Introduction: I saw that current DC Sociological Society member, Melvin Kohn, gave a DCSS presentation on March 30, 1961
titled “Reports on Some Current Research on Health,” so I decided to interview him about the DCSS. The interview was a lot
of fun and provided much insight into DCSS. Professor Kohn received his PhD from Cornell University in 1952 and worked in
the Laboratory of Socio-environmental Studies of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) from 1952 to 1985, serving
as chief of that laboratory from 1960 on. In 1985, he became professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University.
JB:Why did you become a member?
MK: I came to DC in 1952, just two days after getting my PhD from Cornell. I became a member of DCSS soon after arriving. My NIMH colleagues probably told me about DCSS. I was eager to use my research skills in a job. I had taken an introduction to sociology course at Cornell with John Clausen. John Clausen had joined the newly created NIMH and was hiring staff.
JB:What was DCSS like then?
MK: It was a fabulous experience to be a member of the DCSS. The meetings were close to once per month. The DCSS rivaled any other professional association. There were academics and non-academics. They had wonderful discussions on many topics. I just loved them all. It has been a wonderful series of experiences from 1952 to the present. I had one event that almost changed my life, and it did change a paper I wrote. I presented a paper at the DCSS and got my ass handed to me. The audience was perplexed by what I was trying to do in the paper. I was trying to make sense of Karl Marx and using data on men employed in civilian occupations in the United States. They saw that I was floundering and gave me hell. I went home exhilarated and tossed my paper in the trash. I knew what to do. I rewrote it and sent it to AJS, which published it. This was not atypical of my experience at DCSS. This was really characteristic of DCSS.
JB:In your view, how are ASA and DCSS different?
MK: I was president of ASA [1986-1987]. I was leaving NIMH because I didn’t get along with my boss, Ronald Reagan. Reagan hated sociology. He thought that sociologists were his ideological enemies, and we were. [Why?] Reagan was basically very reactionary and sought to do well for the well off and worked against the disadvantaged. He had backward looking policies. I wasn’t an officer of DCSS, but I was always involved. However, the meetings were all around town and often at inconvenient times for getting from Bethesda. I wished I had participated more. I was called on often to give advice, take part on DCSS roundtables, meet to discuss problems in DCSS, and I got an award from DCSS. I love the Easterns [Eastern Sociological Society] and still love them. I love the ASA. At ASA, I went to specific areas, areas I worked in and areas I wanted to learn about, but I was among sociological specialists. DCSS has sociologists from across the board, non-academics and very good academics. I learned from them. I learned things differently from DCSS than from my colleagues at NIMH and Johns Hopkins. DCSS filled a missing gap.
MK: You stepped into the breach after the incoming presidents moved away and someone had to bail out DCSS. Why did you do this?
JB: I also love ASA. And I find the past of DCSS very intriguing. Why did E. Franklin Frazier and others start the DCSS? I also enjoy talking with sociologists. They are always interesting.
MK: We’re twins!
JB:What is your favorite story about DCSS?
MK: I told you already. [About your paper presentation?] Yes. How grateful can you be to DCSS.
By Johanna Bockman, DCSS President
Last week I met with Roberta Spalter-Roth to talk about DCSS. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology at American University and had once been the president of DCSS. For nearly 17 years, she worked at ASA, most importantly and famously as the Director of the Research and Development Department. She will continue as a Senior Research Fellow at ASA and will join me and my colleagues at George Mason University as an affiliate faculty member and Distinguished Research Fellow.
JB: When did you join the DCSS?
RSR: In 1982, when I was a grad student.
JB: Why did you become a member?
RSR: My advisor Muriel Cantor made me join. It is what sociologists did. Good sociology citizens did stuff for the discipline. Muriel Cantor was also DCSS president. DCSS also provided disciplinary socialization. Joining DCSS, like joining ASA, was part of your socialization. It is what you did.