2017 marks the 70th anniversary of Kurt Lewin’s death. Lewin is generally acknowledged as
having laid the foundations for the study of organisational change. This stemmed from his
wider commitment to using the social sciences to resolve social conflict, such as racism and
religious intolerance (Marrow, 1969). At the time of his death, his contribution to psychology
was considered on a par with that of Freud (Tolman, 1947). In the 1980s, Schein (1988:
239) enthusiastically commented that Lewin was: ‘… the intellectual father of contemporary
theories of applied behavioral science’. Today, his legacy is seen as stretching beyond his
work on organisations and influences many fields, to such an extent that the psychologist
and behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman (2013: ix), who was awarded the Nobel Prize
in Economics, recently declared: ‘We are all Lewinians now, and in the context of policy
behavioural economists are Lewinian as well’.
Lewin is best known for providing the theories, tools and techniques central to Organization
Development (OD), which is still considered to be the dominant approach to organisational
change, especially at the group level (Burnes and Cooke, 2012). His main contributions to
OD are seen as:
planned change – this comprises four interrelated elements: field theory, group
dynamics, action research and the three-step model of change (Burnes, 2004, 2007);
showing how psychological theories and techniques developed and used in
laboratory experiments to study group behaviour could be applied to studying and
changing group behaviour in the real world (Dent, 2002; Highhouse, 2007);
a set of radical values and ‘utopian aspirations’ (Mirvis, 2006: 77) that emphasised
the need to promote democratic values and participation in order to tackle social
conflict (Lewin, 1946; Marrow, 1969).
In addition, in pursuit of his broader agenda to utilise the social sciences to facilitate social
as well as organisational change, Lewin helped to establish key institutions and journals.
These included the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), the
Research Center for Group Dynamics, the NTL Institute, the Journal of Social Issues and
Human Relations. Collectively, these stand as a testament to Lewin’s belief in the
interdependence of theory and practice (Bargal, 2011), which is summed up in his famous
‘…there is nothing so practical as a good theory’ (Kurt Lewin, 1943-4: 169).
This special Issue of JCM focuses on the extent and in what ways Lewin’s work has stood
the test of time. In particular, the Special Issue seeks to explore four questions:
1. Are Lewin’s ideas, insights and theories still central to the understanding and practice
of organisational change, or is he more of a totemic figure much referred to, but little
understood or used?
2. What does Lewin’s call for a participative, humanist and ethical approach to change
have to offer to today’s organisations?
3. Lewin is often referred to as The Practical Theorist (Marrow, 1969). To what extent
is Lewin’s approach to change relevant to the current rigour-relevance debate?
4. To what extent does Lewin’s work offer an effective approach to resolving social
conflict in today’s world?