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Robert King Merton (July 4, 1910 – February 23, 2003, born Meyer R. Schkolnick to immigrant parents) was a distinguished American sociologist perhaps best known for having coined the phrase "self-fulfilling prophecy." He also coined many other phrases that have gone into everyday use, such as "role model" and "unintended consequences". He spent most of his career teaching at Columbia University, where he attained the rank of University Professor.


Robert K. Merton was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, to working class Jewish Eastern European immigrants on July 4, 1910, in Philadelphia. Educated in the South Philadelphia High School, he became a frequent visitor of the nearby Andrew Carnegie Library, The Academy of Music, Central Library, Museum of Arts and other cultural and educational centres. He started his sociological career under the guidance of George E. Simpson at Temple University in Philadelphia (1927-1931), and Pitrim A. Sorokin in Harvard University (1931-1936).[1]

Merton never explained how and why he changed his name from the (Jewish) Schkolnik to the (Anglo-Saxon) Merton.

It is a popular misconception that Robert K. Merton was one of Talcott Parsons’ students. Parsons was only a junior member of his dissertation committee, the others being Pitirim Sorokin, Carle C. Zimmermanm and the historian of science, George Sarton. The dissertation, a quantitative social history of the development of science in seventeenth-century England, reflected this interdisciplinary committee (Merton, 1985).

He taught at Harvard until 1939, when he became professor and chairman of the Department of Sociology at Tulane University. In 1941 he joined the Columbia University faculty, becoming Giddings Professor of Sociology in 1963. 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. He was associate director of the University's Bureau of Applied Social Research from 1942 to 1971. He was an adjunct faculty member at Rockefeller University and was also the first Foundation Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation.[2] He withdrew from teaching in 1984.

Merton received many national and international honors for his research. He was 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 was 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.[2]

He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1962 and was the first sociologist to be named a MacArthur Fellow (1983-88). More than 20 universities awarded him honorary degrees, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Chicago, and, abroad, the Universities of Leyden, Wales, Oslo and Kraków, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Oxford.[2]

In 1994, Merton was awarded the US National Medal of Science and was the first sociologist to receive the prize.[2]

Merton was married twice, including to fellow sociologist Harriet Zuckerman. He had one son and two daughters from the first marriage, including Robert C. Merton, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in economics.

His daughter, Vanessa Merton, is a Professor of Law at Pace University School of Law.


Theories of the middle range

Middle-range theories, applicable to limited ranges of data, transcend sheer description of social phenomena and fill in the blanks between raw empiricism and grand or all-inclusive theory. In his advocacy of these kinds of theories Merton stands on the shoulders of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber.

Clarifying functional analysis

Merton argues that the central orientation of functionalism is in interpreting data by their consequences for larger structures in which they are implicated. Like Durkheim and Parsons he analyzes society with reference to whether cultural and social structures are well or badly integrated. Merton is also interested in the persistence of societies and defines functions that make for the adaptation of a given social system. Finally, Merton thinks that shared values are central in explaining how societies and institutions work. However he disagrees with Parsons on some issues which will be brought to attention in the following part.


Parsons’ work tends to imply that all institutions are inherently good for society. Merton emphasizes the existence of dysfunctions. He thinks that some things may have consequences that are generally dysfunctional or which are dysfunctional for some and functional for others. On this point he approaches conflict theory, although he does believe that institutions and values can be functional for society as a whole. Merton states that only by recognizing the dysfunctional aspects of institutions, can we explain the development and persistence of alternatives. Merton’s concept of dysfunctions is also central to his argument that functionalism is not essentially conservative.

Manifest and latent functions

For more details on this topic, see Manifest and latent functions and dysfunctions.

Manifest functions are the consequences that people observe or expect, latent functions are those that are neither recognized nor intended. While Parsons tends to emphasize the manifest functions of social behavior, Merton sees attention to latent functions as increasing the understanding of society: the distinction between manifest and latent forces the sociologist to go beyond the reasons individuals give for their actions or for the existence of customs and institutions; it makes them look for other social consequences that allow these practices’ survival and illuminate the way society works.

Dysfunctions can also be manifest or latent. Manifest dysfunctions of a festival include traffic jams, closed streets, piles of garbage, and a shortage of clean public toilets. Latent dysfunctions might include people missing work after the event to recover.

Functional alternatives

Functionalists believe societies must have certain characteristics in order to survive. Merton shares this view but stresses that at the same time particular institutions are not the only ones able to fulfill these functions; a wide range of functional alternatives may be able to perform the same task. This notion of functional alternative is important because it alerts sociologists to the similar functions different institutions may perform and it further reduces the tendency of functionalism to imply approval of the status quo.

Merton’s theory of deviance

Merton's structural-functional idea of deviance and anomie.

The term anomie, derived from Emile Durkheim, for Merton means: a discontinuity between cultural goals and the legitimate means available for reaching them.[3] Applied to the United States he sees the American dream as an emphasis on the goal of monetary success but without the corresponding emphasis on the legitimate avenues to march toward this goal. This leads to a considerable amount of (the Parsonian term of) deviance. This theory is commonly used in the study of criminology (specifically the strain theory).

Cultural goals Institutionalized means Modes of adaptation
+ + Conformity
+ - Innovation
- + Ritualism
- - Retreatism
± ± Rebellion

Conformity is the attaining of societal goals by socially accepted means, while innovation is the attaining of those goals in unaccepted ways. Ritualism is the acceptance of the means but the forfeit of the goals. Retreatism is the rejection of both the means and the goals and rebellion is a combination of rejection of societal goals and means and a substitution of other goals and means. Innovation and ritualism are the pure cases of anomie as Merton defined it because in both cases there is a discontinuity between goals and means.

Sociology of science

Merton carried out extensive research into the sociology of science, developing the Merton Thesis explaining some of the causes of the scientific revolution, and the Mertonian norms of science, often referred to by the acronym "Cudos". This is a set of ideals that are dictated by what Merton takes to be the goals and methods of science and are binding on scientists. They include:

  • Communalism - the common ownership of scientific discoveries, according to which scientists give up intellectual property rights in exchange for recognition and esteem (Merton actually used the term Communism, but had this notion of communalism in mind, not Marxism);
  • Universalism - according to which claims to truth are evaluated in terms of universal or impersonal criteria, and not on the basis of race, class, gender, religion, or nationality;
  • Disinterestedness - according to which scientists are rewarded for acting in ways that outwardly appear to be selfless;
  • Organized Skepticism - all ideas must be tested and are subject to rigorous, structured community scrutiny.

The CUDOS set of Mertonian scientific norms is sometimes identified as Communism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, *Originality* (novelty in research contributions), and Skepticism (instead of Organized Skepticism). This is a subsequent modification of Merton's norm set, as he did not refer to Originality in the essay that introduced the norms (The Normative Structure of Science [1942]).

He introduced many relevant concepts to the field, among them 'obliteration by incorporation' (when a concept becomes so popularized that its inventor is forgotten) and 'multiples' (theory about independent similar discoveries). Another much-discussed contribution was his identification of the Matthew effect. See also Stigler's law of eponymy.


Merton was heavily influenced by Pitirim Sorokin, who tried to balance large-scale theorizing with a strong interest in empirical research and statistical studies. Sorokin and Paul Lazarsfeld influenced Merton to occupy himself with middle-range theories.

See also

  • Narcotizing Dysfunction



  1. Piotr Sztompka, "Robert K. Merton", in Blackwell Companion to Major Contemporary Social Theorists, George Ritzer (ed.), Blackwell Publishing, 2003, ISBN 1-4051-0595-X Google Print, pp. 12-33
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Columbia U. archives: Columbia University Record, September 16, 1994, Vol. 20, No. 2
  3. Merton, Robert K. (1938). "Social Structure and Anomie", American Sociological Review, Vol 3 No 5, October 1938
  • Craig Calhoun, "Robert K. Merton Remembered," Footnotes (an internet website), March 2003.
  • Robert Merton, "George Sarton: Episodic Reflections by an Unruly Apprentice," Isis, 76 (1985): 470-486.
  • Merton, R.K. (1942) "The Normative Structure of Science". In: R.K. Merton, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

External links

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