Lewin's Field Theory as Situated Action in Organizational Change

Article excerpt


Lewin's Field Theory has been oversimplified into a mechanistic three-step process. In reality, it is a complex mental model adapting the field theories of physics to psychological and organizational process. Lewin's Field Theory is explained in detail and placed in the context of Lucy Suchman's ideas of Situated Action. How they relate and form the basis of theory that guide in the development of models for analyzing actions within a systematic and feedback driven framework is explored.

There is nothing so practical as a good theory.

-Kurt Lewin

(Bronfenbrenner, 1977)

Kurt Lewin's Field Theory is often summed up as 'Unfreeze - Change - Refreeze'. In this formulation it is frequently criticized as being somewhat rigid and inflexible. I believe that this is a gross oversimplification of Lewin's work, and that indeed, he understood the importance of context and the fact that as any process happens, it is continually informed and changed by the unfolding situation.

Lucy Suchman (1987), the originator of the situated action view of working behavior, compares the two concepts of planning, situated action planning and following a predefined plan, to the differences in the way Polynesians and Europeans navigate:

"The European navigator begins with a plan - a course - which he has charted according to certain universal principles, and he carries out his voyage by relating his every move to that plan. His effort throughout his voyage is directed to remaining `on course.' If unexpected events occur, he must first alter the plan, then respond accordingly. The Trukese navigator begins with an objective rather than a plan. He sets off toward the objective and responds to conditions as they arise in an ad hoc fashion. He utilizes information provided by the wind, the waves, the tide and current, the fauna, the stars, the clouds, the sound of the water on the side of the boat, and he steers accordingly. His effort is directed to doing whatever is necessary to reach the objective."

In the same manner, while someone may start out with a plan to implement a change in an organization, it rapidly becomes subject to and changed by the unfolding situation. As the process unfolds, new actors emerge, and known ones may wax and wane in significance. Factors that were anticipated to be of great importance may prove trivial, others, initially considered minor may be revealed as crucial. Thus, the actual actions become situated within the context and situation as it exists within and changes with time. The nature of context is such that it is impossible to know or plan in advance every significant detail. One of Suchman's key points is that feedback is built into the fundamental nature of actions. The point of being 'situated' is that feedback from action as it reacts to situation (and context) loops back to inform subsequent action (Suchman, 1987) and thus any model that proposes to describe how real people perform real actions must take this into account.

Lewin's model has been criticized for failing to account for any feedback, and for not accounting for the situated nature of actions. Orlikowski & Hofman (1997) feel that Lewin's model treats change as a discrete event to be managed over a limited period. Cummings & Worley (1997) state that force field analysis derives from the three step change model, and show it as a nonsituated straight-line model incorporating no feedback. Palmer & Dunford (1997) describe Lewin's model as linear and mechanical. These are only a few of many examples of this mechanistic interpretation.

I believe that these criticisms do not do justice to Lewin's ideas. Lewin was well aware of the situational nature of actions. When writing over fifty years ago, he was limited by the fact that the language and concepts describing the interaction of context and situation were yet to be developed. His efforts laid much of the groundwork that these concepts were ultimately built upon, and his unfortunate death at age 57 prevented him from completing the work that I suspect would have led to a much firmer rooting of Field Theory in an understanding of context and situation. …