The New in Social Research: Javier Lezaun recording

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We are pleased to put online the next in our ‘The New in Social Research’ series, a recording of Javier Leaun’s (March 20th) talk titled Cinematography and the Discovery of Social Kinetics (for download, not to stream).

Lezaun’s talk looks at the use of film by two early 20th century social scientists: (1) Wolfgang Köhler, one of the founders of Gestalt Psychology, and his colleague (2) Kurt Lewin, the pioneer of Social Psychology. In the work of these two figures we find the idea of the social as a form of movement, as a kinetic event, most visibly manifested in the face-to-face interactions of small groups. Lezaun’s talk shows the important role that film played in the creation of this idea of the social in the works of Köhler and Lewin.

Lezaun considers Köhler’s use of film in his famous experiments on chimpanzee intelligence, published in the book The Mentality of Apes (1917). Puzzlingly, the images that illustrate the book are not still photographs, but frames from the film footage shot during the trials. Lezaun argues that film was critical because it allowed Köhler to record the peculiar geometry of movement that, in his view, was characteristic of insightful behavior by apes. Yet, when it came to the question of whether apes had the capacity to act with intelligence collectively, to constitute a social group, Köhler hesitated: the motion pictures were too ambiguous to discriminate between impulsive cooperation and structured sociability.

Lewin, who started his career at Köhler’s Psychological Institute in Berlin, used film in his famous 1930s experiments in Iowa, in which groups of children subjected to different styles of leadership conformed to democratic, authoritarian, and laissez-faire ‘atmospheres’. Lezaun shows how Lewin built on and extended Köhler’s use of film in these experiments to offer a visual representation of these micro-polities. While Köhler used film principally to record experiments, Lewin’s arranged the experimental events so as to produce a cinematic effect. The social scientist, for one, acquired a new role, literally “acting” the role of provocateur.

The different uses of film in Köhler and Lewin are also, Lezaun shows, apparent in their editing techniques: Köhler was interested in individual frames of film while Lewin borrowed heavily from the motion-pictures of contemporary cinema. Where Köhler aimed to capture an image of motion in his experimental subjects, it is the moving image itself in Lewin’s work that enables the social to be put on display. Lezaun argues that this use of film enabled Lewin to arrange experimental situations which displayed a particular form of sociability; that is, the social as a kinetic event.

Find Lewin’s experimental films at archive.org

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