The Idea of Social Structure: Papers in Honor of Robert K. Merton

By Lewis A. Coser | Go to book overview

Men like W. I. Thomas and Robert Park in the preceding generation, and William Graham Sumner or William James somewhat earlier, had also been thoroughly acquainted with European thought. Yet one has the impression that in Merton's case there was a greater openness to this influence, that he assimilated European thought patterns more thoroughly than most of his predecessors. Could it be that Merton, having come from the slums of Philadelphia, and having done his undergraduate work at a city university, was less hampered by the genteel assumptions of American upper-class culture?

R.N. Do you mean that being a "stranger" in traditional American culture made him more open to outside influences?

L.C. Yes. When he came to Harvard he was, to be sure, not as much of a stranger to the academic proprieties as Veblen had been. But J. G. Crowther's description of him in those days gives the distinct impression of the outsider in academia. "He seemed to have a subtler cultural sense than Harvard men in general," wrote Crowther. "This was all the more conspicuous because he wore an old and rather bucolic suit, the air of which contrasted with the fineness of his mind." Could it be that in his fierce desire to make a mark in the academic world, and unhampered by some of the cultural baggage of many of his predecessors, he was more open to new winds of doctrine that blew in from the other side of the Atlantic? It seems to me that to be among the New Men who had crashed the gates of the academy in the thirties carried with it many burdens that had been spared the sons of clergymen and other genteel professionals of preceding generations. But it also allowed a receptivity to the lure of what was most exciting in the novel ideas of European thinkers, an openness of vision that was denied to the more settled denizens of the American cultural scene. Do you think that there is something to these speculations?

R.N. There's a great deal! It is impossible to miss in Merton's work from the very beginning -- starting with his remarkable Ph.D. dissertation, Science, Technology, and Puritanism in Seventeenth-Century England -- a knowledge of and sensitivity to European insights that were exceedingly uncommon in this country until the late 1940s. He once told me that if there had been nothing else to get from Sorokin's courses at Harvard (and, of course, there was much else) there were the massive reading lists, heavily oriented toward European works.

L.C. It goes without saying that Bob set himself to read everything on the lists.

R.N. Indeed! And it would be difficult for any young mind in sociology today to realize how separated this country was for a long time from the European sociologists, lasting until the middle of the 1930s. American isolationism was as much a fact in sociology as in foreign policy from about World War I until World War II. Merton had a great deal to do, as did Talcott Parsons, with counteracting this isolation. And just as Parsons made the Europeans relevant to a grand theory, Merton made them relevant to a middle-range theory and also to some impeccably empirical researches. It wouldn't have been enough simply to have written descriptively and analytically about Weber, Durkheim, and the other Europeans. What was necessary

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