Marie Jahoda – the ultimate example

Michael Billig turns to historical studies of writing psychology to argue for ‘more examples, less theory’ in this extended and adapted extract from his new book.

There were three books which I read as a young man and knew, as I was reading them, that they were irrevocably changing my outlook on the world. The first was Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1968), which I read as an undergraduate and which ruined my chances of becoming a ‘proper’ psychologist. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1965/1977), for all its faults and provocative asides, shook me deeply. Then, there was C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary (1964). I can still remember the excitement of reading that book and never wanting it to end.

None of these three books which so changed me was written by a psychologist, or even by a professional academic. And in my 2013 book Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, I griped and grumbled about the way that social scientists tend to write these days: lots of dry jargon and big theories, producing page upon page devoid of people. Yet constant criticism can become tiresome, and so in my latest book, More Examples, Less Theory: Historical Studies of Writing Psychology, I came to praise.

I turned to some of my favourite writers of psychology from the past. What is it about their writing that makes them so appealing? Good psychological writers use well-chosen examples. Their books come alive because readers can grasp lives being lived, including the lives of the authors. Yet the standard experimental report in psychology is empty of humans. The authors discuss the effects of variables on other variables, for example the effects of ‘priming’ on the judgement of shapes. The researchers get groups of participants who have been ‘primed’ differently to judge shapes. Then, they combine the scores of participants in the different priming conditions and statistically compare aggregates of reactions. No actual participant is introduced to the reader; rather, the aggregate scores representing the tested variables are what seem to be real. In consequence, experimental reports can be example-free, human-free zones.

There is nothing natural or inevitable about this sort of writing. Psychologists, especially if they know the history of their discipline, have choices in the ways they write. As I considered those authors I admire, one such choice began to loom large: the inclusion of examples emerged as crucial when writing about the mind. Examples can be a synonym for a concrete individual case; an instance which exemplifies an idea or theoretical point; someone who should be followed; and sometimes all three, and possibly more, of these senses together.

Championing the rhetorical role of examples in psychological writing means pushing against the dominance of theory. It means reassessing what Thomas Scheff, in his brilliant analyses of the social sciences, has called the relations between parts and wholes. The parts may have privileged status in some areas of the social sciences, for instance in ethnography, conversation analysis and history, where analysts directly examine specific examples of life rather than trying to construct general, overall theories. In psychology, it is the wholes of theory that currently have the upper hand, squeezing examples to the margins.

Working through my historical examples of psychological writers, I became persuaded that examples were often rhetorically in tension with theory. The more a theory was valued, the more examples were devalued or restricted. On the other hand, the more that examples were treasured, as in the writing of Abraham Tucker and William James, the more the role of theory qua theory was diminished.

This tension between theory and example is clear in the work of my ‘ultimate example’. Marie Jahoda, who died in 2001 at the age of 94, was a great user of examples in her work, and she believed that psychologists constantly over-valued theory. She sets standards of writing and of intellectual humanity that psychologists today would do well to follow. Jahoda had a wider moral and political vision which she maintained throughout her life; she wrote directly with minimum jargon and maximum clarity; and she felt that the pressures to publish were corrupting academic values. Psychologists, in her opinion, were constantly publishing trivialities that were not worth the paper on which they were printed.

In short, Jahoda’s use of examples and her suspicion of theory in psychology were just two aspects of a humane, courageous vision. She showed readers how to look at the sharp points of the social world. Jahoda’s early political commitments had pulled her towards psychology, and then towards a very particular way of doing psychology – immersed in the lives of those she studied.

The rootless refugee
Readers working their way through my book might be puzzled that chapters on some of the ‘big names’ in psychology – including William James, Freud, Lacan, Tajfel – led up to Marie Jahoda. They might consider her to be something of an anti-climax. Jahoda hardly troubles the writers of social psychology’s major textbooks, but that is precisely the point. If the standard ways of writing psychology are flawed, then a good example is more likely to found on the margins of the discipline than in its central positions.

Marie Jahoda was a multiple outsider – by ethnicity, politics, culture, nationality, intellectual values and, of course, gender. David Fryer, in the fascinating interview which he conducted with her when she was in her early eighties, asked her, In which community did she feel ‘totally at home’? She replied, ‘Oh, I’m just a rootless refugee’ (Fryer, 1986, p.118). Younger than Kurt Lewin and 12 years older than Henri Tajfel, Jahoda, like them, was a European Jew who had fled from aggressive anti-Semitism.

In the book, I outline Marie Jahoda’s long life, beginning with growing up in a liberal-minded, middle-class Jewish family in Vienna, through socialist politics after the First World War, then studying psychology in the genuine belief that one day she would be the country’s socialist minister of education. At a summer camp of the socialist youth movement in 1919, Jahoda met the young Paul Lazarsfeld, who also combined an involvement in Austro-Marxism with an interest in psychology. Paul and Marie married in 1927, and co-operated with Hans Zeisel, a lawyer and childhood friend of Lazarsfeld, on the study of Marienthal, an industrial village 20 miles from Vienna with almost 100 per cent unemployment. It was a brilliant, pioneering piece of work which represented for Marie Jahoda the perfect balance between intellectual inquiry and political significance.

Jahoda went on to spend eight months in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, on the charge of assisting the underground organisation of the banned Social Democrats; to begin that life as a ‘rootless refugee’ by leaving for Britain, holding a fellowship at Cambridge University and working with the British Ministry of Information during the Second World War; and to work in the United States before returning to England in 1958, to Brunel College of Advanced Technology and later the new University of Sussex. But it’s the story and significance of that classic publication, Marienthal, that interests me here.

‘To make visible in its complexity…’
As the director of the Psychological Institute’s new research centre, Paul Lazarsfeld wanted a politically motivated project to balance the market research that he had been directing. He went to see Otto Bauer, the leader of the Austrian Socialists, with the idea of conducting a survey to help the recently unemployed make use of their enforced leisure time. Bauer responded in no uncertain terms. According to the statistician and sociologist Paul Neurath (1995), Bauer exploded: Had they all gone out of their minds? Did they really want to study leisure activities when what the unemployed most needed was work? Bauer suggested the researchers examine the consequences of almost total unemployment on the life of a community. He recommended them to look at Marienthal, a strongly Social Democratic village where the main employer had closed down the flax mill, leaving most of the households without a wage earner.

The project began in 1930, and in the words of Christian Fleck in his introduction to the latest English edition of Marienthal, its ‘matching of politics and scholarship has seldom been replicated’. Yet political censorship was to damage its fortunes, and the book remained unpublicized for years. The report was originally published in Germany as a short book in the spring of 1933, just weeks after Hitler had taken power. The publisher, based in Leipzig, kept the Jewish-sounding names of the three authors – Jahoda, Lazarsfeld and Zeisel – from the front cover. The book was merely described as being edited by the Austrian Research Unit for Economic Psychology, and it bore the title (in German) ‘The Unemployed of Marienthal: a Sociographic Essay on the Consequences of Long-Term Unemployment, with an Appendix on the History of Sociography’. When it was finally translated into English almost 40 years later, Fleck wrote that the book’s history showed that in the social sciences, ‘outstanding work can live at the very margins of the scholarly world’.

In between Lazarsfeld’s introduction and Zeisel’s afterword came the main body of the text, which Jahoda wrote. She did not present the findings as if they were testing a theory about the psychological consequences of unemployment. In fact, like Lazarsfeld in the introduction, she did not refer to other research. Many years later, Jahoda (1982a) would describe the study as being radically atheoretical. In fact, as Jahoda (1982a, 1983) stressed, the study was not designed in advance: it ‘grew organically’, and ‘improvisation was a permanent feature of all our work’ (1983, p.348). Today, researchers in the social sciences are taught to present their work in terms of a pre-planned theoretical approach or a hypothesis. The Marienthal authors were doing just what young social scientists are nowadays told not to do.

Jahoda would claim that the lack of theory was a substantial benefit because the researchers could look directly at the world to see what happens when a community is economically destroyed. Their task was not to test a hypothesis (as if they needed to test the hypothesis that collective poverty was not a collective benefit); nor was it to test a methodology (as if the most important thing was to use the unemployed to test the strengths and weaknesses of various techniques of measurement). The researchers were engaging in what Jahoda called ‘descriptive fieldwork’. Description, not theory, was to be the key as the researchers sought ‘to make visible in its complexity what is otherwise invisible’ – to show that the people of Marienthal were suffering in ways that outsiders might fail to notice.

If the Marienthal research project was to be descriptive fieldwork, then Jahoda, as the author of the main report, needed to pursue a rhetorical strategy for describing the life of the village. Her strategy can be briefly summed up by two significant absences and one significant presence. Specialist terminology, especially theoretical constructs, and references to academic publications are the absences. Jahoda described the community in terms of official statistics and in terms of what the researchers noticed about its members and their patterns of life. In these descriptions, there is a significant presence: at all times she offered specific examples to bring the general descriptions and the official numbers to life, showing individual families caught in desperate times.

Concrete examples can be found in all the chapters presenting results, even in chapters that seemingly concentrate on numerical summaries. In chapter 4, Jahoda presented the findings about menus and budgets. She started with a summary of the number of meals eaten by those who participated in the survey. For example, 75 per cent had three meals a day. Just over half the families (54 per cent) had meat once a week. Forty-five per cent had coffee and bread for their evening meal, while 40 per cent ate left-overs from the lunchtime meal in the evening. The average figures are disturbing: this is not a community that is eating well and the health statistics supported this.

However, Jahoda did not leave the average numbers to speak for themselves. She presented the menus of two specific families for a week, as well as giving their average weekly spending on food. There, we can see the pattern of deprivation clearly. On Tuesday, the first family had coffee and bread for breakfast, cabbage and potato for lunch and cabbage for the evening meal. We can see how the mother of the family tried to spice up the monotony of the meals on the Thursday by adding paprika to the potatoes that formed both the family lunch and the evening meal. It is the particulars that bring the averages to life.

One of the most famous findings of the Marienthal research was that unemployment destroyed the structure of the men’s days. Most had nothing to do. Now unemployed, many of the men seemed psychologically lost. While their wives were looking after the home, many of the men wandered about aimlessly. With seemingly unlimited time they nevertheless dropped their former leisure pursuits, giving up activities such as football or reading library books. The researchers timed how long it took men and women to walk around the village. The women tended to walk briskly without stopping – they had tasks that needed to be done. The men dawdled, stopping frequently to talk as they filled time. Again, there were specific examples to illustrate the general point. The idea of measuring the speed of walking came from no methodology textbook: it came from the researchers noticing what was happening before their eyes.

The report demonstrated that description was not straightforward. Lazarsfeld, in his introduction, reported that the researchers came away from the village with boxes of material weighing more than 66 pounds. Only a tiny fraction of that material could be used as examples in the final report and Jahoda had to select the details to be used. If metonymy represents describing a whole in terms of a part, then metonymic selection is key to the vivid use of examples that enables a particular case to stand for a much greater whole.

One particular example shows the importance of metonymic selection. How could the author illustrate the communal spirit of Marienthal and the simultaneous threat that poverty makes to that spirit? No amount of statistics could make the point as forcefully as a detail from the lives of villagers. In the second chapter, Jahoda reported: ‘When a cat or a dog disappears, the owner no longer bothers to report the loss; he knows that someone must have eaten the animal, and he does not want to find out who’.

The detail sticks in the mind long after percentage points are forgotten. We can imagine adults not wanting to discover which neighbours might have eaten the family’s pet – fearing that they too might soon be reduced to such desperate theft. We can also imagine them being relieved that they no longer have to feed a cat or a dog loved by their children, when they can barely provide more than potatoes and poor quality bread for those children. It takes skill for an author to find the telling detail among 66 pounds of documentation. Selecting the detail is only half the task. The detail then has to be described so that it appears to speak for itself without heavy-handed explanation. Small words can be decisive: ‘no longer’ conveys so much without drawing attention to the changes wrought by unemployment. The skills of description, when exercised precisely, seem to disappear from sight.

From her experience of being involved in the Marienthal research, Marie Jahoda derived three lessons that would last the rest of her long, productive life: the importance of using qualitative material to understand the lives of individuals within a community; the importance of realising that people do not react to the same circumstances in identical ways; and if research is based on social problems, then there are reasons beyond theory and methodology for deciding whether or not to publish the findings. Taken together, all three ensured that Jahoda would later remain outside the dominant trends of social psychology. It’s the second lesson I’d like to consider in more detail here.

Describing different people
In actual life, people are not replaceable, one for each other. They do not act in identical ways, as if they are nothing but a variable awaiting to be pushed in a single direction by another variable. The schoolboys participating in Henri Tajfel’s minimal group experiments, for example, were doing tasks that had no significance for them but that is no reason to assume that they had all reacted in precisely the same way or that the differences in their reactions were unimportant. Jahoda felt that the experimentalists should have sought to discover and then describe the variety of their responses – even if only a small number had refused to discriminate against the members of the other group, it would have been a finding that would be significant in a non-statistical sense. Jahoda supported her point with a historical example that related to her and Tajfel’s lives: ‘There were, after all, some Germans who helped Jews to survive though fully aware that Jews had been made into an outgroup’ (1981b, p. 481).

Jahoda was making a criticism of experimental social psychology: namely that methodologically and theoretically it was a psychology of the majority. She was claiming that experimentalists, in trying to isolate causal variables, were only interested in how the majority of subjects within an experimental situation behaved and that they treated the minority as ‘insubordinate subjects’ whose behaviour was a nuisance (Jahoda, 1959). They are deliberately separating the participants from their lives and then treating those participants as interchangeable. This, in Jahoda’s view, was the mark of an impoverished psychology and explained why, against the intellectual trends of the social psychology, she retained her interest in Freud.

As she wrote in her Freud book, academic psychologists separate the different aspects of the person – they either study memory, or emotion, or cognition, etc. For methodological reasons they are very good at dividing up the person, but this routine practice raises the question ‘Where is the person in academic psychology?’ (Jahoda, 1977, p.40). In Jahoda’s view, Freud fully immersed himself in the lives of his patients, just as the Marienthal researchers had sought to immerse themselves in the lives of the unemployed. In consequence, Freud understood that the various parts of a person were interconnected, such as a person’s development, motivation, emotion, cognition and social background – in fact, as Jahoda commented, these are the very sub-disciplines into which ‘psychology has come to divide its unwieldy subject matter’ (1977, p.49).

Because people’s lives are so complex, they are uniquely different. This is one reason why descriptive examples were so important in Marienthal. The unemployed were not an aggregate lump. The same devastation of unemployment may have affected nearly all the families in the village, but it affected them in different ways: some families remained unbroken, some were resigned, some were in despair – and, saddest of all, were apathetic families who seemed to have given up all hope as their lives disintegrated. Jahoda, as the report’s writer, needed to bring to life different people and different families. She described how some mothers coped resourcefully, managing their meagre budgets with unselfish skill; others did not manage. It took a woman researcher to realise just how pivotal was the role of the mother in maintaining families, once the men had lost their economic function.

The general trajectory of the families was to go from being unbroken to becoming increasingly broken. The researchers categorised the families under some general headings, such as ‘unbroken’ or ‘resigned’. These categories may suggest similarities between those falling under the heading. The examples were crucial for understanding what the authors meant by their categories. It was more an exercise in ostensive definition. The writer was pointing to a particular family as if saying ‘if you want to know what we’re calling “a resigned family” was like, then look how this one was just about managing to survive’. But there were always very different ways for families to be ‘unbroken’ or ‘resigned’. Therefore, there needed to be more than one example so that readers of this short book could note differences between the families that the writer might be placing in the same category. What mattered was always the reality of the families, not the categories.

In her final chapter, entitled appropriately ‘Fading Resilience’, Jahoda offered a series of examples. We see a family ‘in despair’. Their house and clothing were spotlessly clean, and the father is sitting on a low stool holding a hammer with a pile of worn-out children’s shoes in front of him. He is trying to mend them with roofing felt. He is wearing a faded shirt; he possesses few other clothes, having converted his jackets, spare trousers and overcoat into clothes for the children. He says that on Sundays it’s his job to mend the children’s shoes so that they can go to school on Monday: ‘I don’t have to go out but the children must go to school’.

A great artist could have painted the father on his stool in a way that conveys within one image the suffering, the despair and the unselfish spirit. The single scene would then suggest the whole life, not just of one family but of others too. As Ernst Cassirer argued in his Essay on Man, art, in contrast to scientific theories, intensifies rather than simplifies – it takes us deeper into the meaning of the particular instance. Marie Jahoda’s description of the man sitting on his stool, telling the researcher what he was doing, depicts the specific scene to illustrate the wider pattern of the family’s shared life. She was intensifying the scene in ways that a numerical point on a scale could not.

Against the arrogance of theory
In Jahoda’s work, as theory is ousted from its position of command, so examples fill the vacated space. We can see this in a statement that she made about Freud. In her view, Freud was a genuine scientist, devoting great efforts to understanding the mind through observation. She argued that ‘this effort is inherent in his repeated emphases on observation and its dominance over theory’ (Jahoda, 1977, p.29).

Of course, psychologists must organise their observations, and then write them down. They become descriptions – and not ‘mere’ descriptions, for they are also interpretations. Jahoda was not ‘merely’ describing the father on his low stool; she was interpreting what he was doing, as well as reporting his own interpretation, and she was using his specific actions to illustrate and to understand the wider circumstances of his family’s life.

When Marie Jahoda wrote about the father on the stool in the main body of the report, she found no need to add words of theory. Nearly 50 years after the original collection of material, Jahoda wrote that ‘exclusively theory-oriented research can sometimes function as a straitjacket for thought and observation’ (1989, p.77). She added that ‘theories are high-level abstractions; explanations are more down to earth’; ‘theories tend to ignore deviants; explanations try to encompass them’; ‘theories generalize, explanations specify’ (1989, p.77).

The researchers’ own Austro-Marxism was, in the word of Jahoda (1983), ‘not so much a theory as a view on life’. They came to the village trying to give what practical help they could, offering things like second-hand clothes, guidance or classes. They knew that no theory, however good the theorist believed it to be, would put food on the plates of the poor or clothes on their children. If, instead of providing practical help in return for cooperation with the project, a theorist had told the villagers that ‘the researchers were hoping to construct a good theory of unemployment and the villagers should co-operate because there is nothing as practical as a good theory’, then you don’t need a good theory to guess how the villagers would have responded.

How might the villagers have responded to Marie Jahoda’s plain way of writing? The politics of bigotry had ensured that the inhabitants of Marienthal would not have had the opportunity to read the great book that she wrote about them. The book had been prevented from reaching academic circles, let alone somewhere as out of the way as Marienthal. Yet, there was little in the main text that would have been inaccessible to those whom the book describes. Her writing is concise and clear. She always preferred ordinary words to technical ones. She never packaged and promoted her views as a named theory that could be marketed in the academic world, nor did she line up words to create technical terminology or to impress readers.

Today, we can still have hopes for the future, just as the young Marie Jahoda and her colleagues did. Because of her vivid descriptions in Marienthal, we can imagine the characters whom she wrote about. We can also fantasise, imagining them reading the book and recognising themselves in Jahoda’s descriptions. Had this been possible, they might have smiled, finding some hope in those printed descriptions which showed that they had not been completely forgotten. When all seems to be failing in practice, the power of description might be able to offer a little bit more than a theory.

Towards a psychology of examples
Marie Jahoda said that most psychological theories did not deserve to be called ‘theories’ because they were not predictive. They are better seen as ‘explanations’ because they seek to explain post hoc. Upgrading the status of examples will entail upgrading descriptions, because examples have to be described. Jahoda’s description of the man on his stool is not just a description of the position of the man’s body and the movement of the hammer. As she describes, and quotes, so she interprets what he is doing.

When we describe an event in all its particularity, using it to stand as a unique example for a class of events, we are, to use an ugly word that is not greatly used in cognitive psychology, ‘particularising’ it. I have described Marie Jahoda’s use of examples as an example of ‘metonymic thinking’. The particular person, event or unhealthy diet is not absorbed into the general category but is rescued from it, to be described in its particularity, as it overspills the limitations of the general category. In this respect, particularising is rhetorically the opposite of categorising. Metonymy refers to the practice of letting the particular action stand for a whole class of actions.

We might make a prediction. If describing examples becomes more recognised within psychology, and ceases to be dismissed as ‘mere description’, then psychologists will begin to create the sort of psychology of examples that is at present lacking. In ordinary life we all engage in exemplifying. For example, we pick out an event and describe that event to a friend when we want to illustrate the strengths or weaknesses of a mutual acquaintance’s character. The part is being used to illustrate the whole. When done skilfully, whether in ordinary life, formal rhetoric or in the writings of Tucker, James or Jahoda, this sort of thinking brings insight; it should not be dismissed as concrete thinking, existing on a lower cognitive level than conceptual thinking. When psychologists recognise themselves in their accounts of this type of thinking, then, on the basis of past form, they will put particularising on a footing with categorising. Then we will begin to edge towards a psychology of using examples.

Such is the pre-eminence of theory today that it is easy to assume that theories give power to a social scientist, and it is just as easy to accept Lewin’s maxim that there is nothing so practical as a good theory. However, as James, Tucker and Jahoda in their different ways recognised, there are advantages in undirected perception and untrained capacity. When psychologists, under the influence of theory, lose their intellectual innocence, they can lose much more besides. Like those participating in experiments designed to investigate the effects of prejudice on perception, they sometimes only notice what they expect to see. Looking at social life with a theory can be a bit like observing the world from a television monitor: you only see what the camera team has determined that you see. Reality then becomes, if not a reality show, then at least a theory show.

A few recommendations
However interesting the past might be, it is always the next generation that really matters. It is unlikely that psychological ideas and practices in the future will simply reproduce those of today, just as those today have not entirely repeated yesterday’s. Therefore, I am ending with a few recommendations that are aimed primarily at postgraduates and young academics, especially those who are hoping to make a career in psychology but who find themselves questioning the prevailing myths and practices of the discipline.

Do not assume that the latest work is necessarily the best work or that it has the most to teach you. Look back at thinkers from psychology’s past, but do not look only for the big ‘stars’. You might find insights and wisdom in writers who seem to have been forgotten.

Do not be overawed by theory or believe it is necessary to have a theory before you can start researching the world. If anyone senior says to you, ‘You must have a theory’, just reply, ‘Remember Marienthal’. And if anyone says to you, ‘There is nothing as practical as a good theory’, then ask them for their evidence, or better still, for an example. For good measure, tell them that there was nothing as impractical as Lewin’s own supposedly good theory.

Be conscious of what William James called ‘the psychologist’s fallacy’. Do not imagine that a methodology will protect you from the dangers and temptations of the psychologist’s fallacy – the dangers of theory, directing and distorting what psychologists claim to see. Both quantitative and qualitative researchers can fall foul of the fallacy. Try to aim for a sophisticated naivety.

Make certain to populate your writing, ensuring that you write about people rather than theoretical things or aggregate scores. If you are writing about a general process, then give an extended, thickly described example to show how that process might operate in practice.

I hope that in your writing, and especially in your choice of examples, you will be doing more than making technical points. May you overspill your examples with your own distinctive character, broad vision and humane understanding!

This article is an edited extract from Chapters 1, 8 and 9 of More Examples, Less Theory: Historical Studies of Writing Psychology, by Michael Billig, published with kind permission of Cambridge University Press.


Keep an eye on Twitter @psychmag for your chance to win a copy.

Above image and cover courtesy of the University of Graz


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