Kurt Lewin's field theory

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

Applying field theory in organisational change and consulting requires an acceptance of its central premise, that people and their surroundings and conditions depend closely on each other. In Lewin's words: 'To understand or to predict behaviour, the person and his environment have to be considered as one constellation of interdependent factors' (1946:338). Thus, the notion of field refers to: (a) all aspects of individuals in relationship with their surroundings and conditions; (b) that apparently influence the particular behaviours and developments of concern; (c) at a particular point in time.

Lewin’s field theory rule states that 'analysis starts with the situation as a whole'. By gaining an overview as early as possible, we intend to broaden the perspective from which we as scholarly practitioners engage with the general characteristics of the challenge or opportunity facing our organisational clients. Lewin highlighted the importance of characterizing the atmosphere (e.g. emotional tone or climate) and the amount of freedom existing in the situation.

Such an overall perspective counteracts the pull to repeat the same unsuccessful attempts at change and development. Field theory leads us to conclude that such a pull to repetition comes from forces within the field. As outsiders we may be prone to believe that we won't succumb. Thus, after starting with the total situation, our analysis needs to focus on more specific variables that might be at play. We aim to represent everything in the field (i.e. people and their environment) that helps or hinders movement towards the goals for change and development.

Using the field theory rule often results in a figure or some other sort of data display to represent the psychological field and the inter-relation of its parts. Lewin and his colleagues (including early social scientists at the Tavistock Institute) favoured 'topological maps'. These egg-shaped diagrams showed crucial inter-related areas, arrows to indicate direction of force toward the goal or away from the goal, and often mathematical equations to indicate possible solutions to problems. Today, additional analytical methods (e.g. visual and qualitative ones) are made possible with information technology.

A specific criterion for objectivity when using field theory can improve the quality of organisational change practice. Lewin asserts that we should aim to represent the field 'correctly as it exists for the individual in question at a particular time' (1946:338). Even when working with collective phenomenon, this discipline for analysis remains. We need to avoid offering predetermined solutions or getting caught in the same field of forces as our clients. Instead, scholarly practitioners take the time and effort to study the idiosyncrasies of each total situation and make a representation of the forces being experienced by clients. From that analysis, we discuss working hypotheses with our clients to assist them in changing their field (i.e. their behaviour and related surroundings and conditions). We may also be able to cooperate with them on experiments in moving towards their change goals.

Within The Tavistock Institute's archive, a study conducted by Don Bryant and Jean Neumann exemplifies the field theory rule. They were asked by a UK government department to study the organisational factors in shipping casualties (e.g. accidents to ships, fires, groundings). Based on an overall view of the British merchant navy, they designed a study to maximize information about the people and their environments. They identified individuals in roles implicated in preventing shipping casualties (e.g. captains and other officers, company directors, agencies for foreign workers, employee associations and government agencies). They also identified different types of companies to be represented (e.g. container shipping, gas and oil fleets, ferry companies, suppliers to drilling platforms). From analysis of over 30 interview notes, they identified about 80 variables considered relevant by individuals in various roles and from different types of businesses. A large causal map was made to represent the inter-connected patterns. A notation system indicated the degree to which individuals thought the patterns helped, hindered or were neutral in their efforts to avoid casualties at sea. Working hypotheses about types of organisational factors were identified from this causal map and offered to representatives from government, the merchant navy and their staff groups. A pivotal interface became apparent between commercial departments and captains with their officers.

Another example coming from the Third Sector demonstrates the field theory rule. The topic concerned how to increase the rate of UK government mandated innovation within small providers of health and social care services for aging. An analysis of the total situation showed that money was running out as most of it had been spent at the level of partnership committees and governance boards. Involving small providers was the goal. These included 'mom and pop' nursing homes, small advocacy groups and individual and small providers of personal services - many of them geographically located in rural and seaside locations. For nearly a year, everyone repeated the experience of being caught by the same forces and not moving toward the goal. Finally, it was possible to increase the pressure for a series of geographically situated workshops, at which small providers came together to offer their experiences in introducing innovations. Adrian Adams, Jean Neumann and Antonio Sama analysed this knowledge exchange project between a university and a social enterprise in such a way that a handful of inter-connected patterns emerged as influential in small providers' abilities to innovate. A directly useful insight came from connecting and reframing particular interactions reported by small provider Service Managers. When they met with Care Managers and Assessors from government and regulatory agencies, the atmosphere felt hierarchical and often challenging. Nonetheless, these incidents of cross-boundary interface demonstrated key points for customisation of services for individual users.

Thus, Kurt Lewin's field theory rule helps scholarly practitioners of organisational development and change to 'start the analysis with the situation as a whole'. Doing so provides an overview to counteract the possibility of repetitive solutions that don't work. A thoughtful analysis represents the field of people and their environment as one constellation of mutually interdependent factors. Patterns of forces helping or hindering a goal illustrate promising points of intervention. Thus, clients' perspectives can be broadened and their freedom of movement increased.

Journal article

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

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