NYTimes.com Article: Robert K. Merton, Versatile Sociologist and Father of the Focus Group, Dies at 92

Eugene Garfield garfield at CODEX.CIS.UPENN.EDU
Mon Feb 24 12:17:36 EST 2003

This article from NYTimes.com
has been sent to you by garfield at codex.cis.upenn.edu.

To Manfred Kochen and all friends of Prof. Merton it is my sad task to inform you of his death. I visited him in the hospital about ten days ago. EG

Here is the obituary from the NY Times

garfield at codex.cis.upenn.edu

Robert K. Merton, Versatile Sociologist and Father of the Focus Group, Dies at 92

February 24, 2003

Robert K. Merton, one of the most influential sociologists
of the 20th century, whose coinage of terms like
"self-fulfilling prophecy" and "role models" filtered from
his academic pursuits into everyday language, died
yesterday. He was 92 and lived in Manhattan.

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

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

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.


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