Ed McLuskie: Founding U. S. Communication Research in the Viennese Tradition Lazarsfeld's Silent Suppression of Critical Theory


„It is certainly highly desirable to have bright critical people around.
But once they are here it is difficult to relate them.“
Paul F. Lazarsfeld (1974)

Anyone familiar with Paul Lazarsfeld’s attempts to bring together ostensibly diverse research traditions may find curious the claim that Lazarsfeld suppressed Critical Theory, especially because he is credited with having introduced the Frankfurt School to American social research. After all, it is not literally true that Lazarsfeld was „silent“ about the work of Frankfurt Critical Theorists. Indeed, his 1941 article, „Remarks on Administrative and Critical Communications Research“ (Lazarsfeld, 1941), was not his last word on the subject:

Lazarsfeld’s five subsequent essays (1948; 1969; 1972; 1973a; Lazarsfeld and Leeds, 1962)2 * allow the claim that Lazarsfeld explicitly wrote about „critical research“ from 1941 through 1973. However, only one of these five (Lazarsfeld, 1948) devoted full attention to issues „critical“ in some sense; the remaining post-1941 essays address critical research in brief passages. Thus Lazarsfeld had finished originating full articles on the subject during the 1940s. Collectively, then, these six essays do not constitute a systematic corpus by Lazarsfeld on what he branded „critical research“. Lazarsfeld’s most exhaustive treatment of the topic remains „Remarks“ (Lazarsfeld, 1941).

Nevertheless, the influence of the 1941 Remarks article extended to the Presidential Address of the U.S.-based International Communication Association (ICA) forty years later (Rogers, 1982). Consequently, one might be tempted to argue that Lazarsfeld’s influence brought Critical Theory to American social and communication research – so successfully, one may argue even further, that Lazarsfeld’s work now speaks through still other voices, at least in the United States. How, then, might Lazarsfeld have been „silent“ on Critical Theory in light of this reading of the intellectual-historical record?

The answer depends, of course, on how one reads that record. In the American context, one would be hard- pressed to justify the claim that Critical Theory has flourished in communication research. Hardt’s (1979, p. 228) assessment of German critical approaches, including that of the Frankfurt School, still stands concerning the American encounter: „Any acknowledgement … can be explained as a recognition of the usefulness of … methods of analysis rather than an adoption“ or incorporation of the perspective of Critical Theory.

Is Lazarsfeld’s record, then, one of engaging Critical Theory, being influenced by its perspective, and then recommending Critical Theory to an American audience? Or is what Lazarsfeld called the „critical research“ of Frankfurt something else, recommended (or not), according to criteria of method, in the name of Frankfurt Critical Theory? If the latter is the case, then only on the surface did Lazarsfeld seem to give voice to Critical Theory. If what Lazarsfeld called „critical research“ is not Critical Theory, and if Lazarsfeld’s interpretation was influential for American communication research (as it was for the ICA address cited above), then what passes for Critical Theory in the United States also is „something else“ to the degree of Lazarsfeld’s influence. …