The Personal Influence of Elihu Katz

Elihu and Mrs Katz at Annenberg School for Communication ASC UPenn

By Paddy Scannell, Ph.D.

Elihu Katz circa 1993

Elihu Katz, who has recently retired from the University of Pennsylvania where he worked from 1993-2013, is the co-author of over twenty books and nearly two hundred scholarly articles published in journals around the world. If you asked him to choose his best piece of work out of them all (the one he is most proud of) he would say, unhesitatingly, ‘The Voyage on a Bagel’. This legendary talk (unpublished for many years) was his contribution to the great Latke-Hamantash Debate, an annual event which began at the University of Chicago in 1946 and continues to this day there and in other leading American universities.  Distinguished scholars are invited to argue in public the comparative merits and meaning of these two delicacies (one a little potato pancake, the other a triangular pastry with a sweet filling) in Jewish culture and tradition. It is a signal honor in itself to be invited to take part in this debate as Katz was, on five occasions, between 1955 and 1965. In his most celebrated contribution he took a comparative evolutionary approach, comparing Darwin’s famous voyage (on the Bagel) with Huck Finn’s travels down the Mississippi on a Latke and Noah’s survival of the Flood in a Hamantash-shaped ark.


But it is not for his contributions to Jewish and Israeli life and culture—though these are very considerable—that Elihu Katz is best known. He is an internationally-renowned scholar of media and communication with a career spanning eight decades, from the late 1940s to the present. He started out as a grad student at Columbia and then moved to Chicago. While at Columbia Katz was active in the student Zionist movement through which he met his wife, Ruth, sent over from Israel to recruit Jewish college students in America to the cause of the newly-born state of Israel.  For many years, while his wife and their children lived in Jerusalem, Katz commuted back and forth between Israel and the United States. In the fifties and sixties he worked in the Sociology Department at Chicago, while at the same time establishing Israel’s first Department of Communication Studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. It was this that led to the defining moment in his working life—an invitation in 1967 from the Israeli Government, in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War, to lead a taskforce charged with bringing television to (as Katz put it) the People of the Book.

Katz accepted, knowing nothing about television. But no-else did either, and he lasted nearly two years in an impossible job (it was fraught with political in-fighting) before returning to the calmer waters of academic life. He did however get a service up and running, launching with a memorable live coverage of Victory Day celebrations in Jerusalem on the first anniversary of the end of the war. The experience profoundly changed his approach to the study of mass communication and pointed his career in quite new directions. Beforehand he had been a social psychologist mainly interested in interpersonal social networks and the diffusion of innovation. Now he became a leading sociologist of the global impact of television.

Left: the familiar cover of the book Personal Influence. Right: Annenberg doctoral students re-created the cover in honor of Professor Katz.

Personal Influence (1955), his first book, launched him on a long and remarkable career. It was co-authored with Paul Lazarsfeld, a legendary figure in the American social sciences, who established the Bureau for Applied Social Research at Columbia in the 1930s. It investigated the part played by other people in the formation of individual opinions, tastes and consumer choices and found that the media had only an indirect effect on such everyday decisions as what to buy in the supermarket or what movie to see. It famously appeared to disprove the ‘strong effects’ hypothesis of a direct influence by powerful mass media on the behavior of vulnerable isolated individuals. It was a landmark study in the early sociology of mass communication.

Katz at this time was interested in the new field of sociometrics (early social network theory) which he applied in his next big project, the diffusion of innovation, based on a case study of the prescription of new drugs by physicians. He worked on this after his move to Chicago  while commuting between there and his new home in Israel. There, while teaching at the Hebrew University, he became a researcher at the Guttman Institute (founded by Louis Guttman and modeled on Lazarsfeld’s Bureau at Columbia) which, for over fifty years, did fundamental research into social, political and religious attitudes in Israel. A key long-term study, led by Katz, studied the impact of television on Israeli society and the Jewish religion from the early 1970s to the 1990s.

Television was now the focal concern of Katz’s later research and writings, and not just in Israel, but world-wide. As a direct result of his brief but foundational work in Israeli television he was invited by senior management in the BBC to produce a report for them on the state of current academic work on television. There was some anxiety about its impact on British society at the time and the BBC wanted to be able to show it was abreast of research into that question on both sides of the Atlantic. While working on this project, Katz met up with George Wedell who worked for the Independent Broadcasting Authority, the body with oversight of commercial television in Britain. Together they worked on a pioneering survey of the global spread of television at the time (the diffusion of innovation again). Katz wanted to call it ‘Waiting for Kojak’ because in country after country television started up with promises of local content that represented national life and culture only to end up, within a year, showing Kojak, a popular American police drama series.

But it was the most famous of all American prime time shows that next drew Katz’s attention. By now, in the 1980s, he was commuting between the University of Southern California (having severed connections with Chicago) and Jerusalem. In Los Angeles he embarked on an ambitious comparative study of the overseas impact of Dallas which, at the height of its fame, was airing in over 150 countries round the world. The original plan involved a number of different countries but in the end (through lack of funding) it mostly became a study of its impact in Israel.  Research on its impact there was undertaken by Tamar Liebes who became the co-author with Katz of The Export of Meaning—a detailed study of responses to American popular culture in very different sectors of Israeli society. Meanwhile, with Daniel Dayan, Katz was working on his capstone study of television, published in 1992, Media Events. It was inspired by television coverage of the visits to Israel of Anwar Sadat and the Pope. Certain kinds of event covered by television draw enormous global audiences. Why? What draws people from around the world to watch, for instance, the Olympics, the moon landings or royal weddings and funerals on television? It was a brilliant question that opened up research into the global impact of television and to this day it continues to be discussed and re-examined by media scholars in all parts of the world.

Elihu Katz is one of the most distinguished social scientists of our generation, with a lifetime of achievement, scholarly research, and accolades. His books have been translated into nine languages, and he has received honorary doctorate degrees from half a dozen universities in North America and Europe. In 1989 he received the Israel prize, the most prestigious academic award that the country has to offer. In his late sixties and facing compulsory retirement in Israel, Katz was invited by Kathleen Hall Jamieson to join the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. And, of course, he did. He had no intention of retiring. Even though now, twenty years later, at the ripe old age of eighty-seven, he has stopped working there, he hasn’t exactly retired. Back home in Jerusalem he continues thinking, writing, and publishing. Currently he is working with Christopher Ali, one of his most recent grad students from Annenberg and now an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, on his long standing interest in the significance for the study of communication of the19th century French scholar Gabriel Tarde. It’s due out any time now. As always it is co-authored. Katz’s own career was launched many years ago by a collaborative study with his then famous professor, Paul Lazarsfeld. Today Katz is to the field of media and communication studies what Lazarsfeld was in his day. What Lazarsfeld did for him he now does for the up and coming generation of new scholars in the field. And so the work continues.