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Wissenschaftlicher Aufsatz, 2004
The persistent influence of Paul Lazarsfeld upon European sociological research is not the least due to his pioneering a new role set for social scientists. The "classical" model has been and still is a combination of teaching and research on "fundamental" problems connected with theoretical argumentation. His engagement in practical problem solving led him to focus upon the empirical investigation of aggregated actions and thus opened the way for manifold advisory, planning and evaluation tasks for professional sociologists. The splendid isolation of a sociology, purely directed towards analyzing the history of ideas and modelling conceptual frameworks, as well as the partisan political involvement of social reformers were overcome by a new concept relating knowledge to human action, answering in a pragmatic and yet scientifically controllable way Lyntons famous question: Knowledge for what?
Lazarsfeld's new approach, first developed during his early Vienna years and fully implemented during his co-operation with Robert Merton at the Bureau of Applied Social Research of Columbia University, shall be assessed in three steps by
1. consideration of Lazarsfeld's new role perception for the sociologist in view of basic professional challenges;
2. a characterization of his methodological approach, and
3. a review of his organizational innovations.
Based upon these statements, some theoretical implications and a critical appraisal of Lazarsfeld's foundation of social research shall be attempted.
A new role perception for the sociologist
Lazarsfeld certainly can be called one of the founding fathers of applied sociology. He himself relates his own activities to the intentions of Ferdinand Tönnies to establish sociography as a practice-oriented branch of social science. But his own interests went beyond a purely descriptive research strategy. He was aiming at an impact upon human action. We clearly find an exposition of his intentions in his discussion of Max Weber's involvement in empirical social research, jointly published with Anthony Oberschall in 1965. First the authors present an account of Weber's contributions to empirical social research and state his "increasing clarity" on its nature (193). In view of his lifetime interest even in quantitative techniques, they put the question: "why this is so little known?" (194). The ambivalence of Weber's academic inclinations is explained by "an unanswered question" as to the place of the study of human action in the panorama of the social sciences" (194). The authors maintain that no sharp distinction can be made between psychological and sociological determinants. But this insight ran counter a dominant German intellectual tradition. Furthermore, Weber hinself shared with his wife a resistance to psychological interpretation (195).
The critical review of Weber's activities ends up with the conclusion that he never found a way to reconcile two ways of studying "action": the old hallowed deductive way and the new empirical approach. The "action" language in the German tradtition on "human studies" was used by Weber to develop sociological concepts, but he insisted not to be concerned with relevant empirical studies.
Against this background we can appreciate more clearly the creative traits in Lazarsfeld's own position. He was much less bound to the prevailing German traditions, and the intellectual climate in Vienna strongly fostered an inclusion of psychological knowledge into the research on social problems as it is so obvious in the study on the "Arbeitslosen in Marien- thal". But contrasting to Weber's position which implied, a rigid separation of research from action, Lazarsfeld was strongly interested in the uses of sociology. When arriving in the USA, he was welcomed as a "European positivist". By accepting this role, he intended to carry out problem-oriented studies of concrete situations. The "road from knowledge to action" was conceived as a road, "the social scientist travels in making a recommendation". Of course, the fate of his advice in the hands of a man of action was also part of the sociologist's concern, at least as a topic of study. Thus Lazarsfeld's perception of the sociologist as a "social engineer" as it was first coined in his Oslo speech 1948, was nothing less than retreat into pure instrumentalism. Instead, from the beginnings of his research in Vienna he aimed at an active and responsible role of the sociologist in shaping social relations.
Lazarsfeld's methodological approach
Throughout his academic life Lazarsfeld was concerned with developing tools for the empirical investigation of aggregated actions based upon explication in the sense of logical clarity and precision of meaning as a necessary step towards the operationalizion of concepts. In "the language of social research", a reader issued together with Morris Rosenberg, the organization of section VI (Toward a philosophy of the social sciences) reveals his major methodological concern: "How can clear and creative thinking be applied to problems of the social sciences" and, as we may add, thus produce empirical evidence? Knowledge for action ultimately cannot be provided by assumptions, arguments and hidden hypotheses. Problems need to be located, meaning must be clarified and the structure of arguments as a link of propositions needs to be revealed. Thus a rigid set of criteria for empirical research is established which can serve as a guideline for knowledge which may be used for analyzing and guiding action. Already a superficial comparison with still prevailing patterns of agitation, justification and tentative advice based upon mere conjecture show the high intellectual and even moral level of Lazarsfeld's methodological orientation.
However, Lazarsfeld's highly influential methodological position also has met criticism which needs to be considered in order to fully assess the difficulties inherent in an action-oriented empirical foundation of sociology. Charles Wright Mills, the Angry Man of American sociology, in his "Sociological Imagination" (1959) has labeled Lazarsfeld's approach as "abstract empiricism". By this he means a micro-sociological, psychologistic orientation towards recurrent, measurable phenomena with statistical relevance. From his point of view this is likely to replace theory by methodology, which means a reduction of explanation to mere testing of hypotheses.
In fact, a specific, concrete field of social action cannot be directly approached by Grand Theory, while Lazarsfeld's approach offers a systematic and controllable encounter between the researcher and a given problem situation. As far as concerns the interpretation of findings by modelling the data collected, the critique by Mills does not meet the point. But in order to interpret the meaning of findings, a larger social context with an even historical dimension needs to be considered. And here Mills is quite right. Researchers, carrying out detailed studies of concrete milieus, cannot isolate their work from actual political conflicts and power structures.
Lazarsfeld's organizational innovations
The pioneering role of Lazarsfeld becomes even more obvious in his deep understanding of the growing role of organized social research, which had been alien to most of his European colleagues before the end of World War II. A statement, that modern society requires an organized production and marketing of knowledge, was not acceptable to the "Arts", contrasting with the "Sciences". And sociology in Central Europe was supposed to belong to the former category. The term "organization" in this context refers to both the establishment of a research team and its stabilization by setting up an institutional framework. As an "Academic Manager" Lazarsfeld has been particularly skilful in founding such research organizations which were able to co-ordinate joint efforts over a longer period of time, thereby rendering the investigation of structural changes and complex contextual relations. The establishment of a "Wirtschaftspsychologische Forschungsstelle" in Vienna, the Research Center at the University of Newark (1936), its transfer to Princeton, Columbia University's Office of Radio Research, and then the Bureau of Applied Social Research mark an outstanding activity, which was always linked with a particular gift for fund raising. There were only very few colleagues in Lazarsfeld's generation with such an elaborated sense for the organizational needs of social research, directed towards phenomena of an emerging mass society. His visions and their successful realization had a still noticeable impact upon the development of empirical social research in Europe. Especially Austria owes to him the re-establishment of this branch of behavioural sciences after World War II. Lazarsfeld has tought us that social resarch also needs organizational foundation.
By focussing upon the empirical analysis of action and by linking relevant knowledge to concrete problem-solving and decision-making processes, Lazarsfeld combined the model of Homo Sociologicus with the Political Man of Anglo-Saxon tradition. Strategic actions are fundamental prerequisites of a society based upon a democratic constitution and relevant institutions. The emancipated individual and social groups as his representants need to develop competence for arriving at decsions whether it concerns consumer choice or elections. This explains the popularity of any research serving to clarify the shaping of public opinion and its structural components. Lazarsfeld established theories of middle range which added substantially to understand strategic actions and the means to exert influence upon them.
Lazarsfeld's concept of theory is based upon the testing of hypotheses by discovering interrelationships between clearly defined variables. But he also employs conceptual guidelines for the organization of research and the interpretation of findings. Therefore, in fact, his position is not so clearly contrasting to those sociologists who work on the elaboration of conceptual frameworks. As Lazarsfeld had been particularly interested in decisions taken in the course of action, the relevant concepts deserve special attention. Within his "Introduction to Applied Sociology" chapter 3 maps out the cognitive aspects of the utilization cycle. The basic idea is a "cycle", or, in more common terms, a process "which begins with the practical problem and ends with an effort at solution with the help of sociological knowledge acquired along the way" (47). The different phases (Lazarsfeld calls them "steps") are delineated as follows:
Step 1: How is the existence of a problem established?
Step 2: What machinery is set up to collect pertinent social-science information?
Step 3: How is the practical problem translated into a research design?
Step 4: How is the knowledge so collected converted into recommendations for action?
Step 5: How are these recommendations actually implemented?
Step 6: How is the whole cycle assessed with the possibility that shortcomings discovered in retrospect might make it necessary to reenter the cycle with new problems?
The gap between knowledge and recommendation is dealt with in larger detail. Further steps finally leading to action are introduced: invention of effective strategies, consideration of potential effects, choice between alternative strategies, cost-benefit analysis, recommendation and implementation. Thus Lazarsfeld actually presents a highly complex conceptual scheme which is likely to structure both research design and the interpretation of findings. In fact, Lazarsfeld advocates the application of a formalized taxonomy of the decision-making process which nowadays is familiar to any scholar of business administration. Thus we may conclude that Lazarsfeld actually was concerned with two theoretical projects: theory as the factual interrelationship of data and theory as a conceptual guidance for systematic organization of action.
The problem of bias and political influence
A close connection between the "production" of applicable knowledge and interest-bound actions in concrete and often conflictual situations poses the problem of the researcher's partisan involvement. At least such position meets the objection that the knowledge put at the actors' disposal is bound to be instrumental in terms of its utility, being defined by vested interests. Lazarsfeld did not neglect these problems. His affinity to social reform, even to socialist thought made him aware of the pitfalls of partisan reasoning. It was precisely through the development of methods exposed to possible falsification that he intended to safeguard sociological knowledge against abuses by ideologists. However, he did not offer a satisfactory model for the relations between sociologists and their customers.
Of course, Lazarsfeld as an eminently experienced adviser was fully aware of the possibly weak position of researchers in action-oriented projects. He refers to the initiation of a research project as "not only an intellectual decision (but) also a political act" (134), and the book on applied sociology contains striking examples for emerging difficulties. Both rejection and acceptance of recommendations may be due to political pressure and ideological bias and therefore may distort the researchers' intentions. But Lazarsfeld - I should like to add: as anybody of his colleagues - is not able to bridge the gap between knowledge and action. And ultimately he restricts himself to providing knowledge for action.
On the other hand there is proof that he was willing to accept the limits of "administrative research". In a contribution to the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, published in 1941, he made some fundamental "remarks on administrative and critical communication research".
First he refers to three objections against administrative research: by its sponsors who doubt the practical imprtance of the empirical study, by those who claim the priority of improvements of the life of the community against its utilization for business purposes, and finally the theoretical argument, that such studies should not be pursued "isolated from the total historical situation in which such planning and studying goes on" (9). This latter idea of critical research, developed by Max Horkheimer, implies basic human values to which all effects of research should be appraised. Lazarsfeld admits the necessity of such research by referring to the phenomenon of promotional culture and "certain tendencies of our time (which) jeopardize basic human values because people are kept from developing their own potentialities to the full" (10). He then maps out a detailed strategy for such critical research consisting of four steps:
a) A theory about the prevailing trends toward a "promotional culture" is introduced on the basis of general observations. Although efforts are steadily being made to refine and corroborate this theory it is taken for granted prior to any special study.
b) A special study of any phenomenon consists in determining how it expresses these prevailing rends (introduced in (a)) and in turn contributes to reinforcing them.
c) The consequences of (b) in stamping human personalities in a modern, industrial society are brought to the foreground and scrutinized from the viewpoint of more or less explicit ideas of what endangers and what preserves the dignity, freedom and cultural values of human beings.
d) Remedial possibilities, if any, are considered.
Lazarsfeld then deals with the argument, much of the effort put in such critical research might be spent on "showing up" things, "rather than on fact-finding or constructive suggestions" (13). "It might very well be ... that we are all so busy finding our place in society according to established standards of success. But "nothing is more important at this moment than to remind ourselves of basic cultural values which are violated" (13).
Though Lazarsfeld sees yet little experience in the actual cooperation of critical and administrative research, he considers an inclusion of actual critical research operations into empirical work as greatly improving its utility. Especially, "as there will be hardly a student in empirical research operations who does not sometimes feel a certain regret or impatience about the vast distance between problems of sampling and probable errors on the one hand, and the significant social problems of our times on the other" (14).
In this context he refers to a possible "vitalization of research". It is certainly deplorable, hat his concrete proposals, doubtlessly influenced by his contacts with Theodor Adorno at that time, never really were put into practice.
Otherwise the so-called "Positivismus-Streit" never would have alienated a generation of young "critical" sociologists from empirical research which remains strictly bound to logical operations.
Lazarsfeld's innovative approach to link knowledge with action was an attempt to bridge the gap between two spheres of social reality. Such work at the boundaries of traditional academic provinces presupposes a certain marginality of its inventor. In fact, Lazarsfeld certainly gained the intellectual freedom for pursuing his new approach by a personl experience of marginality, in spite of his striking academic success. He has been a man of two cultures and he has never been the so-called ordinary full professor, well integrated in his department. Lazarsfeld's true "department" has been his research institute, and his relations with clients of all kind have been not less intensive than those with his students. However, the circumstances which established a certain intellectual marginality - at least in view of the conventional academic trade - precisely broadened his view and the realm of his activities to the extent that he was able to create a new concept of the sociologist and his role in society.
Of course, knowledge and action are mediated by highly complex processes. They cannot easily be analyzed or even governed. Therefore, there will always be a great hazard whether the intentions of the researcher and the interests of his client can match to the extent that "enlightened action" results.
What then can we learn from Paul Lazarsfeld?
First, the sociologist, involved in empirical research, meets real challenges resulting from people's ways of living and it is necessary to respond with all the given intellectual capacity.
Second, such an understanding widens the scope of the sociological profession and offers new roles for its members.
Third, the possible pitfalls inherent in attempts to link knowledge with action should make sociologists alert of the preconditions for their role fulfilment.
Fourth, an extensive contact with practicians in social affairs may endanger the researcher's independence, if the profession does not develop special work ethics based upon a logical, intellegible and controllable methodology.
All these aspects may be found in Lazarsfeld's work and his own account of his activities. He opened new problem areas and chances for new activities for which he provided new tools. We are still challenged to take up his burden and his promise.
Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1941). Remarks on Administrative and Critical Communication Research, in: Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 9, pp. 2-16
- (1948): What is Sociology? Oslo, Universitets Studentkontor
- (1968): An Episode in the History of Social Research: A Memoir, Respective in American History, Vol.II. Cambridge/ Mass.
Lazarsfeld, R. F. and Rosenberg, M. Eds. (19955). The Language of Social Research. Glencoe/III., The Free Press
Lazarsfeld, P. F. and Oberschall, A. R. (1965): Max Weber and Empirical Social Research, In: ASR 30, pp. 185-199.
Lazarsfeld, P. F. and Reitz, J. G. (1975): An Introduction to Applied Sociology. New York, Oxford, Amsterdam: Elsevier
Mills, C. W. (1959): The Sociological Imagination. New York, Oxford University Press.
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