Lazarsfeld, Paul Felix

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Lazarsfeld, Paul Felix 1901-1976


The Austrian sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld studied law, social psychology, and mathematics at the University of Vienna under the direction of Ernst Mach, physicist and founding figure in the field of philosophy of science. Lazarsfeld received his PhD in applied mathematics in 1925. In 1929 he founded a research institute for applied social psychology connected with Karl Buhlers research center in Vienna, then moved to the United States on a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1933. While at Princeton University directing the Office of Radio Research, Lazarsfeld studied the listening habits of radio audiences, the first of many studies on the media and public opinion. In 1940 he moved to Columbia University in New York to direct the Bureau of Applied Social Research, where he conducted extensive empirical social research and later joined the sociology department. At Columbia University Lazarsfeld collaborated with prominent sociologists such as Robert Staughton Lynd (18921970) and Robert K. Merton (19102003). Lazarsfeld continued to work at Columbia University until 1970, when he moved to the University of Pittsburgh, where he taught until his death in 1976.

Along with Albert Einstein (18791955), Enrico Fermi (19011954), Max Horkheimer (18951973), Theodor Adorno (19031969), and Niels Bohr (18851962), Lazarsfeld was part of an intellectual migration of academics from Europe during the early stages of Nazism. Many moved to the United States where they conducted research free from government interference and created a wealth of intellectual activity in U.S. universities.

Lazarsfelds research in the field of sociology, particularly in the areas of social and applied psychology, used statistics to determine the influence of radio and print media on Americans voting habits and personal preferences. Concerning himself with the development of empirical social science methods, Lazarsfeld applied his background in mathematics in the field of sociology, conducting independent and corporate-funded research on public opinion, voting, and popular culture. Written contributions to the field of empirical social science and survey research include The Peoples Choice (1944), with Bernard Berelson and Hazel Gaudet, a study of how public opinion was formed prior to elections; Radio Listening in America (1948), an analysis of radio listening habits; and Voting (1954), with Berelson and William N. McPhee, an inquiry into the determining factors of candidate selection. These publications placed Lazarsfelds Bureau for Applied Social Research at the forefront of postwar American sociology.

Lazarsfeld is considered a pioneer in the field of media research. His research, both quantitative and qualitative, provided a scientific framework to study media influence on political attitudes. Lazarsfelds research on radio listeners and the effect of radio listening on public preferences was used by market researchers, pollsters, and political campaigns to better understand the relationship between popular culture and public tastes. One of the first to systematically study the media, Lazarsfelds research influenced mass communications theory, survey research, public opinion, and polling. In his theory of the two-step flow, Lazarsfeld explained how media information flows from opinion leaders to the larger public. He is also credited with introducing the concept of agenda setting, which was further developed by a later generation of social theorists. His empirical social analysis was later criticized by C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination (1959). Lazarsfeld is credited with educating a generation of sociologists and bringing the academic discipline of sociology into the modern era, incorporating social and applied psychology and mathematics into the field to solve substantive sociological problems.

SEE ALSO Communication; Lynd, Robert and Helen; Media; Merton, Robert K.; Political Psychology; Political Science; Public Opinion; Radio Talk Shows


Berelson, Bernard, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, and William N. McPhee. 1954. Voting: A Study of Opinion Formation in a Presidential Campaign. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Converse, Jean. 1987. Survey Research in the U.S.: Roots and Emergence, 18901960. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Katz, Elihu, and Lazarsfeld, Paul F. 1955. Personal Influence. New York: Free Press.

Lazarsfeld, Paul F. 1948. Radio Listening in America. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Lazarsfeld, Paul F., Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet. 1944. The Peoples Choice. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce.

Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. London: Oxford University Press.

Weimann, Gabriel. 1994. Is There a Two Step Flow of Agenda Setting? International Journal of Public Opinion 6 (4): 323340.

James Freeman