Migrant Knowledge

Drifting Along: Unemployment and Interwar Social Research, from Marienthal to Muncie

In January of 1929, the husband-and-wife sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published what would become a landmark work of popular ethnography called Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. The Lynds’ broadly accessible book presented an in-depth profile of the social and civic life in Muncie, Indiana, a “typical” American community which, not coincidentally, had a very large white, Protestant population and relatively small, marginalized communities of immigrants and African Americans. Despite the somewhat unrepresentative picture of American society portrayed in their study, the Lynds were motivated by the progressive social impulse that had been established in the work of the sociologist Thorstein Veblen. Their intention was to survey the injustices and inequalities of the modern “pecuniary” society, which made material wealth the ultimate value. Vigorously promoted by its publisher, the book was the first social-scientific study to become a best-seller, and it would become the go-to reference for mass marketers trying to figure out what motivated the average American consumer just before the economy collapsed into the Great Depression.1

In Vienna around this time, the up-and-coming sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld was contemplating a study on the use of leisure time. He had been thinking about doing a sociographic survey in the manner of the Chicago School while integrating psychological analysis and American methods of statistical quantification. The appearance of the Lynds’ study of Muncie, with its detailed descriptions of the total social life of a community, piqued Lazarsfeld’s interest in the topic of leisure time and the format of the community survey. On one of their regular leisurely Sunday hikes in the Wienerwald outside Vienna, Lazarsfeld approached his friend and mentor, Otto Bauer, the leader of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, about the idea. As part of their belief in a peaceful transition to socialism, “Austromarxist” theorists such as Bauer and his Social Democratic allies were very interested in the potential for politically progressive and socially relevant applications of sociological research. To Lazarsfeld’s dismay, Bauer thought it was “pretty stupid” that, in the midst of an economic crisis of mass unemployment, he wanted to do a study of leisure, which would make a mockery of the depressed conditions. Chastened, Lazarsfeld changed course and instead made plans to do a community study on the social and psychological effects of lasting unemployment. Seeking a community where unemployment was pervasive, Lazarsfeld and his researchers finally landed upon the nearby industrial village of Marienthal.2

In many ways Marienthal seemed to offer a perfect case study for the researchers. It was a short train ride from Vienna and had a manageable population of fewer than 1,500. The village had been founded in the early nineteenth century as a community for workers at flax and cotton mills and associated textile factories. Because of the industrial nature of the town and its politically active, working-class population, Marienthal had become a Social Democratic stronghold and a center of trade union organization. Institutions catering to workers in the village became vibrant hubs of activity. Besides a workers’ library, there were workers’ clubs, and left-wing newspapers were widely distributed and voraciously read. Yet this thriving little working-class community people was devastated by the worldwide economic collapse of 1929. The main mill and all of its subsidiary plants were shut down by 1930, and chronic mass unemployment set in. By the time Lazarsfeld’s economic-psychological research center (Österreichische Wirtschaftspsychologische Forschungsstelle) initiated the survey in the autumn of 1931, fully three-quarters of the families in the town had become dependent on unemployment insurance for basic subsistence.3

The Marienthal study received financial support from the Viennese Chamber of Labor, which was controlled by the Social Democratic Party. Indeed, the socialist backers hoped that the condition of chronic unemployment examined in the study would expose the failings of the capitalist system and instigate a revolutionary fervor among workers. The study also received funding from the American Rockefeller Foundation, which had for years supported the psychologist Charlotte Bühler’s Child Research Center. Not coincidentally, Charlotte was Lazarsfeld’s academic mentor at the University of Vienna’s Psychological Institute, which she had founded in 1922 along with her husband, Karl. The researchers’ long-term commitment and thorough integration in the community over six months of field research would produce a tremendous amount of data, including records on 478 families, detailed life histories of thirty-two men and thirty women, precise time sheets for eighty individuals, and meal records for forty families.

Many of Lazarsfeld’s researchers were socialist comrades committed to meaningful work. They practiced their quantitative research methods by working on a variety of commercial market research studies that funded the activities of the Forschungsstelle, which had a loose affiliation with the University and was officially presided over by Karl Bühler. Lazarsfeld’s main collaborators on the Marienthal study were his then wife, Marie Jahoda, and Hans Zeisel, both of whom were his old friends from the socialist youth movement. Jahoda was a member of a prominent family of Viennese socialists, and she would later become director of the research center after Lazarsfeld’s emigration. Lazarsfeld directed the study and led weekly meetings with interviewers and analysts, but he did no field research himself. Jahoda would synthesize the study’s findings as its principal author.4

The aim of Lazarsfeld’s corps of researchers was to combine statistical analysis with illuminating, empirical observation and the qualitative data acquired from in-depth interviews with subjects. They wanted to bridge the gap between official statistics and literary accounts. Richly descriptive case studies would be contextualized through the use of detailed questionnaires that would be coded and quantified through matrices and other formulas developed by Lazarsfeld. The researchers’ systematic, comprehensive approach would make the study more than a collection of anecdotes, and their later efforts to provide historical and theoretical context to their work would give it meaning. These socialist researchers, already practiced in analyzing small decisions of daily life from their market research studies, homed in on details from the intimate lives of their subjects, including their hobbies, intellectual interests, reading and listening habits, and consumption patterns. Such interest in everyday decisions was part of a larger project to understand the process of choice; whether it was in the context of socialist voting or the buying of soap was a matter of “methodological equivalence” for Lazarsfeld. Even beyond this objective reporting of daily choices and behaviors, the researchers wanted to produce a catalogue of feelings, ranging from desperation to resignation to satisfaction to hopefulness. Ultimately, they were interested in the condition of unemployment not only as it affected individuals but as it changed the character of a community.5

Through their structured interviews, questionnaires, and other investigative methods, Lazarsfeld’s researchers found that the condition of pervasive, chronic unemployment had radically transformed the community for the worse. The week no longer revolved around Sunday but rather around the fortnightly arrival of unemployment relief payments. Although women continued to be busy with the work of managing the household and children stayed tied to the patterns of the week defined by school, unemployed men simply drifted along in a timeless, undisciplined existence, squandering their depressing surplus of leisure by doing very little at all. They actually read less. Subscriptions to the Arbeiterzeitung, the workers’ newspaper published by the Austrian Social Democratic Party, had dropped by more than sixty percent since 1927. Membership in the Party had also declined by a third, and indeed all political activity had diminished, with one notable exception: the recent founding of a branch of the National Socialist Party.6

The total breakdown of the normal patterns of work and life coalesced in a pervasive attitude that the researchers described as resignation, which applied to about seventy percent of the families in Marienthal. This was an emotional state of simply “drifting along” without any definite plans or hopes for the future. It was not a condition of total despair but rather of simply maintaining things as they were and doing only what was minimally necessary to meet basic needs. Jahoda later pointed out that the findings of the Marienthal study would essentially resolve a debate at the time over whether the condition of chronic unemployment would create an atmosphere of revolution or apathy. In fact, it produced the latter.7

Though it was not overtly articulated as an immediate finding, Lazarsfeld would later point out that perhaps the most important conclusion of the study was that “the dole is wrong,” and that government-sponsored work-relief programs designed to generate jobs for the unemployed, such as the Works Progress Administration in the United States, were a more socially sustainable way to attack the problem of unemployment. “On a large scale it is quite probable that part of the success of the early Hitler movement came about because large numbers of unemployed were taken into barracks and kept busy with paramilitary training,” Lazarsfeld remembered with hindsight. “There is no doubt that if the unemployed had been on work relief, Hitler would not have had such an easy time organizing the Sturmabteilungen.” The Forschungsstelle’s completed study, Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal, appeared from the Leipzig publisher Hirzel in the spring of 1933, only a few weeks after Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Although Lazarsfeld, Jahoda, and Zeisel had agreed to the nervous publisher’s request to leave their Jewish-sounding names off the title page, the book was soon banned by the Nazis, and most extant copies of it in Germany were destroyed.8

Lazarsfeld may not have been fully aware of it at the time, but the Marienthal study proved to be his ticket out of Europe just as the continent was descending into fascism. It was noticed by an officer in the Paris office of the Rockefeller Foundation, and with the assistance of Charlotte Bühler, Lazarsfeld was able to attain a travelling fellowship to the United States, which he began in September of 1933. Almost immediately, he sought out the lead author of Middletown, Robert Lynd, who had been appointed as a sociology professor at Columbia and was beginning work on a follow-up to the Middletown study. Free to go where he pleased on his Rockefeller fellowship, Lazarsfeld offered his services to Lynd.

Increasingly active as a consumer advocate, Lynd became Lazarsfeld’s American mentor, helping him to acquire practically every position he attained in the United States, including a job working on the unemployment problem in a study for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. In 1936, Lazarsfeld established a social research center at the University of Newark along the lines of his Vienna center, at first supervising a groups of students who were provided a desperately needed employment opportunity under the auspices of the National Youth Administration’s work relief program. In 1937, Lazarsfeld was appointed to direct a Rockefeller-funded project studying radio, which eventually settled at Columbia University, where Lazarsfeld would join Lynd on the sociology faculty in 1939. The radio project broadened its mission and became the Bureau of Applied Social Research in 1944, a major center of innovation in applied research methods, which Lazarsfeld would direct with Robert Merton until 1950. Lazarsfeld would become a major figure in American sociology, assuming the chair of the Columbia sociology department in 1950 and becoming the president of the American Sociological Association in 1961.9

As Lazarsfeld rose, Lynd faded, unable to compete with the quantitative methods of his Austrian mentee, whose PhD was in mathematics. Lynd was also increasingly skeptical of Lazarsfeld’s willingness to cooperate with large corporations to finance his consumer market studies. Yet Lynd continued to be impressed by Lazarsfeld’s methodological innovations, and his follow-up study, Middletown in Transition, which appeared in 1937, made much use of the findings from the Marienthal study. Less inclined than Lazarsfeld to consider structural factors and economic conditions, however, the Lynds’ second Middletown study focused on the irrationality of the town’s bourgeoisie, and workers’ susceptibility to marketing manipulations, as the salient social conditions that, in their view, left them vulnerable to the temptations of fascism.10

Despite Marienthal‘s rising status as a landmark sociological study that made important findings about the psychological effects of economic conditions and their political consequences, Lazarsfeld became increasingly embarrassed about it, mainly because of what he saw as the crudeness of its methods, the opaqueness of the sampling procedures, and the intuitive nature of the typologies. “I can excuse all this only by remembering the adventurous pioneering spirit that propelled us,” Lazarsfeld wistfully recalled.11


Joseph P. Malherek, recently a Junior Botstiber fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Central European University in Budapest, is writing a book provisionally entitled “The Frankfurt School’s Other: Socialist Émigrés Who Made Capitalist Culture in America, 1918–1956.” He tweets at @jmalherek.

  1. Sarah E. Igo, The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 28–100; Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), 75–77; Richard Wightman Fox, “Epitaph for Middletown: Robert S. Lynd and the Analysis of Consumer Culture,” in The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880–1980, ed. Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 101–26. ↩︎
  2. Paul Lazarsfeld, interview by Joan Gordon, January 8, 1962, and Paul Lazarsfeld and Daniel Bell, interview by Joan Gordon, February 9, 1962, Columbia Oral History, Rote Mappen, Paul F. Lazarsfeld Archiv Institut für Soziologie, Universität Wien ]hereafter: “PFL Vienna”]; Michael Freund, “Sociography: The Marienthal Story,” Austria Today, March 1978, 55; Hans Zeisel, “The Vienna Years,” in Qualitative and Quantitative Social Research: Papers in Honor of Paul F. Lazarsfeld, ed. Robert K. Merton, James S. Coleman, and Peter H. Rossi (New York: The Free Press, 1979), 13. ↩︎
  3. Marie Jahoda, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, and Hans Zeisel, eds., Marienthal: The Sociography of an Unemployed Community (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2002), 1–2, 11–16, 19; Christian Fleck, “Introduction to the Transaction Edition,” in Jahoda, et al., Marienthal, vii–x. ↩︎
  4. Sheldon Gardner and Gwendolyn Stevens, Red Vienna and the Golden Age of Psychology, 1918–1938 (New York: Praeger, 1992), 4, 153; Fleck, “Introduction,” xvii; Paul Lazarsfeld and Daniel Bell, interview by Joan Gordon, February 9, 1962, Columbia Oral History, Rote Mappen, PFL Vienna; Hans Zeisel to Robert Merton, December 6, 1977, box 5, folder “M [3/3], 1967–1992,” Hans Zeisel Papers [hereafter: “Zeisel Papers”], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library; Hans Zeisel to Richard Kende, April 4, 1984, box 4, folder “K [2/4], 1956–1992,” Zeisel Papers; Zeisel, “The Vienna Years,” 12; Marie Jahoda, “PFL: Hedgehog or Fox?,” Qualitative and Quantitative Social Research: Papers in Honor of Paul F. Lazarsfeld, ed. Robert K. Merton, James S. Coleman, and Peter H. Rossi (New York: The Free Press, 1979), 5; Jahoda, “Paul Felix Lazarsfeld in Vienna,” in Paul Lazarsfeld (1901–1976): La sociologie de Vienne à New York, ed. Jacques Lautman and Bernard-Pierre Lécuyer (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 1998), 139; Jahoda, et al., Marienthal, 5–9. ↩︎
  5. Freund, “Sociography,” 55; Jahoda, “PFL,” 5; “Anweisung für Marienthal” [MS], n.d., Mappe 1, Blaue Mappen 131 (WiFo-1), PFL Vienna; Paul F. Lazarsfeld, “An Episode in the History of Social Research: A Memoir,” in The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930–1960, ed. Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969), 279; Allen H. Barton, “Paul Lazarsfeld and the Invention of the University Institute for Applied Social Research,” in Organizing for Social Research, ed. Burkhart Holzner and Jiri Nehnevajsa (Cambridge, MA: Schenckman Publishing Company, 1982), 22–23; Jahoda, et al., Marienthal, 1–5, 45. ↩︎
  6. Jahoda, et al., Marienthal, 17–41, 66–77. ↩︎
  7. Jahoda, et al., Marienthal, 45–63; Jahoda, “PFL: Hedgehog or Fox?,” 5. ↩︎
  8. The full title was: Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal: Ein soziographischer Versuch über die Wirkungen langdauernder Arbeitslosigkeit mit einem Anhang zur Geschichte der Soziographie, ed. Österreichische Wirtschaftspsychologische Forschungsstelle (Leipzig: Verlag Von S. Hirzel, 1933); Lazarsfeld, “Forty Years Later,” in Marienthal, xxxi–xxxiv; Paul Lazarsfeld and Daniel Bell, interviewed by Joan Gordon, February 9, 1962, Columbia Oral History, Rote Mappen, PFL Vienna; Fleck, “Introduction,” vii–xix; Freund, “Sociography,” 56. ↩︎
  9. Lazarsfeld, “An Episode,” 275–76; Fleck, “Introduction,” xxiv–xxvi; Paul Lazarsfeld, interview by Joan Gordon, August 16, 1962, Columbia Oral History, Rote Mappen, PFL Vienna. ↩︎
  10. Paul Lazarsfeld, interview by Joan Gordon, Columbia Oral History, August 16, 1962, Rote Mappen, PFL Vienna; Fleck, “Introduction,” xxvi; Fox, “Epitaph,” 130–5; Igo, Averaged American, 114. ↩︎
  11. Lazarsfeld, “Forty Years Later,” xxxv; Paul Lazarsfeld letter to Prof. Herman R. Lants, December 12, 1966, Blaue Mappen 36, PFL Vienna; Paul F. Lazarsfeld to Marie Jahoda, January 23, 1967, Blaue Mappen 61, PFL Vienna; Paul Lazarsfeld to Hans Zeisel, March 28, 1967, Blaue Mappen: 19, Bio-3, PFL Vienna; Freund, “Sociography,” 57. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Joseph Malherek, "Drifting Along: Unemployment and Interwar Social Research, from Marienthal to Muncie," Migrant Knowledge, December 28, 2020, https://migrantknowledge.org/2020/12/28/unemployment-and-interwar-social-research/.