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Robert K. Merton

Robert King Merton (1910–2003) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His birth name was Meyer R. Schkolnick. His name change came about when, as a teen, he became an amateur magician. He first adopted the name Merlin, then changed it to Merton when told that Merlin was “hackneyed.” “Robert” was adopted from French magician Robert Houdin, the magician from whom Harry Houdini borrowed his stage name. Upon winning a scholarship to Temple University, “he was content to let the new name become permanent” (Calhoun 2003, 1, 8).

Merton pursued his graduate studies at Harvard University, where he earned his doctorate in 1936. He taught at Harvard for the following three years. He then moved to Tulane, and later to Columbia. He became a full professor in 1947. He was later named Giddings Professor of Sociology, Special Service Professor, and University Professor Emeritus (Martin, Mutchnick, and Austin 1990).

Over the course of his long career, Merton’s work spanned a broad range of additional areas to include research methods, deviance, medicine, anomie, bureaucracy, and organizations. He received over 20 honorary degrees and international awards and was the first person to receive the Who’s Who in America Achievement Award in the Social Sciences and Social Policy (Martin, Mutchnick, and Austin 1990, 211). His numerous contributions in the area of theory include middle-range theories and the concepts of latent and manifest functions and dysfunctions. He coined a number of phrases that are now part of the sociological jargon, including self-fulfilling prophesy, unanticipated consequences, and anticipatory socialization. He also developed an interview technique that has now become the focus group, used throughout political and market research (Calhoun 2003, 8).

By many reports, Robert Merton was both an inspiring and demanding teacher (Coleman 1990). He spent much time and effort reading and commenting on other people’s manuscripts. Merton himself estimated that he had read over 200 book-length manuscripts and over 2,000 article-length manuscripts between 1930 and 1985 (Sztompka 1986, 265). He continued to be engaged in learning and writing until his death in 2003 at age 92.

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(The Basics of Sociology) - ISBN 0-313-32387-9 Copyright 2010 - 2012 © All Rights Reserved
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