Paul Lazarsfeld

From New World Encyclopedia

Paul Felix Lazarsfeld (February 13, 1901 – August 30, 1976) was one of the major figures in twentieth century American sociology. Founder of the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University, he conducted large-scale studies of the effects of communication through mass media on society, particularly on voting behavior. Lazarsfeld developed the "two-step flow" theory of communication, based on his findings that the majority of the general public did not form their opinions or decide on a course of action based on directly receiving information, but rather relied on "opinion leaders." He also articulated concepts such as the "black-and-white" alternatives, which are used by governments to present situations in clear-cut choice format with one being unacceptable and the other desirable, and the "narcotizing dysfunction" of overexposure to information leading to public apathy. Lazarsfeld's work illustrated the use of quantitative, mathematically-based, scientific research into sociological issues. His use of objective techniques and measures provided the foundation for serious inquiry into many issues of great importance to the understanding of the functioning of human society.


Paul Felix Lazarsfeld was born in Vienna, Austria, where he attended school, eventually receiving a doctorate in mathematics (his doctoral dissertation dealt with mathematical aspects of Einstein's gravitational theory). In the 1920s, he moved in the same circles as the Vienna Circle of philosophers, including Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap. He came to sociology through his expertise in mathematics and quantitative methods, participating in several early quantitative studies, including what was possibly the first scientific survey of radio listeners, in 1930-1931.

Lazarsfeld immigrated to America shortly thereafter, securing an appointment at the University of Newark. While at Newark, Lazarsfeld was appointed head of the mass media communication project in 1940. In 1941, he was appointed professor in the department of sociology at Columbia University where, together with Robert K. Merton, he founded the famed Bureau for Applied Social Research. He remained a professor at Columbia until 1970, and continued to live in New York City until his death in 1976.

Lazarsfeld’s impact on applied social sciences

Study of media influence on people

In 1940, a study of the influence of the media on voters' choices was commissioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s staff when he decided to run for a third presidential term. Paul Lazarsfeld headed a group of researchers trying to find out just how much influence the mass media exerted during presidential elections. To gather their data, they set up an extensive study in Erie County, Ohio, where they examined the media's role in the election between the Democratic incumbent, Roosevelt, and Republican challenger, Wendell Willkie.

Limited effects' paradigm

The study yielded startling results, indicating that neither radio nor print had as much influence on voters as had been suspected. The researchers found that assumptions about the same amount of information being received by everybody were not true, since some people receive more information than others. Some members of the public have more exposure to media, have more numerous and more diverse social networks, and they are perceived as influential. They also found that the response to media messages is influenced by the social relationships. To receive a message does not necessarily imply a response. To not receive a message does not imply there will be no response, since people can receive the message via some other channels.

Finally, it was found that most of the people questioned relied heavily on other people for the information they used to make their voting decisions (Lazarsfeld et al. 1968, 148). These “other people,” individuals who were relied on for information, were called by Lazarsfeld "opinion leaders" (151). Lazarsfeld then began to study these individuals and found that an opinion leader could be just about anyone, from a homemaker next door to a coworker on the assembly line.

Further analysis revealed that the opinion leaders were better informed than the average person and that, in general, they tended to read more newspapers and magazines, and listened to more radio news and commentary than average. As a result of his findings, Lazarsfeld developed the "two-step flow theory" of communication.

Theory of the two-step flow

Lazarsfeld's two-step flow theory, published in Personal Influence in 1955, stated that the process of communication from mass media is received in the first place by opinion leaders, the people who directly receive the message, and then these people transmit the message in an interpersonal way to less active members of the society. In other words, according to the two-step model: (1) the mass media influences certain individuals, and (2) these individuals personally influence others.

One serious mistake that Lazarsfeld perceived in this theory was the “inherent subjectivity” of the research method used to locate the “opinion leaders.”

Because every person in a random sample can only speak for himself, opinion leaders had to be located by self-designation, that is, on the basis of their own answers. In effect, respondents were asked whether or not they were opinion leaders. Beyond the inherent problem of validity, it was almost impossible to ascertain a meaningful result with this subjective approach. Any answer to the question "do you consider yourself a leader?" contains a role-status conflict.

This systematic error was an important factor in the quality of the theory, and was a constant feature even in the studies that were developed after the two-step theory. Incongruence in the definition of opinion leader and its specific role notwithstanding, Katz and Lazarsfeld's approach is still in use, albeit using improved techniques, such as: The informants' rating method and The self-designating method.

The informants' rating method

Instead of using a random sample, the "informants' rating" method uses key members of the group, who were previously identified, in order to have their point of view about who in the community is influential in terms of opinion leadership. Even though this method is highly accurate and economical, it has the inconvenience of designing a previous database in order to choose the "key informants." Therefore, it is only suitable for relatively small groups.

The self-designating method

The "self-designating" study is based on the original dichotomy-style method used by Lazarsfeld, in which the respondent is asked to classify himself as an opinion leader or a follower. The two questions used by Lazarsfeld in this type of study were:

  1. "Have you recently tried to convince anyone of your political ideas?"
  2. "Has anyone recently asked you for your advice on a political question?"

The narcotizing dysfunction

Lazarsfeld developed the idea of the "narcotizing dysfunction" to explain the public's increasing apathy or inertia when bombarded with more and more information (565).

Unlike media "crusades," Lazarsfeld stated that the "narcotizing dysfunction" is not exploited intentionally by those in power. Rather, he suggested that it is an "unplanned mechanism."

It is termed dysfunctional rather than functional.... on the assumption that it is not in the interest of modern complex society to have large masses of the population politically apathetic and inert. (565)

While public apathy is certainly not desirable in terms of the public interest, it is rather naïve to suggest that those in power would not exploit such a mechanism out of respect for such philosophical principles. In a recent example, the presence of an All-Iraq Newscast which "narcotizes" its viewers is clearly in the interest of the administration.

War-time applications

German WW II propaganda machine

Prior to Lazarsfeld’s work in America, there existed a "hypodermic needle" (or "magic bullet") model of communication, which held that an intended message is directly received and wholly accepted by each individual (see Schramm 1997). This model emerged from the Marxist Frankfurt School of intellectuals in the 1930s to explain the rise of Nazism in Germany. Thus, while the "hypodermic needle" model considered the influence of the mass media to be direct, Lazarsfeld's two-step flow model stressed human agency.

The historical importance of the “magic bullet” was, however, further enhanced by Goebbels who incorporated it into the Nazi World War II propaganda-machine (and was perfected in all Communist countries after the war, and utilized in numerous other countries in the twentieth century.)

American alternatives

To minimize and counter Nazi propaganda, in 1942 the American World War II administration extended contracts for communication research to Paul Lazarsfeld and others, including Hadley Cantril and Council on Foreign Relations member Frank Stanton. Lazarsfeld, by that time, was known for his “black-and-white” dichotomy which epitomized the claim that:

…the presentation of simple alternatives is one of the chief functions of the crusade….…Public issues must be defined in simple alternatives, in terms of black and white... to permit organized public action. (Lazarsfeld 1975, 563)

The American propaganda strategy could, in a nutshell, be expressed by the following:

The purpose of propaganda is to mobilize certain of man's emotions in such a way that they will dominate his reason [and] The function of a propaganda agency is almost the exact opposite: it is not to inform, but to persuade. In order to persuade it must disseminate only such fact, such opinion, and such fiction masquerading as fact as will serve to make people act, or fail to act in the desired way. (Warburg 1946, 15-16)

The strategy outlined above could be easily managed, via Lazarsfeld’s dichotomy, with the help of film footage and war correspondents' reports from the battlefield. An important element of success was also the Axis nations' (Germany, Italy, and Japan) own “world-conquering” propaganda, and the major turning point was supplied by the Japanese when they attacked Pearl Harbor.

Over all, dichotomy-based propaganda was very effective during World War II. The main reason for its success was that it made the alternatives of "us" versus "them" absolutely clear to the U.S. population (with the latter alternative virtually unthinkable). It was, in fact, a version of the “magic bullet” strategy in which “them” was painted so “black” as to be deemed suicidal.

The Cold War (including the Korean War and Vietnam War) presented a different situation. Nobody in America saw the real "battlefield," nor could actually comprehend what was at stake with, perhaps, the only exception being when the Soviet missiles were captured on film as they were shipped to Cuba in 1962. Otherwise, nobody had any clear notion of not just who, but, more importantly, why there were "us" and “them" and, above all, the consequences of "them" winning. Under these circumstances, instead of a clear black-and-white dichotomy, there appeared only various shades of gray.

In the post 9/11 terrorist era, as has been the case in both Iraq conflicts, the (American) public and academe learned the first-hand lesson of facing a real enemy who kills Americans not just abroad but at home as well, and mostly returned to the "Lazarsfeld black-and-white dichotomy," to wit: support the administration and its policies or be considered a traitor.


Paul Lazarsfeld is regarded as one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century, a pioneer in the field of mass communications research and in market research. As the founder of Columbia University's Bureau of Applied Social Research, he exerted a tremendous influence over the development of techniques and the organization of such research.

"It is not so much that he was an American sociologist," one colleague said of him after his death, "as it was that he determined what American sociology would be."(Columbia University Press Encyclopedia).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bernard R. Berelson, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, & William N. McPhee. 1966. Voting: A Study of Opinion Formation in a Presidential Campaign.
  • Columbia University Press Encyclopedia
  • Fürstenberg, Friedrich. "Knowledge and Action: Lazarsfeld´s foundation of social research" in Paul Lazarsfeld (1901-1976). La sociologie de Vienne à New York; Paris-Montréal (Qc.): Ed. L´ Harmattan, 423-432;
  • Lazarsfeld, Paul & Elihu Katz. 1955. Personal Influence.
  • Lazarsfeld, Paul. 1969. "An Episode in the History of Social Research: A Memoir" in The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930-1960. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Lazarsfeld, P., B. Berelson, and H. Gaudet. 1968. The People's Choice. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Lazarsfeld, Paul, & Robert K. Merton. 1975. "Mass Communication, Popular Taste, and Organized Social Action" in The Process and Effects of Mass Communication. Revised edition. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  • Schramm, Wilbur. 1997. The Beginnings of Communication Study in America: A Personal Memoir. Edited by Steven H. Chaffee and Everett M. Rogers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Warburg, Paul. 1946. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
  • Zeisel, Hans. 1979. "The Vienna Years" in Qualitative and Quantitative Social Research: Papers in honor of Paul F. Lazarsfeld. Edited by Robert K. Merton, James S. Coleman and Peter H. Rossi. New York: Free Press.


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