The Faculty History Project documents faculty members who have been associated with the University of Michigan since 1837. Key in this effort is to celebrate the intellectual life of the University. This Faculty History Website is intended as a component of the effort to document the extraordinary academic achievements of Michigan’s faculty in building and sustaining one of the world’s great universities. It provides access to a comprehensive database of information concerning the thousands of faculty members who have served the University of Michigan.
Find out more.

The Bentley Historical Library serves as the official archives for the University.


Rensis Likert
LSA Minutes

1903 - 1981

Rensis Likert died September 3, 1981. He was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1903. He entered The University of Michigan in the Fall of 1922 with the intention of becoming a civil engineer. He found, however, that his interests were more in people than in things and he transferred in his senior year from the College of Engineering to the Department of Sociology where he took his bachelor's degree in 1926.

Likert went from Michigan to the Union Theological Seminary, where he was a student for one year. He then entered Columbia University as a graduate student in the Department of Psychology, receiving his Ph.D. there in 1932. While a student at Columbia he married Jane Gibson from Grand Rapids, Michigan, whom he had met as an undergraduate in Ann Arbor.

Rensis Likert's contributions to the field of social psychology and to social science generally can be summarized under four rubrics: (1) the measurement of attitudes; (2) the development of methodologies of survey research; (3) the creation of the Institute for Social Research; and (4) the theory of participative management.

The Measurement of Attitudes. While at Columbia Likert gradually moved away from the more traditional fields of psychology toward the newly emerging area of social psychology. Among the Columbia faculty members he was particularly attracted to Gardner Murphy, who became chairman of his dissertation committee. His doctoral research dealt with a wide-ranging set of attitude scales, interrelating student attitudes toward race, international affairs and was published in 1932 under the title A Technique for the Measurement of Attitudes. During the course of this research Likert developed what has become the most widely used procedure for attitude measurement, the so-called Likert scale. During the late 1920's Professor Leon Thurstone at the University of Chicago had pioneered in the measurement of attitudes with a procedure based on the psychophysical method of equal appearing intervals. Likert found that a very much simpler method, asking the respondent to place himself on a scale of favor-disfavor with a neutral midpoint, gave very much the same results as the much more cumbersome Thurstone procedure and it gradually became the method of choice throughout the world.

The Development of Survey Research Methodologies. Following the completion of his graduate work, Likert was associated for a short time with the Department of Psychology at New York University. He left New York in 1935 to accept a position as director of research for the Life Insurance Agency Association in Hartford, Connecticut, where he began a series of studies of the effectiveness of different styles of supervision. In September 1939 he was appointed Director of the Division of Program Surveys in the Bureau of Agricultural Economics of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington.

The Department of Program Surveys had been established in the Department of Agriculture to provide a conduit for farmers and other rural people to communicate to the Department regarding their experience with the various federal programs that affected them. When Likert came into the Division the procedures of information gathering were very crude and in obvious need of improvement. This need became an imperative after Pearl Harbor when the Division was called upon by the Office of War Information and other Washington agencies to gather information regarding public attitudes, experiences and behavior. Likert, Morris Hansen, Ray Jessen, Arnold King and other individuals from the Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of the Census and Iowa State University collaborated in the development of a method of sampling households based on the identification and listing of small units of land area throughout the country. The theory underlying this procedure and the specific techniques of selection became the basis of what later became known as "probability sampling."

It was also necessary to develop more reliable methods of obtaining information from individual respondents. Governmental agencies had been accustomed to using a "reporting form" in which the types of information were specified and the interviewers were expected to use whatever questions they thought best to obtain them. This was demonstrated to be subject to serious interviewer bias and the Division of Program Surveys adopted formalized questionnaires which the interviewer was instructed to follow without deviation. Likert introduced the use of "open-ended questions" in these interviews when it was desirable to let the respondent interpret the question in his own terms rather than choose among specified alternatives. These procedures have become standard practice wherever survey research is conducted.

The Establishment of the Institute for Social Research. After the end of the war in 1945, Likert and his associates began to consider the advisability of moving their activities to a college campus. In the Summer of 1946 The University of Michigan invited Likert and his group to come to Ann Arbor to set up an interdisciplinary institute for research in the social sciences. The Institute for Social Research which Likert founded and directed was not the first such institute in this country but it differed from those that preceded and followed it in critical ways. It was intended from the beginning to be truly interdisciplinary and was administratively located outside the established schools and departments in order to help achieve this breadth of research interest. The research staff of the Institute held their primary appointment in the Institute rather than in the teaching departments. Although most of them held professorial appointments and taught in the appropriate departments, their basic attachment was to the Institute. Grants and contracts from foundations, governmental agencies and private profit and nonprofit organizations provided the basis of the Institute's support. The Institute, with the advice of a faculty executive committee, accepted only such research activities as seemed clearly appropriate to the University's general interests and could be fully published.

The role of Rensis Likert in the establishment of the Institute, particularly during its uncertain early years, was critical. His engaging personality and talents of persuasion, for which he was widely known and admired, were crucial in representing the Institute, sometimes to skeptical individuals within the University and persistently to the outside world of grants and contracts where the competition for research support was always brisk. His unfailing optimism and refusal to believe that any obstacle could seriously frustrate the growth and progress of the Institute often left his associates a little breathless but ultimately his expansive predictions proved more realistic than their more "hard-headed" expectations. Under Likert's direction the Institute for Social Research grew rapidly and within a few years became the largest university-based organization for research in the social sciences in the United States.

The Theory of Participative Management. Shortly after he had established the Institute for Social Research in 1946, Likert returned to the program of research he had initiated before the war, the study of management. Assisted at the outset by a grant from the Office of Naval Research and supported subsequently by contracts with private corporations, he directed a series of studies in business, industrial and governmental settings. The first of these projects focused rather narrowly on the morale of hourly-rated workers and its influence on worker behavior but Likert quickly broadened his research designs so that the major variable of interest became the pattern of management in the organization. Over the succeeding years he and his major associates, Robert Kahn, Daniel Katz, Floyd Mann and Stanley Seashore, directed a succession of surveys and experiments which ultimately led to his well-known series of books on participative management. Likert believed that styles of management are evolving from what he called exploitable authoritarianism, through benevolent authoritarianism, to consultive manangement, and eventually to participative management. The central principles of System 4, as he described it, were (1) supportive relationships between organizational members with a minimum of demean¬ing punitive behavior, (2) multiple overlapping group structure, with each organizational "family" consisting of a superior and his subordinates, (3) group problem-solving by consensus within organizational families, and (4) overlapping memberships between organizational families by individuals who serve as "linking pins." Likert felt that organizations operating under these principles were more responsive to basic human motives than more authoritarian organizations were likely to be and consequently were more capable of mobilizing their total human resources in the achievement of the organizational goals. These concepts and the associated research were laid out by Likert in his New Patterns of Management (1961) and subsequently in The'Human Organization (1967).

Likert's theories of participative management did not revolutionize managerial practices in American business and industry. Likert himself described the typical business organization in this country as falling in his category of System 2, benevolent authoritarianism. But there is no doubt that his research and writing, along with that of other scholars such as Argyris, Herzberg and McGregor, raised fundamental questions regarding the nature of organizational life and contributed to a gradual change toward less authoritarian practices in American management. Rensis Likert retired as Director of the Institute for Social Research in 1970 after 25 years in that position. In 1976, in collaboration with Jane Gibson Likert, he published New Ways of Managing Conflict. He continued in retirement as a private consultant on problems of organization and management.

Dr. Likert is survived by his wife, Jane, and daughters, Elizabeth Likert David and Patricia Likert Pohlman.