Robert K. Merton

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Robert K. Merton (1965)

Robert King Merton (* 4. July 1910 in Philadelphia , Pennsylvania as Meyer Robert Schkolnick ; † 23. February 2003 in New York ) was an American sociologist . He was the 47th president of the American Sociological Association .


Robert K. Merton was born as Meyer Robert Schkolnick in Philadelphia on July 4, 1910, into a family of Yiddish-speaking Russian Jews who emigrated to the USA in 1904. Merton studied from 1927 at Temple University with George E. Simpson . From 1931 he was research assistant with Pitrim A. Sorokin at Harvard University , where he then taught until 1937. In 1938 he became a professor at Tulane University and in 1941 at Columbia University , where he was Giddings Professor of Sociology in 1963 and received the rank of University Professor in 1974 . From 1942 to 1971 he was Associate Director of the Bureau of Applied Social Research there. In 1979 he retired. In 1984 he retired from teaching. He was also an Adjunct Professor at Rockefeller University and served at the Russell Sage Foundation.

Merton is the father (from his first marriage to Suzanne Carhart, which was married in 1934 and divorced in 1968 and from which two daughters also come) of Robert C. Merton , the 1997 Nobel Prize in Economics . In 1993 he was his second marriage to the sociologist Harriet Zuckerman married.

Merton thesis

Merton began his academic career with an important contribution to both the sociology of religion and the sociology of science . In 1938, in his first book Science, Technology and Society in 17th-Century England, he developed the Merton thesis named after him . It consists of two independent parts. First, the thesis is a theory that changes in science are caused by an accumulation of observations and improved experimental techniques and methodological approaches. Second, the thesis argues that the scientific revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries was essentially driven by Protestantism , especially English Puritans and German Pietists . In later publications, Merton expanded his thesis and defended it against criticism.


He tried to overcome the static of Parsons' structural functionalism by emphasizing the dynamics of social processes.

Merton coined, among other things, the terms self-fulfilling prophecy ( English self-fulfilling prophecy ), Focus Group , role model ( role model ), Matthew effect , unintended consequences and knowledge communism and called the parable on the shoulders of giants back into memory.

Merton has become known for his position that sociology lacks the empirical basis for developing grand theories . Accordingly, he advocated concentrating on theories of medium range , in which the theory generation can be linked to an empirical foundation.

Real and spurious science

In the mid-1930s, Merton was worried about the phenomenon of National Socialism and especially about the willingness of German scientists to put themselves at the service of the Nazi regime. Therefore, in a lecture from 1937 ("Science and the Social Order") and an essay from 1942 ("Science and Democratic Social Structure"), he tried to draw a strict line between "real", that is, democratic and ethical science on the one hand and unethical, anti-intellectual "anti-science" on the other. According to Merton, four characteristics distinguished real science:

  1. Universalism ( universalism )
    Scientific research must be assessed independently of the person or social attributes of the scientist responsible. This means that the researcher's ethnicity, nationality, religion, social class and personal characteristics must not be used to discredit his research or to underline its credibility. (This principle was primarily directed against the exclusion of Jews from the German scientific community.)
  2. Communism ( communism )
    The results of scientific knowledge production are the product of collective cooperative efforts and provided to all members of the scientific community at any time at leisure.
  3. Disinterestedness ( disinterestedness )
    drive spring real science is not selfishness , but the passion to increasing knowledge, curiosity in a positive sense and altruistic interest in the welfare of mankind.
  4. Organized skepticism ( organized skepticism )
    Both his in the research methods must be ensured as in the institutional protection of research that a final judgment will only be taken if all the necessary facts are available.

These characteristics, also known as the CUDOS principles after the English first letters, had an impact on the extremely negative perception of German science during the Nazi era , especially in Great Britain and the USA , which was rejected as "unethical" or even "worthless" as a whole . However, this contradicted the interest of all allied warring parties, which had already emerged during the Second World War, to get hold of as many German scientists as possible in order to benefit from their findings (see Operation Overcast ).

Anomie theory

Merton is also the founder of a criminal- sociologically important anomie theory (first formulated in 1938). He assumes a contradiction between the legitimate cultural goals of a society (e.g. consumption in connection with status symbols ) and the unequal distribution of the means (e.g. money, influence , relationships) with which these goals can be achieved. In such a situation anomie arises which, according to Merton, can be responded to in five ways.

  • Conformity: Cultural goals are accepted, the legal means of achieving them are in place.
  • Innovation: cultural goals are accepted, the means to achieve them are not available and are being replaced by illegal means (consequence: crime ).
  • Ritualism: Cultural goals are accepted, but individual goals are reduced so that the legal means of achieving them are sufficient.
  • Withdrawal: Cultural goals as well as legal means are rejected (consequence: exclusion of oneself or others ).
  • Rebellion: Cultural goals and legal means are given up and should be replaced by new ones.


Merton received more than twenty honorary doctorates (including Columbia University, Chicago, Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Hebrew University, Leiden). In 1962 he was a Guggenheim Fellow and in 1983 he was a MacArthur Fellow . In 1994 he received the National Medal of Science . He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1950), the National Academy of Sciences , the Academia Europaea , the American Philosophical Society and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and was a corresponding member of the British Academy .

In 1990 the Robert K. Merton Professorship in Social Sciences at Columbia University was named after him.


  • 2003: The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity : A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science (with Elinor Barber). Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-11754-3
  • 1993: (1965) On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript: The Post-Italianate Edition (with Umberto Eco and Denis Donoghue). University of Chicago Press; Reprint edition, ISBN 0-226-52086-2 .
  • 1985: Development and change of research interests. Essays on the sociology of science . With an introduction by Nico Stehr. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, ISBN 3-518-57710-7 .
  • 1976: Sociological Ambivalence and other Essays. The Free Press, New York, ISBN 0-02-921120-4 .
  • 1973: The Sociology of Science . Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, ISBN 0-226-52091-9 .
  • 1968: The Matthew effect in science . In: Science , 159, pp. 59-63
  • 1968: Social Structure and Anomie . In: F. Sack, R. König (Ed.): Kriminalsoziologie . Frankfurt am Main, pp. 283-313.
  • 1965: On the shoulders of giants ( see 1993)
    • (German edition) On the shoulders of giants. A guide through the labyrinth of learning . Syndikat, Frankfurt 1980, ISBN 3-8108-0128-3 ; also: Suhrkamp (suhrkamp pocket book science), last 3rd edition, Frankfurt a. M. 2010
  • 1949: Social Theory and Social Structure. Toward the codification of theory and research , Glencoe: Ill. (Revised and enlarged edition 1959)
  • 1946: Mass Persuasion . The Social Psychology of a War Bond Drive. Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York.
  • 1938: Science, Technology and Society in 17th-Century England

See also


  • Renate Breithecker-Amend: Scientific development and progress in knowledge: on the explanatory potential of the sociology of science by Robert K. Merton, Michael Polanyi and Derek de Solla Price . Waxmann, Münster 1992.
  • Craig J. Calhoun (ed.): Robert K. Merton: sociology of science and sociology as science . Columbia University Press, New York 2010
  • I. Bernard Cohen (ed.): Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science: the Merton Thesis . Rutgers University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-8135-1530-0
  • Jon Clark (ed.): Robert K. Merton: consensus and controversy . The Falmer Press, London 1990.
  • Lewis A. Coser : The Idea of ​​Social Structure . Papers in Honor of Robert K. Merton. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York 1975, ISBN 0-15-540548-9 .
  • Charles Crothers: Robert K. Merton . Ellis Horwood, Chichester 1987, ISBN 0-7458-0122-6 .
  • Thomas F. Gieryn: Science and Social Structure . A Festschrift for Robert K. Merton. In: New York Transactions of The New York Academy of Sciences , 1980, ISBN 0-89766-043-9 .
  • Gönke Christin Jacobsen: Social Structure and Gender: Analysis of Gender-Specific Crime with Merton's Anomie Theory . VS Verlag, Wiesbaden 2007.
  • Realino Marra: Merton e la teoria dell'anomia . In: Dei Delitti e delle Pene , V-2, 1987, pp. 207-221.
  • Markus Schnepper: Robert K. Merton's theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy: Adaptation of a sociological classic . Lang, Frankfurt 2004.
  • Piotr Sztomka, Robert Merton . In: George Ritzer (ed.): Blackwell Companion to Major Contemporary Social Theorists . Blackwell Publishing, ISBN 1-4051-0595-X , Google Print
  • Piotr Sztompka : Robert K. Merton. An intellectual profile . Macmillan, Basingstoke 1986, ISBN 0-333-37210-7 .
  • Jürgen Mackert , Jochen Steinbicker: On the topicality of Robert K. Merton. VS Verlag, Wiesbaden 2013, ISBN 978-3-531-18417-3 .
  • Maritsa V. Poros, Elizabeth Needham: Writings of Robert K. Merton , in: Social Studies of Science, Vol. 34, No. 6 (December 2004), pp. 863-878.

Web links

Individual evidence

  2. ^ I. Bernard Cohen (ed.): Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science: the Merton Thesis . Rutgers University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-8135-1530-0
  3. ^ Piotr Sztomka: Robert K. Merton . In: George Ritzer (ed.): Blackwell Companion to Major Contemporary Social Theorists . Blackwell Publishing, 2003, ISBN 1-4051-0595-X , Google Print, p. 13
  4. ^ Robert K. Merton, 1942. The Normative Structure of Science. In: The Sociology of Science. Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, 1973, pp. 267-278 ( PDF; 1.7 MB ).