Sociologist and expert in media and market research
Paul Lazarsfeld was one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century. His work had a significant impact on methodologies in the social sciences, but also on the development of market research and mass media studies in Europe and the United States. Born in Vienna in 1901, Lazarsfeld studied mathematics at the University of Vienna and developed an interest in psychology. By the late 1920s, he had helped establish the Wirtschaftspsychologische Forschungsstelle (Research Center for Economic Psychology), which was attached to the University’s Institute for Psychology directed by Karl and Charlotte Buehler. Lazarsfeld had long been part of Vienna’s active socialist milieu and his institute’s research was imbued with an interest in social reform. Its most renowned study, Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal (1933), focused on the psychological and social consequences of unemployment during the Depression. Still, Lazarsfeld and his colleagues were interested in the application of their sociological methodology for market research from the beginning, conducting studies on consumer uses of butter, milk, shoes, and other products in Vienna and other European cities. The institute also began research on radio listening habits that foreshadowed some of Lazarsfeld’s later work.
Lazarsfeld left for the United States in 1933 with the help of a Rockefeller Foundation grant. His initial interest lay in exploring American market research practices. When a return to Europe became politically problematic, he began to establish himself in the United States. He initially worked with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Building on his Viennese experience, he also built up a research center at the University of Newark and later secured funding (through the Rockefeller Foundation and media corporations like CBS) for theRadio Project, which was a pioneering effort in academic audience research and ultimately employed several European émigrés, including Theodor Adorno. By the early 1940s, the Radio Project was affiliated with Columbia University, where it grew into the Bureau of Applied Social Research. Lazarsfeld obtained a permanent professorship at Columbia University and was increasingly well connected within American academia. His research in media communication was not only of interest to broadcasting corporations. Advertisers also paid attention to his work on the “two-step flow” of communication and the identifications of individuals who acted as multipliers in communication processes. Several articles on methodological improvements in empirical market research and qualitative questionnaires proved similarly influential in the development of this field.
Lazarsfeld was the most important figure in a group that has been called the “Vienna School” of market research in mid-century America. Several of his former coworkers at the Vienna institute, including Herta Herzog, Ernest Dichterand Hans Zeisel, played influential roles in postwar American marketing, introducing qualitative research methods influenced by psychological insights. Lazarsfeld helped to establish their careers in the United States and became an influential networker during the postwar period when he exported his “American” brand of empirical social research to Europe (including through institutions such as the Ford Foundation and the Vienna Institute for Advanced Studies. His career left a mark on the transatlantic development of the social sciences in general and market and media research in particular.