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Paul Lazarsfeld
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Paul Lazarsfeld

Paul Felix Lazarsfeld (1901-1976) was one of the major figures in 20th century American Sociology. The founder of Columbia's Bureau for Applied Social Research, he exerted a tremendous influence over the techniques and the organization of research. "It is no 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."

Lazarsfeld was born in Vienna, where he attended schools, 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 1930-31.

Lazarsfeld came to America shortly thereafter, securing an appointment at the University of Newark as head of new research center based upon the institutional structures had created in Europe. Under "Administrative Research," as he called his framework, a large, expert staff worked at a research center, deploying a battery of social-scientific investigative methods--mass market surveys, statistical analysis of data, focus group work, etc.--to solve specific problems for specific clients. Funding came not only from the university, but also from commercial clients who contracted out research projects. This produced studies such two long reports to the dairy industry on factors influencing the consumption of milk; and a questionnaire to let people assess whether they shop too much for Cosmopolitan magazine.

While at Newark, Lazarsfeld was appointed head of the Radio Project, which was later moved to Columbia. There, it grew into the acclaimed Bureau for Social Research where he spent the rest of his career. Lazarsfeld died in 1976.

Bibliography: Hans Zeisel, "The Vienna Years," in Qualitative and Quantitative Social Research: Papers in honor of Paul F. Lazarsfeld, ed. Robert K. Merton, James S. Coleman, and Peter. H. Rossi (New York: Free Press, 1979) Wilbur Schramm, The Beginnings of Communication Study in America: A Personal Memoir, ed. Steven H. Chaffee and Everett M. Rogers (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997) Lazarsfeld, Paul. "An Episode in the History of Social Research: A Memoir." In _The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930-1960_, ed. Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn 270-337. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.