Skip to main content
Select Source:

Merton, Robert King


(b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 4 July 1910; d. New York, New York, 23 February 2003),

sociology of science and knowledge, social theory.

Merton was the preeminent figure in the sociology of science in the generation following World War II. For Merton, this discipline concerns the social factors that make it possible for science to flourish. These factors range from values and conditions in the wider society that promote science to social norms internal to the scientific community that regulate the distribution of rewards. However, the actual content of scientific knowledge, that is, its theories, concepts, or methods, is outside the scope of Mertonian sociology of science. Merton’s other sociological interests included the relations among social structure, deviance, and anomie; ethnic relations and urban sociology; mass communications; complex social organizations or bureaucracies; the sociology of the professions, especially the medical profession and medical education; and the methodology and sociology of social research. He brought the problem of unintended consequences to the attention of sociologists, developed the method of using focus groups, and coined many new terms and phrases that have come into common parlance, including “role model,” “self-fulfilling prophecy,” and “dysfunction.” As a social theorist, Merton was rivaled only by Talcott Parsons among postwar American sociologists, and Merton easily surpassed Parsons as a literary stylist.

Merton was born Meyer R. Schkolnick on 4 July 1910 to working-class eastern European Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia. He adopted Robert K. Merton as his stage name during his adolescent career as a performing magician, after his mentor in the magic trade—and future brother-in-law—told him that the name he had initially chosen, Merlin, was rather hackneyed. He chose his first name from Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the magician who inspired Harry Houdini (Ehrich Weiss). By the time he began undergraduate studies at Temple University in 1927 his friends knew him as Bob Merton, and he legally changed his name at nineteen. At Temple, Merton became the research assistant to the sociologist George E. Simpson. Simpson brought Merton to his first meeting of the American Sociological Association, where he met Pitirim Sorokin, who encouraged him to pursue graduate work in sociology at Harvard University. Merton received his doctorate in 1935 and stayed on for a few years as a tutor and an instructor. He then taught for two years at Tulane University, where he quickly rose to chairman of the Sociology Department.

Finally, in 1941 Merton joined the faculty at Columbia University, where he spent the rest of his teaching career, retiring in 1984 with the rank of university professor. Here he educated many students in the sociology of science and collaborated with Paul Lazarsfeld at his Bureau of Applied Social Research. Over the course of his career, he was awarded many fellowships, prizes, and honorary degrees. To list only some of the most notable, he was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1962–1963; a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California, in 1974; and a MacArthur Fellow from 1983 to 1988; and he was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1994. He was married to the sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, who was also on the Columbia faculty. By a previous marriage to Suzanne M. Carhart, whom he had met at Temple, he was the father of Robert C. Merton, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, and Stephanie Tombrello and Vanessa Merton.

Puritan Values and Science . Merton presented most of his sociological work in the form of learned essays, rather than book-length studies. One notable exception is his PhD dissertation, originally titled “Sociological Aspects of Scientific Development in Seventeenth-Century England.” He successfully defended this thesis in December 1935, with the sociologists Sorokin, Parsons, and Carle C. Zimmerman, and the historian of science George Sarton serving on his dissertation committee. Sarton especially took a keen interest in Merton’s work, and offered to publish it in Osiris, a journal that published longer studies and other articles in the history of science that were not appropriate for publication in Isis, which Sarton also edited. A revised version of Merton’s dissertation appeared with the new title, “Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth-Century England,” in Osiris in 1938. It was finally published as a separate book in 1970 under this title.

In this work, Merton set out to investigate how science as a social institution was interdependent with religion and the economy in the seventeenth century. He thought that seventeenth-century science was still too young to have been valued for its own sake, and had to be justified in terms of other values. This idea led him to two investigations. The first is a quantitative study of the degree to which the direction taken by scientific research was influenced by socioeconomic and military needs, such as solving the problems presented by pumping water out of mines, determining longitude at sea, and aiming cannons. The second is an inquiry into the ways in which Puritan values may have facilitated the developmentof modern science. In his preface to the 1970 edition, Merton explains that as he was studying the writings of seventeenth-century scientists in preparation for his thesis, he was struck by their Puritan religious commitments. This brought to his mind Max Weber’s work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905), in which the author had tried to establish a link between ascetic Protestantism and capitalism. Turning once again to Weber’s book, Merton found that Weber had suggested that sociologists investigate the connection between ascetic Protestantism and science. Merton took up the challenge, in spite of some resistance from Sorokin, who was skeptical of Weber’s claims.

Sarton tried but without success to get Merton to cut back on the parts dealing with religion for the published version. Merton himself says that the part dealing with economic and military needs is clearer. Nevertheless, it is the link between Puritanism and science that captured scholars’ attention at that time, providing an ironic example of those unintended consequences that so fascinated Merton. Merton suggests that the attention given to this link may have been due to its having seemed highly improbable to scholars in the 1930s, who were more accustomed to thinking of science as being at loggerheads with religion. The notion that Puritan values helped make the growth of science possible has since become known as the “Merton Thesis,” thus exemplifying the phenomenon of eponymy in science, or naming a contribution to knowledge after its contributor, a topic to which Merton also devoted much of his attention later.

The Merton Thesis is not a claim about the intentions or motivations of individual scientists. Nor is it a claim about certain religious or theological doctrines, or even a specific church, promoting scientific research. Instead, the thesis is about how affectively charged values or ideals associated with one social institution made possible the rise of a very different social institution. According to Merton, the Puritan values or “ethos” on which early science drew include the glorification of the Author of Nature through the discovery of order in the universe. A second Puritan value is that one should work toward achieving what the seventeenth-century chemist Robert Boyle called the “comfort of mankind” here on Earth. Science was thought to promote the general good through its technological applications. A third value is the Puritan exaltation of reason, which was believed to distinguish humans from the animals and keep the passions in check. However, the Puritans did not value the idle use of reason in mere speculation, but held that reason must be subservient to experimentation, which they associated with the kind of practical, industrious, physical work that they also valued.

Merton explains that Puritanism was not a necessary condition for the rise of science; other ideologies or value systems could have played the same role. Indeed he generalized his thesis to include other forms of ascetic Protestantism, including eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German Pietism as well as seventeenth-century English Puritans. Even in the historical circumstances in which the Puritan ethos did play a role, the economic, technological, and military needs of England also played key parts. Thus, the Puritan ethos was not a sufficient condition for the rise of modern science, either. The fact that science subsequently evolved into a secular institution that often stood in opposition to the ascetic Protestantism from which it arose exemplifies for Merton the irony of history and the problem of unintended consequences.

Unfortunately, only five hundred copies of the Osiris volume containing Merton’s dissertation were printed, and because the journal was printed in Belgium in 1938, even these soon became unavailable to scholars because of wartime conditions. Because the dissertation remained out of print until 1970, the Merton Thesis was probably better known to a generation of sociologists through a much shorter paper, titled “Puritanism, Pietism, and Science,” published in Sociological Review in 1936. This paper was republished in Merton’s widely read anthology, Social Theory and Social Structure, which went through three editions, in 1949, 1957, and 1968, and more than thirty printings.

The Merton Thesis generated much controversy. In response to George Becker’s (1984) empirical, historical critique, Merton (1984) broke his thesis down into three different claims of increasing levels of abstraction, and argued that empirical criticisms applied only to the lowest level, the particular sociohistorical claim about ascetic Protestantism in seventeenth-century England or eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany having the unintended effect of encouraging and legitimizing the growth of science. The middle-range hypothesis was that the emergence of science required, among other things, a specific ethos or set of attitudes and values that could have derived from some other institution, such as religion. At the most abstract level, his claim was that social institutions in general, including science and religion, are dynamically interdependent. However, by insulating these last two claims from counterevidence, Merton only raises questions about their empirical support.

Science and Ideology . Merton’s interest in the social conditions that make science possible also extended to his own time. In a paper called “Science and the Social Order,” delivered at the American Sociological Association in 1937 and published the following year in the journal Philosophy of Science, Merton examines the ways in which Nazi politics and ideology were interfering with science in Germany. As Merton sees it, by the twentieth century the success of science had led to its being able to enjoy a high degree of independence and autonomy from other social institutions, relative to the seventeenth-century science he had studied for his dissertation. However, this degree of autonomy could occur only in liberal democratic societies, and was currently being challenged in the Third Reich, in which, notoriously, contributions by Jewish scientists were proscribed.

The ethos of science, which this paper characterizes as including intellectual honesty, integrity, organized skepticism, disinterestedness, and impersonality, was in conflict with the Nazi political order. For these totalitarians, the ethos of science represented little more than liberal, bourgeois, cosmopolitan biases. Merton explains that the conflict between science and Nazism is psychological rather than logical. Although it may seem as though scientific skepticism can challenge the beliefs on which political authority rests, from a purely logical point of view, to show the empirical basis or causes of beliefs is not to deny their validity. However, political authorities, like religious authorities, demand an attitude of loyalty and unqualified acceptance. Drawing on the theories of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, Merton argues that every social institution carves out a sacred sphere of beliefs that is not to be profaned by scientific analysis.

With this preliminary account of the ethos of science, Merton is beginning to shift the focus of his attention away from the relationship between science and the wider society and toward the norms internal to the scientific community. He further develops these ideas about the ethos of science in a paper titled “A Note on Science and Democracy,” where he says that recent attacks on science have led scientists to reexamine the norms and values on which science depends. This essay was first published in the new Journal of Legal and Political Sociology in 1942, and was subsequently republished under various titles in several anthologies of Merton’s works, including Social Theory and Social Structure (1949), The Sociology of Science (1973), and On Social Structure and Science (1996). In this widely read paper, Merton analyzes the ethos of science into four interdependent norms, described below. This analysis served as a theoretical framework for subsequent work in the sociology of science by Merton and the students he trained at Columbia.

The Norms of Science . Merton defines the ethos of science as “that affectively toned complex of values and norms which is held to be binding on the man of science” (1973, pp. 268–269). The values are the institutional goals of science, and these legitimate the social norms of science, which are the means to achieving these ends. The institutional goal of science is to extend what he calls “certified knowledge,” which is defined by the methods of science as “empirically confirmed and logically consistent statements of regularities” (p. 270). Merton’s conception of scientific knowledge, with its emphasis on empirical regularities—and apparent neglect of their underlying theoretical explanations—reflects the influence of the positivist philosophy of that time. But for Merton, because the goal of science is to extend such knowledge, the institution of science also places a value on originality.

The institutional norms of science derive from its goal and methods. They are binding on the scientist not only because they are productive of the ends of science, but because “they are believed right and good. They are moral as well as technical prescriptions” (p. 270). These norms are maintained in existence by rewarding scientists for behaving in ways that conform to them, and in varying degrees they make up at least part of the scientist’s conscience. They have never been explicitly codified by scientists; rather, Merton inferred them from his reading of the history of science. They include:

Universalism . According to this norm, claims to truth are to be evaluated in terms of universal or impersonal criteria, and not on the basis of the race, class, gender, religion, or nationality of the scientists proposing them. Nazi proscriptions of “Jewish science” and Soviet dismissals of Mendelian genetics as “bourgeois metaphysics” are clearly in violation of this norm.

Communism . During the Cold War years, this came to be known as the norm of “communalism.” It calls for the common ownership of scientific discoveries and for scientists to give up their intellectual property rights in exchange for recognition and esteem. Secrecy is the very antithesis of this norm: scientific knowledge belongs in the public domain. The capitalist notion of proprietary technical knowledge is also in opposition to this norm.

For Merton, the scientific norm of communism explains the phenomenon of eponymy. Having a contribution to this common store of knowledge named after oneself is one of the few rewards available to scientists. This norm also helps to explain priority disputes. It is precisely because scientists are rewarded for original contributions to the stock of knowledge that it matters who discovered something first.

Communism . According to this norm, scientists are rewarded for acting in ways that outwardly appear to be selfless. That is, scientists do not seem to be working for money or other external rewards, but instead for the good of science. However, disinterestedness is not a matter of individual motivation, but rather the way in which the institution of science distributes rewards. Scientists may be motivated by a selfish desire to achieve fame and recognition or by an altruistic desire to benefit humanity, but what they are rewarded for is their behavior, not their motives, and they are rewarded for acting in ways that appear disinterested.

Merton thought that this norm could explain what he believed to be “the virtual absence of fraud” in science (1973, p. 276). That is, it is because scientists know that others will check their work that they will act in ways that can be characterized as disinterested. How much research misconduct occurs is of course debatable. But Zuckerman (1977) argued that the fraud that does occur attests only to a breakdown in the norm of distinterestedness.

Organized Skepticism . For Merton, this is both an institutional and a methodological norm, according to which no claims to truth are held sacred. All are subject to empirical and logical criticism. As mentioned above, it is this norm that pits science against religious and political authorities.

Merton characterizes these four norms as mutually reinforcing. Indeed, they are not logically independent of one another. For instance, in his account of what he takes to be the low rate of research misconduct, disinterested behavior among scientists depends on the norm of organized skepticism.

The Mertonian Paradigm Comes of Age . After the 1942 paper on the norms of science, Merton appears to have retreated from the sociology of science for a while. In 1949 he resigned as the associate editor for sociology of science from the journal Isis, explaining that he was turning his attention instead to the study of social structure and mass communication. Ironically, in his foreword to Bernard Barber’s Science and the Social Order in 1952, he complained that the sociology of science was being neglected, and suggested that this may be due at least in part to sociologists not perceiving science as presenting any pressing social problems. Although he was working with Elinor Barber on the role of serendipity or chance connections in science, the book that they wrote together, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science, was not published (in English) until 2004.

Change came in the late 1950s. Beginning with his presidential address to the American Sociological Association in 1957, Merton wrote and published a series of papers over approximately the next ten years that addressed such things as priority disputes, the reward system of science, problem choice, and multiple discoveries. These papers drew on the theoretical framework he had established in the 1942 article, which also served to define the sociology of science in the United States for a generation of sociologists. During this period he directed dissertations in the sociology of science by Zuckerman, the brothers Stephen Cole and Jonathan Cole, and others. In addition, he wrote On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript (1965), a seriously lighthearted inquiry, written in the form of an extended letter to a friend, into the origins of Isaac Newton’s famous aphorism, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Merton’s essays in the sociology of science during this period developed his theoretical framework by taking up such problems as scientists deviating from the norms of science or being subject to conflicting norms. His account of deviance in science drew on his more general theories of social anomie. For Merton, an anomic situation arises when a culture gives rise to aspirations that not everyone can realize, which results in deviant behavior and a cynical rejection of the moral rules. In science, deviance is a response to the discrepancy between the huge emphasis on original research and the difficulty most scientists experience in trying to make original contributions. However, Merton continued to think that misconduct in science, such as plagiarism and fabrication of data, was relatively rare.

Merton also applied the notion of sociological ambivalence to science. Ambivalence arises when individuals are subject to opposing norms. This may happen not only in science but in any social institution. It can arise either through conflict between different social statuses occupied by the same individual or within a single status, in which there are incompatible normative expectations. For instance, Merton saw Charles Darwin’s hesitancy in publishing his theory of evolution as exemplifying a norm of humility, which works against the drive to achieve recognition for original research. More generally, the norm of communalism dictates that scientists should make new knowledge available to others as quickly as possible, but there is a counternorm that says that they ought not to rush into print. Organized skepticism cautions scientists against being the victims of the latest fads, but the value placed on originality entails a counternorm that prescribes openness to new ideas. However, Merton cautioned that these norms and counternorms are not necessarily contradictory to each other. Barry Barnes and Alex Dolby (1970) have suggested that perhaps the actual norm in science is to steer a middle path between two extremes.

Another departure from the ethos of science is discussed in a paper titled “The Matthew Effect in Science,” presented to the American Sociological Association in 1967 and published in Science the following year. Merton gives this name to the phenomenon of credit tending to accrue more to scientists who are already well known, taking the term from the New Testament book of Matthew (25:29), where it says “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (1973, p. 445). Although this effect may appear to conflict with the norms of universalism and communism, Merton argues that it is in fact functional for science, by bringing new work to the attention of the scientific community more rapidly.

Critiques of the Mertonian Program . The Mertonian paradigm began to lose its dominant position in the sociology of science after the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). As this work shows scientists being guided in their work by the paradigms or exemplary achievements of specialized communities, sociologists came to realize that what scientists take to be the very content of their disciplines is relevant to a sociological understanding of science, after all. Sociologists also began to suspect that Merton’s interpretation of priority disputes may have been misconceived. As Kuhn argues, to ask whether the English clergyman and chemist Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) or the French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) discovered oxygen first is to overlook the differences between what these scientists thought their experiments showed, as well as between what they thought and how oxygen is conceived in the early twenty-first century.

Barnes and Dolby (1970) were among the first sociologists to raise these kinds of Kuhnian objections. Kuhn taught them that scientific education emphasizes dogmatism, not skepticism. They argue that the Mertonian norms are derived from a conception of the goals of science, not from an empirical study of actual science. At best, they express the norms that scientists profess, not the ones that guide them in their research. Furthermore, Barnes and Dolby find that the norms of science have changed as science evolved from a largely amateur endeavor in the seventeenth century, through a professional, academic phase, to its present state, in which it is no longer autonomous from national and military interests.

Michael Mulkay (1976) subsequently offered an even more radical critique. He maintains that the Mertonian norms belong to an ideology that scientists use to justify their demands for public support without public scrutiny, claiming that such scrutiny is unnecessary because quality is guaranteed by norms and values internal to science. To show that these norms actually govern science, one would have to show that they are linked to the distribution of rewards. However, when referees evaluate a scientific paper or research proposal, they have no way of telling whether the authors adhered to these norms, and base their decisions on the content of the paper or proposal. Furthermore, referees take into account such factors as institutional affiliation and not just universalistic criteria.

Toward the end of the 1970s, sociologists of scientific knowledge began to challenge the intellectual authority of science and to argue that its content was shaped by social interests, social networks, and the use of rhetoric and persuasion. Merton could never accept the relativism that these views implied, and remained a firm believer in scientific progress. However, more recent years have seen a turning away from relativism and a renewed interest—at least among philosophers of science—in the relationship between democracy and science.



Social Theory and Social Structure: Toward the Codification of Theory and Research. New York: Free Press, 1949. Perhaps the most widely read collection of Merton’s most important papers on theoretical sociology, social structure, sociology of knowledge, and sociology of science. Additional papers were added in subsequent editions, with the 1968 edition (New York: Free Press) being the most complete.

On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript. New York: Free Press, 1965. An inquiry into the origins of Newton’s famous aphorism, written in the form of a letter to a friend.

Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth-Century England. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. A reprint of the 1938 publication of his revised doctoral dissertation, with a new preface.

The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Edited by Norman W. Storer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. Contains nearly all of Merton’s important papers in the sociology of science and knowledge up until the time of publication.

Sociological Ambivalence and Other Essays. New York: Free Press, 1976. Contains essays concerning the problem of conflicting norms in science and other walks of life.

The Sociology of Science: An Episodic Memoir. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979. Reproduces Merton’s introduction to The Sociology of Science in Europe, edited by Merton and Jerry Gaston, in which Merton gives an account of the relationship of his work to that of others in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science.

“The Fallacy of the Latest Word: The Case of ‘Pietism and Science.’” American Journal of Sociology 89 (1984): 1091–1121. Replies to Becker (see below).

On Social Structure and Science. Edited by Piotr Sztompka.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Anthology of Merton’s work in a variety of sociological fields. Includes a select bibliography of works by and about him. Also contains his 1994 autobiographical address to the American Council of Learned Societies, “A Life of Learning,” which is especially good for the early years. This address can also be found in the 1997 volume cited below.

“De-Gendering ‘Man of Science’: The Genesis and Epicene Character of the Word Scientist.” In Sociological Visions, edited by Kai Erikson. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997. Also contains “A Life of Learning.”

With Elinor Barber. The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. Originally completed in 1958, investigates the history of the term serendipity and the role of serendipity or chance connections in science.


Barnes, S. Barry, and Robert G. A. Dolby. “The Scientific Ethos: A Deviant Viewpoint.” Archives Européennes de Sociologie (European Journal of Sociology) 11 (1970): 3–25. A critique of Merton’s views on the norms of science.

Becker, George. “Pietism and Science: A Critique of Robert K. Merton’s Hypothesis.” American Journal of Sociology 89 (1984): 1065–1090. Questions the connection between German Pietism and science.

Clark, Jon, Celia Modgil, and Sohan Modgil, eds. Robert K. Merton: Consensus and Controversy. New York: Falmer, 1990. Contains biographical essays as well as critical discussions of all aspects of his contributions to sociology.

Cohen, I. Bernard. “The Publication of Science, Technology, and Society: Circumstances and Consequences.” Isis 79 (1988): 571–582. Contains useful biographical information about Merton as a young scholar.

_____, ed., with the assistance of K. E. Duffin and Stuart

Strickland. Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science: The Merton Thesis. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990. Contains a long essay by Cohen on the impact of the Merton Thesis, which is followed by several critiques of the Merton Thesis and replies by Merton.

Coser, Lewis A., ed. The Idea of Social Structure: Papers in Honor of Robert K. Merton. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. Contains essays about the man and his work, including one by Lazarsfeld about his years working with Merton at the Bureau of Applied Social Research. Also includes a nearly complete bibliography of his writings up until 1975.

Crothers, Charles. Robert K. Merton. Chichester, U.K.: Ellis Horwood; New York: Tavistock, 1987. A concise introduction to the man and his works, written for undergraduates.

Feldhay, Rivka, and Yehuda Elkana, eds. “‘After Merton’: Protestant and Catholic Science in Seventeenth-Century Europe.” Science in Context 3 (1989): 3–302. Special issue of the journal containing eleven papers critiquing and extending the Merton Thesis, in addition to some historical material on Merton and Sorokin.

Feuer, Lewis S. The Scientific Intellectual: The Psychological & Sociological Origins of Modern Science. New York: Basic, 1963. Argues that, contrary to Merton and Weber, the inspiration for modern science was not Puritanism but a hedonistic, libertarian ethic. _____. “Science and the Ethic of Protestant Asceticism: A Reply to Professor Robert K. Merton.” Research in Sociology of Knowledge, Sciences, and Art 2 (1979): 1–23. Presents additional historical evidence that favors his own hypothesis over Merton's.

Gieryn, Thomas F., ed. Science and Social Structure: A Festschrift for Robert K. Merton. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, ser. 2, vol. 39. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1980. Several of the papers in this volume address Merton’s ideas on the ethos or norms of science, sociological ambivalence in science, multiples, and eponymy. There is also a discussion of Merton’s influence. _____. “Eloge: Robert K. Merton, 1910–2003.” Isis 95 (2004): 91–94. An appreciative note by one of Merton’s former students.

Hunt, Morton. “‘How Does It Come to Be So?’ Profile of Robert K. Merton.” New Yorker 36 (1961): 39–63. Widely cited account of his early years.

Mongardini, Carlo, and Simonetta Tabboni, eds. Robert K Merton and Contemporary Sociology. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1997. Contains critical analyses of Merton’s work by mostly European sociologists, written for academics.

Mulkay, Michael. “Norms and Ideology in Science.” Social Science Information 15 (1976): 637–656. Includes a critique of the Mertonian norms.

Schultz, Ruth. “The Improbable Adventures of an American Scholar: Robert K. Merton.” American Sociologist 26 (1995): 68–77. Reveals something of the personal side of Merton.

Sztompka, Piotr. Robert K. Merton: An Intellectual Profile. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. A somewhat more detailed study than Crothers’s book.

Wood, Paul, ed. Science and Dissent in England, 1688–1945. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004. Several of the papers in this collection address the historical evidence for the Merton Thesis.

Zuckerman, Harriet. “Deviant Behavior and Social Control in Science.” In Deviance and Social Change, edited by Edward Sagarin. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1977. Application of Mertonian framework to research misconduct.

Warren Schmaus

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Merton, Robert King." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 22 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Merton, Robert King." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . (June 22, 2017).

"Merton, Robert King." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from

Merton, Robert K.

Merton, Robert K. 1910-2003


Robert K. Merton was the founder of the sociology of science and one of the twentieth centurys most influential sociological theorists. Born Meyer R. Schkolnick to poor Jewish immigrants in South Philadelphia, Merton was part of an extraordinary generation of sociologists whose work shaped the basic contours of the discipline in the mid-twentieth century.

Merton eschewed the building of grand theoretical systems in favor of what he called middle-range theories, explanations that transcend mere hypotheses, are designed to guide and be improved by empirical inquiry, and are potentially compatible with multiple larger theoretical systems. Thus, extending the idea of reference groups, he showed restricted interpersonal comparisons to be basic to judgments on a variety of matters from job satisfaction to educational choices, and to be no more specific to functional analysis than to Marxism. Likewise, the theory of bureaucracy originally introduced by Weber could be advanced by either structural or functional analysis. Merton emphasized the distinction between manifest and latent functions to clarify the contrast between analyzing intentions and consequences and to make functional analysis more precise. He also integrated analysis of social conflict into structural-functionalist analysis.

As a student at Harvard, Merton joined Talcott Parsonss first sociology seminar and participated alongside Parsons (and George C. Homans, Joseph Schumpeter, Crane Brinton, and Elton Mayo) in Lawrence J. Hendersons famed Pareto reading group. Paretos idea of motivating sentiments was an enduring influence. Mertons main mentors, however, were Pitirim Sorokin and George Sarton. Under their tutelage, he helped found the sociology of science.

Merton argued that science is misunderstood as the product of individual geniuses able to break free from conventions and norms. Instead, he stressed the ethos of science, the normative structure specific to the field that encouraged productivity, critical thinking, and pursuit of continually improved understanding. His dissertation, published as Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England (1938a), also introduced the famous Merton thesis. Narrowly, this was that Puritanism, and ascetic Protestantism generally, emerges as an emotionally consistent system of beliefs, sentiments and action which played no small part in arousing a sustained interest in science (Merton 1938a, p. 495). More broadly, Merton argued that social and cultural factors (including religion, economics, and military pursuits) shaped interest in science, scientific problem choice, and the public reception and influence of science. He resisted, however, the relativist conclusion that such external influences so shaped the internal content of science as to undermine its truth value.

Working with his Columbia colleague Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Merton studied a range of policy questions from housing integration to medical education. He also carried out studies of propaganda and mass communications during World War II and wrote the classic Mass Persuasion (1946). Merton and Lazarsfeld also played crucial institutional roles, training generations of students at Columbia and helping found the Center for Advanced Study in the Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Merton's contributions shaped not only the sociology of science and the general perspective of structural-functionalism but also a range of specific empirical fields, including the analysis of bureaucracy, deviance, and social psychology. He showed how social structure produced anomic responses in individuals whom the social structure deprived of resources for more normatively approved action and analyzed deviance as the pursuit of normative objectives by normatively disapproved means. In the course of his simultaneously theoretical and empirical analyses, Merton coined such now common phrases as self-fulfilling prophecy, role model, and the unanticipated consequences of purposive social action (1968, 1936).

Merton not only coined but studied memorable phrases and the patterns of association and evocation in which they were passed onnot least as they informed scholarly reference and the development of reputations. One of his most famous books traced the sentence If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants through centuries of use. The phrase was most commonly associated with Sir Isaac Newton, but what Merton showed with dazzling erudition and more than a few entertaining digressions was that the aphorism originated with Bernard of Chartres in the twelfth century. This corrected not only those who cited merely Newton but those who credited the phrase to ancient authors, including apparently nonexistent ancient authors, perhaps thinking thereby to accord it greater dignity and impress readers with their Latin references.

Merton continued to address the relationship between the first appearances of ideas and the occasions when they begin to have more serious influence, noting how many basic scientific advances were anticipated by prediscoveries that failed to change the way scientists thought. The role of chance connectionsserendipity in scientific breakthroughs became another enduring focus for Mertons boundless curiosity and careful scholarship (Merton and Barber 2004). But Merton was ambivalent about the many offspring of one of his own most famous innovations. With Marjorie Fiske and Patricia Kendall (1956), he invented the focused group interview that gave rise to the now ubiquitous and not always systematic focus groups of political and market research.

From the 1970s, the sociology of science turned in large part away from the study of institutions and toward microsociology of scientific practice. Many in the field were critical of Mertons emphasis on the norms of science because they saw these often violated. More generally, structural-functionalism was challenged by a variety of perspectives placing greater stress on self-interest and conflict. Mertons work was often cited as emblematic of the now diverted mainstream, though this was somewhat ironic because among leading functionalists he was particularly attentive to dysfunction, historical change, and conflict. Late in his life he worried that the approach of many in science studies was one-sidedly focused on debunking and sufficiently relativist that it made it hard to see the importance of the relative autonomy of science as a social institution.

SEE ALSO Deviance; Functionalism; Lazarsfeld, Paul Felix; Pareto, Vilfredo; Parsons, Talcott; Persuasion; Propaganda; Role Models; Science; Social Science; Sociology


Merton, Robert K. 1936. The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action. American Sociological Review 1 (6): 894904.

Merton, Robert K. 1938a. Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England. Osiris 4: 360632.

Merton, Robert K. 1938b. Science and the Social Order. Philosophy of Science 5 (3): 321337.

Merton, Robert K. 1942. A Note on Science and Democracy. Journal of Legal and Political Sociology 1: 115126.

Merton, Robert K. 1949. Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press, 1968.

Merton, Robert K. 1965. On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Merton, Robert K., and Elinor Barber. 2004. The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Merton, Robert K., with Marjorie Fiske and Alberta Curtis. 1946. Mass Persuasion: The Social Psychology of a War Bond Drive. New York: Harper.

Merton, Robert K., with Marjorie Fiske and Patricia Kendall. 1956. The Focused Interview. New York: Free Press.

Craig Calhoun

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Merton, Robert K.." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 22 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Merton, Robert K.." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (June 22, 2017).

"Merton, Robert K.." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from

Robert K. Merton

Robert K. Merton

Robert K. Merton (born 1910) was a sociologist, educator, and internationally regarded academic statesman for sociology in contemporary research and social policy. He was also a leading interpreter of responsible functional analysis, of major social factors in scientific development, and of underlying and unanticipated strains in modern society. He is considered the founder of the sociology of science.

Born in Philadelphia on July 5, 1910, Robert Merton was educated at Temple University and received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1936. After being attracted to sociology by George E. Simpson, he studied with or was profoundly influenced by such thinkers as George Sarton, Pitirim Sorokin, Talcott Parsons, and L. J. Henderson. An instructorship at Harvard was followed by a professorship at Tulane University. From 1941 until his retirement in 1978 he was one of the key figures in the development of the Department of Sociology at Columbia University and in received national and international recognition for his contributions to sociological analysis.

Received Awards and Honors

As a consequence, Merton held a number of important positions, among them associate director of the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University, trustee of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (1952-1975), and president of the American Sociological Association (1957). He received several prestigious awards: one for distinguished scholarship in the humanities from the American Council of Learned Societies (1962); the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service to Sociology (1970); a MacArthur Prize Fellowship (1983); and the first Who's Who in America Achievement Award in the field of social science and social policy (1984). In 1985 Columbia University honored him with the Doctor of Letters degree.

Focused on Variety of Responses in Social Behavior

Though Merton studied a considerable range of social situations and social categories or groups, his basic and enduring contributions to sociological analysis consist of three complementary themes. First, human behavior can best be understood as embedded in social structures (groups, organizations, social classes, communities, nations) which simultaneously present opportunities and constraints to their members. Second, in varying degrees individuals confront differing clues and ambiguities in social demands, and thus humans develop mixed or ambivalent values and motives in their responses to others. Consequently, sociologists cannot focus on either formal, official patterns (rules, laws, etc.) or the special features of individuals to understand the course and variations in important social structures. Third, because of this pervasive complexity in social experience, normal or "routine" social behavior typically generates multiple consequences, some predictable and desirable, but others largely unanticipated and even contrary to the intentions of many persons. On the whole, then, Merton advocated careful and yet imaginative study of social phenomena and cautioned against superficial, "common sense" investigations and slavish dependence on any technique of probing human social participation.

More specifically, Merton combined study of actual (or historically significant) social organizations and groups with a focus on some limited but crucial and recurring problem in social structures—the so-called "middle range" problems and related explanations. One such focus was social specialization and related issues of differences in responsibilities, types and complexity of social contacts, and cultural interests. Merton distinguished "local" versus "cosmopolitan" types of leaders and showed how such differences underscored meaningful differences in influence. Similarly, Merton connected different levels of status with availability of different forms of personal influence ("reference groups") and linked the process of changing one's status—social mobility—with the selection of new reference groups ("anticipatory socialization") in the cases of soldiers, voters, and some nonconformists.

Studied Socialization Issues

Another cardinal issue was socialization, the process of acquiring and sustaining legitimate roles in given social organizations. In this respect Merton studied medical students, intellectuals, scientists, bureaucrats, and various professionals. He and his associates gave much attention to the conflict between ideal goals and personal status concerns, and even to the "normal" inconsistency between accepted norms in academic training and the realities of "on-the-job" training of scientists and professionals.

Concerned with Social Regulation and Deviation

Much of Merton's continuing sociological concern, however, centered on the twin sociological problems of social regulation and social deviation—each type of phenomenon necessarily conditioning the other. Merton inferentially demonstrated the basic fragility of such normal forms of social regulation as formal leadership, dominant cultural values, and professional standards. Furthermore, he pointed to such basic patterns as the variable consequences in behavior of imposing demanding objectives without providing suitable means; the fact that people often estimate their social opportunities and limitations not in objective terms, but in comparison with some desired level or with a self-selected "new" reference group ("relative deprivation"); and the special and virtually unshakable advantage of persons in favored social positions (the "Matthew Effect"), which dissipates attempts at equalization and implicitly undermines the legitimacy of those in positions of responsibility.

Demonstrated Intellectual Flexibility in Spoof

After the mid-1960s Merton immersed himself in the sociology of science, the study of major cultural and organizational factors in the work of scientists (principally in the physical and biological sciences). This involved careful analysis of the careers of Nobel laureates, the processes of competition among scientists, the connection between publication and scientific investigation, and the problematic nature of discovery and acceptance in the sacred realm of science. However, Merton also demonstrated his intellectual versatility in a delightful spoof of scholarship in his On the Shoulders of Giants. In retrospect, his entire intellectual career was notable for the flexibility with which he combined theoretical formulations, useful typologies and classifications, empirical investigations, and a concern for the practical implications of sociological work in modern society.

His major works include Social Theory and Social Structure (1949), and The Sociology of Science (1973). His collection of essays, On Social Structure and Science, was reprinted in 1996. In the introduction, the editor of the collection, Piotr Sztompka, wrote that Merton's work had "opened up fruitful areas of inquiry along lines that he and generations of others would pursue for decades."

Further Reading

The central works of Merton's early period include Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England (1938), Mass Persuasion (1945), Social Theory and Social Structure (several editions from 1949 to 1968), and the edited work Reader in Bureaucracy (1952). Later major works dealt with the sociology of science and the professions: The Student Physician (1957); Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations (1973); Sociological Ambivalence and Other Essays (1976); and Social Research and the Practicing Professions (1982). Some indication of Merton's influence is contained in a stimulating collection of essays, edited by Lewis A. Coser, in celebration of Merton's 65th birthday: The Idea of Social Structure: Papers in Honor of Robert K. Merton (1975).

See also Science November 1, 1996; Sztompka, Pi, Robert K. Merton, An Intellectual Profile, St. Martin's Press, 1986; and Robert K. Merton: Consensus and Controversy, Falmer Press, 1990. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Robert K. Merton." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 22 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Robert K. Merton." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (June 22, 2017).

"Robert K. Merton." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from

Merton, Robert King

Robert King Merton, 1910–2003, American sociologist, b. Philadelphia as Meyer Schkolnick, grad. Temple Univ. (A.B., 1931) and Harvard (M.A., 1932; Ph.D., 1936). From 1941 on he was a professor of sociology at Columbia Univ. and was especially known for his contributions to the study of social structure, bureaucracy, mass communications, and the sociology of science. Among his writings are Mass Persuasion (1946), Social Theory and Social Structure (1957), On the Shoulders of Giants (1965), and The Sociology of Science (1973). Merton developed such concepts as the "self-fulfilling prophecy," "role model," "deviant behavior," and focus groups. Robert C. Merton is his son.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Merton, Robert King." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 22 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Merton, Robert King." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (June 22, 2017).

"Merton, Robert King." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from