Role in Social Change

Lewin's field theory has had many applications, particularly in the area of social change. Lewin's approach to solving social problems was first to specify, in as much detail as possible, the life space of the individual involved. Next, he would identify the social forces affecting the individual. Finally, Lewin would experiment with changing these social forces or adding new ones to enact social change. Two applications of field theory performed by Lewin and his associates serve as good examples. One deals with changing food preferences and the other with the reduction of intergroup conflicts and prejudice.

During World War II, there was a shortage of meat, an important protein source, in the United States. As part of the war effort, Lewin was assigned the task of convincing Americans to eat sweetbreads—certain organ meats, which many Americans find unappetizing—to maintain protein levels. Lewin began by first describing the consumption channel, or how food reaches a family's table. At the time, housewives obtained food from either a garden or a grocery store and then moved it to the table by purchasing it, transporting it home, storing it in an icebox or pantry, and then preparing it. At each step, Lewin identified forces that kept the gatekeeper—in this case, the house-wife—from serving sweetbreads. Such forces might have included the belief that family members would not eat sweetbreads, inexperience with the selection and preparation of sweetbreads, or inherently distasteful aspects of the food.

In attempting to remove and redirect these forces, Lewin experimented with two approaches, one successful and the other not. In the unsuccessful case, Lewin presented housewives with a lecture detailing the problems of nutrition during the war and stating ways of overcoming obstacles in serving sweetbreads; he discussed ways to prepare sweetbreads, provided recipes, and indicated that other women had successfully served sweetbreads for their families with little complaint. Only 3 percent of the housewives hearing this lecture served sweetbreads. From Lewin's perspective, such a lecture was ineffective because it did not involve the audience and arouse the level of tension needed to produce change. Lewin's second method was a group discussion. The housewives were asked to discuss how they could persuade "housewives like themselves" to serve sweetbreads. This led to a discussion of the obstacles that the housewife might encounter, along with ways of overcoming these obstacles (just as in the lecture). Such a discussion was effective because it created tension for the housewife: "I just told everyone why they should and how they could eat sweetbreads, and I am not currently serving them myself." After this group discussion, 32 percent (an almost elevenfold increase) of the housewives involved served sweetbreads.

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