Robert K. Merton

Robert K. Merton (born 1910) was a sociologist, educator, and internationally regarded academic statesman for sociology in contemporary research and social policy. He was also a leading interpreter of responsible functional analysis, of major social factors in scientific development, and of underlying and unanticipated strains in modern society. He is considered the founder of the sociology of science.

Born in Philadelphia on July 5, 1910, Robert Merton was educated at Temple University and received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1936. After being attracted to sociology by George E. Simpson, he studied with or was profoundly influenced by such thinkers as George Sarton, Pitirim Sorokin, Talcott Parsons, and L. J. Henderson. An instructorship at Harvard was followed by a professorship at Tulane University. From 1941 until his retirement in 1978 he was one of the key figures in the development of the Department of Sociology at Columbia University and in received national and international recognition for his contributions to sociological analysis.

Received Awards and Honors

As a consequence, Merton held a number of important positions, among them associate director of the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University, trustee of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (1952-1975), and president of the American Sociological Association (1957). He received several prestigious awards: one for distinguished scholarship in the humanities from the American Council of Learned Societies (1962); the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service to Sociology (1970); a MacArthur Prize Fellowship (1983); and the first Who's Who in America Achievement Award in the field of social science and social policy (1984). In 1985 Columbia University honored him with the Doctor of Letters degree.

Focused on Variety of Responses in Social Behavior

Though Merton studied a considerable range of social situations and social categories or groups, his basic and enduring contributions to sociological analysis consist of three complementary themes. First, human behavior can best be understood as embedded in social structures (groups, organizations, social classes, communities, nations) which simultaneously present opportunities and constraints to their members. Second, in varying degrees individuals confront differing clues and ambiguities in social demands, and thus humans develop mixed or ambivalent values and motives in their responses to others. Consequently, sociologists cannot focus on either formal, official patterns (rules, laws, etc.) or the special features of individuals to understand the course and variations in important social structures. Third, because of this pervasive complexity in social experience, normal or "routine" social behavior typically generates multiple consequences, some predictable and desirable, but others largely unanticipated and even contrary to the intentions of many persons. On the whole, then, Merton advocated careful and yet imaginative study of social phenomena and cautioned against superficial, "common sense" investigations and slavish dependence on any technique of probing human social participation.

More specifically, Merton combined study of actual (or historically significant) social organizations and groups with a focus on some limited but crucial and recurring problem in social structures—the so-called "middle range" problems and related explanations. One such focus was social specialization and related issues of differences in responsibilities, types and complexity of social contacts, and cultural interests. Merton distinguished "local" versus "cosmopolitan" types of leaders and showed how such differences underscored meaningful differences in influence. Similarly, Merton connected different levels of status with availability of different forms of personal influence ("reference groups") and linked the process of changing one's status—social mobility—with the selection of new reference groups ("anticipatory socialization") in the cases of soldiers, voters, and some nonconformists.

Studied Socialization Issues

Another cardinal issue was socialization, the process of acquiring and sustaining legitimate roles in given social organizations. In this respect Merton studied medical students, intellectuals, scientists, bureaucrats, and various professionals. He and his associates gave much attention to the conflict between ideal goals and personal status concerns, and even to the "normal" inconsistency between accepted norms in academic training and the realities of "on-the-job" training of scientists and professionals.

Concerned with Social Regulation and Deviation

Much of Merton's continuing sociological concern, however, centered on the twin sociological problems of social regulation and social deviation—each type of phenomenon necessarily conditioning the other. Merton inferentially demonstrated the basic fragility of such normal forms of social regulation as formal leadership, dominant cultural values, and professional standards. Furthermore, he pointed to such basic patterns as the variable consequences in behavior of imposing demanding objectives without providing suitable means; the fact that people often estimate their social opportunities and limitations not in objective terms, but in comparison with some desired level or with a self-selected "new" reference group ("relative deprivation"); and the special and virtually unshakable advantage of persons in favored social positions (the "Matthew Effect"), which dissipates attempts at equalization and implicitly undermines the legitimacy of those in positions of responsibility.

Demonstrated Intellectual Flexibility in Spoof

After the mid-1960s Merton immersed himself in the sociology of science, the study of major cultural and organizational factors in the work of scientists (principally in the physical and biological sciences). This involved careful analysis of the careers of Nobel laureates, the processes of competition among scientists, the connection between publication and scientific investigation, and the problematic nature of discovery and acceptance in the sacred realm of science. However, Merton also demonstrated his intellectual versatility in a delightful spoof of scholarship in his On the Shoulders of Giants. In retrospect, his entire intellectual career was notable for the flexibility with which he combined theoretical formulations, useful typologies and classifications, empirical investigations, and a concern for the practical implications of sociological work in modern society.

His major works include Social Theory and Social Structure (1949), and The Sociology of Science (1973). His collection of essays, On Social Structure and Science, was reprinted in 1996. In the introduction, the editor of the collection, Piotr Sztompka, wrote that Merton's work had "opened up fruitful areas of inquiry along lines that he and generations of others would pursue for decades."

Further Reading on Robert K. Merton

The central works of Merton's early period include Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England (1938), Mass Persuasion (1945), Social Theory and Social Structure (several editions from 1949 to 1968), and the edited work Reader in Bureaucracy (1952). Later major works dealt with the sociology of science and the professions: The Student Physician (1957); Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations (1973); Sociological Ambivalence and Other Essays (1976); and Social Research and the Practicing Professions (1982). Some indication of Merton's influence is contained in a stimulating collection of essays, edited by Lewis A. Coser, in celebration of Merton's 65th birthday: The Idea of Social Structure: Papers in Honor of Robert K. Merton (1975).

See also Science November 1, 1996; Sztompka, Pi, Robert K. Merton, An Intellectual Profile, St. Martin's Press, 1986; and Robert K. Merton: Consensus and Controversy, Falmer Press, 1990.

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