Social Science for a New World

Social Science for a New World: Paul F. Lazarsfeld and the Bureau of Applied Social Research

David Hounshell


Card from Paul F. Lazarsfeld's "Methods File." Paul F. Lazarsfeld Collection. Columbia University Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York. Series 1, Box 107. (Photo by Eric Hounshell)

Between the 1920s and the 1950s, empirical social research developed into a large-scale, institutionalized, and systematized endeavor with a wide range of applications and a diverse set of tools of data collection and analysis. David Hounshell's dissertation project studied the rise of empirical social research in the twentieth century through one of its pioneers and proselytizers, the Austrian-American sociologist Paul F. Lazarsfeld (1901–76). Hounshell focused on a research system developed at the Columbia University Bureau of Applied Social Research (BASR). Founded by Lazarsfeld in the late 1930s after his immigration to New York, the BASR soon became a powerhouse of research and training, a favored recipient of government, philanthropy, and industry commissions, and a model for similar institutions around the world. Though its methods were plural, the BASR's strengths lay in survey research. It elaborated a repertoire of techniques, instruments, and crafts for the collection, analysis, storing, access, and presentation of quantitative and qualitative data. Research instruments ranging in complexity from simple paper tools to digital computers developed along with methodological innovations in survey research by Lazarsfeld and his colleagues. Innovations in survey design entailed both new ways of collecting data and new quantitative techniques for interpreting them. All new practices of data collection and analysis were somehow tested and verified before they were accepted as reliable improvements. Ultimately, the BASR research system was codified in textbooks, mimeographed handbooks, and a card catalog “methods file.”