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Sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, founder of Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research and of modern empirical sociology, died at 75 on this date in 1976. Lazarsfeld was a son of Vienna and received his doctorate in mathematics there (his dissertation dealt with the math of Einstein’s gravitational theory). He came to the U.S. in 1933 as a traveling scholar with the Rockefeller Foundation and toured the country under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Given the rise of Nazism back home, he remained. Lazarsfeld’s research included large-scale studies of the effects of mass media and propaganda on political behavior. He wrote about the role of “opinion leaders” as intermediaries and the “narcotizing dysfunction” evoked by overexposure to information. Lazarsfeld pioneered the use of quantitative, mathematically-based, scientific research into sociological issues, which helped to elevate sociology as a field of inquiry. He also collaborated with a wide range of intellectuals and trained and inspired many sociologists of the subsequent generation. Lazarsfeld was president of the American Sociological Association and the American Association for Public Opinion Research, and received honorary degrees from the University of Chicago, Columbia University, the University of Vienna, and the Sorbonne, among other institutions of learning.
“It is the tragic story of the cultural crusader in a mass society that he cannot win, but that we would be lost without him.” --Paul Lazarsfeld
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.