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Harold D. Lasswell

Updated on June 19, 2014

Life and Contribution

Harold Dwight Lasswell was a mid-westerner born in a small town Donnellson, Illinois, in 1902 with a population of 292, where his father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother a high school teacher. Lasswell’s family travelled wherever his father was located until they settled down in Decatur, Illinois where he attended high school. In his high school Harold was exposed to works by dominant political thinkers of the time such as Karl Marx. At the age of 16 Lasswell received his high school diploma as well as scholarship, to the University of Chicago. Lasswell began majoring in economics and eventually earning his undergraduate Certificate in economics as well as in the field of political science. While studying as a graduate Lasswell became well acquainted with Charles Edward Merriam who later became his mentor and collaborator.

A new approach of Political Science began at the University of Chicago, with a study of 6000 non voters in the 1923 Chicago mayoral election conducted by Merriam and Harold Godnell, which was carried forward by Lasswell. He opined that political scientists should study political behavior, not just political ideas, and stated the importance of power as the key concept in understanding politics. In 1926 Lasswell became Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Chicago. At this point of time he was immensely engrossed in his work and immediately took it upon himself to look onto the behavioural components that had an effect on political science. This was heavily reflected in what is considered to be a ground breaking book in political science “Psychopathology and Politics”. Merriam encouraged Lasswell to explore the psychoanalytical aspects of politics, and to pursue his interests in psychoanalysis and helped him obtain a Social Science Research Council Fellowship to study at Harvard. He also travelled across Europe and studied at the London School of Economics. From this exposure and his remarkably fertile mind, Lasswell contributed a vast array of books and articles that developed and applied psychology to political analysis. The most relevant are Propaganda, Psychopathology and Politics, Communication Model, Power and Personality, Language of Politics Studies in Quantitative Semantics. Lasswell was fascinated by one problem more than any other that aroused his interest in what he called ‘problem solving approach’.


Merriam was the key influence behind Lasswell’s Doctoral dissertation, “Propaganda Technique in the First World War”. Among his contributions more influential, however, was Freudian philosophy, which informed much of his analysis of propaganda and communication in general. Lasswell analyzed the contents of propaganda messages from the World War I. He studied the leaflets dropped from balloons or airplanes or delivered by artillery shells over enemy lines and military recruiting posters in order to identify the propaganda strategies used. From his research, Lasswell developed an important communication research tool, called content analysis, and utilized it to study propaganda. World War I was the first event where propaganda was utilized by both sides of the conflict.

The aim of this work was to draw lessons from World War I, the first total war. Methods of dissemination appeared to be indispensable instruments for governmental management of opinion on both the allied and army. More generally, considerable steps were made in communication techniques from the telegraph and telephone to radio and cinema. Lasswell’s propaganda was henceforth synonymous with democracy since it was the only way to generate the support of the masses. This instrumental vision established the idea of the media as a set of all powerful tools for circulating effective symbols. Thus he played one of the most important roles in developing World War II ‘Behaviorism’ studies. In his book “Power and Personality”, Lasswell described the process by which power becomes a value of first importance and the way appropriate skills for exercising power can be acquired. His analysis offered original perspectives to understand Democratic leadership. In this book Lasswell explained the nature of his research and investigated the life histories of a number of people who were leading or at least active in political life. He classified them as agitators, administrators and theories. He studied the way in which life experiences and personal attitudes made them one or another of these types.

Laswell's Model of Communication

Lasswell outlined the analysis of active communication as a multi-level process. He developed the Transmission model in which communication is reduced to a question of transmitting information and asked the question “Who says What in Which channel to Whom with What effect?” Essentially what he meant by this was that there was research to be done for each ingredient of communication. There was control research (Who), content research (What), medium research (the channel), audience research (Whom) and fact research (with what effect). He used this model primarily to frame his theories on Propaganda, but it has been held to apply to any active communication as recent studies have shown. In every form of communication, though, there must be someone (or something) that communicates. Lasswell was primarily concerned with mass communication and propaganda, so his model is intended to direct us to the kinds of research like ‘control analysis’, ‘effects research’ and so on. Lasswell’s model is useful but too simple in a way as it assumes that the communicator wishes to influence the receiver and therefore sees communication as a persuasive process and also assumes that messages always have effects. It exaggerates the effects of mass communication and omits feedback. It hence remains a useful introductory model.

Analysis

Lasswell did make major contributions to communication theory. His academic interests included the study of propaganda, the formation of public opinion, the roles of political leaders and content analysis of the mass media. Lasswell never allowed the discipline of political science to confine his intellectual interests, which ranged over sociology, psychoanalysis, history, social psychology and communication. His contribution to the study of communication and political science continue to enlighten students which is the proof of his influential and predominantly scholarly life. Among the academia of communication, Lasswell had been addressed as the most original and productive political scientists of his time. Lasswell’s work has become an inevitable reference for study in Communication and Political Science till today. He compiled technical terms from a dozen of un-homogenized disciplines, like psychology, philosophy, political science, sociology, economics, anthropology, psychiatry, statistics, pediatrics, psychoanalysis, physiology and physics. Lasswell’s incorporation of psychodynamics mechanisms within a broad social interaction framework avoids the reduction of early psychoanalytic theorizing. His legacy can be extended to a broader range of phenomena than his application encompassed and can extend much more richly into the public policy arena. Lasswell used words brilliantly to conceal simple feelings and express complex ideas. The image of Lasswell may be one of broad-brush theorizing rather than careful empirical analysis. If the political psychologist is familiar only with psychopathology and politics, communication models, Lasswell may seem to represent an earlier era of impressionistic rather than systematic, empirical analysis. He had thrown down the gauntlet to political psychologists to develop systematic measures to trace the observable manifestations of the dynamics that psychoanalysis offers for understanding political behavior. If Lasswell’s contribution had been static without the possibility of being extended to broader areas and new phenomena, they would be of little use for deepening our understanding of political behavior.

Conclusion

Lasswell lived his full life with honorary achievements including being made the President of the American Political Scientist Association in 1958. He retired from teaching in 1976 and two years later died of Pneumonia on 8th December, 1978. His legacy lives on in communication and Political text books as well as Harold. D. Lasswell Award given by the American Political Science Association to graduate students who laid excellence political science dissertations. He was indeed one of the most prominent American Scientist, a leading figure in Communication and Political Science. Lasswell has deliberately pursued a policy of immortality; his works will be read as long as there are men who cares about the issues and problems associated not just with the social and behavioural sciences but with the worldwide achievement of human dignity.

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