The Austrian-born American sociologist Paul F. Lazarsfeld (1901-1976) was one of the most influential social scientists of his time. He founded four university-related institutes of applied social research and was a professor of sociology at Columbia University for three decades.
Lazarsfeld's major interests were the methodology of social research and the development of institutes for training and research in the social sciences. Because of the originality and diversity of his ideas, his energy and personal magnetism, his unique style of collaboration with students and colleagues, and the productivity of the research institutes he established, his influence upon sociology and social research—both in the United States and in Europe—was profound. His collaborators and students learned a great deal from him and contributed greatly to his fame. Most of his major writings were co-authored, and much of his workday consisted of listening to, talking to, and instructing his students, colleagues, and co-workers: in class, in his office, in taxicabs, in his apartment; at breakfast, at lunch, and at dinner; at the blackboard, or pacing his office with a cigar, or seated in the faculty club with a double Manhattan cocktail in hand, Lazarsfeld seldom was or worked alone, and he was always working.
Paul F. Lazarsfeld was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1901. He was raised and educated there, receiving his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the University of Vienna in 1925. His dissertation was an application of Einstein's theory of gravitation to the movement of the planet Mercury. In 1925 he established a research institute dedicated to the application of psychology to social and economic problems. This was the first of four university-related applied social research institutes founded by Lazarsfeld; the others were the Research Center at the University of Newark, the Office of Radio Research at Princeton University, and the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University.
Work in Vienna and in the United States
The Vienna institute carried out a great deal of innovative consumer research, and it contributed importantly to the development of this field by making the study of consumer decisions and radio audiences academically respectable. However, it was Marienthal (1933), a slim, clearly-written study of unemployment, that was the institute's most memorable product. The book—which Lazarsfeld co-authored with Marie Jahoda and Hans Zeisel—contributed substantially to the methodology of community studies. Its major findings—that the prolonged unemployment of workers leads to apathy rather than to revolution— foreshadowed the widespread lack of resistance to Hitler. Marienthal was banned by the Nazis soon after it was published, and most of the copies were burned, but by 1978 it had been re-issued to become part of the sociology curriculum in German and Austrian universities. In 1979 a group of young Europeans carried out a restudy of the village of Marienthal, by then a part of Vienna.
In 1933 Lazarsfeld came to the United States as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow. At the end of the second year of his fellowship, he decided to remain in the United States and become a U.S. citizen. The deteriorating political situation in Austria following the defeat of the Social Democrats in the civil war of February 1934 had made his return to the University of Vienna impossible. In the midst of the 1930s' Depression he accepted a job analyzing some 10,000 questionnaires from young people which had been collected by the New Jersey Relief Administration. He soon transformed this temporary project into the University of Newark Research Center, whose director he became.
In 1937 the Rockefeller Foundation granted funds for a large-scale study of the social effects of radio. Lazarsfeld was chosen to be director of the project, and a broad study of radio programming, radio audiences, and the preferences of radio listeners was begun. The emphasis was on secondary analysis of existing survey data, content analysis of programs, and use of the Lazarsfeld-Stanton Program Analyzer, a device he developed with Frank Stanton for recording the instantaneous likes and dislikes of experimental audiences.
The Lazarsfeld radio research project virtually created the field of mass communications research. It studied why messages are introduced into the media and why people attend to them—that is, what gratifications or rewards people get from the media and what functions the media serve in their lives. Lazarsfeld's influence on the field outlived him. In the mid-1980s the directors of social research of the nation's three largest networks—CBS, ABC, and NBC— were all former students of Lazarsfeld.
In 1939 the Rockefeller Foundation radio research grant was transferred from Princeton to Columbia University, where Lazarsfeld became a professor of sociology. In 1944 the Office of Radio Research was renamed the Bureau of Applied Social Research, which became in the 1950s and 1960s the leading university-based social research institute in the United States.
When Lazarsfeld started to study the impact of radio in 1937 he realized that since radio listening created no public records, such as circulation data, it needed new methods of accounting and study. He used the opinion poll—at that time used mainly for descriptive purposes to measure the popularity or audience size of radio programs—and by the detailed analysis of responses developed ways to measure the impact of radio upon attitudes. This transformation of the "opinion poll" into "survey research" constitutes one of Lazarsfeld's major accomplishments.
Lazarsfeld's study of the 1940 presidential election was published as The People's Choice (1944), a spare and elegant book that became a true classic. During the research a great deal was learned about the psychological and social processes that delay, inhibit, reinforce, activate, and change voting decisions—people subject to cross pressures, for example, delay making a decision longer than do others. The study also uncovered an influence process that Lazarsfeld called "opinion leadership." It was found that there is a flow of information from the mass media to persons who serve as opinion leaders and then to the public. This process was termed the "two-step flow of communication."
Outstanding in His Field
Lazarsfeld received many acknowledgements of his accomplishments during his lifetime. He was president of both the American Association for Public Opinion Research (1949/1950) and the American Sociological Association (1961/1962), and he was an elected member of the National Academy of Education as well as of the National Academy of Sciences. He received honorary degrees from Chicago and Yeshiva universities in 1966, from Columbia in 1970, from Vienna in 1971, and from the Sorbonne in 1972—the first American sociologist ever so honored. In 1955 he was the first recipient of the Julian L. Woodward memorial award of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, and in 1969 the Austrian Republic awarded him its Great Golden Cross, largely for his help in establishing the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna in 1963. He was a much sought-after consultant, speaker, and teacher. Shortly after his death from cancer on August 30, 1976, a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Memorial Fund was established in order to sponsor a series of annual lectures in his honor. In 1983 a large collection of his books and papers was dedicated as the Lazarsfeld Archives at the University of Vienna.
Lazarsfeld's main legacy was to question the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research. In almost every field in which he worked he tried to fuse these two productive modes of inquiry: it was the theme with which he ended his presidential address to the American Sociological Association; the journal Quality and Quantity was founded in 1967 under his direct influence; and the Festschrift published in his memory is entitled Qualitative and Quantitative Social Research. In the words of the Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman, Lazarsfeld was "one of those rare sociologists who shaped the direction of the discipline for the succeeding generation."
Further Reading on Paul F. Lazarsfeld
A biography of Paul F. Lazarsfeld can be found in Volume 18 of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences; an extensive bibliography of his writings and of writings about him is included. An excellent source for Lazarsfeld's ideas as well as his influence is a memorial volume edited by Robert K. Merton, James S. Coleman, and Peter H. Rossi, Qualitative and Quantitative Social Research (1979). A collection of some of his best papers may be found in Patricia L. Kendall, editor, The Varied Sociology of Paul F. Lazarsfeld (1982).