Merton, Robert K(ing)

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Merton, Robert K(ing)

(b. 4 July 1910 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; d. 23 February 2003 in New York City), preeminent sociologist of the 1950s and 1960s whose influence came from his widely accepted writings on sociological theory, the sociology of science, and many other contributions across a wide range of sociology.

Merton was born Meyer R. Schkolnick, the younger of two children of Harry David Schkolnick, who ran a dairy products shop and was later a carpenter’s assistant at the local navy yard, and Ida (Rosoff) Schkolnick, a homemaker. Merton’s parents were Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Despite coming from economically straitened home circumstances, the young Merton took advantage of the high-quality education offered at the local public schools, read widely at the nearby Carnegie Library, and made extensive use of local cultural riches (especially Philadelphia’s fine orchestra). As a teenager Merton earned money as an amateur magician and assumed a stage name, which gradually became his own name: Merton originally called himself “Merlin,” which was transmuted to “Merton,” and took his first name from Jean Eugéne Robert-Houdin, a famous French magician.

After graduating from South Philadelphia High School for Boys, Merton entered Temple College (then free to “poor boys and girls”), where he studied sociology under George E. Simpson, becoming a research assistant in a project on the depiction of race in the media. Simpson took Merton to an annual meeting of the American Sociological Society, where he met Pitirim Sorokin, the recently appointed founding chair of the Department of Sociology of Harvard University and writer of texts on continental sociological theory. Merton graduated from Temple with a BA in 1931 and applied for a scholarship to finance his graduate studies. He won one, despite being warned in advance of his poor chances of success given his far from impressive background. Sorokin employed him as a research assistant, and by Merton’s second year they were publishing together studies on fluctuating patterns of intellectual development, industrial invention, and social time. Sorokin also encouraged Merton to write conference papers (and then journal articles) on trends in European sociology. Merton also got his empirical feet wet by working on an interview study of down-and-outs in Boston under the Industrial Relief Administration.

At Harvard, Merton also worked closely with the pioneering historian of science George Sarton and under Sarton wrote his dissertation, titled Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England (1938), the first formal contribution to the sociology of science. Extending investigation methods used in his work with Sorokin, Merton used biographical handbooks and content analyses of scientific journals as major data sources. Merton’s examination of the role of Puritanism in the rise of science was influential and controversial in the history of science.

While still a student, Merton attended the first theory course offered by Talcott Parsons, just back from studies in Europe and at that stage working up the ideas that would become The Structure of Social Action (1937). Working with Parsons (and acting as one of his section men) developed more acutely Merton’s sense of sociology and his commitment to it. Early theoretical essays developing ideas worked up in his classes introduced themes that were to extend throughout his life—particularly the unintended consequences of purposive action and the social conditions under which anomie produces deviant behavior. In a powerful formulation, Merton argued that higher rates of deviance were structurally induced where people were located in the social structure in places that denied them the means for achieving the culturally inspired goals and values. Ironically, the very American dream of success contributed to deviant behavior and rejection of legitimate norms.

Merton married Suzanne M. Carhart on 8 September 1934 while he was still a graduate student at Harvard, and the couple had three children together. After he earned an MA from the university in 1932 and a PhD in 1936, and not long after his dissertation was finished, Merton left for Tulane University and spent a short time there, first as an assistant professor and then as department chair. This culturally interesting interlude in the South was drastically cut short when he was called to Columbia University as a promising theorist. His joint appointment, alongside that of the methodologist Paul Lazarsfeld, resolved a departmental crisis about whether a theorist or a methodologist should be appointed to a vacant slot. Before long Merton had forged an alliance with Lazarsfeld, and the two became a powerful duo who came to dominate the department for the next thirty years while strongly influencing the shape of American and world sociology. Theirs was a particularly close and fruitful working partnership that extended far beyond scientific collaboration. Together they trained generations of students, developed a program of theoretically informed but empirically rigorous research, and established several institutional innovations, including survey research centers, graduate training schools, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

Merton’s immediate war-related work involved (with colleagues and students) studies of propaganda and mass communication. He wrote the classic study of a wartime propaganda campaign, Mass Persuasion: The Social Psychology of a War Bond Drive (1946), and developed the “focused group interview” that was later transformed into the extremely popular focus groups used in market and academic research. Later in his life Merton was increasingly chagrined that the concept of the focus group had been too often torn asunder from what he saw as its partner: the use of quantitative surveys to measure the distribution of the attitudes the focus group might have revealed. Empirical studies of wartime morale were mined to produce Studies in the Scope and Method of “The American Soldier” (1950), elaborating on the powerful concept of “reference groups.” Another significant essay of this period analyzed the operation of the “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Merton participated in the development of research methods, publishing the first article in the sociological literature with a “significance-test.” He was also one of the pioneers of modern policy research: studying an integrated housing project, carrying out a case study of the use of social research by the AT&T Corporation, and writing up methodological reflections. His consulting roles with the American Nurses Association extended his analyses of professions and organizations.

Writings published in the late 1940s (which were developed earlier) differentiated Merton’s work from that of Talcott Parsons. While Merton helped make functional analysis central to sociology, he preferred a broader “structural-and-functional analysis.” His classic book Social Theory and Social Structure (originally published in 1949 and revised and expanded in 1957 and 1968) was a vehicle to weld earlier essays into a more cohesive structure. His essay distinguishing “latent” from “manifest” functions and his paradigm for functional analysis became classic contributions. More generally, Merton endeavored to advance a more sophisticated sociological approach that denied the “normality” of social cohesion and made the analyses of social change and social conflict central. However, these features of his work were not sufficient to establish a separate “brand” of analysis or to deflect the criticism of functionalism from the 1960s on.

Merton eschewed the building of grand theoretical systems in favor of what he called “middle-range theories” (often sculpted from the rich store of ideas of previous theorists), designed to guide empirical inquiry and make sense of disparate findings. Other essays studiously staked out the parameters of a well-considered position on a range of scholarly issues, such as the roles of insiders and outsiders, opportunity structures, and socially expected durations. In the 1950s Merton extended his earlier work on media with a round of studies, each fleshing out the key features of modern societies—professions, bureaucracy, and communities. He also analyzed the professional socialization process revealed by intensive longitudinal studies of medical education.

Merton was persuaded that concepts needed apt labels, and he loved memorable phrases and the patterns of association and evocation by which they were passed on. He was a relentless scholar who read widely, meticulously tracked what he read through countless index cards, and had a clear sense of how what he read might be pertinent to his essays.

In addition to producing their own writings, Merton and Lazarsfeld were the mentors and animators of an intellectual tradition that combined theory and research at Columbia University and related institutions. A glittering array of sociologically important colleagues made Columbia University a lively site. Merton lectured and was the dissertation adviser to many subsequently important sociologists. He was a very active correspondent and mentor across a wide range of what he called “colleagues-at-a-distance.”

From the late 1950s, marked by his term as president of the American Sociological Association, Merton returned to work on social structure and also rekindled his interest in the sociology of science. This theoretical work was particularly influenced by Georg Simmel (but also by Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber) and involved a broad conceptual framework centered on the analysis of “reference groups,” a complex status and role analysis, structural analysis, with particular attention to the ambivalences built into social structures.

Merton launched a graduate teaching and also empirical research program in the social study of science. Opposing widely held ideas that stressed the individual creativity and even genius of individual scientists, Merton had developed a model of the “ethos of science,” the normative structure specific to the field that encouraged productivity, critical thinking, and the pursuit of continually improved understanding. His work explored the social and institutional conditions that allowed this collective cognitive enterprise to work. Theoretically directed studies empirically explored the extent to which the actual operation of science fitted this broader sociological model.

Merton considered himself as much a humanist as a scientist, and toward the end of his life he began to develop a “Sociological Semantics.” One of his more famous books traces through the centuries the phrase “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This is a scholarly detective story that takes the form of an epistolary novel filled with digressions, much like Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, one of Merton’s favorite books. It is also a serious inquiry into patterns of scholarly reference and citation, the rise and fall of reputations, and the links between science and humane knowledge. The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Historical Semantics and the Sociology of Science (2004) accomplishes a somewhat similar historical analysis for that term.

Merton was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was the first sociologist to be awarded the National Medal of Science (1994). After the death of his wife Susan in 1992, Merton married Harriet Zuckerman on 4 June 1993. In his later years Merton was bemused by some aspects of his own longevity. He had lived long enough to write contributions to the Festschriften of many of his former students. He also wrote retrospective accounts of how several of his important contributions came to be written and how they were subsequently used. He remained intellectually active and an active correspondent.

Merton was (alongside Talcott Parsons) the preeminent figure in sociology in the 1950s and 1960s, and his wider range of writings continue to fructify, his ideas diffusing widely into political science, psychology, and education. He died of cancer and was buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

For information about Merton’s life and work, see Lewis A. Coser, ed., The Idea of Social Structure: Papers in Honor of Robert K. Merton (1975); Thomas F. Gieryn, ed., Science and Social Structure: A Festschrift for Robert K. Merton (1980); Piotr Stzompka, Robert K. Merton: An Intellectual Profile (1986); Charles Crothers, Robert K. Merton (1987); Jon Clark, Celia Modgil, and Sohan Modgil, eds., Robert K. Merton: Consensus and Controversy (1990); I. Bernard Cohen, ed., Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science: The Merton Thesis (1990); and Carlo Mongardini and Simonetta Tabboni, eds., Robert K. Merton and Contemporary Sociology (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (24 Feb. 2003).

Charles Crothers