Paul Felix Lazarsfeld (1901–1976), Vienna-born sociologist, influenced by Ernst Mach, Henri Poincaré, and Albert Einstein, and intellectually close to the Vienna Circle of logical positivism, called himself a “European positivist.” He was the founder of modern empirical sociology and a major figure in twentieth-century American sociology. His contributions to the study of communication grew out of his collaborative work at the Bureau of Applied Social Research, which he had founded at New York’s Columbia University in 1937. His position was firmly established with the publication of The people’s choice (Lazarsfeld et al. 1944) and Personal influence (Katz & Lazarsfeld 1955), which set the stage for the social scientific exploration of communication in modern society. Lazarsfeld’s work is also an example of the intellectual contributions made by emigré scholars to American scholarship during and after World War II.
Lazarsfeld’s research on the social and political impact of radio as a new medium reinforced his leading role in forging the direction of mass communication studies after World War II, and further illustrates his understanding of what he termed administrative research. His response to the spread of literacy and the rise of a centralized system of mass communication was a call for a philosophical grounding and a systematic approach to research techniques, suggesting a role for communication research as an important source of media policy and social philosophy. Lazarsfeld saw the problem of media and society in technological terms, dealing with the inevitability of industrialization, the massification of audiences, and the effects of mass media on people. His understanding of the role of critique within the social sciences was grounded in a perceived need to provide a social scientific rationale for an adjustment to the dominant forces in society. Thus, his own complex intellectual interests and his lifelong commitment to applied research kept him involved in assessing methodological and substantive contributions to the creation and transfer of knowledge. In Lazarsfeld’s view of mass society, one challenge for social scientists was to help improve the standards of living for people under the conditions of industrialization. Yet his notion of critical research remained within a populist, reformist questioning of authority.
Lazarsfeld helped to fashion communication research into an important methodological specialization, leading to the legitimization of American communication research as a socially and politically relevant academic undertaking. This position was premised on a widespread and commonsensical understanding of social problems as being related inescapably to media performance. Consequently, questions about communication or the role of media tended to be reduced to practical issues, while theoretical interests in the development of a communication based theory of society surfaced outside the sociological mainstream. Lazarsfeld’s influence extended after World War II to Europe, where his work played a role in the rise of media studies as a social scientific project.
- Gitlin, T. (1978). Media sociology: The dominant paradigm. Theory and Society, 6(2), 205 –253.
- Katz, E., & Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1955). Personal influence: The part played by people in the flow of mass communication. New York: Free Press.
- Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1941). Remarks on administrative and critical communications research. Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, 9(1), 2 –16.
- Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1969). An episode in the history of social research: A memoir. In D. Fleming & B. Bailyn (eds.), The intellectual migration: Europe and America, 1930–1960. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 270 –337.
- Lazarsfeld, P. F., & Field, H. (1946). The people look at radio. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
- Lazarsfeld, P. F., Berelson, B., & Gaudet, H. (1944). The people’s choice: How the voter makes up his mind in a presidential campaign. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Merton, R. K., Coleman, J. S., & Rossi, P. H. (eds.) (1979). Qualitative and quantitative social research: Papers in honor of Paul F. Lazarsfeld. New York: Free Press.
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