Robert L. Kahn

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Robert Louis Kahn (born March 28, 1918 , Detroit , USA ; † January 6, 2019 in Burlington , Vermont ) was an American psychologist who is known as one of the founding fathers of modern social sciences for his research on organizations and surveys.


The son of George Arthur and Mabel Jeanette Kahn studied English at the University of Michigan . In 1939 he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and in 1940 with a Master of Arts, also in English. As a doctoral student, Kahna focused on the social sciences and obtained his doctorate in 1952. After he began his work on the social sciences faculty at the University of Michigan in 1948, he stayed at the university for 40 years. He went through a career as a lecturer and junior professor (1954) to full professorship in 1960.

Kahn had studied extensively with organizations, including the factors that affect life in organizations, such as stress or conflict in the workplace. During his studies, Kahn taught in high school , joined the United States Census Bureau , where he also held an executive position from 1942 to 1948. In 1948 he took on a teaching position at the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan, where he met the psychologist Daniel Katz , with whom he wrote many articles and books. In 1989, Kahn retired from teaching and retired.

The University of Amsterdam honored Kahn with an honorary doctorate . The University of Michigan recognized his achievements with the 1985 Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award . In 1991 Kahn was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences . He died in early 2019 at the age of 100.


Kahn's work The Social Psychology of Organizations (1966), co-authored with Daniel Katz , redefined the field of organizational psychology and inspired subsequent generations of researchers. In this work, Kahn and Katz describe organizations for the first time in literature and even before Niklas Luhmann as open systems . According to their representation, an open system is characterized by:

  1. the absorption of energy from the environment.
  2. the transformation of the absorbed energy
  3. the transport of absorbed and transformed energy to the outside as output
  4. cyclical exchange of energy with the outside world.
  5. Measuring the uncertainty of the environment through negative entropy (the higher the entropy, the more unsafe the environment)
  6. a feedback mechanism that informs the system of its general performance.
  7. a constant exchange of energy to achieve homeostasis , a dynamic equilibrium
  8. the movement to a more differentiated state ( functional differentiation ) as opposed to a more diffuse one.
  9. the achievement of the same final state using different methods ( equifinality )

Kahn's research integrated knowledge of organizational behavior into his systems theory . In a study of six industrial companies, he demonstrated the effects of the environment on the mental health of employees. He differentiates between two main sources of operational stress :

  • Conflicts due to different operational roles ( role conflict )
  • Ambiguity or ambiguity of operational roles ( Role ambiguity )

In a joint study with Daniel Katz in four different industries, Kahn was later able to show how management affects the stress factors . The theory confirms Kahn as a strong proponent of the idea that effective management of staff also leads to effective management of the organization.

In addition to researching organizations as open systems, Kahn also investigated methods of research, in particular surveys . The Dynamics of Interviewing , the work published together with Charles Cannell, is considered a classic in survey research.



  • 1957, The Dynamics of Interviewing with Charles F. Cannell
  • 1965, Organizational Stress: Studies in Role Conflict and Ambiguity
  • 1966, The Social Psychology of Organizations , with Daniel Katz
  • 1976, Bureaucratic Encounters , with Daniel Katz and Barbara Gutek
  • 1980, The Study of Organizations , with Charles F. Cannell
  • 1981, Work and Health
  • 1997, Successful Aging with John W. Rowe


  • 1953, Leadership Practices in Relation to Productivity and Morale (with Daniel Katz), in Group Dynamics , edited by D. Cartwright and A. Zander.


  • 1972, Violent Men: Who Buys Bloodshed and Why , Psychology Today , June 6, 1972, pp. 82-84
  • 1974, Organizational Development: Some Problems and Proposals , Journal of Applied Behavioral Science , No. 10, 1974; Pp. 485-502
  • 1983, Leading Indicators and the Law , Detroit College of Law Review, Dec 1983, pp. 1311-1315
  • 1983, Productive Behavior: Assessment, Determinants, and Effects , Journal of the American Geriatric Society
  • 1984, Productive Behavior through the Life Course: An Essay on the Quality of Life , Human Resource Management, March 23, 1984, pp. 5-22
  • 1984, Alternatives to Current Work and Leisure Styles Require Innovating, Experimenting , Business and Health , September 1, 1984, pp. 59-60

Individual evidence

  1. a b U-M Social Psychologist, Research Scientist and ISR Founding Member Bob Kahn dies at 100. (No longer available online.) Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, January 9, 2019, formerly original ; accessed on January 11, 2019 .  ( Page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Toter Link /  
  2. a b c d e f g h i j k l m Patricia Moss Wigfall and Behrooz Kalantari: Biographical Dictionary of Public Administration . Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001, ISBN 978-0-313-30203-9 , pp. 65-67 .
  3. a b c d e f g h i j Robert Kahn. Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Professor Emeritus of Health Services Management and Policy, School of Public Health and Research Scientist Emeritus, Survey Research Center, ISR. University of Michigan, accessed August 2, 2018 .
  4. Book of Members 1780 – present, Chapter K. (PDF; 670 kB) In: American Academy of Arts and Sciences ( Retrieved August 9, 2018 .

Web links