Paul F. Lazarsfeld Centennial Celebration and Conference
Columbia University September 29, 2001
A Research Assistant’s Recollections
John Shelton Reed
When I came to Columbia in 1964 to study social research methods I’d never taken a sociology course, but in the political science department at MIT we read works by Paul Lazarsfeld and Herbert Hyman, and I knew that was the kind of empirical social research I wanted to do. I had a pretty good math background from MIT (largely acquired against my will), which probably explains why I caught Lazarsfeld’s attention early on. In my second year he hired me as his "research assistant" – but let me put that in quotes, because it doesn’t begin to describe my duties. Altogether I spent the better part of three years as Lazarsfeld’s assistant, right after Dave Elesh and just before Jeff Reitz, fitting into a long line of assistants that includes some pretty impressive names. Some of them are here, and will have their own recollections, but these are mine, for whatever they may be worth.
I came along rather late in the game. By the mid-1960s Lazarsfeld had completed most of the empirical work for which he is well known – The Academic Mind, his last major study, had been published in 1958 – and (as Allen Barton has pointed out in a recent article) his attention had turned to "codifying research methods, . . . writing articles and sponsoring dissertations on the history of social research, and studying the problems of the utilization of social research by those who commissioned it" – to what might be called, without derogation, "armchair sociology." In addition, by then he had taken on the well-earned role of sociological dignitary, which involved a number of essentially ceremonial duties. The kind of research he had done so much to develop – the kind I came to Columbia with the intention of doing – was by then being done by his former students – and often elsewhere.
The upshot is that what I was actually assisting him with was less research than a more diffuse sort of scholarship, which for me meant in practice a succession of intellectual odd jobs, some of them tedious grunt work, but others remarkably interesting (sometimes surprisingly so). And as it turned out, a broader and better education for me than the technical training I thought I wanted – most of which I managed to pick up anyway.
I was not only content but pleased and proud to work as Lazarsfeld’s factotum and dogsbody. Unlike many of my generation, I’ve never had much problem with being on either end of a hierarchical relationship. And that is what we had. As I was preparing these remarks, I was struck by the fact that even now I’m not quite sure what to call the man. I’m within rounding error of the age he was when I worked for him, but calling him "Paul" still seems presumptuous, and "PFL" seems a little too chummy as well. It never occurred to me to address him as anything other than "Professor Lazarsfeld," but that seems a little formal for this occasion. So I guess I’ll just call him "Lazarsfeld." Brusque as that seems, it’s how we graduate students referred to him when we were speaking of him, rather than to him.
For me, working for Lazarsfeld meant laboring under a series of impossible demands on his part, each conveying an implicit compliment -- the assumption that I could do it. I always found that so flattering that somehow I rose to the occasion.
I think this was a characteristic Lazarsfeldian mode: he made even more impossible demands on Helen Houdoskova, his secretary when I knew him (and as far as I know, forever). I have no idea what sort of secretary she was, or how Lazarsfeld viewed her – I know that when she spoke of him it was usually with a sort of motherly exasperation – but I do recall being in her office about 4:30 one afternoon when she was busily calling piano tuners to find one who could tune Lazarsfeld’s piano before 7:30 the next morning. She was grumbling, but she was calling. And she found one, too.
One of the jobs I best remember doing (grumbling, but doing) was a hurry-up assembling of Lazarsfeld’s own bibliography for some occasion (the only copy he had was not at all complete). I had then no German and very little French, which made for some tough going, and this was before the age of computerized catalogues, electronic searches, and the Internet, but I got the job done – or anyway a job done -- in three or four days of intensive library work. Listing his books was easy enough, even with all their various editions and translations, but the articles and reviews and occasional pieces were another matter. Lazarsfeld had published several a year for forty years or so, so there were literally hundreds of them -- in a half-dozen languages.
By the way, I think it was while doing this that I learned about the "Elias Smith" business. Many of you will know that Lazarsfeld used that pseudonym in his Office of Radio Research days when he was putting together an issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology and didn’t want all the articles to be by Paul F. Lazarsfeld. Some of you will know that doing so earned him an interview with a federal agent during the McCarthy era, after he filled out a passport application and answered "no" when asked if he’d ever used an alias.
Anyway, I put all the publications I found on file cards and finally typed up what I recall as an interminable document. I wish I’d kept a copy, but I didn’t. I don’t know what became of the original – I’m afraid it may have vanished into the pile of paper that was always threatening to fall off his desk. (Incidentally, I have undeniably emulated Lazarsfeld in the disorganization of my desk-top. In that respect, as in others, his example has been a constant inspiration, reminding me that apparent chaos is no impediment to great achievement. I have the chaos part down pat.)
A great deal has been said, more will be said today, and no doubt still more will be said in years to come about Lazarsfeld’s contributions to empirical social research. All I can add is something of his own assessment of his career. When I handed in that bibliography I said something – half compliment, half complaint -- about how much he had written. He startled me by replying that he'd had only four original ideas in his life. When I asked what they were, he listed the elaboration scheme, panel analysis, latent structure analysis, and I believe the fourth was contextual analysis -- although I think a good case could be made for reason analysis, what he called the "accounting scheme" for analyzing decisions.
Anyway, Lazarsfeld said that everything he had done had been a matter of working out the implications of those four ideas. No false modesty, though: after saying that, he added: "But that's four more than most people, and three more than it takes to make a reputation."
I’ve often thought of that conversation, and wondered whether, by that standard, I’ve had any ideas at all.
Another challenging assignment came my way when Lazarsfeld was invited to a UNESCO conference in Paris, where he was going to be on a panel with T. H. Marshall. He called me in and unblushingly admitted that he’d never read anything of Marshall’s, and that he didn’t have time to do it before the conference. Had I read him? No, I hadn’t. Could I read Marshall's major works and write a summary that he could read on the plane? He was leaving the day after tomorrow, and the morning of the flight would be soon enough. In fact, at that point I'd never heard of Marshall, but (no doubt grumblig again) I hotfooted it over to Salter’s and bought a paperback copy of Citizenship and Social Class, stayed up half the night reading it, and produced a handwritten, 10-page precis. (I did keep a copy this time, and I just re-read it: it's not bad.)
My point is not that I was a great graduate assistant -- although in fact I was. But so were those before and after me. I suspect that all of us surprised ourselves by what we could do -- and what we were willing to do -- when Lazarsfeld asked us to. He had an amazing ability to get work out of us, and I learned a great deal from doing it. I think I even recognized that at the time. I can't think why else I would have done it.
At a department Christmas party a few months after I had begun working for him, I introduced him to my wife, who had by then heard a great deal about him, of course. He twinkled (there's no other word for it): "Oh," he said to me, "are you still married? I work most of my graduate students so hard they get divorced." (I think he was joking.)
Then he turned that thousand-watt Viennese charm on Dale and regaled her with stories of his student days in Berlin, explaining why being exploited was good for graduate students. (I was struck that "exploited" was his own word for it.) At the time I even found his explanation persuasive, although I've never been able to sell it to my own students.
When I proposed to write a dissertation using secondary analysis of old Gallup Polls to look at regional cultural differences in America, Lazarsfeld liked the fact that I’d be doing secondary analysis: he and Herb Hyman had long been saying that more use should be made of archived survey data. But I think that, like many Europeans, he found the idea that there are American regional differences rather amusing. He liked to tell the story – especially, I think, in my presence -- of a visit that his son Robbie had paid to his grandparents in Texas. When Robbie got back, Lazarsfeld asked him how Texas was different from New York, and Robbie said that the license plates were a different color.
I learned a great deal from Paul Lazarsfeld, and not just about research methods. I particularly admired his attention to the narrative side of our craft: how to "tell the story" of our research.
Lazarsfeld wrote well. I gather that he wrote well in three languages, but all I can judge is his English. He wasn’t an elegant writer, like some here, but his prose did the job: it was sturdy, workmanlike, and jargon-free. I don’t know how much that owed to Professor Merton’s editing, but I do know he worked at it, and thought about it. Sometimes we discussed it: he would ask me (flattery again) about an American idiom. Once, to my eternal shame, I used the word "interrelationship." When he asked me what the difference is between interrelationship and relationship I couldn't say. I still can't.
"About two syllables, isn't it?" he suggested.
I’ve never used "interrelationship" again, and I routinely change it in other people's prose when I’m editing.
Lazarsfeld took pains to be understood – and not just by a small coterie of his peers. Maybe it was his background in market and media research that made him want to put the slop where the hogs can get it (as we say down South). I know that one of his reservations about regression analysis and related techniques was that they were harder for lay readers to follow than percentage tables, and often added nothing except unnecessary precision. In 1980, as a conscious act of homage, I included in a Social Forces article what will probably be the last bar graph ever published in that journal.
My experience working for Lazarsfeld – and later with Herb Hyman – has a lot to do with why I look back on my Columbia days with great fondness. If more graduate students could have had that experience, or something similar, Columbia might have been spared its ordeal in the spring of 1968.
During that upheaval, Lazarsfeld seemed to me to be strikingly unconcerned – although perhaps that was to be expected from someone who had his experience with a real revolution. Anyway, through it all, he kept giving me things to do. And I kept doing them. (I should say that I was one of a handful of sociology graduate students who opposed the student strike -- a long story, and not really to the present point.)
But I do remember one conversation about what was going on. One of the many "demands" that my radical classmates came up with was the abolition of all graduate course requirements. I asked Lazarsfeld what he thought about that, and he said that was fine with him. I was scandalized. I asked how he could say that. Surely he thought that methods courses should be required, at least?
"That's all right," he said. "If they do not take the right courses, we will see that they do not get jobs." At the time, I thought that was unbelievably cynical. Thirty-three years later, I see it as remarkably wise.
Speaking of jobs, in 1969 I was offered a position at the University of North Carolina, largely (Tad Blalock once told me) on the strength of Lazarsfeld’s recommendation. For my first several years at Chapel Hill I taught research methods as I’d been taught them, complete with the elaboration scheme – storks and babies and all. I still think it’s one of the best ways to think about statistical association, independence, and control.
In 1988 I took on an additional job, as director of the Institute for Research in Social Science, an establishment that Lazarsfeld had told me, twenty years earlier, is probably the oldest university-based social research organization in the world -- predating his Vienna institute by two or three years. Although Lazarsfeld had been dead for over a decade, he helped me get that job, too. When I was interviewing for it I impressed the selection committee by talking glibly about the sociology of empirical social research, cribbing every bit of it from Lazarsfeld’s 1962 ASR article with that title.
One of the things our Institute does is the twice-yearly Southern Focus Poll, a national telephone survey with a Southern oversample, started about ten years ago. When I was casting about for questions to include in the very first of these surveys, I recalled Lazarsfeld’s advice from his 1949 AAPOR presidential address, "The Duty of the 1950 Pollster to the 1984 Historian." Pollsters, he said, should ask questions about topics that are not issues but that might become issues, to get a baseline, track their emergence, and watch public opinion form. With that in mind, we put in a question about Southern secession. We’ve asked it several times now. You might be interested to know that white Southern support for an independent South is holding steady in the high single digits: not much higher than the expected percentage who misunderstand the question, but if the South ever does rise again, we’re ready for it.
One of the most valuable things I learned from Lazarsfeld is what an old-fashioned, cultured, Middle European sensibility is like. That was something almost entirely new in my experience. I wasn’t intimidated by his intellect – I’ve known other brilliant people. And his manner was always informal and engaging; he listened to what I had to say and complimented me when I said something he hadn’t thought of (admittedly, not often). But the socialism, the psychoanalysis, the viola – the whole Viennese Jewish thing – well, sometimes it made this East Tennessee boy feel like I’d just fallen off the turnip truck.
On that point, one more anecdote, to close: I remember Lazarsfeld's telling me about meeting Anna Freud when they were both receiving honorary degrees – I think it may have been from the University of Chicago. She asked him: "Are you the little Paulie Lazarsfeld I used to know in Vienna?" Lazarsfeld acknowledged that he was. "Well," she said -- and in the telling Lazarsfeld made it sound rueful -- "Well, we have come a long way, haven't we?"
He certainly had, but he brought a lot with him. I think that’s a large part of what made Paul Lazarsfeld one of the most impressive and memorable characters I have ever met.