The University Record, July 6 , 1999

Michigan Great: Social scientist makes mark in many ways

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of profiles of U-M alumni who have made significant and lasting contributions through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Expanded versions of these articles are available on the research Web at

By Lee Katterman
Office of the Vice President for Research

On a campus that boasts many of the leading social scientists of the 20th century, Robert Kahn has laid down a career that has shaped the thinking of scholars in fields such as survey research and organizational theory. “What can I say about this multi-faceted man,” says Richard Price, professor of psychology and a colleague of Kahn’s at the Institute for Social Research (ISR). “He was a young English teacher who came to the University to become a social scientist. In the end, he made contributions to organizational theory, the social psychology of organizations, that transformed our concept of organizations and the people in them.”

Kahn was born on March 28, 1918, in Detroit, where he was raised by his father, George Kahn, a 1908 graduate of Michigan in civil engineering, and his mother, Mabel Kahn. He enrolled in Michigan in 1935, with plans to eventually go to dental school, an interest nurtured while he worked Saturdays during high school for a local dentist.

But over time, his interests changed. “I guess the crucial moment was when I was admitted to dental school,” Kahn says. “I had gotten increasingly interested in becoming a university professor, largely because of the influence and admiration I had for my instructors, particularly two marvelous teachers, A.K. Stevens and Mentor L. Williams, both in the English department.”

Kahn turned down the dental school and majored in English in the Honors Program, minored in economics, and did an American history tutorial. “I wanted to study what is now called American studies, but there wasn’t such a degree then,” he says. In 1939, Kahn graduated Phi Beta Kappa, then studied for a master’s degree and a teaching certificate in English.

Kahn hoped to pursue a Ph.D., but none of the schools he wanted to attend could offer him a fellowship to cover his educational costs. Teaching certificate in hand, Kahn returned to Detroit and began working as a substitute teacher for $8 a day.

To supplement his teaching pay, he began doing interviewing after school—gathering data on unemployment for the government. The part-time job introduced him to social science.

Kahn soon became state supervisor for the Michigan employment survey. Although he still wanted a regular teaching job, it wasn’t to be. In 1942, the Census Bureau asked Kahn to go to Washington to conduct the national data analysis. He remained with the Bureau through World War II. Once the war ended, he decided to pursue graduate work in social science, particularly survey research.

“I had, in the course of my years at the Census Bureau, developed a working knowledge of quantitative survey methods, but I was very much aware of the fact that I didn’t have the substantive background in psychology or sociology or political science, which really would have added to that know-how,” Kahn recalls.

Kahn decided to come back to Michigan, with its Survey Research Center (SRC) in the newly established Institute for Social Research. In mid-1948, he got a job at the SRC and moved his young family to Ann Arbor. A new graduate program in social psychology was under way, headed by Theodore Newcomb. Although Kahn hadn’t taken social science as an undergraduate, his extensive experience led Newcomb to suggest that Kahn try to test out of as many of the undergraduate psychology requirements as he could. The strategy worked and soon Kahn was working toward a Ph.D. in social psychology, which he received in 1952.

Kahn was part of the group of social scientists who helped shape ISR. Shortly after he earned his Ph.D., he became an SRC program director. In 1970, he succeeded Angus Campbell as the Center’s director. One of his first major works is a fundamental book in the field of survey methodology, The Dynamics of Interviewing (1957, with Charles Cannell).

Kahn became a seminal figure in the field of organizational behavior, applying survey methodology to studying large organizations and what people do to contribute to an organization’s effectiveness. He also pioneered research on how an organization contributes to the health and well-being of employees, applied organizational theory to international studies, and has been involved in a multi-disciplinary effort to examine aging. Kahn, who recently authored Successful Aging with physician John Rowe, continues to write and lecture on aging, and is a member of a National Academy of Sciences panel developing a multinational agenda for aging research.

“Although I retired some 11 years ago, I’m particularly grateful that I can continue working,” says Kahn, thanking ISR for helping make that possible.

Price notes that Kahn himself is a wonderful example of successful aging. “Here’s someone who is still writing and contributing so many years after ‘officially’ retiring,” Price says. “He just loves to learn. He sees wonder in everything he looks at. He’s a wonderful role model for us all.”