Action Research and  The Role of Community*

Historically, the study of community psychology has emerged in the middle of the twentieth century, largely due to the pioneering work of Kurt Lewin and his Research Center for Group Dynamics.  


Prior to his flight to the USA in 1933, he was associated with the “Frankfurt School” through the Institute for Social Research.


Shortly afterward he worked for Iowa Child Welfare Research. 


Later he established the Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT.


Having published a number of articles on field theory and social relations he is most notably known for his landmark “textbook”  which came after his death, published by his Widow Gertrud Weiss Lewin and Gordon W. Allport (1948).


Throughout this manuscript Lewin delves into the issues around minority groups and their conflicts and relations. In part he considers national personality as a product of the social milieu, a position that is reflective of Dilthey’s stance on the self (Tonks, 2004).


 Lewin also discusses problems of changing culture, conflicts in face-to-face groups as well as inter-group conflicts and group belongingness. Arguably, however, what is best known from this publication and has the greatest impact on the world of research is the final chapter,

 Action Research and Minority Problems.


In the forward to Lewin’s book, Allport (1948) describes this collection of essays as hinging on the interdependence of the individual and the group examined from a scientific, even experimental, perspective.  Lewin himself reveals this, when discussing persistent attitude change where:


Definite answers to such questions can be supplied only by an ‘experimental cultural anthropology’ which will study cultural changes systematically under specially created conditions. Unfortunately, cultural anthropology is still in its ‘descriptive’ stage; it has its hands full with finding methods of observing and describing modern cultures adequately and reliably. (1948, p. 35)


Allport also compares Lewin with Dewey in terms of their respective contributions to social betterment through psychology and philosophy. In particular their identification of the group as the ground for the perceptions of the individual (figure).


Each recognized the importance of authentic democracy as well as the need for voluntary commitment to social change and the feelings and perceptions that underlay such changes.  Both, contend Allport, also recognized the fact that each generation must learn democracy against the challenging forces of autocracy.


Lewin’s solution is to promote democracy through the training of democratic leaders who can subsequently arrange and organize others in their own communities. As such, his “group work” involves the training of leaders in a context of building cooperation and avoiding hostility and resentment. (p. 41) 


Re-education, as culture change requires changes in cognitive structure, social action, correct knowledge. It works against loyalty to old ideas and sentiments and hostility to new ideas, a point echoing those of William James (1907) on establishing pragmatic truths.


Ultimately, Lewin identifies the need to change perceptions as the key to changing social categorization and social action. To make such perceptual or ideological changes, Lewin contends requires free expression, voluntary attendance, and a type of informality of meetings in order to foster the creation of a positive in-group. This will in turn foster the acceptance of the new value system and a sense of belongingness, essential to group identity and social change.


Action Research

In 1939, Kurt Lewin wrote an essay titled “When facing danger”, later to be chapter 10 in this 1948 book.  He begins by expressing concern over an impending war in Europe, and continues to discuss the social categorization of Jews by the Nazis, creating the ‘Jewish Problem.’ He articulates his views by stating:
     “I suppose many feel as deeply as I do that action is
       what we need in the Jewish life today” (p.     161).


He turns our attention to sociology and social psychology to take action and help solve this problem.


In chapter 13, written in 1946, he articulates “Action Research and Minority Problems” beginning with a distinction between “causal” research and action research.  The former model is directed to the goal of establishing “if so” propositions, including conditions, for the establishment of laws.


 Alternatively, action research is directed towards the “diagnosis of a specific situation.  This form of research can be used for social planning and action as in the case of social management in the form of the social relations among factory workers. 


Essentially, Lewin’s research model involves a circle of planning, executing, evaluation and preparation for the next step to go through the whole process again. Hence a spiraling of activity occurs, offering iterations of information and a gradual re-directing of the over all plan. This ‘hermeneutical’ enterprise involves the interpretive exercise of “reconnaissance” or “fact-finding” that is part of the circle of activity.


Reconnaissance involves 1) evaluation of the action; 2) gives planners a chance to learn; 3) provides a basis for correctly planning the next step; and 4) provides a basis for modifying the overall plan.


Lewin gives several examples of change experiments that illustrate this process of action research. As with the promotion of democracy, training of social scientists to subsequently build teams to conduct studies in various communities to spread the process and understanding of group relations and social change.


Discussing Lewin’s “change experiments” Allport writes: “remedial efforts, he insisted, should be introduced into a community prepared to study the results of its own social action” (p. xiii).   He further states that, with respect to the retraining of attitudes, this task: “requires that participating groups be led to examine their goals and their pre-suppositions” (p. xiii), in order to learn to become detached and objective.


Cultural Reconstruction, says Lewin in his 1943 essay, is often required after a war to help build a world of peace. He admits that humble outcomes of only “better than before” may be more in line.  The integrated efforts of local, national and international partners are needed to conduct appropriate action research that can leads “gradually to independence, equality, and co-operation” (Lewin, 1948, p. 215).


In closing the essay on action research he states:

“It is equally clear, however, that this job demands from the social scientists an utmost amount of courage. It needs courage as Plato defines it: ‘Wisdom concerning dangers.’ It needs the best of what the best among us can give, and the help of everybody” (p. 216).


It appears that Kurt Lewin inspired a generation or two to give the best of what they have to give to a broad spectrum of social issues and concerns.


Lewin Legacy

The legacy of Kurt Lewin is complex and wide reaching, as such it lies beyond the scope of this present paper. Nonetheless, a briefer overview of the types and areas of influence his action research has ventured is more in hand. Following his death in 1947, those close to him continued his institutional activities at MIT Lippitt (1949), for example worked on the development of T-group. A year later, in 1950, The National Training Laboratories (NTL)  was established to continue work on T-group training (Smith, 2001).   



The Tavistock Institute in London became the post-war home for many social-activist researcher who were also was strongly influenced by Lewin’s work. 


As indicated in Stivers & Wheelan (1986) 20 years after his death,  Kurt Lewin’s legacy was still strong and widespread. This volume represents that proceedings of the 1984 First International Kurt Lewin Conference.  At that time papers were presented and published on general contributions of Lewin, comparisons of his work with , then contemporary, theory and research in developmental social and mental health research, education, organizational development as well as community psychology. Of these latter studies the topics include action research across several social contexts as well as in environmental psychology.


At this time an in years to follow others would develop neo-Lewinian models of action research.

            Most notably among those developing models of action research is the work of Stringer (1999) that has ushered a new generation of action research over the past decade.


Communities in  action


Rennie, Watson & Montiero (2002) provide an overview of qualitative research and the various branches including action, participatory action, grounded and discourse research as part of a special issue in Canadian Psychology.



Some of the range of community in action making use of his general methods include minorities and marginalized cultural groups including feminists. 


Arguably more notably, feminist research took strong hold of action research, particularly in the in 70s and 80 when great degrees of consciousness raising and social change regarding the role and place of women in science and academia.  Kimball ( 1986) discusses the ground breaking from the underground in Canadian feminist psychology.


Feminist perspectives are also provided by Sandra Harding (1987) and others in the field of philosophy of science and research methodologies (Thom, 1989).


* Extracted from Tonks (2009)