Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Robert King Merton
Robert King Merton “My life of learning has been largely shaped by a long series of chance encounters and consequential choices."

Robert King Merton (1910–2003)
LittD 1985 (hon.)
Faculty 1941–2003

One of the most influential social scientists in the world by the time he was 40, Merton is known for his contributions to the study of social structure, sociology of science, bureaucracy, and mass communications. Called the "father of the focus group," he developed other concepts, such as "self-fulfilling prophecy," "deviant behavior," and "role model," which have since entered the general vocabulary. Merton was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1983. In 1994, he became the first sociologist to receive the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor.

Merton did his undergraduate work at Temple University, in his native Philadelphia. He went on to Harvard, where he studied under George Sarton and Talcott Parsons. His first teaching job was at Tulane. Coming to Columbia in 1941, Merton began a fruitful partnership with the European-trained  Paul Lazarsfeld, who arrived on Morningside Heights the same year. Together, they created the University's Bureau of Applied Social Research, which soon became the leading center of its kind in the world. He was named a full professor in 1947, the Giddings Professor of Sociology in 1963, University Professor in 1974, and upon his retirement in 1979, Special Service Professor. In 1990, the university established the Robert K. Merton Professorship in the Social Sciences. Upon Merton's death in February 2003, at age 92, former student Jonathan R. Cole, then Provost and Dean of Faculties, said, "In some sense, with his death we put a period to the end of the twentieth-century developments in sociology."

Read more about Merton in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

September 1994 article on
Merton’s National Medal of

A closer look at the
department Merton helped
put on the Columbia map.

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