On work and well-being: in memory of Marie Jahoda

Whatever you may think, work is terrifically good for you. Conversely, unemployment is toxic. Contemporary social policy, however we judge particular programmes and interventions, is still based around these simple insights. And we owe a huge debt to the Austrian sociologist Marie Jahoda for her pioneering work on unemployment and its damaging effects on well-being.

Jahoda is best known today for her work on Marienthal, a small Austrian town devastated by the closure of its textile factory. Only in her mid-20s, Jahoda led a small team who interviewed the inhabitants, and recorded what they ate and read, and observed the speed with which they walked the streets. This study remains a milestone in mixed methods research, blending analyses of overall trends with small everyday details of people’s lives. It examined the entire community, not isolated individuals. And their major finding was and is devastating: long term unemployment produces not rebellion but resignation.

A recent tribute in the staid German newspaper Die Zeit last year pointed out that, growing up in the aftermath of the Great War, Marie Jahoda experienced hunger. She saw English Quakers serving porridge to starving schoolchildren in Vienna, and witnessed enormous social and political upheaval as Austria unsteadily made its way towards parliamentary democracy. Her mother, disapproving of the scouts’ separation of boys and girls, had Marie enrolled in a Socialist schoolchildren’s association, and she attended their camps.

Jahoda began her work on Marienthal in 1932, after completing her doctorate as the youngest female student in Austria to earn a PhD. She was imprisoned in 1936 for her political beliefs, and emigrated to England, then worked with Max Horkheimer in New York before finding an academic home at the University of Sussex. Her work, I believe, is still well worth reading today.

She wrote widely on mental health, and developed an original approach to the causes of well-being, a topic that she continued to study at Sussex. Her analysis emphasised five factors that she believed were fundamental to how we feel about ourselves: time structure, social contact, collective effort or purpose, social identity or status, and regular activity. During the 1980s, Tony Watt and Max Krafchik argued that the absence of these was critical to understanding the experience of unemployment – an analysis that in England and Wales, helped persuade the then Conservative government to fund a broad adult education programme, known as REPLAN, for unemployed adults.

The English language version of Marienthal: The Sociography of an unemployed community is still in print. I’ve been re-reading it as I finalise the manuscript of a book on British work camp systems, many of which were inspired by the belief that camp life might help overcome the fatalism of mass long term unemployment. My analysis shows that in fact the camps made little difference, and after some months of heavy labour on the land, most people were sent back to life on the dole. REPLAN, on the other hand, was rather effective in counteracting resignation and promoting confidence. An obvious message there, then.


Marie Jahoda, Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Hans Zeisel, Marienthal: The Sociography of an Unemployed Community, Transaction Publishers, 2002

For the article in Die Zeit, see http://www.zeit.de/campus/2010/06/ehemalige-jahoda