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

March 02, 2003|Mary Rourke | 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.

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