This chapter revisits the history of the so-called “limited effects model” of mass communication, associated with Paul Lazarsfeld and Columbia University's Bureau of Applied Social Research. It argues that the model was in part a rhetorical invention of its critics in the 1970s and 1980s, when critical and cultural approaches to media studies were gaining widespread traction and a new generation of objectivist social scientists were carving out alternatives to inherited understandings. Pivoting from that moment of invention, it returns to Columbia research of the 1940s and 1950s, traces the rise and alternate understandings of the model, and contextualizes it in relation to competing approaches to media at Columbia frequently occluded in collective memories of the field.
Something named the “limited effects model” of mass communication did not emerge before the 1970s, at the very moment it was being called into question. Indeed, “limited effects” seems to have been a locution favored, if not invented, by its critics, who sometimes mischaracterized it and exaggerated its dominance as a paradigm governing media research in the previous decades. The story of its rise, fall, and continued life extends from the 1940s to the present and provides a window into broader stories about the intellectual and institutional development of media studies in the second half of the twentieth century. It is a story about the ...