Bernard Berelson

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Bernard Berelson

Bernard Berelson (1912-1979), an American behavioral scientist, made major contributions in the fields of communications research, voting studies, and population policy. He virtually created the term "behavioral sciences" and became principally responsible for the establishment of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California.

Berelson was born in Spokane, Washington, on June 2, 1912. He received an A.B. from Whitman College in 1934, a B.S. in 1936 and an M.A. in 1937 from the University of Washington, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1941. His graduate degrees were both in library science, and he served as a professor of library science and as dean of the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago until he joined the staff of the Ford Foundation in 1951.

During World War II Berelson worked in Washington as an analyst of German opinion and morale with the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service (FBIS), which at that time was an affiliate of the Office of War Information (OWI). In 1944 he became a project director at the Columbia University Bureau of Applied Social Research, then directed by its founder, Paul F. Lazarsfeld. At the bureau he participated in the analysis of the famous Erie County panel study of the 1940 presidential election and was a co-author of The People's Choice (with Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Hazel Gaudet, 1944). Other projects of this phase of Berelson's career were a reader in public opinion and communication (edited with Morris Janowitz, 1950) and a text on content analysis (1952). An entire generation of graduate students studied these two books, and they are still in use today.

In 1951 Berelson joined the staff of the Ford Foundation in Pasadena, California, as director of what became its program in the behavioral sciences. The term "behavioral sciences" first entered general use during these years; Berelson didn't invent it, but he did much to popularize it. In 1952 the Ford Foundation established—under Berelson's guidance—the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California, which remains a thriving intellectual institution and a monument to his initiative.

During his years at the Ford Foundation Berelson participated in the analysis of the Bureau of Applied Social Research's survey data from the 1948 general election. He had earlier served as a field director for this panel study of the population of Elmira, New York, and he became the senior author of Voting: A Study of Opinion Formation in a Presidential Campaign (1954). In addition to taking part in the analysis and writing of Voting, Berelson compiled the inventory of findings from voting studies that constituted an important appendix to the volume, and he wrote an influential chapter on the meaning of the voting process for democracy. In this chapter he reviewed how unqualified many voters are, how much they misperceive political reality, and how frequently they respond to irrelevant social influences. But instead of despair, he found in the aggregation of these superficially based votes a profound meaning for democratic society. An electoral system, he noted, must achieve a balance between "total political war between segments of the society and total political indifference to group interests of that society"—a requirement that means that a democracy sets different requirements for different individuals.

In 1961 the Population Council asked Berelson to direct a new communications research program at its New York headquarters. At the council Berelson soon became indispensable for his common sense, his good humor, and his challenging mind. He was appointed vice president in 1963; he became president in 1968 and served until 1974; he was president emeritus and a senior fellow from 1974 until his death. He was highly respected and extremely successful as a policy maker, as a foundation executive, and as a senior statesman in the international population field.

In both his personal and his professional style, Berelson was organized, goal-directed, and impatient with theory if it seemed not to be relevant for research or policy. He carried his learning lightly, but most of his colleagues thought that he was the most intelligent person with whom they had ever worked. He often described himself as a librarian, an educator, or a foundation executive, rather than as a behavioral scientist, but he wrote or edited 12 books in the social and behavioral sciences and he published some 90 articles, each written in a direct, jargonfree style that was unmistakable. He was in the forefront of those social scientists who were concerned with the ethical and value implications of their work, and he struggled with the ethical complexities that are inherent in all attempts to improve the quality of life in the Third World. Indicatively, his last publication was a long essay on the ethical issues involved in government efforts to influence fertility. The world has not seen the last of the attempts by governments to influence the fertility behavior of their subjects, and Berelson's humane guidance of action and research in this field will be felt for decades to come.

Berelson's career demonstrated that an orientation to empirical behaviorism on the part of a scholar who in many ways was the intellectual father of the behavioral sciences in the United States was not at all incompatible with either an orientation toward policies and programs (i.e., toward improving the world) or toward a moral position that knowledge must be used carefully. It also showed great respect for the rights of the people whose lives are affected.

Further Reading

Berelson's concept of the behavioral sciences is described in his article "Behavioral Sciences" in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. His contributions to the population field are described in W. Parker Mauldin's article on him in Studies in Family Planning 10 (October 1979). See also David L. Sills, "Bernard Berelson: Behavioral Scientist," in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences (1981). □

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Bernard Berelson

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