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Harold Lasswell was an influential social scientist who contributed to the field of political science through research on political psychology, quantitative methods, and public policy. Lasswell was born in Donnellson, Illinois, to a schoolteacher and Presbyterian minister. At the age of sixteen, Lasswell received a scholarship to study at the University of Chicago, and he later completed graduate studies at the London School of Economics. Lasswell was a faculty member at the University of Chicago from 1922 to 1938 and at Yale University from 1946 to 1970. Lasswell died in 1978 in New York City.
Laswell’s approach to political science was behavioral, and he was a part of the “Chicago school” of sociology. The Chicago school was a group of academicians in the 1920s and 1930s who focused on the urban environment, specifically through ethnographic fieldwork and an emphasis on social issues. Lasswell believed that propaganda was a key tool in public policy making, arguing that the citizenry was largely uninformed and often did not understand what was in its best interest. Lasswell was one of the first scholars to define and systematically explore the concept of propaganda, through his book Propaganda Technique in World War I (1927).
Lasswell’s work on propaganda later expanded into a more general research agenda on communication. Lasswell contributed to the field by suggesting that more than one “channel” of media can carry a message. His model of communication is shown through a basic question: “Who says what, in which channel, to whom, and with what effect?” This model identified the several different components of communication in a political sphere: “Who” involved the political body or agency communicating, “what” is the gist of the message or idea, “channel” is the venue of communication, “whom” is the target audience, and “effect” is the policy outcome. His model encouraged systematic thinking about political communication and the psychological and policy implications of different forms of communication. Perhaps Lasswell’s most famous and widely read work is his general treatise on politics, Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How (1936), which is an abridged but more general commentary on his model of communication.
Lasswell’s work shifted in the later stages of his career to more of an emphasis on the policy sciences. Many see him as the father of policy sciences, and his work in that area is certainly among the first and most influential. Lasswell’s research became larger in scope and resulted in policy-making frameworks that were more comprehensive and less concerned with narrow theorizing. Lasswell’s ideas were rooted in his early work on propaganda— actors in the policy process were seen as sometimes irrational and pursuing goals that would ultimately harm them, and this led to a need for policies that went beyond those based in simple rational choice. Lasswell argued that misguided political behavior could easily undermine democracy, and called attention to the need for policymakers to consider both expressed and unexpressed constituent needs.
Lasswell argued that the role of the policy sciences was to produce knowledge for democracy. His emphasis on contextualism influenced quantitative research in important ways, guiding analysts to consider as many external influences as possible in their research. Lasswell believed that the role of the analyst was both scientist and activist—the policy analyst cannot be completely objective in selection of goals, but should work toward objectivity in analysis of results. Although some have cast Lasswell as a positivist, his approach had both positivist and postpositivist themes.
Lasswell’s approach to political science and public policy was met with some criticism. Many disagree with Lasswell’s assertion that citizens often do not understand what they need, finding his approach to be at once paternalistic and naïve. Some also believe that Lasswell’s view of the policy analyst is a romanticized one, exaggerating the impact that the analyst can have on policy making and ignoring issues with using objective data for political decision-making.
- Lasswell, Har  1971. Propaganda Technique in World War I. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Lasswell, Har  1966. Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How. New Haven, CT: Meridian Books.
- Lasswell, Har  1976. Power and Personality. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Ascher, William, Barbara Hirschfelder-Ascher. Linking Lasswell’s Political Psychology and the Policy Sciences. Policy Sciences 37 (1), 23–36.
- Bell, W 1993. H. D. Lasswell and the Futures Field: Facts, Predictions, Values, and the Policy Sciences. Futures 25 (8): 806.
- Farr, James, Jacob Hacker, Nicole Kazee. 2006. The Policy Scientist of Democracy: The Discipline of Harold D. Lasswell. American Political Science Review 100 (4), 579–587.
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