Demonstration by unemployed people in Berlin circa 1930
History and philosophy, Social and behavioural

Learning from experiences – the pioneering Life of Marie Jahoda

Sophie O’Reilly, from our History of Psychology department, is back again with a fascinating look at the life of pioneering social psychologist, Marie Jahoda (1907-2001).

20 May 2020

By BPS History of Psychology Centre

Marie Jahoda was born in Vienna, Austria in 1907 to liberal Jewish parents. She described herself as growing up in an “extraordinary society”, with a great rise in intellectual and artistic thinking after the revolution overthrowing the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Early on, Marie became a member of the Social Democratic Party’s (SDP) youth movement and would remain politically active for the rest of her life, translating her socialist leanings into much of her research.

In 1925, at the age of 18, Marie registered at the University of Vienna to read Psychology (where one of her fellow students was Karl Popper).

Her ambition was to become Socialist Minister of Education and she could think of no better way to prepare for this career in government.

Marie met Paul Lazarfeld (who she would marry in 1926) at the Psychological Institute of the University of Vienna, and it was here that she got her first taste of social psychology, collaborating on a renowned paper, The Marienthal study, which focussed not just on the economic impact but also on the social and psychological effects of long-term unemployment.

After gaining her doctorate in 1932, studying with Charlotte Buhler (1893-1974), and giving birth to her daughter, Marie taught for a short time in a school for ‘difficult children’ (once commenting that “…I wish I could believe I did as much for the children as they did for me...”), and it was around this time, with the Nazi party growing in popularity, that copies of the published study on Marienthal (Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal – later translated as “The Sociology of an Unemployed Community”) – was burned like so many other books by Jewish authors.

Because of this Marie became even more active within the Social Democratic Party in Vienna.

In 1934 civil war broke out in Austria, ending with 13 leaders of the SDP being hanged by the Austrian government for their participation. Marie joined the SDP underground movement but, as a known SDP member, also lost her position in the Viennese school system.

In November 1936, Austrian police arrested Marie and some of her SDP collaborators. Most were released but, due to a letter denouncing Marie’s political activities, she was detained.

Marie would spend 10 months in prison (including 3 months in solitary confinement) whilst being regularly cross-examined by prison guards. Marie said that “...they did what they could without physical torture, to try and induce me to tell them what was going on in the organisation.”

Remarkably, she described this time as one of the most educational periods of her life due to her fascination with the effects of the psychological torture she endured and witnessed.

During this time, friends of Marie from the West campaigned for her release to the Austrian Prime Minister. They succeeded but with the proviso that Marie had to leave the country within 24 hours of her release, forcing her to leave her work, her child and her life behind.

After arriving in England, Marie first worked for a refugee organisation with her old friend Charlotte Buhler and was, in 1939, awarded the Pinsent-Darwin fellowship at Cambridge University (presented by Frederic Bartlett (1886-1969)).

During World War Two Marie was asked to become a member of the Ministry of Information’s Wartime Social Survey organisation, and contributed to the war effort by working at a radio station in an undisclosed location which covertly broadcast Allied propaganda to various Nazi occupied countries, and regularly broadcast to her native Austria in secret for 18 months.

Towards the end of the war, Marie decided to migrate to America to reunite her daughter, where she worked as a psychologist for the American-Jewish Committee as part of a research department studying anti-Semitism, and produced a book (written with Nathan Ackerman (1908-1971)) on anti-Semitism and emotional disorder.

In 1948 Marie went to Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research to work with Robert K. Merton (1910-2003). At this time Dwight D. Eisenhower was the president of Columbia University and Marie and Merton soon became involved in a content analysis of 30,000 letters written as part of a grassroots campaign to draft him as U.S. President.

However, due to Eisenhower not wanting the American public to know he had passed on their letters for scientific scrutiny, the study was never published.

From 1948 to 1958 Marie joined the Graduate Department of Social Psychology at New York University where she worked alongside Stuart W. Cook (1913-1993), then in 1958 she returned to England, remarried, and joined Brunel University as a Research Fellow (where she designed the four year undergraduate psychology course).

Marie went on to apply her first-hand practical and personal experiences to her development of the course in social psychology at Brunel University, establishing that students would spend six months, each year, working practically in the field.

Within months of returning to England Marie joined the British Psychological Society, giving a paper to the Social Psychology Section in June 1958 on the Social Psychology of Jazz. Within three years she was elected Chairman of the Section.

In 1979 she became a Fellow of the Society and gave the C S Myers lecture, comparing her knowledge of unemployment in 1929 with the current economic situation (Bulletin of the British Psychological Society Volume 32, 1979, 313).

As a Research Fellow, Marie conducted a review of investigations into the psychological content of positive mental health. Her review highlighted six major factors of Ideal Mental Health:

  • positive self-perception

  • good self-esteem

  • control over behaviour

  • realistic perceptions

  • sustained relationships and affection

  • perceived meaning in life

In 1965 Sussex University invited Marie to be the Professor of Social Psychology in 1965, and in 1977, she published a book on Sigmund Freud, ‘Freud and the Dilemmas of Psychology’.

In 1992 she was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and, in 1997, Sussex University instituted an annual lecture in her name.

Marie Jahoda died on 28 April 2001 in Sussex, England aged 94.

The BPS history of psychology centre holds an oral history interview and a video of Marie Jahoda.

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