• Lecture

Paul F. Lazarsfeld and the Territories of Social Research

Eric Hounshell, doctoral candidate in History at UCLA, discusses the scope of the Vienna-born social scientist Paul F. Lazarsfeld's career through the territories he inhabited, in terms of geographical locations and intellectual milieus and of specific subfields and research contexts. Lazarsfeld was not only a self-described “connecting cog” between research traditions but also, and more fundamentally, a key contributor to the social sciences that came to shape everyday life in the 20th century.


Today, Paul Lazarsfeld (1901–1976) belongs to the pantheon of Austria's most celebrated scientists and intellectuals as a pioneer of empirical social research. His emigration to America in 1933, first for professional and later for political reasons, testifies to the “Vertreibung der Vernunft” under Austrofascism and National Socialism, and his phenomenal success in the United States at Columbia University and later influence on social research in Europe earned him an important place in the “transatlantic history of the social sciences.” Many Austrians recall his classic study of a village devastated by economic depression, “Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal” (1933), or recognize him as a representative of positivism in a famous clash with T.W. Adorno. What is less appreciated is the extent to which his work reflected and shaped mid-century society on both sides of the Atlantic. His lifelong commitment to both applied research and the development and proselityzation of empirical approaches led him to respond to contemporary demands for “substantive research” while constantly refining and disseminating social science methods.This combination made Lazarsfeld especially symptomatic and constitutive of his historical context, as evident in some of the key sociological, journalistic, and literary reflections on the early post-WWII decades in both the United States and Europe.
By taking a wide-angle panning shot of Lazarsfeld's career, this lecture brings the peculiarity of his biography and the scale of the development of the social sciences that he contributed to into view. From his first, hand-tabulated radio listening preferences study in Vienna to massive IBM computer-aided surveys in New York; from socialist-inspired social surveys in and around “Red Vienna” to seminars on management science and market research in France; from pedagogical vacation colonies in Upper Austria to summer seminars at a military think-tank on the California coast: these are only a few examples of the dramatic transformations encompassed by Lazarsfeld's biography.

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