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Renowned Columbia Sociologist and National Medal of Science Winner Robert K. Merton Dies at 92

By Jason Hollander

Robert K. Merton

Robert K. Merton, the esteemed Columbia University sociologist, and one of America's trailblazers in the social sciences, died Sunday, February 23rd in New York at the age of 92. Best known for founding the sociology of science and for his theoretical work analyzing social structures, particularly the intended and unintended consequences of social action, Merton became the first sociologist ever to win the National Medal of Science in 1994.

Merton, who lived in Manhattan, was an institution at Columbia, joining the faculty in 1941 and helping to build one of the most prominent sociology departments in the world through the relentless pursuit of subtle patterns in society. By concentrating on "middle range" theory -- rather than grand scale or abstract speculation -- Merton established concepts that reached into everyday life. He coined the phrase "self-fulfilling prophecy," developed the idea of role models and created, with his colleagues, the "focused interview" that was used in "focus groups" -- now a staple of contemporary business albeit a distortion of Merton's intention.

Merton generated many of his ideas through human interaction and observation. The skillful logic of his findings once inspired Eugene Garfield, an information specialist, to write, "So much of what he says is so absolutely obvious, so transparently true, that one can't imagine why no one else has bothered to point it out."

In 1942, Merton gained much attention when he described the "ethos of science," and the consequences of these values for the behavior of scientists within institutional settings. He portrayed scientists as individuals who had regular motivations, desires and fears, thus offering insight into some of the most elusive and creative minds the world has known.

Often, Merton's work had consequences that pushed beyond the walls of academia, including his study of successfully integrated communities, which helped shape the case of "Brown v. Board of Education," and led to the Supreme Court's ruling to desegregate public schools. His extraordinarily influential work on social structure and anomie built upon research on anomia by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim and sought to explain that deviance results from the existence of social structures that dangle universal goals but do not offer all members the opportunity to achieve them.

"One cannot have been in the academic world over the past several decades and not have known of the immense stature and accomplishments of Robert Merton," said President Lee C. Bollinger. "Not only did he define a field, but he also served as a model of intellectual inquiry into some of the most important questions of our time. I am deeply saddened for those at Columbia who knew him personally, and for myself and others who knew him principally through his scholarly contributions."

Columbia's Provost Jonathan R. Cole studied under Merton as a graduate student at the University in the 1960s. He remembered Merton as "a giant among social scientists" noting that if a Nobel Prize was awarded for sociology, he would have received it without question.

"Bob Merton became the leader of structural-functional analysis in sociology, and the leader of those sociologists who attempted to create social theories that could be empirically tested," Cole said. "He was an inspirational teacher and editor, and with his students, such as James S. Coleman and Seymour Martin Lipset, among many others who would become leading figures in the field, he helped to build and legitimate the field of sociology in America.

"For me, he was a model teacher and mentor, a trusted colleague, and a close friend. His death, in many ways, puts a period at the end of 20th Century sociology," said Cole.

Born in Philadelphia on July 4, 1910, Merton grew up above the small grocery store owned by his Jewish immigrant parents in the city's rundown south side neighborhood. His mother was a self-taught philosopher and encouraged him to take advantage of Philadelphia's cultural opportunities. As a child, Merton was often found reading in the Carnegie Library -- which provided better lighting than the gas lamps at home -- and enjoying the Academy of Music and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A student of magic, Merton changed his name at the age of 14 from Meyer R. Schkolnick to Robert Merlin. Soon convinced by friends that the surname was too imagined, he stayed with the theme of "Americanization" and changed it finally to Merton. His childhood in the South Philadelphia slums was surprisingly enchanting and would surely influence his eventual course of study. As Merton once told the New York Times, the city "provided a youngster with every sort of capital -- social capital, cultural capital, human capital, and above all, what we may call public capital -- that is, with every sort of capital except the personally financial."

He received a scholarship to attended Temple University and wandered into a sociology class purely by chance. His instant infatuation with the subject propelled him to pursue an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. He became chairman of the Department of Sociology at Tulane before his 31st birthday and came to Columbia in 1941, where he taught for more than five decades. He served as associate director of the Bureau of Applied Social Research from 1942-1971, Giddings Professor of Sociology from 1963-1974 and University Professor from 1974 until his retirement in 1979.

At Columbia, he met fellow sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, and they became lifelong friends. The pair complemented each other successfully as Merton tended towards theory and Lazarsfeld towards empiricism. In 1944, they were instrumental in establishing the Bureau of Applied Social Research, which helped enforce the link between theory and research, legitimizing the field and validating many discoveries. Research included some of the first inquiries into the impact of radio and television on the American people.

Among the studies produced at the Bureau were, "The People's Choice," which analyzed voting decisions in the 1940 Presidential campaign and, "Personal Interest," which examined the relationship between the mass media and interpersonal communication in the process of opinion leadership. The work would inspire historian Everett Rodgers to label the Bureau as the "birthplace" of mass communication research.

Merton retired from teaching in 1979 and was named Special Service Professor -- a title reserved by Columbia's Trustees for emeritus faculty who "render special service to the University." Columbia established the Robert K. Merton Professorship in the Social Sciences in 1990.

For his vast body of work and its influence, Merton became the first sociologist to receive the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor. On being informed that he would receive the Medal of Science in a 1994 ceremony to be hosted by then-President Bill Clinton, Merton said, "I am deeply moved by this matchless honor, the more so for the peer recognition it gives the sociology of science."

The author, co-author and editor of more than 20 books and 200 scholarly articles, Merton is probably best known for his work, Social Theory and Social Structure, which has had more than 30 printings and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Among his other seminal works are, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations and On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript.

Merton is survived by his wife, sociologist Harriet Zuckerman; one son, Robert C. Merton; two daughters, Stephanie Tombrello and Vanessa Merton; nine grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held on Columbia's Morningside campus this Spring.

Published: Feb 25, 2003
Last modified: Mar 06, 2003

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