Kurt Lewin's contemporaneity rule

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This article by Dr Jean Neumann of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations is the third in 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 contemporaneity rule. Other articles in the series look at Lewin's dynamic approach rule, field theory, and constructive method.

As the basis of action, contemporaneity points to concentrating on elements of the current situation that motivate or otherwise influence people and their environment and thus shape change. Lewin asserted that: 'Only conditions in the present can explain experience and behaviour in the present' (Gold, 1992, p.70). Therefore, we concern ourselves primarily with systematic causes and not historical-geographical ones. The nature of the conditions of change means that effects can only be produced by that which is concrete, something that exists within the same time-period (Lewin, 1936) of the situation being addressed.

In drawing a representation of a situation therefore: 'We take account only of what is contemporary'; that is, existing at the same time or during the same time-period, while we accept the 'necessity of excluding events which roughly speaking belong to past and future time' (Lewin, 1992b, pp.34-35). The purpose of such a diagnosis, for scholarly practitioners of organisational development and change, is to explain or predict change in a certain situation. We do this by linking the change with the inter-connected, concrete 'conditions of the field at that time' (Lewin, 1992a, p.211).

In designing interventions for change and development within the particular situation, the contemporaneity rule helps us understand the underlying causality in action research. By setting up 'tests of the present' it becomes possible to discern those concrete elements within the time and field that may be influencing people in their environment. Lewin clearly states that the 'total field includes time perspective at a given time' (1992a, p.207), by which he includes psychological past and psychological future. He differentiates the actual past and future from that which exists in the present. For example, goals can exist in the present but their actual content cannot because they have not yet been realised. Crucially, the power of expectation – Lewin terms this 'subjective probability' – can be very important as an influence on behaviour in the present. Expectations tend to be 'affected by perception on the one hand and memory on the other' (1992b, p.208).

Many staff members at the Tavistock Institute would consider that transference from the past needs to be recognised as an element of the present. This psychoanalytic provision cannot be credited to Lewin, even though he insisted that systemic casuality 'does not imply a neglect or underestimation of historical problems' (Lewin, 1936, p.32). By definition, transference means consciously or unconsciously repeating elements of the past in the present. Such enactments can emerge from individuals, within a collective and/or evolve into a mutually constructed dynamic. Three common approaches for intervening are: (1) bringing the transference from the past to awareness in the present; (2) testing the degree to which the past is 'alive in the present'; and (3) experimenting in the present by intentionally acting differently from the past. Such a practice rooted in the scholarship of psychoanalytic tradition resonates with the contemporaneity rule by treating the transference as something concrete exerting influence in the current situation.

Within the Tavistock Institute's archive, a study conducted by Hugh Murray and E. Gregory exemplifies the contemporaneity rule. They were asked by a UK government department to evaluate the effectiveness of policy on race relations within the Civil Service. This request was understood partly as a response to media coverage. As Institute staff gathered data from a wide range of stakeholders, strong emotions were expressed and many stories told about incidents of unfairness and accusations of same within the workplace. As scholarly practitioners, they used professional discipline to avoid favouring any one historical analysis of how the Civil Service got itself into its circumstance. Indeed, they focussed explicitly on the contemporary, concrete elements of fairness in personnel procedures and selection. They made a point of not addressing history. However, the fact that emotive stories and interpretations were being expressed 'backstage' in the present and across competing groups had to be understood as a part of the contemporary conditions for change.

An example from the Third Sector also demonstrates a slightly different use of the contemporaneity rule. The Father Superior of a religious community requested consultancy about planning for retirement from his role and preparing for the selection of his successor. His presenting problem was the absence of an apparent heir waiting in the wings. Historically his Community aimed to elect the most theologically brilliant monk with strong publications. This history was considered necessary given that the Community specialised in providing training, development and spiritual direction to religious leaders. From the initial diagnosis, a working hypothesis emerged about the under-deployment of several worthy monks without the so-called, brilliant track record. Jean Neumann and Michael Dwinell worked with the Community to identify what, within the present situation, worked for and against an apparent heir. From this initial diagnosis it was possible to undertake an action research project with several iterations of 'tests in the present'. The purpose being the discovery and evolution of shared leadership styles, structures and processes that the Community considered appropriate to the contemporary situation. It was possible to intervene in the expectation that no one would be good enough to be the new Superior, by working with the inter-connected elements in the present that fed low self-esteem within the Community – especially in those most likely to take up leadership.

Thus, the contemporaneity rule of Kurt Lewin helps scholarly practitioners of organisational development and change to enact the idea that 'only conditions in the present can explain and predict experience and behaviour in the present'. By linking the change with inter-connected, concrete 'conditions of the field at that time' (Lewin, 1992a, p.211), a diagnosis can point out possible points for action. By crafting interventions within the context of action research (that is, iterations of experimentation for the purpose of changing or developing), 'tests of the present' unfold elements of the situation that may not have been visible or understood as being influential before the attempt was made to change. Equally, something that was considered central and important can be understood as relevant, but perhaps less amenable to action.

Books

Lewin, K. Resolving social conflicts and field theory in social science. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1946 (reprinted 2008). 

Lewin, K. Causal connections in psychology: The historical and the systemic concept of causality. In Principles of Topological Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill, 1936

Book chapters

Lewin, K. (1997a). Field theory and learning. In D. Cartwright, ed. Field Theory in Social Science and Selected Theoretical Papers. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, pp.212-230. (Original work published 1942).

Lewin, K. (1997b). Defining the 'field at a given time'. In D. Cartwright, ed. Field Theory in Social Science and Selected Theoretical Papers. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, pp.200-211. (Original work published 1943).

Journal articles

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

Neumann, J. Kurt Lewin at the Tavistock Institute. Educational Action Research, 13 (1) 2005, pp.119-136 
doi:10.1080/09650790500200271