Merton, Robert

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American sociologist considered to be the father of the sociology of science, Robert King Merton (1910–2003) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 4, and died in New York City on February 23. His scholarly career spanned more than seven decades. Merton's contribution to ethics in science and technology was his elaboration of the social, and human, nature of scientific research.

After undergraduate study at Temple University, Merton attended Harvard University. He began his doctoral thesis in 1933 and completed it two years later with the title "Sociological Aspects of Scientific Development in Seventeenth Century England." In 1938 Merton's revised thesis was published in Osiris: Studies on the History and Philosophy of Science, and on the History of Learning and Culture as Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England (STS). In this work, Merton explored the reciprocal relationships between the development of science and the religious beliefs associated with Puritanism. He concluded that cultural attributes, religious beliefs, and economic influences made it possible for science and its technical applications to flourish.

Merton later indicated that when STS was first published, it was generally ignored by sociologists (see Cohen 1990 and Chapter 20 by I. Bernard Cohen in Clark, Modgil, and Modgil 1990). More than three decades later, Merton's STS was published by a commercial publisher. By then, his reputation in sociology generally and in the sociology of science particularly was so broad that STS was widely studied and was considered a classic. It was both criticized and praised by historians, sociologists, and others.

After completing his doctorate, Merton taught at Harvard and published his most famous paper, "Social Structure and Anomie" (see Stephen Cole in Coser 1975). Merton's theory asserted that in the United States, people are taught to pursue the goal of economic success regardless of their location in the social structure. Yet the means to achieve success are not always available, resulting in a social condition conducive to deviant behavior.

After Harvard, Merton taught for two years at Tulane University. In 1941 he was invited to join the faculty at Columbia University; he remained affiliated with that university for the rest of his career. Soon after joining the faculty, he began to serve as associate director of the Bureau of Applied Social Research.

Merton published several articles from his thesis analyzing the social contexts of scientific advancement. In 1942, he described the normative structure of science in "Science and Technology in a Democratic Order" (reprinted in Merton 1973). He explains how the social institution of science involves a normative structure that works to support the goal of science—the extension of certified knowledge. Modern science has at least four norms or behavioral constraints that constitute its unique ethos.

Organized skepticism requires that any claim to new knowledge stand up to the same scrutiny, regardless of its source, before it becomes part of the accepted body of certified knowledge. Universalism requires that age, sex, race, or creed should not influence a decision about the acceptance or rejection of scientific information. Only the logical structure of the argument and the quality of the data are relevant. Communism (or communality) requires that once scientific information has been created or discovered and made public, the originator has no future intellectual claims to it. All scientists are free to use it in their work (with appropriate attribution). Disinterestedness requires scientists to be motivated to extend knowledge, not to seek personal gain.

This 1942 paper had a passing reference to a remark by Sir Isaac Newton stating, in effect, that if he had seen farther (in his work), it was by standing on the shoulders of giants. In the two decades that followed, Merton traced backward (and forward) the twelfth century origins of that phrase. On the Shoulders of Giants (1965) became a classic for its bibliographic erudition and style, and is recognized as a literary masterpiece.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the Bureau of Applied Social Research provided unusual opportunities to collect data and conduct sociological analyses, and Merton developed a large body of theory that established his sociological talents. His new ways of seeing social realities invaded popular and official language. His work included such concepts as manifest and latent functions, self-fulfilling prophecy, goal displacement, local and cosmopolitan influentials, accumulation of advantage, the Matthew effect, theories of the middle range, sociological ambivalence, and obliteration by incorporation (Clark et al. 1990).

For two decades after Merton's 1938 contribution to the historical sociology of science, research by others in the sociology of science was largely dormant. In 1952, Merton explained why social aspects of science would be neglected by sociologists (Merton 1973). Most sociological research focuses on social problems such as deterioration of the family, political unrest, urban congestion, race relations, the media, and so on. Consequently, until either scientific knowledge or science as an institution is defined as a problem for society, scholarly investigators likely would not select science as the subject of social analysis.

In 1957, Merton's American Sociological Association presidential paper "Priorities in Scientific Discovery" continued his exploration of the developing sociology of science (reprinted in Merton 1973). That paper eventually became the most cited publication in the sociology of science (see Cole and Zuckerman's chapter in Coser 1975). It was full of ideas for further research, and provided a broad foundation for a growing interest in the sociology of science. During the 1970s, as science became to be perceived as a social problem, the number of scholars specializing in the sociology of science increased much faster than the growth of the field of sociology in general.

By the 1980s, Merton's influence was evident in the United States and in Europe. Colleges established courses and degree programs, and research centers focusing on social studies of science were created. Sociologists successfully organized specialty scholarly groups nationally and internationally. Although Merton was recruited to organize these societies, he mostly encouraged others and provided moral support.

During the last twenty years of the twentieth century, many competing ideas about the social nature of science developed. Controversies flourished about the foci of inquiries, research methodologies, and the validity of Merton's and other theories. These issues were debated internationally among historians, philosophers, sociologists, and others.

The Mertonian view of science based on the institution's normative structure was criticized as empirically invalid, especially by scholars outside sociology. Because social norms are not absolute, and compliance is rarely total, some deviance among community members is expected. Deviance among scientists, however, provided the basis for scholars to question Merton's perspective.

Merton was arguably the most influential sociologist in the twentieth century. Even scholars who did not see his scholarship as the final word on a subject nevertheless studied his work to create their own interpretations of the nature of society and the reciprocal relationships between science and society.


SEE ALSO Science, Technology, and Society Studies;Skepticism;Sociological Ethics.


Clark, Jon; Celia Modgil; and Sohan Modgil, eds. (1990). Robert K. Merton: Consensus and Controversy. London: Falmer Press. A critique of Merton's wide-ranging contributions across the entire field of sociology.

Cohen, I. Bernard, ed. (1990). Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science: The Merton Thesis. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. An extensive discussion of the ideas developed in Merton's 1935 doctoral thesis.

Coser, Lewis A., ed. (1975). The Idea of Social Structure: Papers in Honor of Robert K. Merton. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanich. Former students and colleagues discuss the breadth and depth of Merton's first forty years of scholarship and his career as teacher, collaborator, and colleague.

Merton, Robert K. (1965). On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript. New York: The Free Press. A literary exposition of the origin and persistence of the humble notion asserting that scientists are able to be creative because of the foundation laid by predecessors.

Merton, Robert K. (1970). Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England. New York: Howard Fertig. The 1935 doctoral thesis that first established comprehensively the sociological perspective of scientific development.

Merton, Robert K. (1973). The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Edited by Norman W. Storer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Major collection of Merton's papers on science as a social institution.