Merton Awarded Nation's Highest Science Honor

Photograph: Robert K. Merton, Photo credit: Sandra Still.
Photograph: National Medal of Science

Robert K. Merton, the eminent Columbia sociologist and humanist, has won the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor, the White House announced Sept. 8.

Merton, whose work in theoretical sociology during a career spanning more than 50 years at Columbia has been celebrated worldwide, was cited for "founding the sociology of science and for his pioneering contributions to the study of social life, especially the self-fulfilling prophecy and the unintended consequences of social action."

His major contributions to the study of bureaucracies, mass communications, social influence and the professions are widely recognized. "His work is innovative, broadly influential and extraordinarily durable," said the National Academy of Sciences, which nominated him.

Merton's is the 12th National Medal of Science won by a Columbia scholar. It will be presented to him and to seven others by President Clinton in ceremonies at the White House in October.

When informed that this was the first time the National Medal of Science had been awarded to a sociologist, Merton said: "I am deeply moved by this matchless honor, the more so for the peer recognition it gives the sociology of science."

President Rupp said: "With the entire Columbia community, I extend my warmest congratulations to Robert K. Merton on the award of this highest honor. His work has helped us learn how scientists think and has provided new research approaches to the study of society. We are proud of him and rejoice with him at this well-deserved recognition."

Provost Jonathan Cole said: "Bob Merton is today the most distinguished sociologist in the world. It is entirely fitting that he receive the National Medal of Science, and that he is the first sociologist to be so honored. He is the father of several social science specialties--particularly the sociology of science. What may be less well known is that his many intellectual progeny represent today a phenomenal number of the world's preeminent social scientists. There have been few in this century who have equalled his contributions to knowledge in the social sciences."

The National Medal of Science was created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Selection is based on an individual's work in physical, biological, mathematical, engineering, behavioral or social sciences. Winners are selected by the Committee on the National Medals of Science, which receives nominations from the National Academy of Sciences and other scientific and engineering organizations.

Merton, 84, has been a member of the Columbia faculty since 1941. He was named to the University's highest academic rank, University Professor, in 1974 and became Special Service Professor upon his retirement in 1979, a title reserved by the Trustees for emeritus faculty who "render special services to the University." In recognition of his lasting contributions to scholarship and the University, Columbia established the Robert K. Merton Professorship in the Social Sciences in 1990.

Merton, who was born in Philadelphia in 1910, received the B.A. from Temple in 1931 and the Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1936. He taught at Harvard until 1939, when he became professor and chairman of the Department of Sociology at Tulane. Two years later he joined the Columbia faculty, becoming Giddings Professor of Sociology in 1963. He was associate director of the University's Bureau of Applied Social Research from 1942 to 1971. He is an adjunct faculty member at Rockefeller University and is also the first Foundation Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation.

Long recognized as a major force in the transformation of modern sociology, Merton has been acclaimed as both social scientist and humanist. Many of his early major contributions to theoretical sociology were brought together in his classic book, Social Theory and Social Structure, which has appeared in more than 30 printings and in more than a dozen languages. His book in the humanist tradition, On the Shoulders of Giants, examines the tension between tradition and originality in science and was recently published in its third edition.

Merton's 1938 monograph, Science, Technology and Society in 17th-Century England, on the connections between religion and the rise of modern science, launched the historical sociology of science and continues to elicit new scholarship. The 50th anniversary of "The Merton Thesis" was celebrated internationally, with research conferences in the United States, Israel and Italy. In the 1930s and 1940s he also examined the impact of Nazism on science, and in the 1950s and 1960s turned his attention to the reward system of science and its effects on scientists' motivations, problem choices, productivity and conflicts over priority. His 1973 volume, The Sociology of Science, records that work.

The early work and his current research on scientific practice and "The Matthew Effect," which analyzes the accumulation of scientific prestige among individuals and organizations, continue to provide a major impetus to research by historians as well as sociologists of science.

Merton is the author, co-author or editor of more than 20 books and 200 articles in scholarly journals. A recent symposium devoted to a half-dozen books published on his work describes him as "the most distinguished living sociologist and a major figure in twentieth-century social science."

Typically marked by erudition, elegance and wit, Merton's fruitful theoretical and empirical contributions are drawn upon in all the social sciences. His pioneering theoretical work on the unintended consequences of social action and specifically the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy have been employed in hundreds of research papers. Often identified as the most often cited and reprinted paper in sociology, his analysis of deviant behavior and opportunity structure started another continuing research tradition. The focused interview technique he and his co-workers introduced in the 1940s has led to the focus group as a widely used and, Merton observes, often misused tool of social research in politics and the marketplace.

Merton has received many national and international honors for his research. He is one of the first sociologists elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the first American sociologist to be elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. He is also a member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which awarded him its Parsons Prize, the National Academy of Education and Academica Europaea.

He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1962 and was the first sociologist to be named a MacArthur Fellow (1983-88). More than 20 universities have awarded him honorary degrees, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Chicago, and, abroad, the Universities of Leyden, Wales, Oslo and Krakow, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Oxford.

Also receiving a National Medal of Science this year is Frank Press, a geophysicist from the Carnegie Institution of Washington and a former president of the National Academy of Sciences. Press earned the M.A. in 1946 and the Ph.D. in 1949 from Columbia, and taught at Columbia from 1949 to 1955.

Columbia University Record -- September 16, 1994 -- Vol. 20, No. 2