Ambivalence, path-dependence or chance: further autobiographical queries of Elihu Katz

Ambivalence, path-dependence or chance: further autobiographical queries of Elihu Katz 31/5/2016

Before beginning, let me thank Paul, Ifat, Marcie and all the people involved in combining the two anniversaries, the department’s and mine. I would also like to thank my editor, Yonatan, for his support during these difficult, but at the same time enjoyable, days of writing. What follows is a kind of remembered history without much fact-checking, though helpful comments and corrections were made by Tsiyona Peled, Hanna Adoni, Hanna Levinsohn, Dov Shinar and Tani Katz.

Hospitals are good places to review one’s career – but in one’s head, not on paper. If you are lucky you can write it down thereafter. This paper is the product of such a situation and continues an earlier one entitled “how to be in more than one place at the same time”.

The present paper is less virtual. Referring to the same CV, it asks about the turning points in my career – geographical, professional and personal. How do they fit together? Are they path-dependent, that is, is each new step influenced by previous steps? Or, are they choices of an ambivalent personality or simply dictated by chance. I won’t deliver definitive answers to these questions but I will try to use these three concepts, path-dependence, ambivalence and chance, to review my history, yet once again. Please forgive the narcissism.

So, let’s begin at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, whose elementary school taught in Hebrew for four hours in the morning and the equivalent of a public school curriculum for three hours in the afternoons. This was the path of a group of American-born Jewish parents who where dedicated to the building of a modern orthodoxy and enthralled by the prospects that Zionism might actually be fulfilled in their lifetime. The so-called “yeshivah” which they founded was the best of all of the academic institution I have attended, and a great start for an ambivalent personality.

From Brooklyn, I was enrolled in a public high school where the only thing I recall learning was how to edit and publish the weekly school newspaper. But it was also a time to begin thinking about what sort of thing one would do after growing up. My not-so-secret ambition was to become the manager of a circus, which today I would rename “management in the arts.” In fact, I did have charge of a chamber orchestra conducted by Siegfried Landau. I also remember writing to the Lincoln Center then being established proposing to plan a youth division, but that didn’t work. The idea that I might wind up as an academic in Israel was hardly entertained, although I do remember that Ernst Simon, one of the yekke founders of the Humanities in Jerusalem stayed at our home overnight in order to lecture in the Series that a group of us had established. Upon leaving, he wrote a thank-you note on his visite card predicting to the family that my future lay in joining the leadership of the dati-leumi movement. The other side of the card read professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which left us in awe.

At the end of high school and beginning collage, the US army intervened and made me a Japanese interpreter. I returned from Japan to graduate school at Columbia where I hesitated between advanced studies in the School of Journalism versus a new track of media studies in the department of sociology. This specialization was headed by Paul Lazarsfeld who brought with him from Vienna his concept of a laboratory for empirical social research named “the Bureau of Applied Social Research.” I chose the research track and after completing my master’s thesis under Leo Lowenthal, of Frankfurt school fame, was offered a desk at the Bureau. My work there led Lazarsfeld to recruit me to add a theoretical component to his long unfinished study of everyday consumer decision-making. This is the study which tested Lazarsfeld’s idea of a two-step flow, which I then linked to the then fashionable tradition of small group research, thus proposing that modern communication was not a competition between interpersonal influence and the media, but rather a system that connected the two. For some unknown reason, Lazarsfeld decided that I would be senior author of the book that resulted, even though I still don’t believe that I deserved it. This was real chance and a real chance for me. It was also a chance for the Bureau to transform the social networks implicit in Personal Influence into more generic studies of the diffusion of innovations. While at Columbia, I also took courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a few blocks away.

In the same period of the late 1940s, the intercollegiate Zionist Federation (IZFA) was established, soon to be headed by our Judith Elizur who had completed PhD studies at Harvard, and later by Elihu Katz. This is where Judy met Yuval in his role as shaliah, and Elihu met Ruth in her role as shlichah. Was this chance or something more?

At the time, the once-great department of sociology at the University of Chicago was in decline and offered five or six of us Columbians good beginning positions. Ironically, the potential for cross-fertilization between Columbia and Chicago initiatives in communication research failed to blossom.

In the fall of 1951 I had decided to propose marriage to the brilliant and beautiful Ruth Torgovnik whose only condition, which suited me of course, was that we live our lives in Israel. By then, she was enrolled in every course offering at Columbia, storming toward a doctorate in musicology and a career that challenges disciplinary boundaries. See her most recent book “A Language of Its Own: Sense and Meaning in the Making of Western Art Music”.

Officially I was affiliated with Chicago from 1955 to 1979 a period from which I remember two projects. One was the grant that allowed Brenda Danet, then a PhD student, and myself to work in Israel on a study of communication between Israel’s more or less modern bureaucracies and their bewildered clients. The other more enduring memory is of my five appearances in the famous university-wide Latke – Hamantasch debates.

This extra-curricula fame led some colleagues to call me “the Jewish Katz” so as to distinguish me from another Katz, a chemist, who was perhaps less Jewish. I lost this label in Jerusalem to the eminent sociologist Yaacov Katz who was truly expert in Jewish studies.

But that is not all that happened at Chicago. A visit from Don Patinkin, soon to become president of Hebrew university and an ex-Chicagoan himself, resulted in an invitation to be a guest lecturer in Jerusalem. With the concurrence of the two Universities, a pattern of commuting emerged, first from Chicago to Jerusalem, and from 1963, after our move to Israel, from Jerusalem to Chicago. Before we uprooted from Chicago, our two magnificent sons, Matya and Tani, were born, for whom Ruth deserves major credit.

In addition to the long intermezzo at Chicago, which was a great start, but a decision to put Jerusalem on hold, four important events transpired. One was that we actually “made aliyah”. The second was the discovery in Jerusalem of an almost exact replica of Lazarsfeld’s Bureau. The third was the establishing of Communications study at Hebrew University, and the fourth was the temptation to head that hyper-circus that was tsevet hahakama of Israel television.   

Almost from the beginning of my membership in the department of sociology I discovered that there existed in Jerusalem a first-rate institute for applied social research to which the department never quite reconciled itself theoretically or methodologically. Founded by the distinguished Louis Guttman, who had come to Palestine in 1947, the Institute conducted opinion research, beginning in the pre-state Hagana and later, in the multi-cultural yishuv, cultivating original concepts and methods. The Institute, staffed by highly trained researchers such as Judith Shuval and Aaron Antonovski, divided my attention immediately. I felt altogether at home in the familiar environment of the Institute and did what I could to promote closer ties between it and the University.

The Guttman Institute and the sociology department plus an NSF grant led to the aforementioned study of communication between bureaucracy and the public by Danet, Katz and others; even Shmuel Eisenstadt joined for a moment. There followed a series of studies by Katz, Gurevich and others on leisure and culture in Israel commissioned by the then minister of education Zalman Aranne, which was published jointly in 1970 by Faber in London and Harvard. The repetition of this study and its variants punctuates my entire research career and was subsequently commissioned by Galei Tsahal, the Beracha foundation, Merkaz Hahasbara, Kahanoff foundation, and not least, the television taskforce which was eager to know where it had landed on the cultural landscape.  Hanna Adoni and Hadassah Haas, succeeded Gurevich in co-conducting these studies which soon were expanded in two ways: one was to give special emphasis to public opinion toward the occupied territories and the prospect for peace; the other, with the help of Majid Al-Haj, was to enlarge the survey sample so as to include the Arab population. These studies inspired the Avi Chai funded series on the religiosity of Israeli Jews headed by Shlomit Levi, Hanna Levinson and Elihu Katz.

The high point of collaboration with the Guttman institute, however, came after the establishment of the communication department at the University. In the sixties a number of us realized that we shared an interest in communication. This multidisciplinary group combined academic backgrounds stemming from Harvard (this was Judy Elizur), MIT (in the person of Michael Gurevich), Dina Goren who had earned her doctorate working with Jacob Talmon, Tsiyona Peled who had earned a PhD in public opinion under Louis Guttman and myself, and Dan Caspi who was jointly appointed in political science, plus Brenda Danet and myself from Chicago. Gurevich and Goren had spent years as working journalists which helped to express the connection between research and profession as later was the case for Yizchak Roeh and Tamar Liebes. Gradually, this group coalesced, with support from some – but hardly all – of our fellow social scientists and was recognized first as an Institute, then as  a full-fledged department offering the three degrees—all managed by the legendary Shosh Silberberg.  Soon, we received grants from the Smart family and the Mozes family. Along the way we recruited scholars such as Akiba Cohen from Michigan State, Hanna Adoni, fresh from the Library School, Yeshayahu Nir on media aesthetics, filmmaker Alan Rosenthal, Chaim Eyal, Gadi Wolfsfeld, Yoram Peri, Noam Lemelstrich and others. In addition, we were enhanced by external lecturers among whom were Mina Zemach who had completed her doctorate at Yale and Izhak Englard later to become a justice in the high court. Read all about this in the book on the history of the department by Adoni and Anat First and in the beautiful album celebrating the Guttman Institute by Gabi Weimann.

There were some moments when it seemed that the Guttman Institute would indeed be incorporated into the University perhaps alongside the communication department, but this did not happen. The closest we came to full collaboration was in the Continuing Survey of Public Opinion and Social Problems in which Tsiyona Peled, Hanna Levinsohn, and Shlomit Levy took the lead. These surveys attracted considerable attention especially during the months of preparation for a possible war in 1967 (and again in 1973 when public opinion was measured day by day, during the first televised war). For example, in 1967, we pointed out the problems of the multitude of new immigrants, especially the more elderly, who had trouble finding their place. An avid reader of these reports was the minister who had commissioned them, Yisrael Galili.

This chance association had an amazing sequel when the government finally decided that Israel was urgently in need of the powerful tool of television – especially for talking to the population in the occupied territories. Minister Galili searched for an apolitical expert to head the taskforce that would establish a national television system and found… guess who?-- a professor with a seemingly appropriate title but mostly irrelevant qualifications. The invitation was thrilling. Accepting it implied that the technology and organization requiring real expertise and hundreds of workers was something I could actually manage. Surprising myself and repressing my doubts, I agreed. “Shot out of a cannon”, quipped brother Karl who knows a thing or two about circuses (but without recognizing the pun). I asked Uzi Peled, then director general of the Guttman Institute and a real expert in management, to join as deputy director. And we did it. In two languages. In less than two years. Some professionals volunteered to join us, like Louis Lenton from Ireland, and in the planning we had both American and British advice. Very early, we discovered Moti Kirshenbaum, invented Hiam Yavin and introduced Sami and Susu. But our most miraculous achievement, only months after we began, was the live broadcast of the 1968 Independence-day parade through the old city, flaunting the victory. This of course was in direct contradiction to the sweet talk for which television was allegedly founded. But to compensate, that same night we broadcast a live concert of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Israel philharmonic orchestra. Thus, the partnership between the two research institutes gave birth to Israel television, at first as a government initiative and later as an integral part of the Broadcasting Authority for which it was intended. The story of Katz and Peled’s resignation from television has been told in “Television Comes to the People of the Book” (the Hebrew version could have been called “Ish tachat gafno ve’tachat antenato”). Although it ended bitterly, this brief hands-on experience has influenced the remainder of my career.

Soon after leaving television, another search – this time from the not-so-naive BBC – led to an invitation to serve as a consultant over several years on relations between broadcasters and their audience. This was a more academic invitation, of course, but it had a major organizational implication in that the BBC was preparing for the decennial renewal of its charter. I traveled back and forth from Lod to London one week per month and was housed in a fancy BBC office in what is now the Langhan hotel on Regent Street. During the fieldwork I met and befriended Professor George Wedell who had just stepped down as director general of the independent television authority (equivalent to our rashut hashnia).

Both Wedell and I were “unemployed” television executives and, together, we cooked a proposal to study the introduction of television in third world countries. In fact, Wedell already had some knowledge of this process. We got support from the Ford Foundation through the International Institute of Communication and enlisted Dov Shinar.

The Annneberg School in Los Angeles found interest in these last two projects and offered a new commute which lasted for fifteen years. I would take the long trip whenever there was free time in Jerusalem, especially during the summer vacations.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Daniel Dayan and I found ourselves viewing the historic visit of President Anwar Sadat who came to offer peace live on television. We soon realized that this was not simply an example of media diplomacy but an example of the genre we now call “media events,” that is, live broadcasts of historic events that assemble a nation or sometimes the world. We began to set out the characteristics of these broadcasts along with the realization that here, finally, the true power of television was there to be seen. Think of the Pope’s visit to Poland to negotiate the fall of the iron certain, the landing on the moon and such. It took another fifteen years to complete this project with meetings in Jerusalem, Los Angeles and Paris.

Media events pushed Katz into globalism. Next was the study of the world-wide success of the nighttime soup “Dallas” and the question of whether it was decoded differently in different cultures or a testimony to the new American imperialism. This was the subject of Tamar Liebes’s prize-winning dissertation and our joint book. This was 1993, Katz’s 68th birthday, and time to quit according to Hebrew University’s bylaws. Rather than surrendering to emeritus status, however, I decided to accept an offer to join the faculty at the other Annenberg School – the one at the University of Pennsylvania – which had somehow learned of my “availability”. My most prominent project  during those twenty years was a major empirical survey by Kim, Wyatt and katz of the contemporary applicability of Gabriel Tarde’s scheme “news, conversation, opinion, and action”,  as if to confront Habermas with a predecessor. Another project was the assembly of a book of essays on “canonic texts in media research,” a kind of provocation  featuring John Peters, Paddy Scannel and others.  

The epitome of the global turn, however, is my current research with Menahem on communication in the ancient Persian Empire ruled by king Ahasuerus and his circus.

So that’s enough of me. Let’s return to the question of path-dependency to add some dignity to this presentation. Our expertise in path-dependency theory is about two weeks old, but we do find that – In addition to economics and political science – it has been used by students of careers. What we notice however is that path dependency is not well defined. What we mean refers to a sequence of decisions made by self whereby each decision is constrained by its predecessor; it influences the choice between competing alternatives, or ambivalences, when such present themselves, often by chance. Other people include prior conditions (like being born into the middle class), decisions made by others and goal-orientation.

So, were Katz’s decisions path-dependent? Choosing collage instead of the circus? Choosing communication research instead of professional journalism? Choosing to postpone “aliyah” in favor of a first job at Chicago? Accepting the directorship of the taskforce that introduced television at the expense of academia? You decide. For myself, preferring to dodge the answer, using the theory very loosely, let me say that I seem to be walking not on one path but on four: Jewish-American, Zionist, academic, and managerial. On the Jewish-American path I have the feeling that I might have been more actively Jewish had I remained abroad. On the Zionist path, I think I should have been more outspoken and less of a “yeled tov Yerushalaim” especially given the high status that Americans, paradoxically, enjoy in Israel. As for the other two paths, the academic and managerial, I like to compare my brother Karl – designer and director of museums – and myself: I chose scholarship and flirted with management, and Karl did the opposite. See his forthcoming book “The Exhibitionist”.

This concludes part two of my assignment. Part one thanked all of you and everybody else for collaborating in this biography – whether or not you intended to. Please forgive me for omitting most names.

In part three I am asked to make predictions about the future of communication research. Originally, this future plus past and present were supposed to be the whole of my presentation, but while I have resisted this role, I owe it to the organizers to say something along these lines even if my predictions are no better than anyone else’s. Prediction one, or better, hope one, is that the multidisciplinarity that characterizes this great chug will become more interdisciplinary. Hope two is that we will realize that the study of communication needs to be accompanied by the study of public opinion. Hope three is that we might find some way, like MIT has, to establish (or connect with) a laboratory for designing communication technology and their use. Prediction four is that research will recognize that the political role attributed to a new medium is not altogether new. In 1896, Tarde posited that the newspaper would define a nation’s boundaries, create a public and its opinions, and eliminate the king by exposing the king’s secrets. Maybe the difference between the two epochs is that one empowers a public and the other empowers the individual. When asked about the new media, I like to say that politics used to be on the street (or the piazza), then came television and moved politics off the street and into the living-room (thus neutralizing it), and now, the social media seem to be moving politics back outside. We’ll see.

As for myself, I find hope in Yonatan’s reference to Claude Levi-Strauss’s reply in a birthday interview at the age of one hundred: “why ask me about the highpoint of my career," he asked, "don’t you think it’s too soon to decide?”

ולסיום ובהתייחס למרכיב שקראתי לו מזל (CHANCE) אני רוצה להגיד שהמזל הכי גדול שהיה לי הוא שפגשתי את כולכם – אז באמת מעומק ליבי תודה!