Although one of Lewin's most famous studies is said to have proven the superiority of democratic leadership to other leadership models, Lewin has also been criticized for not having developed his notion of this type of leadership beyond a rough sketch. Some of Lewin's colleagues noted that he combined an elitist view of leadership with an element of control. Although Lewin maintained that democracy cannot be forced on individuals, he recognized the existence of "a kind of paradox." Speaking (in 1943) of the need to reconstruct the culture of Germany after the war, Lewin said:
The democratic leader does not impose his goals on the group . . . the policy determination in democracy is done by the group as a whole. Still the democratic leader should "lead". ... To instigate changes toward democracy a situation has to be created for a certain period where the leader is sufficiently in control to rule out influences he does not want and to manipulate the situation to a certain degree.
One of Lewin's associates at Iowa commented that Lewin's commitment to democracy reminded him of Freud's definition of reaction formation. "The autocratic way he insisted on democracy was a little spectacular. There was nothing to criticize—but one could not help noticing the fire and the emphasis." Ironically, Lewin was caricatured as often during his life as a "mere political propagandist" as he was criticized for an elitist view of leadership.
Some forms of action research that have evolved from Lewin's model since his death take issue with certain aspects of his approach. In general, action research fell out of favor with academic psychologists during the 1960s because it was linked to left-wing political activism. In the 1970s, however, action research was reintroduced into schools of education and organizational development as a way of improving classroom practice. As of the early 2000s, Lewin's original model of action research has produced at least three major variations: traditional action research, which is most closely identified with Lewin's work and generally takes a conservative approach toward organizational power structures; radical action research, which takes a Marxist view of society and works to overcome power imbalances within organizational structures; and educational action research, which follows Dewey's belief that educators should involve themselves in community problem-solving at the local level. University-based action researchers in this third group often work with teachers in nearby primary and secondary schools.
Traditional action research based on Lewin's examples is sometimes referred to as technical action research because it focuses on improving the efficiency or effectiveness of an organization. It is usually started by a person or group of people who are considered experts or authority figures because of their greater experience or training. Technical action research is essentially product-directed even though it involves all the members of a working group. It is concerned with gathering information that confirms or refines existing theories, and that can also be used to predict future outcomes.
Even within the field of technical action research, however, contemporary practitioners take issue with Lewin on two points: First, modern researchers regard group decision-making as an important matter of principle, not just as a technique. In other words, it is not only a means to bring about social change, but also inspires participants to commit themselves to action. Some psychologists think that Lewin's spiral model has misled others into thinking that using the spiral as a rigid template constitutes "doing action research." Second, Lewin's critics object to his notion that action research is a way of "leading" participants to a more democratic form of life. Instead of action research serving as a recipe for creating a democracy, they maintain that it should be seen as a way to carry out democratic principles in a research setting.
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