Robert K. Merton

Robert K. Merton
Born July 4, 1910(1910-07-04)
Philadelphia, PA
Died February 23, 2003(2003-02-23) (aged 92)
New York City, NY
Occupation Sociologist
Known for Advancements in the field of sociology
Spouse Harriet Zuckerman, Suzanne Carhart
Children Vanessa Merton, Robert C. Merton, Stephanie Merton Tombrello

Robert King Merton (July 4, 1910 – February 23, 2003) was a distinguished American sociologist. He spent most of his career teaching at Columbia University, where he attained the rank of University Professor. In 1994, Merton won the National Medal of Science for his contributions to the field and for having founded the sociology of science.[1]

Merton developed notable concepts such as "unintended consequences," the "reference group," and "role strain" but is perhaps best known for having created the terms "role model" and "self-fulfilling prophecy".[2] A central element of modern sociological, political and economic theory, the "self-fulfilling prophecy" is a process whereby a belief or an expectation, correct or incorrect, affects the outcome of a situation or the way a person or a group will behave.[3] Merton's work on the "role model" first appeared in a study on the socialization of medical students at Columbia. The term grew from his theory of a reference group, or the group to which individuals compare themselves, but to which they do not necessarily belong. Social roles were a central piece of Merton's theory of social groups. Merton emphasized that, rather than a person assuming one role and one status, they have a status set in the social structure which has attached to it a whole set of expected behaviors.[4]



Robert K. Merton was born on July 4, 1910, in Philadelphia as Meyer Robert Schkolnick[5] in a family of Yiddish speaking Russian Jews that had emigrated to the United States in 1904. His mother was Ida Rasovskaya, an "unsynagogued" socialist who had freethinking radical sympathies. His father was Aaron Schkolnickoff, officially identified at his port of entry in the United states as Harrie Skolnik, tailor and Hebrew.[6] Many of Merton's childhood experiences formed a basis for his theory of social structure, particularly the reference group. He attended South Philadelphia High School. As a high school student, he became a frequent visitor of nearby cultural and educational venues including Andrew Carnegie Library, The Academy of Music, Central Library, and Museum of Arts. He adopted the name Robert K. Merton initially as a stage name for his magician performances.[6] In 1994, Merton stated that growing up in South Philadelphia provided young people 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."[citation needed]

He started his sociological career under the guidance of George E. Simpson at Temple University in Philadelphia (1927–1931). He worked as a research assistant to Simpson on a project having to do with race and media, introducing him to sociology. Under the leadership of Simpson, Merton attended the ASA annual meeting, where he met Pitrim A. Sorokin, the founding chair of the Harvard University Sociology Department. Merton then applied to Harvard and went to work as a research assistant to Sorokin (1931–1936).[7]

He taught at Harvard until 1938, 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 a Special Service Professor, a title reserved by the Trustees for emeritus faculty who "render special services to the University," upon his retirement in 1979. 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.[8] He withdrew from teaching in 1984. In recognition of his lasting contributions to scholarship and the University, Columbia established the Robert K. Merton Professorship in the Social Sciences in 1990.[8]

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.[8] Merton is also credited as the creator of the focus group research method.[5]

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.[8]

In 1994, Merton was awarded the US National Medal of Science, 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."[9] He was the first sociologist to receive the prize.[8]

In 1934, Merton married Suzanne Carhart, with whom he had one son, Robert C. Merton, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in economics, and two daughters, Stephanie Merton Tombrello and Vanessa Merton, a Professor of Law at Pace University School of Law. Merton and Carhart separated in 1968, and Suzanne died in 1992. Merton married his fellow sociologist Harriet Zuckerman in 1993.

Merton was one of Talcott Parsons' most devoted students; he participated not only in Parsons' seminars but was also for years an active participant in Parsons' informal Sociology group which met in Adams House. Merton has publicly stated that he came to Harvard in order to study with Sorokin but that the thinker who intrigued and inspired him the most was Parsons. Parsons was a junior member of his dissertation committee, the other members being Pitirim Sorokin, Carle C. Zimmermann and the historian of science George Sarton. The dissertation, a quantitative social history of the development of science in seventeenth-century England, reflected the interdisciplinary nature of this committee (Merton, 1985).


Theories of the middle range

Merton's work is often compared to that of Talcott Parsons. Unlike Parsons, who emphasized the necessity for social science to establish a general foundation, Merton preferred more limited, middle-range theories. According to Merton, middle-range theory starts its theorizing with clearly defined aspects of social phenomena, rather than with broad, abstract entities such as society as a whole. Theories of the middle range should be firmly supported by empirical data. These theories must be constructed with observed data in order to create theoretical problems and to be incorporated in proposals that allow empirical testing.[10] 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 Émile 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.

According to Merton's perception of "functionalism," all standardized social and cultural beliefs and practices are functional for both society as a whole as well as individuals in society. This outlook maintains that various parts of social systems must show a high level of integration, but Merton argues that a generalization like this cannot be extended to larger, more complex societies. The second claim has to do with universal functionalism. This claim argues that all standardized social and cultural structures and forms have a positive function. Merton argues that this is a contradiction to what is seen in the real world; not every structure, idea, belief, etc., has positive functions. The third claim of functional analysis that Merton argues is that of indispensability. This claim states that the standardized parts of society have positive functions, and also represent indispensable parts of the working whole, which implies that structures and functions are functionally necessary for society. Here, Merton argues, people must be willing to admit that there exist various structural and functional alternatives within society.[11]

His belief in empirical testing led to the development of his "paradigm" of functional analysis.[11] According to Merton, "paradigm," refers to "exemplars of codified basic and often tacit assumptions, problem sets, key concepts, logic of procedure, and selectively accumulated knowledge that guide [theoretical and empirical] inquiry in all scientific fields."[4] In terms of structural functionalism, Merton felt that the focus should be on social functions rather than on individual motives.[11]


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.

In Merton's writing on dysfunctions, he highlighted problems that tend to keep social systems from meeting all of their functional requirements. In doing this, he was able to point out the details as well as the contradictions of the overall concept. One group's function could serve as another group's dysfunction, and a general incident could turn out to be both functional and dysfunctional for the same group. Merton clarified the concept by stating that a certain degree of social cohesion eases the productivity of a group and is therefore functional, but it can become dysfunctional when it surpasses a certain threshold, because then the members of the group may become equally indulgent and fail to hold each other to high performance standards.[4]

In order to help people determine whether positive functions outweigh dysfunctions, and vice versa, Merton developed the concept of net balance. Because the issues are complex and based on a lot of subjective judgement, they cannot be calculated and weighed easily. Therefore, positive functions and dysfunctions cannot be simply added up and objectively determine which outweighs the other. In order to deal with these issues, Merton believed that there must be levels of functional analysis. Rather than solely focusing on the analysis of society as a whole, Merton argued that analysis could and should also be done on an organization, institution or group.[11]

Unanticipated consequences and manifest and latent functions

Some of the crucial innovations that Merton made to sociology include the description of the unanticipated consequences of social action, of latent functions vs. manifest functions, and, as previously mentioned, of dysfunctions.[4] According to Merton, unanticipated consequences are actions that have both intended and unintended consequences. Everyone is aware of the intended consequences, but the unintended are more difficult to recognize, and therefore, sociological analysis is required to uncover what they may be.[11] In his 1936 essay, "The Unanticipated Consequences of Social Action," Merton uncovered the wide field of human activity where things do not go as planned, and paradoxes and strange outcomes are seen. One of these outcomes is the "self-defeating prophecy," which through the very fact of its being publicized, is actually wrong. Merton was able to illustrate this by referencing Karl Marx's prediction that as societies become more modern, the wealth will be concentrated amongst fewer people, and the majority of society would suffer from poverty and misery. This prediction helped to stimulate the socialist movement, which in some countries slowed the development that Marx had predicted.[4] The opposite of the "self-defeating prophecy" then, is the "self-fulfilling prophecy," when an originally unfounded prophecy turns out to be correct because it is believed and acted upon.[4]

Manifest functions are the consequences that people observe or expect, or what is intended; latent functions are those that are neither recognized nor intended. In distinguishing between manifest and latent functions, Merton argued that must dig to discover latent functions. His example from his 1949 piece, "Manifest and Latent Functions," was an analysis of political machines. Merton began by describing the negative consequences of political machines, and then changed the angle and demonstrated how the people in charge of the machines, acting in their own interest, were meeting the social needs not met by government institutions.[4]

Merton made it very clear however, that unanticipated consequences and latent functions are not the same. Latent functions are one type of unanticipated consequences; functional for the designated system. According to Merton, there are also two other types of unanticipated consequences: "those that are dysfunctional for a designated system, and these comprise the latent dysfunctions, and those which are irrelevant to the system which they affect neither functionally or dysfunctionally..non-functional consequences"[11]

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 something like a festival include traffic jams, closed streets, piles of garbage, and a shortage of clean public toilets. Latent dysfunctions of the festival 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.

Merton's theory on deviance stems from his 1938 analysis of the relationship between culture, structure and anomie. Merton defines culture as an "organized set of normative values governing behavior which is common to members of a designated society or group." Social structures are the "organized set of social relationships in which members of the society or group are variously implicated."[10] Anomie, the state of normlessness, arises when there is "an acute disjunction between the cultural norms and goals and the socially structured capacities of members of the group to act in accord with them."[10] In his theory, Merton links anomie with deviance and argues that the discontinuity between culture and structure have the dysfunctional consequence of leading to deviance within society.[11]

The term anomie, derived from Émile Durkheim, for Merton means a discontinuity between cultural goals and the legitimate means available for reaching them.[12] 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. In other words, Merton believes that all subscribe to the American Dream, but the ways in which people go about obtaining the Dream are not the same because not everyone has the same opportunities and advantages as the next person. This leads to a considerable amount of (in the Parsonian sense) deviance. This theory is commonly used in the study of criminology (specifically the strain theory).

Merton's Paradigm of Deviant Behaviour[13]
Attitude to Goals Attitude to Means Modes of adaptation
accept accept Conformity
accept reject Innovation
reject accept Ritualism
reject reject Retreatism
reject/accept reject/accept Rebellion

Conformity is the attaining of societal goals by socially accepted means, while innovation is the attaining of those goals in unaccepted ways. Innovators find and create their own way to go about obtaining what they want, and a majority of the time, these new ways are considered to be socially unaccepted and deviant. Ritualism is the acceptance of the means but the forfeit of the goals. Ritualists continue to subscribe to the means, but they have rejected the overall goal; they are not viewed as deviant. Retreatism is the rejection of both the means and the goals. Retreaters want to find a way to escape from everything and therefore reject the goals and the means and are seen as deviant. 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

The sociology of science was a field that Merton was very interested in and remained very passionate about throughout his career. Merton was interested in the interactions and importance between social and cultural structures and 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 in exchange for recognition and esteem.
  • 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 Communalism, 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]).

Merton introduced many relevant concepts to the sociology of science, including 'obliteration by incorporation' (when a concept becomes so popularized that its inventor is forgotten) and 'multiples' (on independent similar discoveries). Merton and his colleagues spent much time studying "how the social system of science works in accordance with, and often also in contradiction to, the ethos of science."[4] This newer focus on the social organization of science led Merton to study the reward system in science, priority disputes between scientists, and the way in which famous scientists often receive disproportionate credit for their contributions, whereas lesser known scientists receive less credit than their contributions actually merit.[4] Merton called this phenomenon the Matthew effect; see also Stigler's law of eponymy. With his study of the Matthew effect, Merton was able to show how the social system of science sometimes deviated structurally from the ethos of science, in this case by violating the norm of universalism.[4]


Merton referred to his book On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript as "OTSOG" – "part parody and part history of ideas" according to the publisher. In OTSOG, he traces the history of Newton's famous comment back to centuries earlier, in the rambling style of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.[14]


Merton was heavily influenced by Talcott Parsons and to a much lesser degree of Pitirim Sorokin. Indeed, Merton's choice of dissertation topic reflect profoundly the interest from Parsons and was not of Sorokin's liking. Hence, Sorokin was strongly opposed to the emphasis of the creativity of Puritanism, which was a central element in Merton's discussion. However, intellectuals like Paul Lazarsfeld influenced Merton to occupy himself with middle-range theories yet Merton general theoretical perspectives was much closer to Parsons than Sorokin. He was also influenced by Lawrence Joseph Henderson, L.J., who taught him something about the disciplined investigation of what is first entertained as an interesting idea. E.F. Gay also played a role in Merton's thought, as did George Sarton, who allowed Merton to work with him at Harvard. Émile Durkheim and Georg Simmel also greatly contributed to Merton's understanding of sociology and to his own ideas.[11]


"I wanted and still want to advance sociological theories of social structure and cultural change that will help us understand how social institutions and the character of life in society come to be as they are."[11]

See also



  1. ^ "Robert K. Merton". 
  2. ^ Merton, Robert K. (1936-12). "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action". American Sociological Review 1 (6): 894–904. doi:10.2307/2084615. ISSN 0003-1224. JSTOR 2084615. 
  3. ^ Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition; 1/1/2009, p.1 "Self-fulfilling prophecy"
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Gerald Holton (December 2004). Robert K. Merton, 4 July 1910· 23 February 2003. 148. American Philosophical Society. ISBN 1422372901. 
  5. ^ a b Kaufman, Michael T. (February 24, 2003). "Robert K. Merton, Versatile Sociologist and Father of the Focus Group, Dies at 92". The New York Times. 
  6. ^ a b Peter Simonson (2010). Refiguring Mass Communication: A History. University of Illinois Press. pp. 123–130. ISBN 9780252077050. 
  7. ^ 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
  8. ^ a b c d e "Merton Awarded Nation's Highest Science Honor". Columbia University Record 20 (2). September 16, 1994. ISSN 0747-4505. 
  9. ^ Vice President Gore(1994) - at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, Washington, DC on Monday, December 19, 1994.
  10. ^ a b c Merton, Robert K. (1968-08-01). Social Theory and Social Structure (1968 enlarged ed.). New York, NY, US: Free Press. ISBN 0029211301. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ritzer, George (2007-07-23). Sociological Theory (7 ed.). McGraw-Hill Higher Education. ISBN 0073528188.  pages 251-257.
  12. ^ Merton, Robert K. (1938-10). "Social Structure and Anomie". American Sociological Review 3 (5): 672–682. doi:10.2307/2084686. ISSN 0003-1224. JSTOR 2084686. 
  13. ^ Tepperman, L., & Curtis, J.(2006). Principles of Sociology: Canadian Perspectives, p. 117. Oxford University Press, Canada. ISBN 0-19-542348-8.
  14. ^ Sociology and social research (1965), Volume 50, Book Reviews: "On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript. By Robert K. Merton", pp. 509–510.
  • Merton, Robert K. (1985-12). "George Sarton: Episodic Recollections by an Unruly Apprentice". Isis 76 (4): 470–486. doi:10.1086/353958. ISSN 0021-1753. JSTOR 233022. 
  • Merton, R. K. (1942) "The Normative Structure of Science". In: Merton, Robert K. (1979-09-15). The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226520927. 

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  • Robert King Merton — (* 5. Juli 1910 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania als Meyer Robert Schkolnick; † 23. Februar 2003 in New York) war ein US amerikanischer Soziologe. Merton ist Vater von Robert C. Merton, dem Wirtschafts Nobelpreisträger von 1997. Inhaltsverzeichnis …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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