Paul F. Lazarsfeld

Short notes on short quotes: Lazarsfeld and the ephemerality of concepts

Hi everyone! Welcome to my blog where I share my thoughts on various topics related to the social sciences. I’m more interested in bite-size info on some key concepts in sociology and social sciences in general.

Today I want to talk about a quote that I found very interesting and inspiring. It’s from Paul Lazarsfeld, a famous sociologist and communication theorist, who wrote the following in the introduction of his book The Language of Social Research:

“In light of all this it was very tempting for the editors of this reader to feature it as a contribution to the philosophy of the social sciences. But a more modest terminology seemed more appropriate to the present state of the social sciences. They have a long past but a very recent history only. Yesterday’s concepts are forgotten for the sake of today’s notion. Who remembers Tarde’s laws of imitation when he writes about reference groups? Who wonders in what respect they are different answers to the same concern, or whether they tell the same story in different words? And where is there real continuity in the formulation of theories? Has Comte’s hope to understand the development of society anything to do with Par­sons’ efforts to analyze social systems? The danger is that we shall end up with a few logical commonplaces if we try to bring out what is common to the various ways in which scholars, say in the last century, have tried to make a science out of the more general and much older attempts to under­ stand human society.”

Lazarsfeld, Paul Felix, and Morris Rosenberg. The Language of Social Research: A Reader in the Methodology of Social Research. Free Press, 1975, pp. 3-4.

That’s actually quite marvelous that Lazarsfeld happened to come across one of the huge problems, right? But I think it captures a lot of the challenges and opportunities that we face as social scientists today. Let me break it down for you and explain why I think this quote is so relevant and important.

First, Lazarsfeld acknowledges the comparably nascent and evolving nature of the social sciences in relation to more established disciplines such as the natural sciences and mathematics. According to him, while human curiosity about society and behavior has persisted over time, it is only within the last few decades that the social sciences have developed robust methodologies and comprehensive theories. This recognition both highlights the potential for further advancement and innovation in the social sciences, as well as emphasizes the necessity for scholarly modesty and careful consideration of our assertions and findings. Interesting in a way, to a positivistic scion, who’d consider the law-like permanence of concepts, to admit that they’re fleeting.

Second, Lazarsfeld points out that the social sciences are constantly changing and evolving, sometimes at the expense of forgetting or ignoring previous contributions. He gives the example of Tarde’s laws of imitation, which were influential in the late 19th century but later overshadowed by other concepts like reference groups. He asks whether these concepts are really different or just different ways of expressing the same idea. He also questions whether there is any continuity or coherence in the development of social theories, from Comte’s positivism to Parsons’ structural functionalism. He warns that if we try to find a common denominator among all these diverse approaches, we might end up with something trivial or meaningless.

Third, Lazarsfeld suggests that the social sciences are not just an academic exercise, but also an attempt to understand and improve human society. He says that scholars have tried to make a science out of the more general and much older attempts to under­ stand human society, implying that there is a practical and normative dimension to their work. He implies that social scientists have a responsibility and a duty to use their knowledge for the benefit of humanity, not just for their own curiosity or prestige.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with Lazarsfeld’s assessment of the social sciences? Do you find his quote inspiring or discouraging? Do you think he offers any useful advice or guidance for us as social scientists today? Leave your comment on my social media accounts, and as usual don’t forget to subscribe to my blog for more exciting and insightful posts on social science topics.