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 Thelma Ehrlich Anderson
Written by Peter Simonson and Lauren Archer

Thelma Ehrlich was born in St. Mark’s Hospital on the Lower East Side of New York City on March 6, 1921. Her parents had both emigrated to the U.S. with their Jewish families—her father as a child from Poland and her mother as a teen from Germany. Her father went on to graduate from Columbia University’s School of Pharmacy, and the family moved to Brooklyn when he bought a store and home there. Young Thelma attended public schools, delivered prescriptions and sometimes worked the counter of the drugstore. She took part for a time in drama and entertained aspirations of becoming a journalist or lawyer.

In 1937 she enrolled in Brooklyn College, and attended classes on its newly built campus in Flatbush. She studied economics out of obligation and psychology from intrinsic interest, and took classes in a lively gestalt-oriented department that included Helen Bloch Lewis, Abraham Maslow, Solomon Asch, and Rosalind Gould. The later-famous psychologists Milton Rokeach and David Bakan were among the talented males in her undergraduate cohort who earned doctorates and went on to successful academic careers. The system didn’t favor the girls in the same way.

When Ehrlich graduated from Brooklyn College in June of 1941, the country was still in the throes of the Depression, and job opportunities for women were especially limited. She enrolled in a secretarial program at what was known as a “business school,” where she learned typewriting and stenography. When she finished, the country was at war and employment opportunities were changing. She landed her first job at the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), a government agency formed in 1940. There she served as secretary to Edwin H. Colpitts, a pioneering communications engineer who had come out of retirement to aid the wartime effort to develop sonar.

Friends from college urged Ehrlich to take classes in sociology with Paul Lazarsfeld at Columbia, which she began in the spring of 1943, while she was still working for Colpitts and rubbing shoulders with some of the nation’s top scientists. Lazarsfeld would offer her a job as a coder at his Office of Radio Research (ORR, which in 1944 would become the Bureau of Applied Social Research, or ‘the Bureau’). As a coder, she read questionnaire responses and sorted them into categories that could be punched into the early data-processing technology known as the Hollerith Machine, which allowed researchers to determine correlations (click here to read Thelma's anecdotes about working with a Hollerith Machine).

Ehrlich would take graduate classes on a part-time basis through the fall of 1946, during which time she moved from coder to Research Associate at the Bureau, and played significant roles in two of the largest and most important studies conducted there in the 1940s—one in Decatur, Illinois, the other in Elmira, New York. The 1945 Decatur Study, sponsored by the low-brow women’s magazine True Story, aimed at determining how media influence flows through interpersonal networks and shapes opinions and decision making. Ehrlich was part of a field team--headed by C. Wright Mills--which also included Jeanette Green. She trained interviewers in Decatur who knocked on doors and administered questionnaires, conducted interviews herself with local “opinion leaders,” and helped analyze the mountain of data the project generated. The Decatur study would eventually become a classic and then controversial book in mass communication research, Personal Influence (1955), authored by Elihu Katz and Lazarsfeld. The Elmira study, meanwhile, the second major election study conducted by Lazarsfeld’s research teams (after the 1944 People’s Choice), investigated voting behavior in the 1948 presidential election between Harry S. Truman and Thomas E. Dewey. Operating in one statistically ‘normal’ community and using “panel studies” whereby the same people are interviewed multiple times over the election campaign, the Elmira team generated the data that formed the basis for Bernard Berelson’s, Lazarsfeld’s, and William McPhee’s classic Voting (1954).

In addition to participating in those two major studies, Ehrlich also co-authored a study of union membership with C. Wright Mills (for what was then the Labor Research Division of the Bureau), participated in an investigation of the meaning of Superman comics for children, and took part in a number of other projects. In 1947, Ehrlich married Quentin Anderson, son of the playwright Maxwell Anderson, and later an important literary critic and professor of English at Columbia. (She has memories of him studying Latin and fishing as a graduate student in Elmira in the summer of 1948, as she explored different realms of culture with the local citizens, using interviewers recruited at Elmira College.)

After finishing the Elmira study, Thelma Anderson went to work for Elmo Wilson’s and Elmo Roper’s International Public Opinion Research organization, which had played a role in the 1948 voting study (the organization later became International Research Associates [INRA]). Bureau alumna Helen Dinerman had taken a position there and helped bring Anderson on board as well. There she designed surveys and analyzed data largely collected overseas, often for the U.S. government. She cut back to part time in 1954 when she had a baby. In 1960-61, she participated in a research project at City College whose aim was to devise nonacademic tests to predict success of students in the College Discovery Program, which admitted students without the usual academic qualifications. The research project was directed by Kenneth Clark. In 1967, after the family returned from a year in England, she worked for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency for five years, where she was hired by another Bureau alumna, Rena Bartos. At Thompson’s Research Department, among other activities, she conducted focus-group interviews and other qualitative research for the creative department and wrote reports on consumer attitudes towards such products as Singer sewing machines, Pepsi Cola, and other consumer products. She returned for a short time to the Bureau of Applied Social Research and then did a brief stint at Child Research Associates. In 1977, Anderson took a job at the Newspaper Advertising Bureau (NAB). As part of the Newspaper Research Project there she conducted research on children’s media habits (the first national study of children’s media habits) and helped coordinate a national program that brought newspapers into classrooms, Newspapers in Education (still operating under the auspices of the Newspaper Association of America, into which the NAB was folded in 1994). When that project ended she became Research Manager in the New Technology Department, and traveled the country to promote the use of high-quality color in newspapers. Anderson retired in 1990, and still lives in a Columbia-owned apartment in Morningside Heights in New York.

Publications:

Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Rose Franzen, and Thelma Ehrlich, “Sampling Procedures for Measurement of Station Coverage,” BASR Report B-0235. 87pp (1944)

Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Thelma Ehrlich, “Experiment with Two Methods of Measuring Magazine Readership,” BASR Report B-0276. 65pp (1947)

C. Wright Mills with Thelma Ehrlich, “What the People Think: The People in the Unions” in Labor and Nation, vol. 3 (1947), 28-31. A condensed version was published as “People in the Unions” by C. Wright Mills with Thelma Ehrlich Anderson in The House of Labor: International Operations of American Unions, edited by JBS Hardman and Maurice F Neufeld

Thelma Anderson, “Colorful Classified” in ANCAM EXCHANGES (Monthly Publication of the Association of Newspaper Classified Advertising Managers, Inc.), May 1969