Robert King Merton died on February 23, 2003, at the age of 92. He was perhaps the world’s most influential sociologist, an academic whose unique vision was embraced eventually by mainstream culture in America and the world.
The terms “role model” and “self-fulfilling prophecy” were coined by Merton, who spent most of his career at Columbia University, where he created the Bureau of Applied Social Research with his collaborator of 35 years, Paul F. Lazarsfeld.
Merton and Lazarsfeld, searching for scientific procedures in the study of social structure, pioneered the idea of the focus group. Their studies of the psychosocial effects of text, radio programs, and television and films upon carefully-selected individuals were pioneering, virtually creating sociology as a major scientific discipline.
He was born Meyer R. Schkolnick on July 4, 1910, in the slums of South Philadelphia, the son of eastern European immigrants who lived above the family’s dairy-products store. After a rough-and-tumble early childhood—which included membership in the local street gang—the teenaged Scholnick began to perform magic tricks around the neighborhood, at parties and social gatherings, using the stage name “Robert Merlin” until a young friend convinced him that borrowing King Arthur’s mentor’s name was clichéd.
After winning a scholarship to Temple University, he changed his nom du stage to Merton, which pleased his very “Americanized” mother greatly.
An early work, Social Structure and Anomie, written as a graduate student at Harvard in 1936, exemplified the sort of incisive original thought that was the hallmark of all of Merton’s efforts.
He took it upon himself to examine what it was that brought upon anomie, that state of instability in society that threatens cohesion in a population. Merton suggested that anomie was likely to arise when members of a social structure were denied adequate means of achieving the specific common goals that the society itself projected, such things as wealth, power, fame and enlightenment.
The concept, though it appears obvious to us now, was revolutionary, and it led to many other studies, including Merton’s work on the ranges of deviant behavior and crime.
By the early 1940’s, he had formulated his “ethos of science,” virtually transforming the commonplace idea that scientists were, as a group, stereotypical geniuses or absent-minded idiot savants, and thus paving the way for the modern discipline of sociology.
Merton studied the process of science. How and why did “scientists” behave the way they did? What were their motivations? What excited them as people. Of what were they afraid?
Merton’s own interests as a student, scientist, and educator covered a truly extraordinary range. Mass media was of course his specialty, but he also studied the anatomy of racism, the social perspectives of “insiders” vs. “outsiders,” history, literature, and etymology.
His studies of an integrated community informed Kenneth Clark’s watershed brief in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that led to desegregation in American public schools.
Working in concert with his wife, sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, Merton made inquiries into the reward systems of science, and the channels of communication that determine which ideas survive and which do not.
He introduced the “phenomenon of the 41st chair,” which described the situation of talented scientists whose accomplishments are equal to those who receive the Nobel Prize but who unfortunately are never recognized. (There is, of course, no Nobel Prize for Sociology.)
Merton’s best-known work On the Shoulders of Giants, begun in 1942, took him 23 years to complete. The book traces the etymology of Isaac Newton’s remark “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” back through time to at least the 12th century.
For the past 35 years, fighting six different cancers, rising at 4:30 A.M., and working surrounded by his fifteen cats, Merton had been studying the concept of serendipity, collating on hand-written index cards in the same eccentric and concentric fashion of “Giants” his thoughts on the miraculous interstice of accidental discovery and human leaps of useful association.
This writeup, surely, is a testimonial to serendipity, for prior to this afternoon I had never heard of Robert King Merton, though his ideas, of course, inform my very existence.
Four days before her husband's death, Harriet Zuckerman was notified that Princeton University Press had approved the publication of The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity.
Robert K. Merton—role model AND self-fulfilling prophecy.