Harold Dwight Lasswell (1902–1978), American political scientist with a specific interest in the symbolic aspects of politics, is considered one of the founders of mass communication research in the United States. Although his wide-ranging and prolific writings on theoretical and methodological issues regarding politics, personality, and culture remained rather peripheral to communication research, his approach to the effects of mass communication helped define and strengthen a quantitative approach to questions concerning media and communication in the political arena. Lasswell studied at the University of Chicago with George Herbert Mead, Robert E. Park, and Charles Merriam, while being influenced by John Dewey and American pragmatism. He also taught at Chicago (1922–1938) and served as chief of the Experimental Division for the Study of War Time Communications at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, during World War II before joining the Yale law school (1946 –1970).
Among early contributors to the field of communication studies, Lasswell was particularly knowledgeable about Freudian psychology and Marxist ideology. His insight into the structure of the latter provided a comparative perspective for the analysis of political behavior, long before many of his American colleagues acknowledged its relevance. His efforts at integrating classical and empirical political science solidified the quantitative approach to different aspects of communication flows, ranging from psychiatric reports to propaganda campaigns. By denying the dualism of individual and society, and by applying Freudian analysis to society, he established the importance of considering the social totality as a symbolic context, thus anticipating later directions in social theory and analysis. Lasswell acknowledged the implications of culture and language for the study of political communication, aided especially by the interdisciplinary nature of his inquiries.
Lasswell’s (1948) definition of communication was a powerful and influential contribution to conceptualizing communication as transmission. In making it, he not only identified the major elements of the communication process – communicator, message, medium, receiver, and effects – but also labeled the corresponding areas of communication research – control, content, media, audience, and effect analysis. His descriptive model revealed a primary interest in persuasive communication, but also referred to broader functional equivalences between an organism and the body social within an approach dominated by the intent of the communicator and the effect of messages. As such, his definition of communication (who – says what – in which channel – to whom – with what effect?) harks back to the stimulusresponse model, rooted in learning theory, which became a significant force in the rise of mass communication theory in the United States and in post-1945 Europe.
Emerging from Lasswell’s work is the realization of a growing social and political need to study and understand mass communication phenomena, particularly in the realm of politics, including the uses of propaganda in the practice of democracy. His ideas about effects, his contributions to content analysis, and his humanistic inflection of behaviorism, in particular, helped shape communication studies, even if the field was dominated at the time by the disciplinary interests of American sociology.
- Archer, W., & Hirschfeld-Archer, B. (2005). Revitalizing political psychology: The legacy of Harold D. Lasswell. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Eulau, H., & Zlomke, S. (1999). Harold D. Lasswell’s legacy to mainstream political science. Annual Review of Political Science, 2, 75– 89.
- Janowitz, M. (1968/1969). Harold D. Lasswell’s contribution to content analysis. Public Opinion Quarterly, 32(4), 646– 653.
- Lasswell, H. D. (1927). Propaganda techniques in the world war. New York: Peter Smith.
- Lasswell, H. D. (1948). The structure and function of communication in society. In L. Bryson (ed.), The communication of ideas. New York: Harper and Row, pp. 37–51.
- Lasswell, H. D. (1972). Communication research and public policy. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 301–310.
- Rosten, L. (1969). Harold Lasswell: A memoir. In A. A. Rogow (ed.), Politics, personality, and social science in the twentieth century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 1– 13.
- Smith, B. L. (1969). The mystifying intellectual history of Harold D. Lasswell. In A. A. Rogow (ed.), Politics, personality, and social science in the twentieth century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 41– 105.
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