Daniel Lerner (1917–1980) was the author of The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East (1958), a study of Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey that provided the first comprehensive statement of the role of mass communication in the process of modernization for postcolonial countries. The general theory posited a model of societal transformation for poor countries made possible by embracing western manufacturing technology, political structures, values, and systems of mass communication. In Lerner’s model, increasing urbanization led to the growth of mass media (as people demanded news and information) and literacy (as more and more schools were built), which in turn resulted in greater public participation in economic activity and politics. Lerner maintained that mass communication was the key factor in helping traditional societies to become modern. Lerner theorized that radio, television, magazines, and newspapers were important catalysts of the modernization process. The mass media provided information about the modern west and vicarious experiences of modern lifestyles to audiences in the postcolonial world. Audience members with highly empathic personalities – those who could easily imagine themselves in different circumstances – would begin to think and behave in ways that helped transform their countries from traditional societies to modern ones modeled primarily on the United States. Empathy, a key psychosocial factor in the modernization, is perhaps Lerner’s key contribution to the area of development communication.
Lerner was born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 30, 1917. After earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from New York University, Lerner was inducted into the army. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in November and took additional training in civil affairs and signal intelligence before shipping out to France where he worked with the French Forces of the Interior (FFI). Lerner was wounded in August 1942 and, after a period of recuperation, was transferred to the Psychological Warfare Division (PWD) in Paris. At PWD, he edited the daily compilation of intelligence field reports, working closely with Edward Shils and Morris Janowitz, leading American sociologists. Lerner’s supervisor was Murray Gurfein, a lawyer who was to become well known as the judge who issued the injunction to prevent publication of a US government study of how the country became involved in the Vietnam war (“Pentagon Papers”, 1971). Lerner was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star by the US military and the Croix de Guerre by the French military for his work with the FFI.
After the war, Lerner took a position at Stanford University’s Hoover War Library (later renamed the Hoover Institution) on a research project called Revolution and the Development of International Relations (RADIR). The project analyzed journalism in a large number of countries to determine their orientations toward the United States, the USSR, and other key players in postwar international relations. RADIR was supervised by Harold D. Lasswell, who became Lerner’s lifelong friend and mentor.
While at Stanford, Lerner completed a dissertation at New York University on the effects of Allied propaganda on the German people. He discovered that Allied propaganda had been most effective among a certain group of Germans, using a modified version of a categorization scheme developed in part by his former PWD colleague Shils to divide the German targets of propaganda into three types: the “hard-core Nazis,” who were impervious to Allied propaganda; the “anti-Nazis,” who were already converted to the Allied viewpoint; and the “nonpoliticals,” who were ambivalent about the Allied perspective. He concluded that the best use of Allied propaganda had been to target the ambivalent group because they were the hearts and minds most likely to be won over.
Lerner gained his doctorate in American civilization and social science in 1948. While in New York for his dissertation defense, Lerner met with Paul F. Lazarsfeld at Columbia University to ask about recruiting scholars for the RADIR projects at Stanford. Lazarsfeld subsequently invited Lerner to Columbia’s sociology department as a visiting professor in January 1951. During that semester, Lerner worked on a research project at Lazarsfeld’s Bureau of Applied Social Research (BASR), examining the effectiveness of Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts in several Middle East countries. In a report he wrote about Turkey, he divided the Turkish listeners into three categories, much as he had done in his dissertation on German targets of Allied propaganda: the “modern,” who were already more or less pro-western; the “traditional,” whose personalities were constricted by backwardness and a narrow range of experiences; and the “transitional,” an ambivalent group who exhibited some traditional and some modern orientations. The ideal policy for VOA, Lerner concluded, would be to target the transitional group, for they were most ripe for conversion to western views. In his report Lerner also briefly introduced the idea of projection, the notion that mass media content could help certain listeners project themselves into unfamiliar roles and surroundings (Lerner et al. 1951, 20). This relationship was later elaborated more fully in The passing of traditional society as the concept of empathy.
In 1958, the year The passing of traditional society was published, Lerner was named the Ford Professor of International Communication at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He wrote prolifically about propaganda and war, social science methods, and communication and development (Lerner 1963; Lerner & Schramm 1967). Lerner retired from MIT in 1977 at the age of 59. In 1978, he and his wife Jean moved to Santa Cruz, California, where he was an adjunct professor of sociology at University of California, Santa Cruz. Lerner died of bone cancer on May 1, 1980.
- Lerner, D. (1958). Passing of traditional society. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
- Lerner, D. (1963). Toward a communication theory of modernization: A set of considerations. In L. Pye (ed.), Communications and political development. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 327–350.
- Lerner, D., & Schramm, W. (1967). Communication and change in developing societies. Honolulu: East-West Center Press.
- Lerner, D., Schueller, G., & Stycos, M. (1951). Mass communication audiences in Turkey. Report B- 0370-5. New York: Bureau of Applied Social Research, Columbia University.
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