Lasswell, Harold D.

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Born in Donnellson, Illinois, Harold D. Lasswell (1902–1978) was an innovator in a number of scientific disciplines and the major figure in developing the policy sciences. The son of a teacher and a Presbyterian minister, he was educated at the University of Chicago, earning a doctorate in political science and then joining the faculty in 1926. In 1938 Lasswell moved to Washington, DC, to serve as a researcher and policy adviser. After the war, as a professor at Yale, Lasswell collaborated with the lawyer legal scholar Myres S. McDougal (1906–1998) and others on law, science, and policy. His broad interests and travels brought him into direct contact with many of the major intellectual and political figures of his time.

Lasswell wrote that "it is growth of insight, not simply of the capacity of the observer to predict the future operation of an automatic compulsion, or of a non-personal factor, that represents the major contribution of the scientific study of interpersonal relations to policy" (1951, p. 524). Insight brings those factors into conscious awareness, leaving the individual free to take them into account in making choices. Freedom through insight often modifies interpersonal relationships; hence, all propositions about those relationships are subject to new insight. Lasswell took the lead in developing the intellectual tools of the policy sciences to integrate and apply natural and social science insight to the fuller realization of human dignity for all, including freedom.

In his presidential address to the American Political Science Association, Lasswell chose "to inquire into the possible reconciliation of man's mastery over Nature [through science-based technologies] with freedom, the overriding goal of policy in our body politic" (1956, p. 961). At the outset he considered atomic weapons in order to entertain the proposition that "our intellectual tools have been sufficiently sharp to enable political scientists to make a largely correct appraisal of the consequences of unconventional weapons for world politics." After using those tools to sketch the kind of analysis that could have been done before the use of atomic weapons in 1945, he concluded that the profession had not institutionalized procedures to anticipate technical developments that had been reported publicly before the war and clarify in advance the main policy alternatives open to decision makers: "As political scientists we should have anticipated fully both the bomb and the significant problems of policy that came with it" (Lasswell 1956, p. 965).

Lasswell qualified this statement of professional responsibility, however: "I do not want to create the impression that all would have been well if we had been better political scientists, and that we must bear upon our puny shoulders the burden of culpability for the state of the world today. We are not so grandiose as to magnify our role or our responsibility beyond all proportion. Yet I cannot refrain from acknowledging ... that we left the minds of our decision makers flagrantly unprepared to meet the crisis precipitated by the bomb" (1956, p. 965). Moreover, the profession was not responsible for information on the bomb withheld by officials. "We must however assume responsibility for any limitation of theory or procedure that prevented us from making full use of every opportunity open to us" (Lasswell 1956, p. 964).

Turning to the future, Lasswell asserted, "It is our responsibility to flagellate our minds toward creativity, toward bringing into the stream of emerging events conceptions of future strategy that, if adopted, will increase the probability that ideal aspirations will be more approximately realized" (1956, p. 966). Lasswell accepted that responsibility when he applied the intellectual tools of the policy sciences to potential applications of science in production of material goods and evolution of intelligent organisms (including humans) and machines as well as weapons. Particularly creative and prescient were certain remarks on the implications of genetics, embryology, and intelligent machines for evolution (Lasswell 1956, pp. 975–977):

  • Because new species already had been created or re-created experimentally, "A garrison police regime fully cognizant of science and technology can, in all probability, eventually aspire to biologize the class and caste system by selective breeding and training."
  • Because machines already had solved complex problems, "at what point do we accept the incorporation of relatively self-perpetuating and mutually influencing 'super-machines' or 'ex-robots' as being entitled to the policies expressed in the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights]?"
  • Perhaps most disturbing was "the possibility that super-gifted men, or even new species possessing superior talent, will emerge as a result of research and development ... introducing a biological elite capable of treating us [as] imperial powers have so often treated the weak."

Lasswell concluded by outlining a program of contextual and problem-oriented research using the tools of the policy sciences to address the aggregate effects of any specific innovation: "Our first professional contribution ... is to project a comprehensive image of the future for the purpose of indicating how our overriding goal values are likely to be affected if current policies continue" (1956, pp. 977–978). The concluding task is "inventive and evaluative. It consists in originating policy alternatives by means of which goal values can be maximized. In estimating the likely occurrence of an event (or event category), it is essential to take into account the historical trends and the scientifically ascertained predispositions in the world arena or any pertinent part thereof."

Lasswell later noted discrepancies between the earlier promises of science-based technology and current reality: "If the promise was that knowledge would make men free, the contemporary reality seems to be that more men are manipulated without their consent for more purposes by more techniques by fewer men than at any time in history" (1970, p. 119). After a diagnosis of such discrepancies, he observed that their potential effects on science are not trivial, "for science has grown strong enough to acquire visibility, and therefore to become eligible as a scapegoat for whatever disenchantment there may be with the earlier promises of a science-based technology." The proposal again called for the perfecting of institutions to apply the intellectual tools of the policy sciences (Lasswell 1971, Lasswell and McDougal 1992) on a continuous basis toward policies to advance human dignity for all.

Relatively few scientists have answered the call despite the continuing relevance of Lasswell's proposal. This may be partly the result of a specialized vocabulary that critics claim is a barrier to the policy sciences. Nevertheless, if more scientists do not come forward, humankind's growing mastery of nature will jeopardize human dignity and the privileged position of science in society.


SEE ALSO Freedom; Governance of Science; Political Economy; Political Risk Assessment; Science Policy; Soft Systems Metholology.


Lasswell, Harold D. (1951). "Democratic Character." In his The Political Writings of Harold D. Lasswell. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Lasswell, Harold D. (1956). "The Political Science of Science: An Inquiry into the Possible Reconciliation of Mastery and Freedom." American Political Science Review 50, no. 4 (December): 961–979.

Lasswell, Harold D. (1970). "Must Science Serve Political Power?" American Psychologist 25(2) (February): 117–123.

Lasswell, Harold D. (1971). A Pre-View of Policy Sciences. New York: Elsevier.

Lasswell, Harold D., and Myres S. McDougal. (1992). Jurisprudence for Free Society: Studies in Law, Science and Policy. New Haven, CT: New Haven Press; Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.