Robert K. Merton Remembered
by Craig Calhoun, SSRC
Robert K. Merton, one of the towering figures on whose shoulders contemporary sociology rests, died Sunday, February 23, 2003. He was 92.
Merton was born July 4, 1910, and his extraordinary life story evokes both a very American trajectory appropriate to the holiday birthday and the universalism of science. Merton’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and indeed the future RKM was born Meyer R. Schkolnick. The family lived above his father’s small dairy products shop in South Philadelphia until it burned down, without insurance, and his father became a carpenter’s assistant. Merton’s family lacked wealth, but he insisted his childhood did not lack opportunity—and cited such institutions as a very decent public high school and the library donated by Andrew Carnegie in which he first read Tristram Shandy. Indeed, suggested Merton in 1994, that seemingly deprived South Philadelphia slum provided “a youngster 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.”
The name Robert King Merton evolved out of a teenage career as an amateur magician. Merton took up conjuring and other magic partly through taking his sister’s boyfriend as a “role model” (to borrow a phrase literally his own). As his skill improved, he sought a stage name, initially “Merlin.” Advised that this was hackneyed, he changed it to Merton. Already devoted to tracing origins, he chose a first name after Robert Houdin, the French magician whose name Harry Houdini (himself originally Erich Weiss) had adapted. And when he won a scholarship to Temple University he was content to let the new name become permanent.
At Temple College—a school founded for “the poor boys and girls of Philadelphia” and not yet fully accredited—he chanced on a wonderful undergraduate teacher. It was serendipity, the mature Merton insisted. The sociologist George E. Simpson took him on as a research assistant in a project on race and the media and introduced him not only to sociology but to Ralph Bunche and Franklin Frazier. Simpson also took Merton to the ASA annual meeting where he met Pitirim Sorokin, founding chair of the Harvard sociology department. He applied to Harvard, even though his teachers told him this was usually beyond the reach of those graduating from Temple. And when he arrived, Sorokin took him on as a research assistant. By Merton’s second year they were publishing together.
In addition to Sorokin, Merton apprenticed himself to the historian of science George Sarton—not just for his stay at Harvard but for years of the epistolary exchanges Merton loved. And—serendipity again (perhaps)—Merton decided to sit in on the first theory course offered by the young Talcott Parsons, just back from Europe and working through the ideas that would become The Structure of Social Action. The encounter with Parsons did not just inform his knowledge of European theory, but deepened his idea of sociology itself. Still, as he wrote later, “although much impressed by Parsons as a master-builder of sociological theory, I found myself departing from his mode of theorizing (as well as his mode of exposition).” Indeed, Merton was among the clearest and most careful prose stylists in sociology. He edited each essay over and again, and left behind added footnotes and revisions both large and small to a host of his writings. It was easy to imagine that he might have been a professional editor had he not been an academic.
Indeed it is easy to imagine the young Merton turning in any of several directions. His first articles, written as a graduate student and published in 1934-35, addressed “Recent French Sociology,” “The Course of Arabian Intellectual Development, 700-1300 A.D.,” “Fluctuations in the Rate of Industrial Invention,” and “Science and Military Technique.” Ultimately, he wrote his first major study on Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England (1938), and in the process helped to invent the sociology of science.
By the time he was 40, Merton was one of America’s most influential social scientists and had embarked on a lengthy career at Columbia University. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and honored in a host of other ways. Since he had chosen sociology, he could not win a Nobel prize, of course, but his son did. And at 90, Merton the father would call on his son for help learning enough new mathematics to read exciting work by younger colleagues like Duncan Watts. He remained intellectually active until the end of his life, a witty and engaged presence at conferences, energetic in using email to stay in touch with an extraordinary range of contacts, and still writing.
Merton was perhaps the last of an extraordinary generation of sociologists whose work shaped the basic definition of the discipline in the mid-20th century. Along with Parsons, he helped make Emile Durkheim’s notion of functional analysis central to the field—though Merton preferred to speak of “structural-functional analysis” and tried to avoid reduction of an approach to an orthodoxy or “ism.” Merton eschewed the building of grand theoretical systems in favor of what he called “middle-range theories” designed to guide empirical inquiry. He made famous the distinction of “manifest” from “latent” functions, denied that social cohesion could be assumed as ‘normal,’ and gave analysis of social conflict more attention than did Parsons, though not enough to escape the widespread criticism of functionalism that started in the 1960s.
A crucial argument of Merton’s early work was that science is misunderstood as the product of individual geniuses able to break free from conventions and norms. Instead, he stressed the “ethos of science,” the normative structure specific to the field that encouraged productivity, critical thinking, and pursuit of continually improved understanding. He was not always happy when students left the Mertonian fold in their efforts to push sociology forward, but he did always recognize that this was how science worked.
Sociology of science remained the field closest to Merton’s heart. But his contributions also deeply shaped the later development of such disparate fields of study as bureaucracy, deviance, communications, social psychology, social stratification, and indeed social structure itself. Indeed, his work was pivotal to the emergence of some of these as subfields. In the course of his simultaneously theoretical and empirical analyses, Merton coined such now-common phrases as “self-fulfilling prophecy,” and “role model.”
Somewhat surprisingly for a theorist, Merton was also one of the pioneers of modern policy research. He studied an integrated housing project, did a case study of the use of social research by the AT&T Corporation, and analyzed medical education. Most famously, working with his Columbia colleague Paul Lazarsfeld and a range of students and colleagues, he carried out studies of propaganda and mass communications during World War II and wrote the classic, Mass Persuasion (1946).
Merton and Lazarsfeld formed an enormously productive partnership, training generations of students and developing a program of theoretically informed but empirically rigorous research. Though Lazarsfeld was generally considered the methodologist of the pair, Merton also innovated in research methods, developing (with Marjorie Fiske and Patricia Kendall) the “focused group interview” that gave rise to the now-ubiquitous focus groups of political and market research. As Merton later remarked, focus groups are no replacement for surveys based on representative samples. Still, he said, he wished he could be paid a royalty fee whenever the technique was used.
Merton’s writings were not only broad ranging but extraordinarily influential. Their influence can be attributed to the fact that, in addition to having the virtues of clarity and sheer intellectual creativity, his writings were addressed to working sociologists, providing an interpretation of the craft and tools for its improvement. They were the ideal teaching tools for graduate students. While Merton wrote several important books, the extended essay was his chosen form and his classic book, Social Theory and Social Structure (originally published in 1949 and revised and expanded in 1957 and 1968) is a collection of some of his best. He worked hard to give each a precise organization, often offering a classificatory scheme to assist readers in applying his conceptualizations to different empirical phenomena.
Merton not only coined but loved memorable phrases and the patterns of association and evocation in which they were passed on. One of his most famous books traces the phrase, “if I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” through centuries of use. The phrase is most commonly associated with Sir Isaac Newton, though with the widespread success of On the Shoulders of Giants (1965), Merton must be a very close second. What Merton showed with dazzling erudition and more than a few entertaining digressions was that the aphorism originated with Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century. This corrected not only those who cited merely Newton but those who credited the phrase to ancient authors, including apparently nonexistent ancient authors, perhaps thinking thereby to accord it greater dignity and impress readers with their Latin references (that South Philadelphia high school taught Merton four years of Latin).
Merton’s book became famous enough to be known (at least among initiates) by the acronym “OTSOG.” This was partly because it was so engagingly written, a scholarly detective story in the form of an epistolary novel (remember Merton’s early reading of Tristram Shandy). But it is also a serious inquiry into the phenomena of scholarly reference and citation, the development of reputations, and the place of science amid humane knowledge.
Merton continued to address the relationship between the first appearances of ideas and the occasions when they begin to have more serious influence, noting how many basic scientific advances were anticipated by “prediscoveries” that failed to change the way scientists thought. That in turn raised the question of why this should be, whether in any specific case it was because the “prediscoverer” lacked stature, or because the context wasn’t ready, because a crucial connection wasn’t made, or because an empirical or practical test wasn’t identified. The role of chance connections—serendipity—in scientific breakthroughs became another enduring focus for Merton’s boundless curiosity and careful scholarship. Though he recently allowed a manuscript on the topic to go to press, he did not regard it as finished and one suspects that on this, as was true of so many of his themes, he had countless more index cards squirreled away, footnotes waiting to be added.
Of course, as Merton showed, discoveries once well known could be forgotten, leading to rediscoveries, especially by the young. Some of Merton’s own work has itself been subject to partial eclipse and rediscovery, as for example the recent vogue for identifying causal ‘mechanisms’ that can function in explanations of disparate phenomena reproduces important aspects of his notion of middle-range theories.
Near the end of his life, Merton remarked on the oddity of living long enough to write contributions to the festschriften of so many of his students. The explanation was not mere longevity, of course, but the fact that he was extraordinarily influential as a teacher. As important as each was as an individual intellectual, both Merton and Lazarsfeld may have been even more important as mentors and animators of an intellectual community at Columbia—and indeed beyond, at the Social Science Research Council, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Russell Sage Foundation. Merton was a mentor to such disparate but important sociologists as Peter Blau, James Coleman, Lewis Coser, Rose Coser, Alvin Gouldner, Seymour Martin Lipset, Alice Rossi, and Arthur Stinchcombe. He was equally influential in social studies of science, which became increasingly interdisciplinary, with students including Steven and Jonathan Cole, Harriet Zuckerman, and Thomas Gieryn. In the work of all, one can see not only Merton’s specific ideas but the distinctive style of combining theory and research characteristic of Columbia sociology during his time there.
Robert Merton is survived by his wife and collaborator Harriet Zuckerman, by three children, nine grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren—and by thousands of sociologists whose work is shaped every day by his.
Calhoun is President of the Social Science Research Council and Professor of Sociology and History at New York University and can be reached at email@example.com.
Sociologists Remember Robert K. Merton
A few weeks after I arrived at Columbia, I encountered a tall man outside my office. He was busy moving boxes. I ignored him and went into my office. Hours later, I went out. He was still there. He looked suspicious to me, so I stopped and introduced myself. He said, "I know who you are." I said something like "Well, I don't know who you are," and of course, he said, "I am Robert Merton." I turned white, but recovered enough to ask "would you like to have lunch sometime?" Bob said, "No." While I was thinking "he got me there, for not recognizing him," he said, "but you can come over to my apartment and have a scotch." And so, sometime later, I did.
Then, and in subsequent conversations, I learned a little more about Bob Merton. First, he was enormously gifted. Every conversation was serious and demanding. I had to think when I talked with him, and think hard. Second, talking with Bob Merton improved one's own mind. He demanded intensity and clarity, and was always willing to correct sloppy thinking. He was thus a brilliant builder of people. And third, Merton was a brilliant builder of institutions. Working with him in the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (the new Bureau for Applied Social Research), Bob always reminded me with pleasure that he "never directed the bureau." With me, and perhaps others, that was true, technically, but not substantively. He was always in control, and that is fitting, for Merton was one of the true giants of the discipline. And so it seemed that he would live forever, carefully influencing and helping us shape the direction of the department, the Institute, and the discipline.
His death is a profound loss to social science, and to Columbia social science in particular, whose distinguished history owes much to the remarkable work that he did, on social structure, science, the fundamentals of sociological thinking, and empirical research, for so many years. This work will continue at Columbia though certainly with less brilliance and grace than if Bob were still with us. We were lucky to have so much time, and we will miss Robert Merton with the same intensity that he lived his life.
Peter Bearman, Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy,
On my last visit to Robert Merton, just before he died, I found the same man, keen to talk of ideas, as I first encountered when I was his student in the 1960s and the decades to follow. His book on serendipity just published, he was eager to pursue my question about the correspondence between serendipity and paradigm shifts, and spoke at length about it. Scholarship and ideas-a love of language-and their transmission to students, colleagues and the public were the forces that motivated Merton.
I wrote my dissertation in the 1960s on the question of why there were so few women in the professions and in public life. Using his conceptual framework of the dynamics of status sets I noted the patterned undermining of women's access. I mention this because unlike many women students elsewhere discouraged from writing on gender issues, Merton encouraged me and he later asked me to write a chapter on sex roles for his book on social problems. He was important in the careers of scores of women scholars, among them noted feminist scholars Alice Rossi and Rose Coser.
Sometimes unjustly viewed as conservative, RKM's sociological vision inspired the work of students who were to create new (and often oppositional) paradigms and new social programs. Among them were Alvin Gouldner and Lewis Coser, who was to found the socialist journal Dissent. It is an example of Merton's own analysis of "obliteration by incorporation" that his conceptualizations of "unanticipated consequences" and the "self fulfilling prophecy" are not credited to him today, as is his profound influence on the analysis and identification of institutionalized discrimination and structural constraints on those who do not have the means to achieve success.
RKM was a magnificent editor and he gave his time and language skills unstintingly to students, friends, and new scholars. He marked up their manuscripts with a myriad of editorial corrections enhanced by his collection of rubber stamps to highlight a good idea with a light bulb or to underscore something for special attention with a pointed finger. In his editing of my book Deceptive Distinctions, RKM even went to the trouble to prepare me psychologically, so that I would not feel crushed by his red ink and the many suggestions that sharpened my work.
Further, I found he knew how to respond intimately, but always respectful of privacy, when people were experiencing hard personal times.
I was privileged to study with him and from time to time to be in his company as a friend. I carry, as a heritage, from exposure to his ideas, a passion for the sociological vision. As with others, it was his ultimate gift.
Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, City University of New York-Graduate Center
I first met Bob Merton over 60 years ago, when he sought me out at my Mexico City apartment. From that time on our lives have been intertwined, first through his close friend Kingsley Davis, and afterwards because of our long period together as members of the Columbia University Sociology Department.
Together we strove in many shared enterprises, we fought, and we loved one another. Bob enriched the lives of almost all sociologists now alive (and many of the dead as well) even when they are ignorant of that impact. And that influence will not diminish quickly now that he has gone.
Many of us will mourn him personally. It is indeed a loss. As one of his distinguished students, Cynthia Epstein, wrote to me: "I am devastated. I thought he would live forever." But he will of course.
We mourn, and shall mourn. But what a glorious ride he enjoyed! Not merely that his intellectual work was admired, and early on. In addition, scholars in our own and in many other fields actually used the tools and ideas he created.
As most creators of analytic tools learn, the demand for them is not high. Sociology, most academics agree, has hardly been granted any royal standing, while sociologists themselves typically denigrate their field and its tools more than anyone else does. By contrast, Merton and I agreed that sociology made an enormous contribution to 20th century intellectual life even if few recognize that historic fact, while he himself has been greatly honored within and outside the field.
Merton's work was greatly respected, but he was also charismatic; some would say that he was even glamorous. I witnessed his tricks when he performed as a magician, but he was even more magical when he carried out some sociological analysis before an audience or on paper.
He was a self-aware performer, but the product was not tricks or trivia. He earned the widespread admiration he received, for he empowered his listeners and readers. Many had an Aha! experience when they saw what he was demonstrating. He convinced them that with these new sociological tools they could perceive, explore, analyze, and reveal the social forces that would turn out to be as real. They would not be ephemeral cocktail gossip, opinions dashed off as witicisms, but the dynamics that actually shape our lives. Now, he exhorted, you can do these things too.
Believing deeply in both sociology and in his responsibility for getting it just right, he worked hard and long on his manuscripts. He intended his contributions to be worthy of being read as literature, and mostly he succeeded. His dedication made us more willing to aim just a bit higher, for we should be creating seriously.
We pass this place just once, and mostly we do not control the shape and details of our destinies. Sometimes, we are just lucky. Merton was. But so are we who now can say, "I knew Bob Merton up close; he was a great figure." And even if your knowing was somewhat less, you can still feel lucky.
William J. Goode, George
In a characteristically gracious inscription to a copy of the 1985 edition of his delightful book, On the Shoulders of Giants, Robert Merton addressed me as a "colleague-at-a-distance." I would have welcomed this appellation no matter where or when he employed it, but I thought Merton's sending me this book thus inscribed was wonderfully apposite, for I had once briefly stood on the shoulder of a giant, who was himself standing on the shoulder of another giant. The giant on whose shoulder I stood was Merton himself.
I hadn't meant to consort with giants, but the main driving force in my life-trying to understand anomalies in my data-pushed me there. In the course of assessing the relationships between conditions of work and personality, I had unexpectedly found that men employed in bureaucratic firms and organizations had more self-directed values and orientations than did men employed in less bureaucratized enterprises-even taking into account their educational attainments and all sorts of other social characteristics. How could that be, when Merton had shown, in his justly famous essay, "Bureaucratic Structure and Personality," that bureaucracy embodies "structural sources of overconformity"? True enough, my data supported the belief that some of the conditions attendant on bureaucratization-in particular, close supervision-are conducive to a certain literalistic conformism. But, my analyses also showed that other conditions associated with bureaucracy-in particular, the job protections it affords, and the more substantively complex work that bureaucrats do-have countervailing effects. The key to my anomalous finding lay not in repudiating the validity of Merton's analysis, but in extending that analysis to encompass a greater range of structural conditions.
I must admit, though, that I was a little concerned that Merton might not see it that way: not many scholars take kindly to questioning one of their most renowned works. I needn't have been concerned. Merton's reaction to my paper was to treat me (then at an early stage of career) as colleague, increasingly as friend, and in a decades-long exchange of reprints and letters, and in occasional meetings, to warmly encourage my work, even (with Harriet Zuckerman) to resurrect my little-known PhD thesis in their series, Dissertations in Sociology. I choose my giants well. (So did Merton, his giant in my anecdote being, of course, Weber.)
Melvin Kohn, Johns Hopkins
When Professor Merton's assistant, called me at home in May 1998, I was studying for my final exam in Contemporary Sociological Theory. Annoyed by the interruption (as any first-year graduate student would be), I mistook her for a telemarketer and almost missed the chance to interview for the post she then held. With the fates on my side, that call began a five-year relationship with RKM: my teacher, my mentor, my employer, my friend, and ultimately my surrogate grandfather. We spent countless hours in his study reviewing research for his latest projects, editing proofs for publication, preparing correspondence, solving computer crises, or sometimes just talking about days gone by.
Of course he was hard to please, and of course he was demanding and sometimes downright cranky. But what he asked of others never approached what he asked of himself and what he contributed on a daily basis. In addition to laboring over his own work-in-progress, I watched him edit an endless succession of manuscripts by students and scholars from around the world. And even in his final months, he opened his study and his famous files to researchers from across disciplines. And somehow he always found time to read and criticize my work. His perceptive (and sometimes unsolicited) suggestions guided me along an academic path that I never could have predicted.
And so when I re-discovered RKM's little-known "Self-Emancipation Proclamation," I deeply understood his pledge: "TO REMOVE AT LONG LAST the albatross hung around my neck in the form of ever-urgent deadlines.... BE IT FINALLY UNDERSTOOD that this Self-Emancipation Proclamation shall remain in effect until the end of my days, in the fervent hope that until then I shall have nothing but joy (along with the inevitable patches of suffering) in my work."
May we all be so lucky.
Elizabeth C. Needham, Columbia
I first saw Bob Merton in April 1947 at the meetings of the Eastern Sociological Society, held that far-off year at the Columbia Faculty Club. I was then a first-year sociology graduate student at Yale, fresh from four years in the infantry, and had come down from New Haven with a friend, anxious to learn more about sociology. My friend pointed out the celebrities at a plenary session. There was Robert Lynd, wearing his midwestern black minister's suit, and C. Wright Mills in Madison Avenue double-breasted gabardine. And Merton, boyish at age 36, wearing a Harvard tweed jacket and smoking a pipe. He looked young, precocious, and wise-and by 2003 he had not changed much. He was remarkable then and remarkable until his death. One defining characteristic of Bob was his enduring precocity.
I did not see him again until 1951, when I enrolled at Columbia after spending four years doing research in Japan. He was Mr. Theory at Columbia, while Lazarsfeld was Mr. Method. The irony of this is that most of us learned at Columbia that there is a very fine line between theory and method-some say they are the same. Hanan Selvin, a student of Bob's and a friend and contemporary of mine, memorably wrote in a Lazarsfeld Festschriftt, "we were satellites not of one sun, but of two, for Robert K. Merton and Paul F. Lazarsfeld so dominated sociology during these three decades that no lesser figure of speech will suffice."
A second defining characteristic of Bob Merton was his 35-year collegial relationship with Paul Lazarsfeld. There are few examples in the history of science of two such brilliant and accomplished colleagues maintaining such a strong personal and scientific relationship for an extended period of time. They co-authored or co-edited relatively few publications, but their influence on each other's work is immeasurable; as one privileged to have written a number of biographical articles on Lazarsfeld, I can attest that Bob was never far in my mind from the text I was writing.
A third characteristic-and if space permitted I could describe many more-was his cultural erudition. He always seemed to have read everything and to have known everything. His famous 1965 book On the Shoulders of Giants traces in the manner of classical humanism the origins of the aphorism commonly ascribed to Newton: "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulder of giants." And in a 1984 paper he traced the origins of what has become known as the Kelvin Dictum: "When you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind."
Precocious and erudite. Very Mertonian. And like most of us at Columbia, something of a Lazarsfeldian as well. Not a bad way to be remembered.
David L. Sills, Executive Associate Emeritus, Social Science Research Council
With the passing of Robert K. Merton, we have lost the premier sociologist of the 20th century.
His work, always seminal, brilliant, and sound, initiated research traditions in mass communication and mass persuasion, deviance, medical sociology, bureaucracy and organization, reference group theory, the sociology of knowledge, sociological theory, applied sociology, and above all the sociology of science. Through his students and through those whom he influenced, all these traditions persist in good health to the present. Many of his words inform our ordinary language-"unanticipated consequences," "self-fulfilling prophecy," "focus group," to name only the most evident.
Bob Merton possessed the rarest talent of integrating theoretical concerns with rigorous empirical research. His work displayed both imaginative flair and impeccable rigor, both generality and focus, both abstractness and clarity. His scientific standards were never compromised. We have not known, and will not soon know a greater master of language in our ranks. His prizes and honors were uncountable and all deserved. As a critic he was always selective, never wholesale, and ever gracious and generous in his sharpness.
We who were his friends know how steadfast and devoted he was to us. He respected and wanted to know what we knew, but it always happened that we learned more from him than he from us. His presence was charismatic but in no way intimidating. It was a joy to be with him. We will greatly miss but not forget this man of stature, grace, intelligence, wit, and humanity.
Neil Smelser, University of
Mentorship supplied one vivid strand in the varicolored fabric of Robert Merton's intellectual life. His mentorship took two forms: individual and collective. Individually, scholars at the Russell Sage Foundation, where Merton long served as senior savant, often heard the rapid staccato of his manual typewriter in the knowledge that one of them would soon receive an impeccably typed, elegantly phrased, and often uncomfortably acute point by point review of a recent paper, presentation, or conversation. They also knew that if he attended their session of a seminar, Merton would remain silent through most of the discussion, then deliver a telling review of argument and evidence coupled with concrete suggestions for (a great deal of) further work, as well as an invitation to a private parley.
Collectively, Merton complemented his own investigations of science, bureaucracy, reference groups, and community attachments with didactic essays that identified extremely general social phenomena-unanticipated consequences, self-fulfilling prophecies, anomie, and many more-and told other people how to think clearly about those phenomena. In those essays, he mentored the world. Individual and collective mentorship converged, furthermore, when Merton reminded many a younger scholar, gently but firmly, that an ostensibly new idea bore resemblances to one that Merton himself had laid out with characteristic clarity years before or (worse yet) that the youngster had misrepresented a Mertonian argument. We miss our mentor.
Charles Tilly, Columbia University
I only met Robert Merton twice, but that was enough to leave a lasting impact. The first time was near the start of my second year at Columbia, and I was still nervous about even belonging to a sociology department (my PhD is in engineering), let alone being left face to face with the great man. Instead of exposing me for a fraud, however, he told me that he was quite aware of my background as well as my work, and that as far as he was concerned I had been a sociologist all along-no matter what my CV said. I felt redeemed, honored, and overwhelmed all at once. More than anything, however, I felt obligated not to disappoint him. The next time I saw him-at a workshop in honor of Paul Lazarsfeld, and implicitly him-we exchanged only a few brief words, but the effect was the same: he had expectations of me and I wanted to meet them. In part, I'm sure my reaction was just that of a young man being flattered by the attention of an elder statesman, but there was something else as well. In one brief perusal he had understood not only the specifics of my work, but the larger picture as well; in fact, he seemed to understand my intentions pretty much the way I understood them. To Merton, these events probably passed without much notice, but to me they spoke volumes about a man who not only could reach out across 60 years and engage so completely a new set of ideas, but who, with more immediate matters to deal with, would take the time to do so. We can all thank him for his work, for which he more than deserves to be remembered. But I want to thank him simply for his empathy, for which I will remember him and which is not as common as it sounds.
Duncan Watts, Columbia University
Magic is a first key to understanding the great sociologist whom we memorialize. Robert K. Merton emerged from the chrysalis of Merlin the teen-age magician practicing in South Philadelphia. Like Merlin, he always kept an insistence on perfection, on endless polishing, polishing which yet is kept private. At Harvard, Merton turned to examining magic's leading modern competitor, science. He probed beneath surface detail for a deeper understanding of how it worked as an institution. Then, along came Social Studies of Science to scan the backstages of science. This generated some wonderful case studies and much airing of peccadilloes, but only the Mertonian view offered any coherent explanation of the magic of science itself. Merton could explain deep topics in apparently common-sense ideas and prose, as if by magic, and this skill aided him to inculcate and diffuse variants and adaptations as apt more widely, as to the study of professions.
South Philadelphia was run by a strong political machine, and political savvy is another key to Merton coming from his early background. Merton developed into a major boss during the growth of American sociology. He kept up with and helped hundreds of sociologists and used his connections to build up our institutions. So did his teacher, Talcott Parsons, and both were characterized by a ruthless albeit sophisticated drive for power. Merton was able to call the shots in much of sociology, and more broadly in allied disciplines, pure and applied.
Merton was a master of the brief essay, which he used to unearth causal mechanisms with claims to some universality and often labeled by phrases as memorable as jingles. Yet he also was partner in large-scale and long-term studies. The accomplishments we memorialize derived from 70 years of unremitting work and writing, with attention to detail as well as to person and to exact nuance of thought.
Harrison C. White, Giddings Professor of Sociology, Columbia University
In 1965, Robert Merton advised us to stand On the Shoulders of Giants. He was already one of the giants many of us had found of great value. By that time, his several books and a score of articles had enriched-in content and in style-the sociological literature. And that was only the beginning. Many more important books and articles appeared through the next several decades, enriching the literature in social theory, the sociology of science, social psychology, and a wide range of other topics.
He had taken his first course in sociology, about 1930, with George Simpson, then a professor at Temple University. Years ago, George described to me, with great delight, the sparkle that Merton brought to his class by his questions and his comments. The clarity and enthusiasm of his young scholar's participation in the class convinced the professor that, once Merton settled on a career he would be a star. That prediction was fulfilled not only by his writing but by his excellent teaching, his numerous public lectures, at home and abroad, and by the richness and generosity he showed to his wide circle of friends.
I happened to be in Philadelphia in 1994 when Merton was being honored by the American Council of Learned Societies. His autobiographical response to the award was a modest appraisal of the "social and cultural capital" he had shared, even as a boy in a deteriorating area of Philadelphia. From whatever backgrounds, we have all shared richly in the social and cultural capital created by Robert K. Merton.
J. Milton Yinger, Oberlin College