Remembering Elihu Katz

Professor Michael X. Delli Carpini remembers his friend and colleague Elihu Katz, a foundational figure in communication and media studies.

By Michael X. Delli Carpini

Elihu Katz, ICA Fellow, Distinguished Trustee Emeritus Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, Professor Emeritus in Communication and Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and foundational figure in communication and media studies, passed away in his home in Jerusalem on December 31, 2021 at the age of 95. 

On March 6 and 7, 2014, more than 200 of Elihu Katz’s colleagues, friends, family, and current and former students (many of us falling into more than one of these categories) gathered at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication to celebrate him as both a scholar and a person. The stated reason for this gathering was Elihu’s transition, after more than 20 years as a member of the Annenberg faculty, to emeritus status, though of course no excuse was needed for honoring someone whose intellectual contributions are as deep, varied, and lasting as his. For well over half a century, his works—and, more importantly, his ideas—have been central to the formation and development of the field of communication and media studies. Indeed, in the genealogical tree of the field, Elihu’s place is more root or trunk than branch. 

The highlight of our two-day celebration was a talk by Elihu himself (titled, in typical Elihu fashion, “Commuting and Coauthoring: How to Be in More Than One Place at the Same Time”), followed by reflections on both the scholarship and the person from two of our field’s leaders, Sonia Livingstone and Paddy Scannell. Edited versions of these insightful and engaging presentations, along with a version of my reflections here, were later published in the International Journal of Communication. As these essays describe, Elihu’s intellectual and geographic journey was a rich and rewarding one. He received his BA, MA, and PhD (all in sociology) from Columbia University. At the time, Columbia’s Bureau of Applied Social Research and its collection of eminent theorists and researchers were engaged in applied and scholarly studies on the influence of various forms of interpersonal and mass communications, research that would become one of the foundations of the communication field. The bureau was also a leader in developing a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods and research designs for measuring media effects.

Elihu was more than a student during this nascent period, working as a research associate at the Bureau and later holding a lecturer position in Columbia’s Department of Sociology and School of General Studies. During this time, he coauthored (with Paul Lazarsfeld) Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications, one of the most influential (no pun intended) books in the history of communication studies. Serving as first author on this ambitious project, the book and related work established the “two-step flow” theory of communication, a theory that remains the subject of study and debate to this day and that has gained new purchase as research and theorizing on social networks and social media have blossomed. Personal Influence was so significant to the field that it was republished on its 50th anniversary with a new and insightful introduction by Katz. 

Few scholars ever produce a work with the import of Personal Influence, let alone do so while completing a PhD! But this was only the beginning for Elihu. He went on to a distinguished career, first at the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology, then as a professor of sociology and communication at Hebrew University, and finally as the Distinguished Trustee Professor of Communication at Penn’s Annenberg School. Along the way, he also held visiting professorships at the University of Manchester (England), the University of Padua (Italy), Keio University (Japan), and the University of Vienna (Austria). From the mid-1980s until 1993, when he joined Penn’s Annenberg School, he spent half of each year at the University of Southern California Annenberg School. 

During this illustrious career, Elihu published more than 20 books and 200 articles, book chapters, and essays. Collectively this body of work has shaped the theories, methods, and findings at the heart of communication and media studies. While we all likely have our own reflections on this oeuvre and its impact, let me indulge in my own thoughts on his “greatest hits” following Personal Influence. His 1966 book with James Coleman and Herbert Menzel, Medical Innovation: A Diffusion Study, established “diffusion” as a core concept in communication studies. His 1969 book, The Politics of Community Conflict, established the importance of communication networks in local decision making and policy development. His 1973 book with Brenda Danet, Bureaucracy and the Public, was influential in illustrating the centrality of both internal and external communication processes to organizational and bureaucratic theory and performance. His 1974 book with Jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch, The Uses of Mass Communications, helped make “uses and gratifications” theory a staple of the field. Through a series of books, articles, and chapters, Elihu was among the first researchers to see the profound significance of television to culture, politics, and society, and more recently he was also among the first to see what he provocatively called “the end of television” in the digital media age in which we now live. His 1990 book, with Tamar Liebes, The Export of Meaning: Cross-Cultural Readings of Dallas, introduced the notion that audiences were more than passive consumers and that the meaning taken from mass mediated content resulted from an interactive process that was culturally dependent. The Export of Meaning, along with a number of his other publications, also helped establish communication as a global comparative field. And it reintroduced focus groups as a method for academic research. His 1992 book, with Daniel Dayan, Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History, established the concept of “media events” as yet another major contribution to the field; the book won the ICA Fellows Book Award in 2010. And through a series of articles and his most recent book, with Christopher Ali and Joohan Kim, Echoes of Gabriel Tarde, Elihu has played a central role in establishing deliberation and conversation as communication processes of crucial import.

Were this not enough, Elihu also played a significant role outside of the academy. He was asked by the government of Israel to head a task force charged with the introduction of television broadcasting in the late 1960s, a position he took and successfully completed, serving as the founding director of Israeli Television from 1968 to 1969. He also served as a consultant to both the Columbia Broadcasting System CBS) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), as a member of the Israeli Council on Culture and Arts and the Israeli Film Council, and as a chairman of the U.S. Educational Foundation in Israel. 

Elihu’s many accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. He is the recipient of more than three dozen major international awards and honors, including honorary degrees from Northwestern University, the University of Ghent, the University of Montreal, the University of Paris, Haifa University, the University of Rome, the University of Bucharest, the University of Quebec and, in 2018, the University of Pennsylvania; fellowships from the International Communication Association, the Bellagio Study Center, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Ligura Center for Arts and Letters, the Center for Advanced Studies at Hebrew University, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford; and major book and career awards from such organizations as the National Association of Broadcasters, the World Association for Public Opinion Research, the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Judaism, and the governments of Germany, Canada, and Israel. 

Such accomplishments could easily lead someone to become larger than life, but what impressed me as much as his scholarship during my time as his colleague, and as is evident in the numerous online reflections and expressions of gratitude that have followed his passing, is the man himself. Throughout his career, he was a dedicated mentor to dozens of sociology and communication PhD students, many of whom have gone on to become leaders in their field. He was also a generous critic who engaged with the ideas of colleagues in ways that always made them better. I can think of no other scholar who so consistently “talked the talk” while “walking the walk,” modeling the importance of deliberation and conversation in his everyday professional and personal life with intelligence, grace, wit, humor, charm, and joy. In short, he epitomized what I imagined a teacher and scholar to be when I first contemplated academics as a career. 

Upon his retirement from the Annenberg School Elihu returned to Jerusalem, where he continued to move the field forward in creative and provocative ways.  He also remained in regular contact as a colleague, mentor, and friend. His scholarship will continue to influence the field, but I, like many, will miss Elihu the person.  

This tribute was originally published in the International Communication Association (ICA) newsletter.