By MICHAEL T. KAUFMAN
Published: February 24, 2003
Mr. Merton gained his pioneering reputation as a sociologist of science, exploring how scientists behave and what it is that motivates, rewards, and intimidates them. By laying out his ”ethos of science” in 1942, he replaced the entrenched stereotypical views that had long held scientists to be eccentric geniuses largely unbound by rules or norms. It was this body of work that contributed to Mr. Merton’s becoming the first sociologist to win a National Medal of Science in 1994.
But his explorations over 70-odd years extended across an extraordinary range of interests that included the workings of the mass media, the anatomy of racism, the social perspectives of ”insiders” vs. ”outsiders,” history, literature and etymology. Though carried out with the detachment he admired in Emile Durkheim, the French architect of modern sociology, Mr. Merton’s inquiries often bore important consequences in real life as well as in academics.
His studies on an integrated community helped shape Kenneth Clark’s historic brief in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that led to the desegregation of public schools. His adoption of the focused interview to elicit the responses of groups to texts, radio programs and films led to the ”focus groups” that politicians, their handlers, marketers and hucksters now find indispensable. Long after he had helped devise the methodology, Mr. Merton deplored its abuse and misuse but added, ”I wish I’d get a royalty on it.”
He spent much of his professional life at Columbia University, where along with his collaborator of 35 years, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, who died in 1976, he developed the Bureau of Applied Social Research, where the early focus groups originated. The course of his career paralleled the growth and acceptance of sociology as a bona fide academic discipline. As late as 1939 there were fewer than a 1,000 sociologists in the United States, but soon after Mr. Merton was elected president of the American Sociological Association in 1957, the group had 4,500 members.
Mr. Merton was sometimes called ”Mr. Sociology,” and Jonathan R. Cole, a former student and the provost at Columbia, once said, ”If there were a Nobel Prize in sociology, there would be no question he would have gotten it.” (Mr. Merton’s son, Robert C. Merton, won a Nobel Prize in economics in 1997.)
Another of Mr. Merton’s contributions to sociology was his emphasis on what he termed ”theories of the middle range.” By these he meant undertakings that steered clear of grand speculative and abstract doctrines while also avoiding pedantic inquiries that were unlikely to yield significant results. What he preferred were initiatives that might yield findings of consequence and that open lines of further inquiry. In his own writings he favored the essay form, ”which provides scope for asides and correlatives,” he said, over the more common and streamlined scientific paper.
He was often came up with clearly phrased observations that combined originality with seeming simplicity. Eugene Garfield, an information scientist, wrote that much of Mr. Merton’s work was ”so transparently true that one can’t imagine why no one else has bothered to point it out.”
One early example of such illuminating insight appeared in a paper called ”Social Structure and Anomie” that he wrote as a graduate student at Harvard in 1936 and then kept revising over the next decade.
Mr. Merton had asked himself what it was that brought about anomie, a state in which, according to Mr. Durkheim, the breakdown of social standards threatened social cohesion. In a breakthrough that spawned many lines of inquiry, Mr. Merton suggested that anomie was likely to arise when society’s members were denied adequate means of achieving the very cultural goals that their society projected, like wealth, power, fame or enlightenment. Among the spinoffs of this work were Mr. Merton’s own writings on the ranges of deviant behavior and crime.
A tall, pipe-smoking scholar, Mr. Merton often used the trajectory of his life story, from slum to academic achievement, as material illustrating the workings of serendipity, chance and coincidence, which so long fascinated him.
Robert King Merton was born Meyer R. Schkolnick on July 4, 1910, in South Philadelphia; he carried that name for the first 14 years of his life. He was the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe and lived in an apartment above his father’s milk, butter and egg store until the building burned down. As a teenager performing magic tricks at birthday parties, he adopted Robert Merlin as a stage name, but when a friend convinced him that his choice of the ancient wizard’s name was hackneyed, he modified it, adopting Merton with the concurrence of his Americanizing mother after he won a scholarship to Temple University.
In a lecture to the American Council of Learned Societies in 1994, Mr. Merton said that thanks to the libraries, schools, orchestras to which he had access, and even to the youth gang he had joined, his early years had prepared him well for what he called a life of learning. ”My fellow sociologists will have noticed,” he said, ”how that seemingly deprived South Philadelphia slum was providing 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.” It is not difficult to see connections between such views and Mr. Merton’s insights into the causes of anomie.
In a 1961 New Yorker magazine profile by Morton Hunt, Mr. Merton was described as displaying ”a surprising catholicity of interests and a talent for good conversation, impaired only slightly by the fact that he is alarmingly well informed about everything from baseball to Kant and is unhesitatingly ready to tell anybody about any or all of it.”
Indeed, what is Mr. Merton’s most widely known book, ”On the Shoulders of Giants,” went far beyond the confines of sociology. Referred to by Mr. Merton as his ”prodigal brainchild,” it reveals the depth of his curiosity, the breadth of his prodigious research and the extraordinary patience that also characterize his academic writing. The effort began in 1942, when, in an essay called ”A Note on Science and Democracy,” Mr. Merton referred to a remark by Isaac Newton: ”If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” He added a footnote pointing out that ”Newton’s aphorism is a standardized phrase which has found repeated expression from at least the 12th century.”
But Mr. Merton did not stop there. Intermittently during the next 23 years he tracked the aphorism back in time, following blind alleys as well as fruitful avenues and finally finished the book in 1965, writing in a discursive style that the author attributed to his early reading and subsequent rereadings of Laurence Sterne’s ”Tristram Shandy.” Denis Donoghue, the critic and literary scholar, wrote of the book admiringly as ”an eccentric and yet concentric work of art, a work sufficiently flexible to allow a digression every 10 pages or so.” He admitted, ”I wish I had written ‘On the Shoulders of Giants.’ ”
More recently, over the last three and a half decades, Mr. Merton had been gathering information about the idea and workings of serendipity, and thinking about it in the same spirit in which he had written the earlier book, which he liked to call by its acronym, OTSOG. As he had done with all his investigations, he collated and pondered data he had entered on index cards. Most days he started work at 4:30 a.m., with some of his 15 cats keeping him company. During the last years of his life, as he fought and overcame six different cancers, his Italian publisher, Il Mulino, prevailed on him to allow them to issue his writings on serendipity as a book. And four days before his death, his wife, the sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, received word that Princeton University Press had approved publication of the English version under the title, ”The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity.”
In addition to Ms. Zuckerman and his son, Mr. Merton is survived by two daughters, Stephanie Tombrello of Pasadena, Calif., and Vanessa Merton of Hastings-on-Hudson; nine grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Photo: Robert Merton coined sociological terms that became household words. (Michael Shavel, 1995)
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