Robert K. Merton

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Robert K. Merton in 1965

Robert K. Merton (4 July 191023 February 2003) was a distinguished American sociologist perhaps best known for having coined the phrase "self-fulfilling prophecy."


  • The ethos of science involves the functionally necessary demand that theories or generalizations be evaluated in [terms of] their logical consistency and consonance with facts.
    • Merton (1938) "Science and the Social Order". In: Philosophy of Science Vol 5, nr 3, p. 326
  • The role of outstanding scientists in influencing younger associates is repeatedly emphasized in the interviews with laureates. Almost invariably they lay great emphasis on the importance of problem-finding, not only problem-solving. They uniformly express the strong conviction that what matters most in their work is a developing sense of taste, of judgment, in acting setting upon problems that are of fundamental importance. And, typically, they report that they acquired this sense for the significant problem during their years of training in evocative environments. Reflecting on his years as a novice in the laboratory of a chemist of the first rank, one laureate reports that he "led me to look for important things, whenever possible, rather than work on endless detail or to work just to improve accuracy rather than making a basic new contribution."
    • Merton (1968) "The Matthew Effect In Science", In: Science Vol. 159, no. 3810 (5 January 1968), p. 56-63: On scientists, the Nobel Prizes, and the Matthew effect in scientific research.

The Sociology of Knowledge, (1937)[edit]

Source: Robert K. Merton, "The Sociology of Knowledge," in: Isis (1937), Vol 27. nr.22. p. 493-503 (online)
  • The last two decades have witnessed, especially in Germany and France, the rise of a new discipline, the sociology of knowledge (Wissenssoziologie), with a rapidly increasing number of students and a growing literature (even a “selected bibliography” would include several hundred titles). Since most of the investigations in this field have been concerned with the socio-cultural factors influencing the development of beliefs and opinion rather than of positive knowledge, the term. “Wissen” must be interpreted very broadly indeed, as referring to social ideas and thought generally, and not to the physical sciences, except where expressly indicated.
    • p. 493
  • It is likely that the emphasis upon the metaphysical and epistemological implications of the sociology of knowledge can be traced, in part, to the fact that the first proponents of this discipline stemmed largely from philosophical rather than scientific circles. The burden of further research is to turn from this welter of conflicting opinion to empirical investigations which may establish in adequate detail the uniformities pertaining to the appearance, acceptance and diffusion, or rejection and repression, development and consequences of knowledge and ideas.
    • p. 503

Social structure and anomie (1938)[edit]

Source: Merton (1938) Social Structure and Anomie. New York: Irvington
  • The extreme emphasis upon the accumulation of wealth as a symbol of success in our society militates against the completely effective control of institutionally regulated modes of acquiring a fortune.
    • p. 59
  • Scientific research is not conducted in a social vacuum.
    • p. 263 (1973 Edition)

Social Theory and Social Structure (1949)[edit]

Source: Robert K. Merton (1949) Social Theory and Social Structure. Toward the codification of theory and research
  • No man knows fully what has shaped his own thinking
    • p. ix (1957 edition)
  • By social structure is meant that organized set of social relationships in which members of the society or group are variously implicated.
    • p. 162 (1957 edition)
  • [Merton states that anomie represents] An acute disjunction between the cultural norms and goals and the socially structured capacities of members of the group to act in accord with them.
    • p. 162 (1957 edition) as cited in: John H. Scanzoni (1970) Opportunity and the family. p. 55
  • The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the original false conception come "true". This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.
    • p. 477 (1968 Enlarged edition)

Quotes about Robert K. Merton[edit]

  • Bob Merton became the leader of structural-functional analysis in sociology, and the leader of those sociologists who attempted to create social theories that could be empirically tested... He was an inspirational teacher and editor, and with his students, such as James S. Coleman and Seymour Martin Lipset, among many others who would become leading figures in the field, he helped to build and legitimate the field of sociology in America... For me, he was a model teacher and mentor, a trusted colleague, and a close friend. His death, in many ways, puts a period at the end of 20th Century sociology,

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