American Sociological Association

Review Essay: Back to the Future

In one of my undergraduate courses, I show students a photo of Paul Lazarsfeld and Frank Stanton. Of course, neither social scientist is familiar to them, but I argue to my students that Lazarsfeld had a bigger impact on the daily practice of sociology than any member of the Marx/Weber/Durkheim triumvirate they study in classical theory. But even those of us who are aware of Lazarsfeld’s impact on sociology can forget how much of his work and other social science of his era generally relied either on data collected as an industrial byproduct or on piggy-backed, theory-driven data collection on industrial efforts. After all, in the picture Lazarsfeld is collaborating with Stanton, a psychology PhD who was first the head of research at CBS radio and then the president of CBS as it transitioned to television. Before the establishment of the National Science Foundation’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences division and the proliferation of regularly collected surveys with about 1500 randomly sampled respondents and about 100 theory-driven Likert scale questions, sociologists had to hustle. Data collected through industry sometimes feel deficient by contemporary standards, with non-random samples and few covariates. Nonetheless, work along these lines done in collaboration with CBS, Pfizer, Life magazine, and the Department of War gave us many of the great works of social science published prior to the first wave of the GSS. We would do well to learn from the mid-twentieth-century model as we consider our response to threats to the late-twentieth-century model in plummeting response rates and threatened federal funding for social and behavioral science.

In Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age, Matthew Salganik provides a book on methods that will prove instrumental in institutionalizing and building up the new...


Gabriel Rossman





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