Harold Laswell

Josh 1Harold Dwight Lasswell Was born on February 13, 1902 and died December 18, 1978. Over the course of his life “he authored more than 30 books and 250 scholarly articles” (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica) and made major contributions to disciplines such as Political Science, Legal Education, and Communications.

Following his undergraduate studies in philosophy and economics in 1922 and his Ph.D. in 1926 – both from the University of Chicago – Lasswell to time to study in the summers at the Universities of London, Geneva, Paris, and Berlin (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). In his early career he taught Political Science at the University of Chicago until 1938 and briefly served at the Washington School of Psychiatry before taking up the post as director of war communications research at the U.S. Library of Congress in the build-up and through the participation in World War II. After the ware he went to Yale University and served in various capacities there until the 1970s. During his life he was a visiting lecturer at campuses around the world and was a consultant to U.S. government agencies when needed (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica).

Over the course of Lasswell’s career he crossed different disciplines to answer his questions about the way the world works, and specifically in communications much of his work was shaped by the events of his time. World War II caused His focus within the field was on the effects of media and cognition, within which he specifically focused on the effects of propaganda as a media technique. This involved a focus on the intersection of social/political variables in the construction of power.

His most famous work was produced during his time at the University of Chicago, was entitled Propaganda Technique in the World War (1927). This, “dispassionate description and analysis of the massive propaganda campaigns conducted by all the major belligerents in World War I (Smith).” So, how does it work? Lasswell breaks propaganda specifically down into four different modes of persuasion. Deception, manipulation, fear, and emotional persuasion. He also identified that with the rise in prevalence of mass media, that war was now fought on three fronts, military, economic, and propaganda. Essentially, who could better rally their populations around a flag?

In concert with his study of propaganda, Lasswell developed his own model of communication (also known as action model, linear mode, or the one-way model of communication) which is regarded as one of the most influential communication models to date (Bajracharya, 2018) and survives him as his largest single contribution to the field of communications. This model answers the seemingly elementary question of “Who says what to whom with what effect (Gordon)?” His other works were also widely influential as topics such as propaganda had little been studied before his time and most definitely never on the scale of being able to look at both sides of a major conflict so clearly. Throughout his life Lasswell contributed many groundbreaking models and theories to a spectrum of academic disciplines, and while most of these models are now foundational or simply out-of-date Lasswell is still respected as one of the most creative and influential scholars of his time.


Bajracharya, S. (2018, February 15). Lasswell’s Communication Model. Retrieved from https://www.businesstopia.net/communication/lasswell-communication-model

Britannica, T. E. (2016, September 28). Harold Lasswell. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harold-Lasswell

Gordon, G. N. (2016, August 17). Communication. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/communication#ref383997

Image Attribution: Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library Produced for reference use only. (mssa.img.010635)

Written by Josh Peterson, 2018

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