Lasswell, Harold

views updated May 14 2018

Lasswell, Harold 1902-1978


Harold Lasswell was an influential social scientist who contributed to the field of political science through research on political psychology, quantitative methods, and public policy. Lasswell was born in Donnellson, Illinois, to a schoolteacher and Presbyterian minister. At the age of sixteen, Lasswell received a scholarship to study at the University of Chicago, and he later completed graduate studies at the London School of Economics. Lasswell was a faculty member at the University of Chicago from 1922 to 1938 and at Yale University from 1946 to 1970. Lasswell died in 1978 in New York City.

Laswells approach to political science was behavioral, and he was a part of the Chicago school of sociology. The Chicago school was a group of academicians in the 1920s and 1930s who focused on the urban environment, specifically through ethnographic fieldwork and an emphasis on social issues. Lasswell believed that propaganda was a key tool in public policy making, arguing that the citizenry was largely uninformed and often did not understand what was in its best interest. Lasswell was one of the first scholars to define and systematically explore the concept of propaganda, through his book Propaganda Technique in World War I (1927).

Lasswells work on propaganda later expanded into a more general research agenda on communication. Lasswell contributed to the field by suggesting that more than one channel of media can carry a message. His model of communication is shown through a basic question: Who says what, in which channel, to whom, and with what effect? This model identified the several different components of communication in a political sphere: Who involved the political body or agency communicating, what is the gist of the message or idea, channel is the venue of communication, whom is the target audience, and effect is the policy outcome. His model encouraged systematic thinking about political communication and the psychological and policy implications of different forms of communication. Perhaps Lasswells most famous and widely read work is his general treatise on politics, Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How (1936), which is an abridged but more general commentary on his model of communication.

Lasswells work shifted in the later stages of his career to more of an emphasis on the policy sciences. Many see him as the father of policy sciences, and his work in that area is certainly among the first and most influential. Lasswells research became larger in scope and resulted in policy-making frameworks that were more comprehensive and less concerned with narrow theorizing. Lasswells ideas were rooted in his early work on propagandaactors in the policy process were seen as sometimes irrational and pursuing goals that would ultimately harm them, and this led to a need for policies that went beyond those based in simple rational choice. Lasswell argued that misguided political behavior could easily undermine democracy, and called attention to the need for policymakers to consider both expressed and unexpressed constituent needs.

Lasswell argued that the role of the policy sciences was to produce knowledge for democracy. His emphasis on contextualism influenced quantitative research in important ways, guiding analysts to consider as many external influences as possible in their research. Lasswell believed that the role of the analyst was both scientist and activistthe policy analyst cannot be completely objective in selection of goals, but should work toward objectivity in analysis of results. Although some have cast Lasswell as a positivist, his approach had both positivist and postpositivist themes.

Lasswells approach to political science and public policy was met with some criticism. Many disagree with Lasswells assertion that citizens often do not understand what they need, finding his approach to be at once paternalistic and naïve. Some also believe that Lasswells view of the policy analyst is a romanticized one, exaggerating the impact that the analyst can have on policy making and ignoring issues with using objective data for political decision-making.

SEE ALSO Media; Political Psychology; Political Science; Propaganda; Public Opinion; Sociology, Political



Lasswell, Harold. [1927] 1971. Propaganda Technique in World War I. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lasswell, Harold. [1936] 1966. Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How. New Haven, CT: Meridian Books.

Lasswell, Harold. [1948] 1976. Power and Personality. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.


Ascher, William, Barbara Hirschfelder-Ascher. 2004. Linking Lasswells Political Psychology and the Policy Sciences. Policy Sciences 37 (1), 2336.

Bell, Wendell. 1993. H. D. Lasswell and the Futures Field: Facts, Predictions, Values, and the Policy Sciences. Futures 25 (8): 806.

Farr, James, Jacob S. Hacker, Nicole Kazee. 2006. The Policy Scientist of Democracy: The Discipline of Harold D. Lasswell. American Political Science Review 100 (4), 579587.

David W. Pitts

Harold Dwight Lasswell

views updated May 14 2018

Harold Dwight Lasswell

The American political scientist Harold D. Lasswell (1902-1978) is known chiefly for his studies of political terminology, his application of psychology to politics, and his attempt to construct a system of politics modeled on theories of the natural sciences. He was also president of the American Political Science Association.

Harold Dwight Lasswell was born in Donnellson, Illinois, the son of a Presbyterian clergyman and a schoolteacher, on February 13, 1902. He attended the University of Chicago at 16 and graduated in 1922. He received his doctorate from the same institution in 1926; his dissertation, Propaganda Technique in the World War (1927) is recognized as a leading study on communication theory. At Chicago he studied under Charles Merriam, who first propounded the behavioral understanding to politics. He also studied at the universities of London, Geneva, Paris, and Berlin. At Berlin he studied Sigmund Freud, which cemented his psychological approach to political science.

Teaching Career

The University of Chicago made Lasswell an assistant professor in 1927 and an associate professor in 1932. He remained at Chicago until 1938, when he transferred to the Washington (D.C.) School of Psychiatry for a year. During World War Two he served as the director of war communications research at the Library of Congress and taught at the New School of Social Research in New York City and Yale Law School. In 1946 he began lecturing at Yale, where the university named him Edward J. Phelps Professor of Law and Political Science.

Combined Psychology and Political Science

Lasswell made his early reputation as a behaviorally oriented theorist with his psychoanalytic study Psychopathology and Politics. Utilizing Freudian psychology for the study of politics, he believed that the psychoanalysis of political leaders would reveal significant knowledge about politics. For example, knowledge about the childhood sexual experiences of political leaders would reveal why some were radicals and others conservatives, why some were revolutionaries and others establishment administrators.

Knowledge of this nature, Lasswell believed, would have important implications for future politics. As the use of psychoanalysis became more widespread, the social psychiatrist would replace the social philosopher, and the politics of the future would be more preventive in nature than curative, with problems being solved less by discussion and more by psychoanalytical therapy. He saw his approach as a radical redefinition of the problem of politics and termed it the "idea of preventive politics." Our problem, he wrote, is to be ruled by the "truth" about the conditions of harmonious human relations, which truth was to be yielded by Freudian psychoanalytic methods.

Criticism of Lasswell's Work

Lasswell's thesis and political program in this work have been heatedly criticized. The chief objection is his assumption that Freudian psychology represents a kind of intellectual "philosopher's stone" providing him with infallible truth. So too, the politics of the future apparently would be run by Lasswell and social scientists like him who possessed this knowledge, a kind of modern day class of Platonic philosopher-kings.

Major Publications and Ideas

Perhaps Lasswell's most highly regarded work is World Politics and Personal Insecurity (1935). Richard Merelman in British Journal of Political Science, asserted that it, "contains some of Lasswell's most interesting ideas about the tie between state symbolism and the individual psyche." Another widely read work is Politics: Who Gets What, When, How (1936), a work in the elitist strain (the theory that no matter what the formal structure of government, a minority always will have real power) in which he stressed as motive forces in politics the drives of income, safety, and deference. The work also showed his preoccupation with defining political terms. From 1937 to 1950 political science journals did not publish Lasswell's work, but his writing found a home in psychiatric journals. However, Lasswell's work found new supporters in younger academics, and in 1955 he was elected president of the American Political Science Association.

Power and Society: A Framework for Political Inquiry (1950), which Lasswell coauthored with Abraham Kaplan, was also in this vein. It is a series of definitions and propositions linked together in such a way that an almost self-contained language results. It has been criticized on the ground that even in the natural sciences language is determined by usage, not by arbitrary definition or individual pronouncement, and the result has been confusion, not clarification. It has also been criticized on the ground that the purported positivistic, or empirical, approach actually incorporates Lasswell's own system of hidden values. The work, however, has been considered as a stimulation to further research in system building or constructing a new theory of politics.

Later scholarship pointed to Lasswell's treatment of political symbols as a significant contribution which only subsequently came into general use. He analyzed the effect of the political symbol (such as "law and order," "feudal," and "progressive") as being laden with positive or negative connotations and calculaed to evoke certain emotional responses among the populace.

Later Years

After leaving Yale in 1970, Lasswell served as a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York until 1972. He was then named Distinguished Professor at the Temple University School of Law, where he remained until 1976. Columbia University also named him Albert Schweitzer Professor of International Affairs. In 1976 Lasswell retired from teaching and gave his time to the Policy Sciences Center and his writing. Lasswell died on December 18, 1978.

Further Reading

There is no biographical study of Lasswell. A memoir of him is in Arnold A. Rogow, ed., Politics, Personality, and Social Science in the Twentieth Century, The University of Chicago Press (1969). For a detailed critique of Lasswell's Freudian approach to politics see Robert Horwitz's essay in Herbert J. Storing, ed., Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics (1962). Horwitz describes Lasswell as a propagandist for "social control through science." Other references discussing Lasswell's life and works include articles in: New York Times (December 20, 1978); British Journal of Political Science Vol. 2, No. 4, (winter, 1981); and Society Vol. 33, No. 6, (September/October, 1996). □