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Marie Jahoda (1907 - 2001)

by Alexandra Rutherford, York University

In 2011, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) was celebrating its 75th anniversary.  Why should members of the Society for the Psychology of Women (SPW) be interested in this milestone? Since SPW began as Division 35 in 1973, there has been significant overlap in the leadership of both societies, not to mention in its general membership. Martha Mednick, Phyllis Katz, Rhoda Unger, Irene Frieze, Virginia O’Leary and Michele Wittig, for example, have been presidents of both SPW and SPSSI. Elizabeth Douvan, SPW’s first president, was an early member of SPSSI, and Carolyn Wood Sherif was both a SPSSI Council member and an SPW president. Pamela Trotman-Reid served on SPSSI Council from 1984-1987, and was president of SPW in 1991-1992 (see Unger, Sheese, & Main, 2010).  Despite SPSSI’s progressive political orientation and the active involvement of many female members even in its earliest years, like many other organizations it was not very responsive to women’s concerns until the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. For example, in the first 35 years of its existence, from 1936-1971, it had only one female president.  Her name was Marie Jahoda. 

Marie Jahoda was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1907 to an upper-middle-class, secular Jewish family. Jahoda’s parents were active Social Democrats and Jahoda became a leader in the Austrian socialist youth movement. Her upbringing was intensely political, and her political activities and convictions had a major impact on the course of her career and her outlook on psychology. Jahoda studied at the University of Vienna with Karl and Charlotte Bühler in their recently established Vienna Psychological Institute, a stronghold of the Social Democrats in the heyday of “Red Vienna.” As she later noted: “My decision to study psychology was based on my very, very deep conviction that I would one day be Minister of Education in a socialist Austria.  Psychology seemed to me to be the best preparation for that job which was the one job in life that I wanted.  This great illusion let me into psychology” (Jahoda, as cited in Fryer, 1986, p. 116).

In 1927, Jahoda married sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, who had just started a market research and applied social psychology research unit at the Institute.  Jahoda, Lazarsfeld, and their colleagues proceeded to use a diversity of methods to create a sociography of working class districts in Vienna to test the Marxist theory that economic crisis would precipitate revolutionary class consciousness. This same hypothesis guided their work on what became a classic study of unemployment, Marienthal: The Sociography of an Unemployed Community (Jahoda, Lazarsfeld, & Zeisel, 1933/1971).  The work was relatively unknown until it was re-issued in 1971; most copies of the first edition were burned because its authors were Jewish. 

In 1933, Jahoda and Lazarsfeld divorced, and Lazarsfeld moved to the United States. In 1934, Red Vienna fell to the Nazis and the social democrats went underground. Jahoda was arrested in November of 1936 for her political affiliation with the Social Revolutionaries, the underground organization of the Social Democratic Party. Officials believed she was using the research centre as a front to maintain a secret mail drop for the group. She was tried in May of 1937, found guilty, and sentenced to three months imprisonment. She was eventually released on the condition that she leave the country – including her work, family, and friends - immediately.  She heart wrenchingly agreed.  As she wrote in her memoir, “I was thunderstruck.  It seemed to me the most terrible decision anybody could be asked to make.  Where could I go, what about Lotte, my family, my work, my friends, my life?” (Jahoda-Albu, 1996, p. 37).  With few options available, she agreed to the conditions of release and arranged to leave for England.  She planned that her daughter Lotte would spend a year with Lazarsfeld in the United States and then come to England when she was established there. However, in the meantime, WWII was officially declared and her daughter remained in the United States.

Jahoda’s interest in unemployment continued after she arrived in England. There, she continued her research on unemployment and did applied work on civilian and enemy morale for the British Foreign Office.  In 1945, with the close of the war, Jahoda turned her thoughts to reuniting with her daughter and set out for the United States. Her first position in the U.S. was with the research department of the American Jewish Committee, where she studied a number of topics including the reduction of prejudice, the authoritarian personality, and the relationship between emotional disorders and anti-semitism. Jahoda then moved from the American Jewish Committee to the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University and began an influential affiliation with sociologist Robert Merton. 

In 1949, Jahoda joined social psychologist Stuart Cook at New York University, where she later became associate director of the well-known Research Center for Human Relations. Over the next eight years, Jahoda pursued at least three important projects: 1) She published the two-volume SPSSI-sponsored text, Research Methods in Social Relations; 2) she conducted a series of investigations of the impact of McCarthyism; and 3) she worked on the concept of positive mental health, resulting in her 1958 monograph Current Concepts of Positive Mental Health. In 1955, she became the first woman president of SPSSI, which had been established in 1936 to provide a forum for socially conscious psychologists to apply psychological research to social issues.  Another woman would not be elected president until 1971 (Marcia Guttentag).      

In 1958, Jahoda’s life took another geographic turn. She returned to Great Britain to marry Austen Albu, a Labour MP whom she had met during WWII. She assumed a professorship at Brunel University where she developed a course in which students spent time in prisons, schools, hospitals and industry, relating their academic studies to real-world problems. Seven years later, she moved to Sussex University and engaged in interdisciplinary work until her retirement in 1972, when she joined the Scientific Research Policy Unit as a research fellow. In the 1980s she wrote forcefully on the imperativeness of a non-reductionist social psychology, and the necessity for field research to complement laboratory experimentation. She also maintained a lifelong interest in psychoanalysis, publishing her book Freud and the Dilemmas of Psychology in 1977. She continued to be remarkably productive until her death in 2001in West Sussex. 


Fryer, D. (1986). The social psychology of the invisible: An interview with Marie Jahoda. New Ideas in Psychology, 4,107-118.

Jahoda, M., Lazarsfeld, P. F., & Zeisel, H. (1971). Marienthal: A sociography of an unemployed community. London: Tavistock. Original work published in 1933.

Jahoda-Albu, M. (1996). Reconstructions. Unpublished memoir in possession of the author.

Unger, R. K., Sheese, K. & Main, A.  S. (2010). Feminism and women leaders in SPSSI: Social networks, ideology, and generational change. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34, 474-485.

Note: This column is adapted from the author’s profile of Marie Jahoda, available online at
Date created: 2013