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Created: February 24, 2003
Latest Update: February 24, 2003

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Photo by Michael Schavel, 1995 Robert K. Merton, Photo by Michael Schvel, 1995.

Robert K. Merton

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, February 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.

This essay is based on the obituary by Michael T. Kaufman, published in the New York Times on February 24, 2003.

Robert K. Merton was one of the sociologists who pioneered sociological theory during the Second World War with the resultant American Soldier. This was the work that had been carried out by sociologists in their work with the Armed Forces. For the first time, the researchets had a captive audience, GIs.

Out of the studies of the American Soldier came theories like relative deprivation, when it was discovered that soldiers in the Military Police, where 80 0r 90% were promoted to sargeant were less satisfied with their "promotional" opportunities than were regular GIs, with a much lowere promotional rate. The researchers' conclusion? That when almost everyone around you gets promoted, you feel relatively deprived when you don't get the promotion. Whereas, when very few around you get promoted, you feel less deprived relative to those you compare yourself to. The MPs weren't comparing themselves to ordinary GIs. They were comparing themselves to other MPs. Studies and their resultant conclusions like this helped us to understand that the obvious isn't necessarily obvious. It depends on your perspective.

This is also what Professor Merton would have called a "middle range theory." By that, he meant that we shouldn't try to explain the whole world, but should concentrate on measureable pieces of what the obvious tells us is reality. When we test that reality experimentally, we often find that the obvious isn't the best explanation. Merton conceived of our building many such studies over time, and grounding our conclusions more effectively.

By the way, his son, Robert C. Merton, won a Nobel Prize in Economics: Merton's Economics Research Wins Nobel Prize Harvard Business School Bulletin. Scroll down to the second piece for his father's reactions.

Merton, In His Own Words

I have borrowed the following morsels from Merton's speech, A Life of Learning at American Council of Learned Societies, Occasional Paper No. 25. Referenced on February 24, 2003, at I think he says it best in his own words. Enjoy. jeanne

  • Self-fulfilling prophecy
    " I audit[ed] Harvard’s sole course in the history of science given jointly by the biochemist and self-taught Paretan sociologist, L.J. Henderson, and by George Sarton, the world doyen among historians of science. I did so but it was only after I began work on a dissertation that I dared seek guidance from Sarton. For he was reputed to be a remote and awesome presence, so dedicated to his scholarship as to be wholly inaccessible. Thus do plausible but ill-founded beliefs develop into social realities through the mechanism of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Since this forbidding scholar was unapproachable, there was no point in trying to approach him. And his subsequently having very few students only went to show how inaccessible he actually was. But when in the fall of 1933 I knocked on the door of Sarton’s office in Widener Library, he did not merely invite me in; he positively ushered me in."

    Robert K. Merton in A Life of Learning Cited from, on February 24, 2003.

  • Middle range theory, as opposed to grand theory that tries to explain the whole social system.
    "Although much impressed by Parsons as a master-builder of sociological theory, I found myself departing from his mode of theorizing (as well as his mode of exposition). I still recall the grace with which he responded in a public forum to my mild-mannered but determined criticism of his kind of general theory. I had argued that his formulations were remote from providing a problematics and a direction for theory-oriented empirical inquiry into the observable worlds of culture and society and I went on to state the case for “theories of the middle range” as mediating between gross empiricism and grand speculative doctrines. In typically civil fashion, Parsons paid his respects to my filial impiety and agreed that we both had cause to disagree."

    Robert K. Merton in A Life of Learning Cited from, on February 24, 2003.

  • Deviance within the framework of "anomie and opportunity structure."
    " . . . those sociological essays of mine are not wholly discursive. They are disciplined by being “paradigmatic” in, as I’ve said, a pre-Kuhnian sense of the term “paradigm.” That is to say, the analytical paradigm identifies the basic assumptions, problems, concepts, and hypotheses incorporated in the sociological idea in order to generate researchable questions and to provide for continuities of theoretical and empirical inquiry. Thus, the “paradigm of anomie-and-opportunity structure” laid out in a set of essays has been put to use by successive generations of scholars over the past half-century, first in the sociological and criminological study of deviant behavior and then in continuing researches in a variety of other disciplines, just as the “paradigm of the self-fulfilling prophecy,” which was first applied to the sociological problem of ethnic and racial discrimination, has since led to traditions of theoretical and empirical inquiry in social psychology, political science, anthropology, economics, and public administration."

    Robert K. Merton in A Life of Learning Cited from, on February 24, 2003.

  • Unique and Exhaustive explanations as metatheories
    "My prime theoretical aversion is to any extreme sociological, economic, or psychological reductionism that claims to account uniquely and exhaustively for patterns of social behavior and social structure. By way of rationale for this aversion, I confine myself to the William James parable about the reductionist fallacy: “A Beethoven string-quartet is truly . . . a scraping of horses’ tails on cats’ bowels, and may be exhaustively described in such terms; but the application of this description in no way precludes the simultaneous applicability of an entirely different description.”

    Robert K. Merton in A Life of Learning Cited from, on February 24, 2003.

    The Self-fulfilling Prophecy or Pygmalion Effect translated into management theory by Employee Motivation in the Workplace.