Memories of Melvin L. Kohn (1928-2021)
Johanna K. Bockman
Back in 2014, as DCSS president, I discovered that Melvin L. Kohn gave a DCSS presentation on March 30, 1961, titled “Reports on Some Current Research on Health,” and had, in fact, been a member of DCSS since the early 1950s. I decided that to deeply understand DCSS I had to talk with Mel, and I am very glad I did.
When I revealed at our meeting that I have been an ecstatic fan of sociology, Mel declared, “We’re twins!” He truly loved sociology and being a sociologist. In his memoir, Adventures in Sociology: My Life as a Cross-National Scholar, he began, “the true hero of this tale is not Mel Kohn, but an academic field, Sociology” (p. 7). Sociological research at the National Institute of Mental Health for almost 35 years and then at Johns Hopkins University offered him an exciting life of adventure. In his adventurous life, he worked with collaborators – in particular, those in China, Italy, Japan, Poland, and Ukraine – and came to identify himself as a “cross-national sociologist.” He and his collaborators explored “whether the relationships of class and stratification to job conditions, and of job conditions to values and orientation,” are similar across countries with transforming economic systems, using ever-new statistical methods and innovative indices (p. 129). His cross-national approach and his thoughtful methodological writings on it provided a much-needed counterweight to sociology’s often provincial focus on U.S. society. His great love of sociology and cross-national research has contributed much to our discipline and to DCSS.
For decades, DCSS provided Mel and other sociologists a space different from other professional associations. Bringing together academics and non-academics, it wonderfully filled a gap. Mel ended our discussion with, “How grateful can you be to DCSS!” And DCSS is very grateful to Mel.
I met Mel Kohn through DCSS. He was one of the biggest supporters of our regional sociological society. Mel spoke many times at DCSS, but perhaps one of his earliest talks was in March of 1961. At that time, Dr. Kohn was Chief of the Laboratory of Socio-environmental Studies at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). He spoke with Forest Linder (from the Public Health Service) on “Some Current Research on Health” at Gallaudet University. Mel Kohn was an extremely popular presenter and one was fortunate if you could arrange for him to give a talk. The sociologists at Catholic University were among the fortunate. Mel Kohn gave the “Che Fu Lee Memorial Talk” in honor of our colleague Che Fu Lee in 2010. The topic was “Class, Stratification, and Personality under conditions of Apparent Social Change: A Comparison of the U.S., Japan, Poland, and Ukraine.”
Mel and I (along with my husband Steven Tuch) shared a love for Eastern Europe and often laughed over some of our adventures. By all appearances, this kind and modest man with a huge smile was some interesting sociologist attending the DCSS meetings, when in fact he was a world-famous sociologist. Steve and I had done exchanges at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Mel had done much more. He was involved in groundbreaking work comparing social structure and personality in countries across the world including Italy, Poland, Japan, Ukraine, and China. All of this comparative work was in collaboration with sociologists from these countries. Some of it was conducted under repressive communist regimes. It is those stories of Mel’s that most affected me because of the danger and challenges of doing sociological research under difficult circumstances.
Mel’s research tying social structure to personality was perhaps some of the first (and finest) work showing micro-macro connections. This radical move toward combining the two distinct approaches affected my work on race, gender, and science in countless ways, as it did the work of many others. More importantly, I never taught a class at Catholic University without mentioning this brilliant work on how work structures affect personalities, which in turn affect interactions in the home. I remember students being incredulous: “You mean our jobs affect our personalities and ultimately how we socialize our children?” Who else but someone with Mel Kohn’s training and work at NIMH could have created this theory and found empirical support for it? Mel didn’t stop there. He was one of the first American sociologists to point out that our sociological lens need not be limited in focus to the U.S. Instead, our insights are heightened by comparative, cross-national work, and it is comparative work that involves collaboration with international scholars that is the most valuable. Once again, Mel paved the way for me (and many others). I can think of no one else who was as influential in my decision to look at gender equity in science in a comparative context.
Thank you for all that you gave us Mel. We will miss you.
Sandra L. Hanson
Department of Sociology
I don’t have many positive memories from my grad school years, but the few interactions I had with Mel Kohn are certainly among them. Mel came to the sociology department at the beginning of my second year, and I think those of us students who fancied ourselves Marxist internationalists were skeptical when we learned he would be joining the faculty. His classic book, Class and Conformity, had been included in the required first-year seminar, which gave it a negative association for those of us who had just gone through the painful ordeal that course was in those days. But Mel quickly set any doubts aside with his combination of sharp intellect, open mind, and approachability.
I remember a self-deprecating anecdote Mel told early on about his first trip to Poland presenting some of his work on class to an academic audience steeped in Marxist-Leninist dogma. Although I didn’t take it myself, I heard that Mel’s seminar course on social structure and personality was a hit even with my leftist fellow travelers. Given my own focus on African and Latin American societies, I had only one course myself with Mel as a faculty member. It was a methods seminar on structural equation modeling, which was pretty cutting-edge stuff in 1986. I have never had any reason to make use of structural equation modeling in my own work, but I feel I gained a conceptual understanding of the method from that seminar that was far more important than any “how-to” instructions would have been.
Probably my last interaction with Mel as a student came during my required foreign language exam. The exam consisted of reading an assigned piece of scholarly literature and discussing it with the faculty member one-on-one. I chose German, because I had studied the language as an undergraduate. But at the time, I had not been to Germany or really read much of anything in German sociology, whereas Mel was then a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Max-Planck Institut für Bildungsforschung und Humanentwicklung in Berlin. I have no recollection now what that article was about, but I do remember being stuck on a term that was used repeatedly but didn’t seem to fit the dictionary definition. I was worried about that coming into the exam, but it turned out Mel had also found that term somewhat confusing and we had a good discussion about it. (The word was Betrieb, which I later figured out referred in this context to a workplace, but that was not at all clear at the time.) I still remember that after more than 30 years.
I only had a couple of brief interactions with Mel after graduate school, chance meetings at conferences and one pleasant conversation at a DCSS event a few years ago. I know he has been deservedly honored for his scholarship and is remembered for groundbreaking comparative research. But I will always remember Mel for his kindness and the genuine curiosity he demonstrated in conversations about pretty much anything. I’m glad I had the opportunity to know him.
John W. Curtis, PhD Johns Hopkins 1993 and DCSS Treasurer
 His self-published memoir is enjoyably written and insightful about the development of his sociological subfields. Kohn, Melvin L. 2016. Adventures in Sociology: My Life as a Cross-National Scholar. Washington, DC: Opus, Politics and Prose Bookstore, https://www.politics-prose.com/book/9781624290749
 See, for example, Kohn, Melvin L. 1987. “Cross-National Research as an Analytic Strategy: American Sociological Association, 1987 Presidential Address.” American Sociological Review 52(6): 713-731.