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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

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Visitors to Merton's offices near Columbia came away with memories of the stacks of his unpublished manuscripts on the bookshelves.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.

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