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FIELD THEORY. A method for analyzing causal relationships and building scientific constructs. Field theory is an approach to scientific tasks, not a theory about a realm of data. The mathematical representation of a field is the first derivative of x at time t.
Field theory in public administration and in the social sciences owes its origins to the natural sciences. Originally used to conceptualize electromagnetic phenomena in physics, social scientists in psychology adapted field theory as an alternative method for measuring causal relationships. Kurt Lewin ( 1952) deserves much of the credit for developing this theory for the social sciences. Field theory was initially proposed as an approach for problematic concepts, including frustration and need, which eluded traditional methods of analysis. In the study of public policy and management, the use of field theory has the potential to provide insights into problematic, situation specific incidents that elude traditional time-based methods of examination.
Most psychological analyses use a teleological method to examine behavior, inferring the future from historical information. One of the best examples of such psychological constructs commonly used for inference is the stimulus-response pattern. The stimulus-response pattern establishes a time-based (historical) link between the initiating element and its consequence. Field theory does not rely on such measures of the past and present to make inferences; instead, it emphasizes the use of a concept termed the "present field."
Since causation happens from the interaction of forces within the present field, one can make no inferences about future behavior outside the present field. The use of this approach carries with it assumptions about the nature of the field being examined. The present field captures relevant past information and exposes information that is unfolding in the immediate future. Since this is the case, those employing field theory use systematic rather than historical causation to gain inferences. This theory also relies on the idea that living systems maintain equilibrium, which is consistent with Gestalt psychology. The analysis focuses on a single field, and yet encompasses an entire situation.
Since its adaptation into the social sciences, field theory has been used extensively to examine the relationships between behavior and action. In order for a researcher to accurately measure this relationship, he or she must first create a geometric representation of the phenomena. Lewin has argued that this can be accomplished through the adoption of the geometric idea called "hodological space." Through the use of hodological space, concepts including aspiration, frustration, and conflict can be quantified and measured empirically. The field is then constructed from a geometric pattern in this hodological space, and the pattern is used to operationalize the field for analysis, thus enabling scholars to use empirical criteria to infer causality.
Later, scholars of organizational development adopted field theory, incorporating it into the stream of literature known as action research. Its use (though empirically not as rigorous as Lewin's) was justified by field theory's association with systematic action experiments in the social sciences, originated by Lewin and Dewey. Scholars of action research support this relaxed interpretation of field theory and the related concepts that follow it, by arguing that the methodological relaxation corrects the problem of experimental results being disconnected from reality or being uninterpretable.
Public administration scholars and practitioners that specialize in organizational development reap large rewards through the "force field analysis" technique drawn directly from action research. Field theory, as Lewin conceptualized it, though mathematically more precise in its conception, lacks the utility of the force field analysis that public and private organizational development practitioners use for planned change. The empirically rigorous interpretation by Lewin enables practiced researchers in public administration to measure empirically causation based on a field that geometrically structures a difficult behavioral phenomenon, such as conflict, desires, and aspirations. This technique does not enable either the organizational development practitioner or the practiced researcher to extrapolate into the future outside the present field. Field theory can provide empirical understanding of the phenomenon of interest. In public administration, and particularly in public management, the techniques that grew out of field theory are useful for difficult behavioral concepts that escape traditional methods of empirical analysis. It also, by conception, controls for many extraneous factors that might limit the understanding of behavioral phenomena.
ARTHUR J. SEMENTELLI
French, Wendell L., and Cecil H. Bell, 1995. Organization Development: Behavioral Science Interventions for Organization Improvement. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.