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

By Lewis A. Coser | Go to book overview

Merton's Uses of the European Sociological Tradition

LEWIS A. COSER

The sense of the past has usually been linked in human consciousness with a sense of the future.

J. H. PLUMB1


1

THIS volume celebrates the achievements of a modern master of sociological thought. Many of its chapters explicate in convincing detail the originality of Robert K. Merton's contributions to modern sociology. In what follows I shall use a strategy that is slightly at variance with that employed in most other chapters. By pointing to some of the European thinkers in whose lineage Merton self-consciously placed his own work, I shall attempt to highlight his capacity to draw from many sources and, in a grand synthesizing effort, to rise above all of them.

Pitrim Sorokin, one of Merton's teachers, once said about the work of his former student that it presented mainly "variations on the themes of earlier masters." He allowed that, "like Beethoven's variation on Mozartian themes or Brahms's variations on the themes of Paganini, Merton's variations are admirable in many ways...,"2 but the context makes it clear that he did not think highly of such an enterprise. Yet it happens that what was meant to be an ungenerous and disparaging remark has had the unanticipated consequence of pointing to one of the most characteristic, distinctive, and admirable aspects of Merton's contributions to sociology. More than any native-born American social scientist, Merton has been preoccupied throughout his career with the continuity of sociological tradition and the cumulation of sociological knowledge. He has been intensely aware of sociology as a

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