OBITUARY: Professor Robert Merton ; Sociologist Who Coined the `Self-Fulfilling Prophecy' and Other 20th- Century Neologisms

By Stones, Rob | The Independent (London, England), March 22, 2003 | Go to article overview
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OBITUARY: Professor Robert Merton ; Sociologist Who Coined the `Self-Fulfilling Prophecy' and Other 20th- Century Neologisms


Stones, Rob, The Independent (London, England)


ROBERT MERTON was one of the most distinguished sociologists of the 20th century. In a long post-war period stretching well into the 1970s his reputation within American sociology was equalled only by Talcott Parsons, and his influence on its institutional development was arguably much greater.

Merton is most readily associated with his "theory of the middle range"; with his pioneering work in the sociology of science; with perhaps the most frequently cited and reprinted paper in the history of sociology, "Social Structure and Anomie", first published in the American Sociological Review in 1938; and with a stream of neologisms that he either coined himself or rescued from the shadows to elaborate and refine. He saw many of the latter become firmly established not only within the lexicon of sociology but also within the vocabularies of everyday life. They include the self-fulfilling prophecy, reference groups, the focused interview (which, in turn, spawned "focus groups"), opportunity structure, manifest and latent functions, unanticipated consequences, role-models, status- sets, social dysfunctions, scientific paradigms, the serendipity pattern in research and obliteration by incorporation.

He was born Meyer Robert Schkolnick in 1910 in Philadelphia, the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father scraped out a living as a carpenter and truck driver and Schkolnick grew up in the city's southern slums. He lived above the family's milk, egg and butter store until the building burned down. He was no stranger to the juvenile gangs and street fights of his neighbourhood but also, very early on, was drawn to the local public library and to the promise of learning that it housed.

Many have hinted at links between these early years and his later insights into the causes of anomie (that is, the lack of the usual social standards in a group or person). At 12 he became an amateur magician and performed at local social functions. He adopted Robert Merlin as a stage name after the mythical wizard but, encouraged by friends, modified it over the years, eventually adopting Robert Merton after winning a scholarship to Temple University in 1931.

After completing his BA at Temple University, Merton won a fellowship for graduate work at Harvard University, where he studied with Parsons, George Sarton, Pitirim Sorokin and L.J. Henderson. Merton's doctoral dissertation was published in 1938 as Science, Technology and Society in 17th-century England, by which time he had become an instructor and tutor at Harvard. This was a seminal book in establishing the sociology of science as a significant field of study in its own right. In the words of his contemporary Robert Bierstedt:

To ask what Merton has contributed to this area of enquiry is almost to ask the wrong question. The sociology of science is a sea over which he exercises an admiral's suzerainty. It was he who explored it, surveyed it, and drew its charts.

In 1990, 52 years after this youthful dissertation saw print, 18 eminent scholars came together in a special volume to debate the continuing significance of its thesis about Puritanism and the ethos that surrounded the rise of modern science.

Leaving Harvard, Merton spent two years at Tulane University, New Orleans, before becoming assistant professor at Columbia University, New York, in 1941. He was to remain here for the rest of his long working life. In 1934 he married Suzanne Carhart and they had a son, Robert C. Merton, who was to become a celebrated economist, winning the Nobel Prize in 1997, and two daughters.

Merton became a full professor in 1947 and succeeded the doyen of social science methodology, Paul Lazarsfeld, as chair of the department in 1961 for several years. From 1942 to 1971 he also served as Lazarsfeld's deputy in Columbia's Bureau of Applied Social Research. The tall, pipe-smoking, austere-looking Merton was devoted to words and the craft of writing, and he was a committed, formidable and inspiring teacher.

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