Research at the RBML | Jeff Pooley on communication studies & Paul Lazarsfeld

Jeff Pooley, Professor of Media and Communication at Muhlenberg College, has visited the RBML many times to delve into the extensive records of Paul Lazarsfeld. Here he discusses his research on how this ground-breaking sociologist has influenced the history of media and communication, in his project entitled, ““The Plasticity of Social Knowledge: Paul F. Lazarsfeld and U.S. Communication Research, 1937–1952.”


What brings you to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library?
Since my doctoral studies at Columbia (in the cross-disciplinary Communications program), my research interests have centered on the history of media and communication studies. I have tended to focus on the U.S. case, with most of work attending to the middle-third of the twentieth century. Communication studies in this period had only begun to organize itself into a would-be discipline. As a result, communication researchers (such as they were) tended to identify with the existing social science discipline that they were trained in—sociology, political science, or psychology, in most cases. U.S. communication research was born in the run-up to World War II, with private foundations and the federal government assembling scholars to work on propaganda and morale problems. After Pearl Harbor, these social scientists were drafted to Washington and London to work in the sprawling wartime bureaucracy. Many of the same scholars were mobilized again a few years later, by the U.S. national security state in the early Cold War. The Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) has rich collections, especially centered on the Bureau of Applied Social Research, a research bureau run by Paul F. Lazarsfeld, an Austrian-born applied psychologist who, in the early 1940s, joined the Columbia Department of Sociology. The Bureau collection, together with the papers of Lazarsfeld and other key figures, including sociologist Robert Merton, contain extensive materials on this mid-century scholarly formation.
How long have you been using RBML materials (for this and/or previous research)?
I first began using the RMBL collections in the late 1990s, as a Columbia doctoral student, for work on my dissertation. I have revisited these collections for well over a dozen projects since.
What have you found? Did you come here knowing this material was here?
The wealth of materials I have found is hard to summarize in a few sentences. The Bureau and Lazarsfeld collections contain manuscripts and correspondence going back to the mid- to late 1930s, centered on a radio research project sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. The Bureau itself, through to Lazarsfeld’s 1976 death, conducted scores of commissioned projects, many of them outside communication research as such. The materials also shed light on the internal dynamics of Columbia’s Department of Sociology, which was in ascendancy in the early postwar decades. Figures like Lazarsfeld and Merton were, moreover, central brokers in the self-proclaimed “behavioral sciences” movement—a Ford Foundation–funded effort to evangelize for team-based quantitative social science research around the world, with major Cold War resonances. The oral histories (of Lazarsfeld and figures like the Ford Foundation’s Bernard Berelson) held at the Columbia Center for Oral History are themselves invaluable documents.


What have you found that’s surprised or perplexed you?

One facet of my research at RMBL that surprised me, in my initial visits, was the capriciousness of the preserved record. Much of the Bureau’s 1950s records were lost to a flood in the Columbia Journalism School basement, before the Bureau’s records were accessioned. There are, as a result, gaps in the materials that end up—given the primacy of archival evidence for this kind of historical research—producing effects in terms of what gets preserved in the secondary literature.


What advice do you have for other researchers or students interested in using RBML’s special collections?

As a follow up to the last point about what’s missing, I would recommend dwelling on the records that weren’t preserved—not just those lost, as in the Bureau case, to floods, but also those that were never collected in the first place. The Bureau was predicated on a gendered division of labor, whereby most of the tabulations and interviews were conducted by female students and researchers—most of whom were rarely credited. A number of scholars, including Aimee-Marie Dorsten, Elena Hristova, Carol Stabile, María Esperanza Herrero Andreu, and Peter Simonson, have turned to other, non-archival strategies to unearth these forgotten researchers’ contributions. Sometimes what’s missing from the archival record is what’s most interesting.