Lazarsfeld, Paul F. (1901-1976)

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LAZARSFELD, PAUL F. (1901-1976)

During the 1940s and 1950s, the Department of Sociology at Columbia University was dominant such department in the United States. It owed this distinction mainly to Paul F. Lazarsfeld, an investigator of mass communication effects and a research methodologist, who collaborated with his colleague Robert K. Merton, a sociological theorist. Lazarsfeld pioneered the university-based research institute, first in Europe at the University of Vienna and later in the United States at the University of Newark, Princeton University, and Columbia University. His Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia was famous in the 1940s and 1950s for conducting the most important investigations of mass communication effects.

Lazarsfeld was born in Vienna and grew up there, highly involved in socialist politics. He organized and led the Red Falcon youth organization of the Socialist party. He earned his Ph.D. in applied mathematics at the University of Vienna, and taught research methodology in the Department of Psychology there. In 1925, Lazarsfeld founded the Research Center for Economic Psychology (Wirtschafts-psychologische Forschungsstelle), which engaged in market research, to provide jobs for his unemployed Socialist party friends. The most noted study by Lazarsfeld's research institute was an investigation of Marienthal, a small community near Vienna in which everyone was unemployed during the Great Depression. His opportunities for advancing his career at the University of Vienna were blocked by anti-Semitism.

From 1933 to 1935, Lazarsfeld traveled among several American research universities on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship and decided to migrate, given Adolf Hitler's increasing dominance of Austria. In 1937, Lazarsfeld founded and became the director of the Research Center of the University of Newark, which mainly conducted research on the unemployment of youth. The Rockefeller Foundation funded the Radio Research Project on the effects of radio through Princeton University, with Lazarsfeld as director of the project from his base at the University of Newark.

In 1939, Lazarsfeld moved with the Radio Research Project to Columbia University, where he became a faculty member in the Department of Sociology. There he joined forces with Merton and began the next thirty-five years of their academic collaboration, in which they formed a fruitful merger of theory and empirical research. The Rockefeller Foundation project on radio effects became the Bureau of Applied Social Research in 1944. This research institute was regarded as the most important center for the empirical study of mass communication problems for the next several decades. Funded by government, foundations, and private companies, the bureau provided research training opportunities for doctoral students at Columbia University and an outlet for Lazarsfeld's numerous research ideas. He presided over the bureau with a rather chaotic management style, stealing funds from one project in order to conduct other research, in a process that one bureau researcher called "Robin Hooding."

Among the most noted of the studies conducted by the bureau was the Erie County (Ohio) investigation of the role of the mass media and of opinion leaders in the two-step flow of communication. The 1944 book that resulted from this study, The People's Choice (written by Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet), helped establish the specialty of political communication and ushered in a scholarly era of the minimal effects of mass communication. Contrary to their expectations, Lazarsfeld and his colleagues found that the mass media of radio and print had relatively minor direct effects on how people voted in the 1940 presidential election in the United States. Mainly, people decided for whom to vote on the basis of interpersonal communication with peers.

Another famed bureau study followed, the Decatur (Illinois) research in which Lazarsfeld sought further understanding of the two-step flow of communication—in which ideas move from the media to opinion leaders and then to their followers through interpersonal networks. The results of the Decatur study appeared as a 1955 book, Personal Influence (written by Lazarsfeld with Elihu Katz), and illustrated the importance of media-stimulated interpersonal communication between opinion leaders and their followers as they made consumer decisions about movies, fashions, and so on.

Lazarsfeld's methodological contributions were many and varied: the focus-group interview, which he pioneered with Merton in 1941; panel surveys, a research design that he used in the Erie County study; and important qualitative data-analysis techniques. In fact, Lazarsfeld saw himself mainly as a methodologist or toolmaker, one who could study mass communication, unemployment, or any other social science topic. Nevertheless, Lazarsfeld was one of the four main forefathers of communication study, along with the political scientist Harold Lasswell, and the social psychologists Kurt Lewin and Carl Hovland. Lazarsfeld's research dealt centrally with individual actions, such as voting, consumer purchases, and so on, taking place in a social context. He sometimes described himself as a mathematical sociologist and was quite proud of being named the Quetelet Professor of Social Science at Columbia University in 1962. (Adolphe Quetelet was a nineteenth-century Belgian statistician.)

Lazarsfeld was ideally located for his research since New York City was the hub for the rising industries of radio and television broadcasting, advertising, and public relations during the 1930s and thereafter. Media-related companies needed to know the size of their audiences and their sociodemographic composition, a type of market research that Lazarsfeld helped create at the Bureau of Applied Social Research. In fact, Lazarsfeld is acknowledged to be one of the forefathers of market research. His investigations of the effects of mass communication also fit with the needs of media industries.

When Lazarsfeld was once asked about the seeming paradox between his leftist beginnings in Vienna and his capitalistic actions in America, he remarked that he was just "a socialist on leave" in the United States.

See also:Election Campaigns and Media Effects;Models of Communication; Schramm, Wilbur.


Katz, Elihu, and Lazarsfeld, Paul F. (1955). Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communication. New York: Free Press.

Lazarsfeld, Paul F.; Berelson, Bernard; and Gaudet, Hazel. (1944). The People's Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce.

Rogers, Everett M. (1994). A History of Communication Study: A Biographical Approach. New York: Free Press.

Everett M. Rogers