lewin, K. (1997). Field theory and learning. In D. Cartwright, ed. Field theory in Social Science and selected theoretical papers. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. (Original work published 1942).

Friend, J. (1992). Connective planning: From practice to theory and back. In Trist, E., Emery, F., & Murray, H. eds. The social engagement of social science, a Tavistock anthology: Volume III, the socio-ecological perspective. pp. 439-469. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
Document Supply Shelfmark: Document Supply 90/20235

Journal articles

Gold, M. Metatheory and field theory in social psychology: relevance or elegance? Journal of Social Issues, 48 (2) 1992, pp.67-78