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Columbia College Today May 2003
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Rushdie: In
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Five Alumni Honored
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Twists and Turns
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Michael Kahn ’61:
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    Turns 100

Love in Lerner


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IN MEMORIAM: Robert K. Merton, Influential Sociologist

Robert K. Merton
Robert K. Merton

Robert K. Merton, one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century and a Columbia professor for nearly 40 years, died on February 23. He was 92 and lived in Manhattan. Merton’s coinage of terms such as “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “role models” filtered from his academic pursuits into everyday language.
A tall, pipe-smoking scholar, Merton often used the trajectory of his life story, from humble beginnings to academic achievement, to illustrate the workings of serendipity, chance and coincidence, which long fascinated him.

Born Meyer R. Schkolnick on July 4, 1910, in South Philadelphia, Merton carried that name for his first 14 years. His parents were Eastern European immigrants; he lived in an apartment above his father’s dairy store until the building burned down. Merton’s mother, a self-taught philosopher, encouraged him to take advantage of Philadelphia’s cultural opportunities. As a child, Merton often read in the Carnegie Library and also enjoyed the Academy of Music and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
As a teenager, Merton performed magic tricks at birthday parties and adopted Robert Merlin as a stage name. A friend convinced Merton that his choice of the ancient wizard’s name was hackneyed, and he modified it, adopting Merton, with the middle name King, after he won a scholarship to Temple University.

Merton’s instant infatuation with sociology propelled him to pursue an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. He became chairman of Tulane’s sociology department before his 31st birthday and in 1941, he came to Columbia, where he taught until his retirement in 1979.

Merton began his career by developing theories of the sociology of science, a field that examines how scientists work. His theory of the “Matthew Effect” — named after the Gospel According to Matthew — said that credit for scientific discoveries tends to go to already established scientists, not to lesser known scientists who may have been the real innovators.

At Columbia, Merton met his collaborator of 35 years, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, who died in 1976. They developed the Bureau of Applied Social Research in 1944, which helped enforce the link between theory and research, legitimizing the field and validating many discoveries. Research at the bureau included some of the first inquiries into the impact of radio and television. Early focus groups originated at the bureau. Among the studies produced by the bureau were “The People’s Choice,” which analyzed voting decisions in the 1940 presidential campaign, and “Personal Interest,” which paralleled mass media with interpersonal communication in examining the process of opinion leadership.

Merton served as the bureau’s associate director until 1971. He was Giddings Professor of Sociology from 1963–74 and University Professor from 1974 until his retirement, when he 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. Merton was the first sociologist to be named a MacArthur fellow, in 1983.

Merton’s most important contribution was his theory of social deviance, which he called “Strain Theory.” Merton theorized that deviant behavior, including criminal behavior, was caused by a societal structure that created the same goals for everyone while denying some people the means to achieve those goals. Thus, the poor, who have little access to good jobs, adequate secondary and higher education, and stable family structures, are still expected to strive for wealth, status and power. When they cannot achieve those goals, they turn to deviant behavior.

Another of Merton’s popular research areas explored how scientists behave and what it is that motivates, rewards and intimidates them. This body of work contributed to Merton’s becoming the first sociologist to win a National Medal of Science, in 1994.

His explorations during 70-odd years, however, extended across an extraordinary range of interests that included the workings of the mass media, the anatomy of racism, the social perspectives of “insiders” versus “outsiders,” history, literature and etymology. Merton’s studies on an integrated community helped shape Kenneth Clark’s historic brief in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that led to the desegregation of public schools. His adoption of the focused interview to elicit the responses of groups to texts, radio programs and films led to the “focus groups” that politicians and researchers now find indispensable. Long after he had helped devise the methodology, Merton deplored its abuse and misuse but added, “I wish I’d get a royalty on it.”

Eugene Garfield, an information scientist, wrote that much of Merton’s work was “so transparently true that one can’t imagine why no one else has bothered to point it out.”

Merton’s most widely known book, On the Shoulders of Giants, which he finished in 1965, went far beyond the confines of sociology. Referred to by Merton as his “prodigal brainchild,” it reveals the depth of his curiosity, the breadth of his prodigious research and the extraordinary patience that characterize his academic writing.

During the past 35 years, Merton gathered information about the idea and workings of serendipity, thinking about it in the same spirit in which he had written his earlier books. Most days, he started work at 4:30 a.m., with some of his 15 cats keeping him company. During the last years of his life, as he fought and overcame six different cancers, his Italian publisher, Il Mulino, prevailed upon him to allow it to issue his writings as a book. Four days before his death, Merton’s wife, sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, received word that Princeton University Press had approved publication of the English version under the title The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity.

Merton was the author, co-author or editor of more than 20 books and 200 scholarly articles, including 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 is The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations.

Provost Jonathan R. Cole ’64, who studied under Merton as a graduate student at the University in the 1960s, said of Merton, “If there were a Nobel Prize in sociology, there would be no question he would have gotten it.” (Merton’s son, Robert C. Merton, won a Nobel Prize in economics in 1997.)

President Lee C. Bollinger said, “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. 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.”

Cole reflected on Merton for CCT: “How does one measure the stature of a man, whose published work, charismatic teaching and commanding presence placed many graduate students in awe of him? I tried to take the measure of the man when I was his teaching assistant in a course on the analysis of social structures. I asked the class how tall Bob Merton was. The responses from roughly 100 students in the class averaged 6 feet 31–2 inches, which was at least two inches taller than he was. Merton, through his writing and teaching, did more to legitimize and institutionalize the testing of sociological theories and ideas than any other 20th-century sociologist. He really was a giant.”

In addition to Zuckerman and his son, Merton is survived by his daughters, Stephanie Tombrello and Vanessa Merton; nine grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.





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