Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) is one of those rare titanic figures that the discipline of sociology had the fortune to have at those crucial moments of its disciplinary break-through and expansion. Merton's works have not only steered sociology into new territories such as sociology of knowledge and studies of social time, but also deepened our theoretical grasp of social structures, group dynamics, culture, and the phenomenon of social ambivalence. Merton's insistent and persistent endeavor in working on theories of the middle range has undoubtedly bridged the often troubling gap between grand theories and empirical research. Today's sociologists (perhaps social scientists in general) are indebted to Merton for terms such as self-fulfilling prophecy, unanticipated consequences of social action, reference groups, and manifest and latent functions. In fact, these concepts have also entered into our everyday vernacular.
Merton was born to a first-generation immigrant family in urban Philadelphia. As a young passionate scholar of keen intellect, Merton received his training at Temple University and Harvard University under the mentorship of George E. Simpson and Pitirim Sorokin. Having taught at and chaired the sociology department at Tulane for two years, Merton moved to Colombia in the early 1940s and remained there during his 62-year tenure and career.
Often questionably associated with Parsonian functionalism, Merton's works have in fact showed much nuanced framework and analysis of social processes and social phenomena; and remained a subtle distance from Parsonian functionalism. In one of his most cited works, ''Social structure and anomie'' (1938), Merton, working in the middle range, proposed a framework on the interplays between social and cultural structures, which allows the sociologist to examine multiple social processes such as conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion, without entangling herself in an abstract language of action systems. Merton's works on reference groups and self-fulfilling prophecy not only laid a solid foundation for studies of group processes and dynamics but also pioneered the analysis of racial and ethnic structures and processes in US society. Consistently exhibited in Merton's works is his masterful shifting among multiple observational perspectives. His works on manifest and latent functions and his analysis of social dysfunctions draw clear distinctions among individual motivations, group goals-tasks, and their structural consequences-functions, which enables the sociologist to go beyond the ways in which individuals rationalize their actions and to inquire into the structural processes as consequences of individual and group actions. Merton's works on social status and role-set and sociological ambivalence bear clear and convincing witness to his penetratingly perceptive observation and exquisitely delicate construction of theoretical and analytical frameworks. For Merton, a social status often entails multiple roles (a role-set) for the social actor; and these roles often contradict one another. As a consequence, the individual person may experience affective, cognitive, and behavioral ambivalence, which in turn may be the cause of individual strain. This type of theoretical framework clearly locates the sources of social and individual strains in the social structural settings rather than in the gap between the individual's needs and structural constraints.
Another of Merton's lifelong pursuits was the sociology of knowledge, particularly the sociology of science. Critically working in the traditions of Manheim, Marx, Weber, and Sorokin, Merton examined the rise of modern scientific enterprise by locating it in the social contexts of English Puritanism and German pietism. Instead of constructing a linear narrative for modern science, Merton explores the paradoxes within the religious doctrines and the contradictions between religious doctrines and their social practice, showing that it was the social dynamics generated through structural contradictions that compelled the development of modern science.
In addition to being a great scholar and thinker, Merton is also remembered as a fascinating and inspiring mentor. Among his beneficiaries are such influential people in sociology as Peter Blau, James Coleman, Lewis and Roe Coser, Alvin Gouldner, Seymor Martin Lipset, and many others.
Merton, R. K. (1938) Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review 3: 672-82.
Merton, R. K. (1968)  Social Theory and Social Structure, rev. and enlarged edn. Free Press, New York.
Hodges, P. C. & Merton, R. K. (1984) An interview with Robert K. Merton. Teaching Sociology 11 (4): 355-86.
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