Melvin L. Kohn (1928-2021)

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It is with great sadness that I share the news about the passing of Professor Melvin L. Kohn in his home on March 19, 2021.

Mel is an Emeritus Professor in Sociology and Academy Professor of the Johns Hopkins University. He joined JHU Sociology in 1985, the year of his election to the Presidency of the American Sociological Association. Mel came to Hopkins after almost 35 years of distinguished service at the National Institute of Mental Health, during the last 25 of which he led the Laboratory of Socio-Environmental Studies. At NIMH, Mel’s path-breaking research on the relationship between social class and schizophrenia garnered many awards, including elected membership or fellowships in the American Psychopathological Association, the Sociological Research Association, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Mel pioneered in establishing the field of the study of social structure and personality that combined class analysis and social psychology, with a particular focus on job conditions and their implications for personality development. His classic, Class and Conformity: A Study of Values (1969), marshaled survey data from Italy and the US to show how job conditions affect not only parental values and personality but also parents’ socialization practices vis-à-vis their children. In 1985, the book was designated a “citation classic” by the editors of the Social Science Citation Index. Today, it remains a standard reference in the literature on social structure and personality.

Hopkins was Mel’s first academic appointment, and it remained his only such appointment. At Hopkins, he became a true comparativist and expanded his research framework to explore the relationship between class and personality in Poland, Japan, and Ukraine. After the collapse of Soviet communism, he seized the opportunity to study how the class-personality relation changed in the context of radical social transformation from state socialism to market capitalism in 1990s Poland and Ukraine. In the 2000s, he launched the five-city study in China to study social psychological change amidst rapid urban transformation. 

His comparative works earned him some of the highest academic recognition in several countries where he conducted his research. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Polish Sociological Association, a Fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, an honorary doctorate in Ukraine’s National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. In 2008, the Polish Academy of Sciences hosted a symposium on his work entitled “Social Structure and Personality under Conditions of Stability and Change: Research of Melvin L. Kohn and his Collaborators” with participants from around the world.  In 2012, the American Sociological Association organized a special session, “Class, Stratification, and Personality Under Conditions of Apparent Social Stability and of Radical Social Change (1956-2006),” at its Annual Conference to honor Mel’s lifetime achievements.

From his Ph.D. at Cornell in 1952 to his retirement at Hopkins in 2012, Mel was a never-tiring social scientist full of novel ideas to break new grounds. After his retirement, he continued to write. He published his last book, The Development of a Theory of Social Structure and Personality, in 2019. The book is a theoretical reflection and intellectual memoir of his lifetime of research. Looking back at his corpus of works is humbling. He sets us an example and a high standard of what social scientific investigation, theory building, and global comparison should be like. We will all miss his passion for research, his teaching and mentorship, his companion, and his laughter.

Ho-fung Hung

Chair, Department of Sociology Johns Hopkins University