Robert Merton was a pioneering sociologist who is well-known for his contributions to the field of social theory and analysis. During his long and accomplished career, Merton made significant contributions to the study of social structure, social functions, social norms and deviance, and the role of science in society. His groundbreaking work continues to influence sociologists to this day.
Early Life and Education
Robert Merton was born Meyer R. Schkolnick on July 4, 1910, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who worked as tailors. Merton grew up in a working-class neighborhood in South Philadelphia, where he attended public schools.
Merton was an excellent student, and he won a scholarship to attend Temple University, where he earned a degree in sociology in 1931. After graduation, he went to work as a social worker in Harlem, where he saw firsthand the struggles of African Americans during the Great Depression.
In 1934, Merton enrolled in the doctoral program in sociology at Harvard University. He studied under famous sociologists like Pitirim Sorokin and Talcott Parsons, who were instrumental in shaping his intellectual development. Merton earned his PhD in 1938, and he then went on to teach at Harvard and later at Columbia University.
Career and Accomplishments
Merton’s career as a sociologist spanned several decades, and he made many significant contributions to the field. One of his earliest and most influential works was his 1949 book Social Theory and Social Structure. In this book, Merton proposed a new way of looking at social structures, arguing that they had both manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions were the intended, visible functions of a social structure, while latent functions were the unintended, often hidden functions. Merton argued that it was important to understand both the manifest and latent functions of social structures in order to fully understand their impact on society.
Merton also made important contributions to the study of deviance and the role of social norms. In his 1957 article “Social Structure and Anomie,” Merton developed the concept of “strain theory,” which argues that societies create cultural goals that not everyone can achieve. This can lead to strain for those who are unable to achieve these goals, which can then lead to deviant behavior as individuals try to find other ways to fulfill those goals.
Merton also studied the role of science in society. In his 1973 book The Sociology of Science, he argued that scientific knowledge is not solely the product of objective observation and experimentation, but is also influenced by social norms and values. Merton identified several norms that influence scientific work, including the norm of communism (the sharing of information among scientists), the norm of universalism (the evaluation of scientific work based on objective criteria), and the norm of disinterestedness (the exclusion of personal biases in scientific work).
Merton was also a prolific writer, publishing over 40 books and more than 150 articles during his career. Many of his works are still widely read and cited in sociological research today.
Robert Merton’s contributions to the field of sociology have had a lasting impact. His groundbreaking work on social theory and analysis helped to shape the direction of the field in the mid-20th century and beyond. Merton’s concept of manifest and latent functions continues to be an important tool for sociologists, as does his strain theory of deviance.
Merton was also a trailblazer in other ways. As a Jewish sociologist in the 1930s and 40s, he faced discrimination and anti-Semitism in academia. However, his work and contributions to the field helped to open doors for other minority scholars, and he was instrumental in creating a more diverse and inclusive field of sociology.
Merton’s legacy also extends beyond his academic work. He was an advocate for social justice and equality, and he used his platform as a prominent scholar to advocate for causes like civil rights and the end of the Vietnam War.
Merton was recognized for his many accomplishments throughout his career. He won numerous awards and honors, including the National Medal of Science in 1994. He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Robert Merton was a pioneering sociologist whose work has had a profound impact on the field of sociology. His contributions to our understanding of social theory, deviance, and the sociology of science continue to influence sociological research today. Merton’s legacy also extends beyond academia, as he was a tireless advocate for social justice and equality. As we look back on his life and career, we can see the many ways in which he shaped the field of sociology and the broader social landscape.