Sun Feb 23, 2003

Robert K. Merton, 1910-2003

I just heard from my friend Courtney Bender that Robert K. Merton died this morning. He was 92 years old. Merton was one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century. He was born in 1910 (as Meyer Schkolnick) in Philadelphia to immigrant parents. He taught at Columbia for almost his whole career, from about 1940 to about 1980.

Rather than having one big idea, Merton coined concepts. He wrote about self-fulfilling (and self-negating) prophecies, “goal displacement” in bureaucracy, functional explanation in sociology, the manifest and latent functions of social systems, the Matthew Effect in science, locals and cosmopolitans, theories of deviance and role strain, focus-group interviews (their misuse in marketing and politics irritated him), “opportunity structure” and other ideas. Many became part of the language of sociology and even found their way into everyday use. His first book, Science, Technology and Society in 17th-Century England, was one of the first sociological studies of science. His Social Theory and Social Structure synthesized his theoretical contributions. He also wrote On the Shoulders of Giants, a horrendously erudite study of originality and rediscovery in science.

Merton was perhaps the most successful mainstream sociologist of his time. He worked within (and helped develop) the dominant functionalist approach of mid-20th century sociology. But he also pushed its limits, and looked for “middle-range theories” (another one of his ideas) that linked abstract concepts of social structure to more concrete empirical research.

In 1997, his son Robert C. Merton won the Nobel Prize in Economics, for his work on derivative pricing.

Update: The New York Times has an obituary.