In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Paul F. Lazarsfeld

  • Introduction
  • History of Empirical Social Research
  • Tasks and Potentials of Empirical Social Research

Communication Paul F. Lazarsfeld
Christian Fleck
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0272


Paul F. Lazarsfeld (b. 1901–d. 1976) was a highly influential scholar and the founder of social research organizations. Being a professor of sociology (at Columbia University, New York City) for the longest part of his academic career, his intellectual background stemmed from other academic branches: he received a PhD from the University of Vienna, Austria, in 1925 in mathematics, participated in one of the schools of depth psychology created in his hometown by Alfred Adler, and rounded up his psychological expertise under the tutelage of the Bühlers at the University of Vienna, where Lazarsfeld taught (unofficially) statistics. He was active in politics as the leader of the social democratic youth organization and as a speaker in the party’s instructional efforts. Initially a high school (Gymnasium) teacher for mathematics, in 1931 Lazarsfeld founded the Wirtschaftspsychologische Forschungsstelle (roughly: applied market research), probably the first private social research unit in Central Europe. The Forschungsstelle (as the unit was remembered by its former members) executed the first audience study of Austrian radio listeners and became famous finally for the sociography of an unemployed village. In autumn 1933 Lazarsfeld left Austria for a Rockefeller Fellowship, which he spent primarily in New York; he extended the fellowship term until 1935. The political situation in Austria at the time was depressing and the outlook was dim. Lazarsfeld therefore decided to return to New York, where Lazarsfeld’s mentor Robert Lynd was able to offer him minor jobs and his network was extensive enough to consider him for more attractive positions. When the Rockefeller Foundation negotiated a big research grant with Hadley Cantril on the cultural consequences of the radio, this Princeton-based young psychology professor hired Lazarsfeld as the research director. Within a short period of time Lazarsfeld sidelined Cantril and made the Princeton Radio Project to the Office of Radio Research. In 1940 Lazarsfeld was appointed as associate professor for sociology at Columbia University and transferred the Office of Radio Research as an adjunct entity to his new university. Renamed the Bureau of Applied Social Research, it became a model for this kind of research. For nearly three decades the Bureau offered graduate students and postdocs additional expertise and an income. So Lazarsfeld became the mentor of several dozen social scientists who populated the US elite universities. In addition, students from both sides of the Iron Curtain, which divided Europe back then, enjoyed Lazarsfeld’s instructions, mentoring, and connections with funding agencies. During the first years, together with Robert K. Merton, who was hired by Columbia as an assistant professor at the same time as Lazarsfeld and joined him at the Bureau as co-director, Lazarsfeld laid the foundations of communication research, empirically, theoretical, and in particular as a methodologist.

Biography and Appreciations

There is no biography of any sort written on Lazarsfeld, but there are two PhD theses that cover particular aspects of his career and oeuvre extensively. Shorter biographical portraits appeared in reference works, encyclopedias, and edited volumes. Several of his former students, collaborators, friends, and relatives published pieces covering particular facets of Lazarsfeld’s oeuvres and life, or offered their views on him within their own autobiographies or autobiographical essays. Morrison 1976 concentrates on memories, whereas Hounshell 2017 offers a close reading of written sources. Sills 1987 gives a short and balanced description of Lazarsfeld’s achievements. Fleck 2015 is the most recent overview on the person and his work. Coleman 1980 and Coleman 1990 are convincing accounts because of the author’s closeness to Lazarsfeld and his astute observations.

  • Coleman, James S. 1980. Paul F. Lazarsfeld: The substance and style of his work. In Sociological traditions from generation to generation: Glimpses of the American experience. Edited by Robert K. Merton and Matilda W. Riley, 153–174. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

    Coleman, a former student and collaborator, focuses here on the performance of Lazarsfeld as teacher and research director. Coleman wonderfully characterizes Lazarsfeld’s inclination to recruit both younger people and peers to work on topics he found most interesting.

  • Coleman, James S. 1990. Columbia in the 1950s. In Authors of their own lives: Intellectual autobiographies by twenty American sociologists. Edited by Bennett M. Berger, 75–103. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520341197-005

    In his contribution to a collection of autobiographical papers, Coleman describes and analyzes Columbia’s sociologist as a collective and the department and the Bureau as a social system.

  • Fleck, Christian. 2015. Lazarsfeld, Paul Felix (1901–76). In International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences. 2d ed. Edited by James D. Wright, 635–640. Oxford: Elsevier.

    DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.61075-9

    A more recent, though much shorter, portrait, covering both life and work within the limits of space available.

  • Hounshell, Eric T. 2017. A feel for the data: Paul F. Lazarsfeld and the Columbia University Bureau of Applied Social Research. PhD diss., Univ. of California Los Angeles.

    This PhD thesis from a UCLA historian is a more recent approach following the lines of intellectual history using both the Lazarsfeld Papers and the Papers of the Bureau of Applied Social Research. Hounshell follows the routes of Lazarsfeld’s intellectual trajectory and reconstructs in great details the ideologies, theories, and worldviews that surrounded him.

  • Morrison, David E. 1976. Paul Lazarsfeld: The biography of an institutional innovator. PhD diss., Leicester Univ.

    Based on extensive interviews with Lazarsfeld and some of his collaborators and friends, Morrison wrote the first and still only full biography. Morrison never managed to transform the thesis to a book but made use of his data in some book chapters and journal articles (Morrison 1978, cited under Adorno’s Encounter with Radio Research, and Morrison 1988, cited under Autobiographical Writings and Lazarsfeld’s Reflections on His Work). Much later he reused the material for a monograph with different emphasis in the form of Morrison 1998 (under Facets of Lazarsfeld’s Life, Work, and Impact).

  • Sills, David L. 1987. Paul F. Lazarsfeld 1901–1976: A biographical memoir. Biographical Memoirs. Edited by National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 250–282. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    The most detailed and longest of the biographical portraits of article length, written by a former collaborator who used both published and unpublished sources and gives a fair and complete description of the life and the major publications.

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