Robert K. Merton, 92; Pioneering Sociologist Coined ‘Role Model’ and Other Popular Terms

Times Staff Writer

Robert K. Merton, who is credited with establishing sociology as a legitimate field and introducing such terms as “role model,” “focus group” and “self-fulfilling prophecy” into modern vocabulary, has died. He was 92.

The sociologist, who died Feb. 23 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, had been in failing health for some time and in recent years had battled six forms of cancer.

“Merton helped turn sociology into an academic discipline with a system for evaluating and analyzing social phenomena,” said Jonathan Cole, once a student of Merton’s and later provost of Columbia University, where Merton was on the faculty from 1941 until his death. "[He] was the father of the sociology of science. He studied the ethos of science, the reward system, the pressures of science, the role of women -- every aspect of the field.”

Fascinated by social structures, including those that undergird science, Merton explained his job in a 1961 interview with the New Yorker magazine. A sociologist, he said, was always trying to answer the same question: “How does this come to be so?”

He chose the field, he said, because it allowed him “to examine human behavior objectively and without using loaded moral preconceptions.”


The sociologist was a prolific writer and editor with several dozen books and articles to his credit, including his best-known work: “On the Shoulders of Giants,” published in 1965. But teaching, Merton told colleagues, was indispensable.

“He felt it was tremendously important that a scholar’s work include intellectual pursuits as well as the training of progeny,” Cole said. “He was a great classroom teacher.”

Students were in awe, and a bit intimidated, as Cole once illustrated in an experiment in which he asked them to guess their professor’s height. Merton stood 6 feet 1 inch, but, Cole said, “people overestimated his height by 2 1/2 inches. He had authority and charisma in the classroom.”

As a scholar, Merton’s curiosity led him to weighty as well as whimsical topics, from the ways that science is influenced by social forces to the randomness of serendipity.

He studied medical students and what motivated them, as well as friendships and what made them work. (His study “Friendship as a Social Process,” with Paul Lazarsfeld, was based on their personal friendship and professional collaboration of more than 30 years at Columbia.)

Merton began his teaching career at Tulane University in New Orleans in 1938. By the time he had reached Columbia three years later, at age 31, he was known as a leader in his field. Two studies in particular, one on integration and one on deviant behavior, soon established him as a force beyond academic circles.

Through the 1940s, he examined the effect of “insiders” and “outsiders” on the social structure of a community. He concluded that those distinctions are obstacles to integration. His research helped shape arguments for Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case of 1954 that led to the desegregation of public schools.

In an earlier project, first published in 1936, Merton concluded that deviant behavior is most severe when people lack access to the means for achieving social goals, particularly such highly valued goals as business success and personal wealth. “That work spawned a whole industry of study and work,” Cole said.

The obvious truth of Merton’s conclusions worked both for and against him. Admirers applauded his findings as indisputable. Critics said his conclusions were too neat and pat. One of them grudgingly added: “The job he’s done is so polished and stimulating that, until something better comes along, we’ll have to use it.”

For his pioneering research and its far-ranging effects, Merton was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1994. He was the first sociologist to receive the prize.

The scholarly accolade might have surprised his friends from the old neighborhood. Merton was born Meyer Schkolnick in Philadelphia and raised on the city’s rundown south side. His parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. The family, including Merton’s sister, lived in an apartment above a milk and egg shop, and his father worked as a carpenter and truck driver.

As a boy Merton belonged to the neighborhood gang, but his mother persuaded him to spend time at the Carnegie Library, the Philadelphia Museum and concerts at the Academy of Music.

At 14, he went into business for himself, performing magic tricks at parties. Harry Houdini was his role model and Merlin, the legendary wizard from King Arthur’s court, inspired him to change his name to Robert Merlin. He later changed it to Merton.

On a scholarship to Temple University in Philadelphia, Merton happened to wander into a sociology class. He later explained in an autobiographical essay, “My Life of Learning” (1994), that his career was shaped by such coincidences.

Aware that such lucky coincidences were a ruling force in his life, he began collecting anecdotes from history. It was a playful project with an important concept behind it.

“He wanted to demonstrate the nonrational forces in science,” said Peter Dougherty, publisher of Princeton University Press, which will publish Merton’s resulting book, “The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity,” late this year.

After college, Merton earned a master’s degree and PhD at Harvard University before he joined the faculty at Tulane. Within months of his arrival, he was named chairman of the sociology department.

By then he had married Suzanne Carhart, whom he met as an undergraduate. They had three children before they separated in 1968. Their son, Robert C. Merton, won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1997. After that, the older Merton often signed his correspondence “father of the economist.”

The year he separated from his first wife, Merton formed a lasting relationship with Harriet Zuckerman, a sociologist on the Columbia faculty. The couple married in 1993.

When he arrived at Columbia in 1941, Merton’s profession divided along two lines. Some sociologists, including his new colleague Lazarsfeld, considered experiments and observations the heart of the work. Others, with Merton as leader, said social theory was most important.

The two men became co-directors of Columbia’s Bureau of Applied Social Research for the study of mass media and society.

“The theoretician and the methodologist combined forces,” said Richard Swed- berg, Merton’s friend and a professor of sociology at Cornell University. “Merton’s great achievement was to unite theory and methodology in his work.”

Among other innovations, Merton and Lazarsfeld developed “focus” interviews to help them gauge people’s responses to mass media. The technique is now a basic tool of market research and political polling.

Visitors to Merton’s offices near Columbia came away with memories of the stacks of his unpublished manuscripts on the bookshelves. Most of them were ready to go to press, except by Merton’s perfectionist standards. He spent years refining his work, and held on to manuscripts for decades in some cases.

For 23 years he gathered anecdotes to use in “On the Shoulders of Giants.” The book explored the history of a remark associated with Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton used the line to explain his achievements in mathematics and natural science.

Merton showed that the comment was foreshadowed by a 1st century Roman grammarian, Priscian, sometimes attributed to the Roman poet Lucan, and proved to be a statement by the medieval humanist and educator Bernard of Chartres.

The new book on serendipity was 30 years in the making. Il Morino, an Italian publisher, coaxed it from him and published it in 2002. (Princeton will publish the English version.)

Merton made no secret of his work habits. He turned on the lights in his home office, at Hastings-on-Hudson in upstate New York, at 4:30 a.m. The scholar was a stickler for correct grammar and usage and often referred to his dictionary even during informal conversations. Swedberg remembers Merton correcting him about the word stereotype, pointing out “that it had more than one meaning.” Cole was corrected for misusing the word stipend in one of his graduate papers for Merton, and said, “I got back six pages on the origins and etymology of the word.”

Merton is survived by his wife, three children and nine grandchildren.