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Eric Hounshell



Social Science for a New World: an intellectual biography of Paul F. Lazarsfeld


If one of the hallmarks of the modernist epoch is a tension between the apparently boundless development of the natural sciences and an epistemology opposed to such confidence in objective knowledge within the humanities, then empirical social research stands between these contradictory tendencies. In its pursuit of reliable, precise knowledge of social processes in relation to human consciousness, empirical social research borrowed from the logic and institutional forms of natural science but also developed its own separate operations and tools appropriate to its specific subject matter. From the 1920s through the 1950s, in Europe and the United States, it expanded from a disparate patchwork of improvised studies to a whole way of knowing—a social science for a new world—institutionalized in government, private industry, and academia and thereby normalized in our societies. But empirical social research was also a cultural phenomenon—structurally, for example, subfields of mass communications and market research shaped the production, distribution, and consumption of cultural goods. At the level of aesthetics and ethics, it inspired oscillating waves of enthusiastic reception and condemnation, from the world-wide New Objectivity's fetish for facts and figures to the fears of manipulation and the erosion of individualism by applied social science expressed in 1950s American non-fiction bestsellers. Thus, far from reifying the split between knowledge of “real” nature and “soft hermeneutic” understanding of culture, social research only intensified their entanglement: It borrowed from both epistemologies to apprehend and continually transform its hybrid object of study.

The life and work of the pioneering Austrian-American empirical social scientist Paul F. Lazarsfeld (1901-1976) offer a unique angle on the Graduiertenkolleg's central question of how, between the contradictory epistemologies sketched above, cultures of modernity organize their relation to reality. Trained as a mathematician with a doctorate on Einstein's theory of gravity (1925) but socialized in left-wing intellectual and political circles, Lazarsfeld quickly redeployed his skills in matrix algebra and statistics to social psychology in “Red Vienna.” After emigrating to the United States in 1933 and joining the faculty of Columbia University thereafter (1939), he became a leading exponent of a social research style aimed at capturing subjective experience and based on large-sample surveys and focused-group studies in the fields of unemployment, communications, election and public opinion polling, and market research. More fundamental than his substantive contributions to these fields, however, was his role as developer, codifier, and proselytizer of empirical social research methodology. He accomplished this not just through publications but also through the institutions he built and the international patronage networks he inhabited. Indeed, Lazarsfeld's Columbia Bureau of Applied Social Research (BASR, f. 1944) became a powerhouse of research and training and a model for similar institutions around the world: the demand for reliable knowledge of social processes by twentieth-century welfare, warfare, and interventionist states and the ever-refining approches to marketing and personnel management in private industry ensured an expanding market for applied social science's grasp of “the real.” At the same time, however, from its humble beginnings in relatively crude “nose counting” to its computer-aided and institutionally-endowed complexity by the 1950s, empirical social research always faced criticism for its reduction, abstraction, and therefore supposedly inherent misperception of reality.

Chronologically, my dissertation focuses on two dialated decades of transatlantic intellectual history—the crisis period of the 1920s and the boom of the 1950s. The first period inspired early social research in the service of economic and social planning. This set the irregular development of this applied science in motion such that it achieved full structural integration into everyday life by the first post-WWII decades. Despite its claims to value neutrality, empirical social research always fit with political projects and visions of a future society, first within the interwar political factionalism of Central Europe and the global Great Depression and later in the transatlantic context of the Cold War and the postwar reconstruction of a Europe oriented towards planning and productivity. Lazarsfeld's intellectual biography links these contexts through both his personal activities in applied research on both sides of the Atlantic and his self-described role as a “connecting cog” between European and American intellectual traditions. Indeed, his constant engagement with thinkers across a range of intellectual traditions—social sciences, mathematics, and humanities—reveals that the routinized and institutionalized chasms between these Denkstile and disciplines opened relatively recently.

My project also breaks with a chronological narrative, however, to investigate the making of facts and concepts in empirical social science from a higher-resolution perspective. Recent scholarship has shown that key concepts in empirical social science such as objectivity and measurement—even quantification itself—cannot be understood through a priori analysis or technical explication alone. Rather, these terms, which are simultaneously rhetorical and indispensable for codifying research practices, gained their meaning through external demands of clients and patrons for reliability and communicability on the one hand and internal needs of cooperative team research and exchange between scientists and within scientific institutions on the other hand. Indeed, breaking open the “black box” of Lazarsfeld's empirical research reveals a world of techniques, instruments, operations, and crafts for the collection, analysis, storing, and access of quantitative and qualitative data; regimes of labor customized for social research procedures in the field and the “laboratory”; patronage from public and private bureaucracies; reception and self-promotion in the public sphere; and strategies of distinction and achievement for scientists and their communities. While these themes encompass Lazarsfeld's entire career, a fine-grained study of his style of social research depends on the uncommon density of archival materials from Lazarsfeld, the Columbia BASR (1940s-1960s) and several Columbia faculty Nachlässe—staff memos, budgets, field reports, supply inventories, catalogs of internal publications and stored data sets, handbooks for research practices, contracts with clients, and so on.

Kurzinformation zur Person

seit 09.2012

Stipendiat des Exzellenzclusters, “Das Reale in der Kultur der Moderne,” Universität Konstanz


Fulbright/IFK Junior Fellow, Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften, Vienna


M.A. und C.Phil., University of California, Los Angeles Department of History

seit 09.2008

PhD student, University of California, Los Angeles Department of History

08.2002-05.2006 B.A. with honors in History, UC Berkeley



“On Reading Lazarsfeld's Library,” Austrian-American Educational Commission Annual Fulbright Research Symposium (01.06.2012)

„Paul F. Lazarsfeld and the Territories of Social Research,” Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften, Vienna (30.01.2012)