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Series II: Correspondence, 1930-2003
Series III: Course Materials, 1928-1998
Series IV: Professional Career, 1933-2003
Series VII: Writings, 1931-2002
At a Glance
This collection is arranged in eight series.
Scope and Content
The papers of noted sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) span his professional and academic career, beginning with his formative years as a student in the early 1930s and documenting his notable contributions in the field of sociology through the mid-to-late twentieth century. The papers as a whole portray the many facets of Merton's lengthy career including writings and studies, public and classroom lectures, research, and professional affiliations. Included are extensive course lecture notes, edits and drafts of published and unpublished writings, and items related to Merton's early work with Paul F. Lazarsfeld at the Bureau of Applied Social Research. Incoming and outgoing correspondence comprises a large portion of the collection. These letters, with key sociologists, authors, publishers, and prominent figures in a range of disciplines, detail the formation of many of Merton's original ideas and concepts, in addition to covering Merton's numerous academic and scholarly endeavors. Merton's varied interests and broad achievements are reflected in correspondence, notes, drafts, memoranda, and clippings. Merton meticulously organized his material and the arrangement presented here closely follows the original order.
The collection consists of three groups of material that were stored in different locations and processed separately. Boxes #1-352 contain material previously stored in Merton's office in Fayerweather Hall at Columbia University. Boxes #353-433 include items from Merton's residence in Manhattan. Boxes #434 -507 contain items removed from the home of Merton in East Hampton, New York. The container lists reflect these three groupings in distinct sections. Under each subseries, boxes will be listed alphabetically by each group, so that the alphabetical sequence will repeat itself three times, one for each group.
Using the Collection
Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Restrictions on Access
This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.
Various folders throughout the collection may contain restrictions, which are noted in the contents list.
All original copies of audio / moving image media are closed until reformatting.
Terms Governing Use and Reproduction
Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. The RBML maintains ownership of the physical material only. Copyright remains with the creator and his/her heirs. The responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.
Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Robert K. Merton papers; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.
Selected Related Material-- At Columbia
Historical Biographical Files [18--?] - 2007. Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University
Merton's biographical file includes articles related to Merton and his work.
Additions to the collection are expected. Processing of additional material to be completed by February 2010
About the Finding Aid / Processing Information
Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Papers processed by Lesley Espenship in 2008-2009.
Finding aid written by Lesley Espenship in July 2009.
2009-08-22 xml document instance created by Carrie Hintz.
2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.
History / Biographical Note
Biographical / Historical
Robert K. Merton was one of the most influential 20th-century sociologists. His work shaped the discipline for more than a half century. A prolific writer, editor, teacher, and scholar, Merton examined a broad variety of topics from a sociological perspective while developing concepts and theories aimed at linking particular phenomena to more general social patterns. Well known for identifying and analyzing self-fulfilling prophecies, unanticipated consequences, influentials, and role models, Merton significantly contributed to sociological thought through extensive writings, studies, lectures, and research projects. While most of Merton's career was spent at Columbia University, defining the Sociology Department and the Bureau of Applied Social Research, he was also affiliated with a wide range of professional and scholarly organizations.
Merton was born Meyer R. Schkolnick on July 4, 1910 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The second of two children, he was the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. From an early age, Merton spent countless hours at the local Carnegie library where he developed broad interests in literature; particularly biographies, science, and history. In his early teens Merton formed an interest in magic and wrote a high school paper on the magician Harry Houdini. In the course of his research, he discovered that performing artists often Americanized their names. Following suit, he chose Robert Merton as his stage name; Robert, derived from the French magician Robert Houdin (whom Harry Houdini took his last name), and Merton, a version of Merlin the wizard. The middle initial stands for King, but was always abbreviated by Merton. Encouraged by his brother-in-law, Charles Hopkins, he became a skilled magician, doing an array of magic tricks as well as sleight of hand.
Upon graduation from South Philadelphia High School, Robert K. Merton attended Temple University on a scholarship. While at Temple he encountered George E. Simpson, a young sociology instructor, who recruited Merton to be his research assistant. The assistantship, coupled with Simpson's lectures, sealed Merton's interest in the field of sociology.
Through Simpson, Merton met Pitirim Sorokin, founder of the Sociology Department at Harvard University. After receiving a B.A. from Temple in 1931, Merton attended Harvard, claiming Sorokin's deep interest in European sociology was his only reason for choosing the university at the time. In addition to Sorokin, he also cited Talcott Parsons, E.F. Gay, and George Sarton as strong influences on his development while at Harvard. Merton received his M.A. (1932) and his Ph.D. (1936) from Harvard and went on to become an instructor in the University's Sociology Department until 1939.
At Harvard University, Merton's experiences steered the course of his sociological pursuits. While serving as research assistant to Sorokin, Merton wrote his first published paper"Recent French Sociology" in 1934, which led him to the work of Emile Durkheim and formed the basis for what would become Merton's "own mode of structural and functional analysis." Merton's interest in science and technology grew as he attended a course taught by economic historian E.F. Gay, worked with Sorokin on a joint paper on "Arabian Intellectual Development" and encountered George Sarton, the father of the then nascent discipline, the history of science. Sarton greatly influenced Merton's scholarly development and their association, which Merton called an "unruly apprenticeship" lasted 25 years.
Merton's dissertation, on the reciprocal connections between science and society, focused specifically on the role Puritanism took in encouraging the rise of science and showed, counter to ideas prevalent at the time, that religion could stimulate and canalize rather than undermine scientific activity. His dissertation, Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England, published in 1938, is widely viewed as the first work in the sociology of science and continues to stimulate research on the origins of modern science. Merton is considered to be the founder of this branch of sociology.
In 1939 Merton moved to New Orleans and became Associate Professor in Tulane University's Sociology Department, later becoming the department chair. In 1941 Merton accepted an Assistant Professor position in the Sociology Department at Columbia University, which would serve as his academic home for the next four decades.
At Columbia, Merton was a member of the Department of Sociology while concurrently serving as the Associate Director of the Bureau of Applied Social Research, a post he held from 1942-1971. From 1963-1974, he was the Giddings Professor of Sociology and from 1974-1979, he was named to a University Professorship. In 1979 he held the titles of both Special Service Professor and University Professor Emeritus. Merton officially retired from teaching in 1984, but maintained active ties with Columbia University. In 1990, Columbia established the R.K. Merton Professorship in the Social Sciences.
Sociology was a growing discipline during Merton's years at Columbia and much of his work influenced the development of the field. Among his most well-known contributions were his analysis of manifest and latent functions, theories of the middle range, social structure and anomie, bureaucratic structure and personality, the sociology of knowledge, including the varying perspectives of outsiders and insiders, and opportunity structures. He also examined a wide variety of subjects from a sociological perspective, including science, formal organizations, media, friendship, and deviant behavior and its sources. His interest in the sociology of science took a new turn in the late 1950s when he turned to studies of the allocation of recognition for scientific discoveries and the reward system of science, in which competition for priority plays a major role. In the decades which followed, he pursued his work on multiple independent discoveries, and their implications for the development of knowledge, priority, and the Matthew effect.
Merton's involvement with the Bureau of Applied Social Research spanned nearly 30 years. The Bureau was established a year before Merton arrived at Columbia, with Paul F. Lazarsfeld at the helm. The working relationship that developed between Lazarsfeld and Merton was one of the most significant in Merton's career and one that Merton referred to as an "improbable collaboration." While their interests and methods of inquiry differed, they proved to be complementary. Lazarsfeld was known as a methodologist while Merton was the social theorist. Pinpointing their influence on each other over the course of three decades is difficult. However, one of Merton's best known contributions, the focused group interview (which later was transmuted into "focus groups"), was brought about by Lazarsfeld's insistence on developing well- articulated research methodologies.
At the Bureau, Merton and Lazarsfeld trained scores of students and colleagues in social research, and produced major sociological studies on the media, mass communication, mixed race housing communities, and professions. Merton published several books related to these studies including, Mass Persuasion (1946), Reader in Bureaucracy (1952), The Student- Physician (1957), Patterns in Social Life: Explorations in the Sociology of Housing (1951), and The Focused Interview (1956).
In this same period, Merton's lectures on sociological theory drew scores of students not only from the sociology department but also from departments of history, anthropology, and economics. Courses included Analysis of Social Structure, History of Theory, and Selected Problems in the Theory of Organizations. In conjunction with his studies at the Bureau, Merton also led seminars on the Professions in Modern Society, the Sociological Study of Medical Schools, and the Social Organization of Housing Communities. His commitment to the sociology of science developed further in a seminar of the same name which Merton co-taught with Harriet Zuckerman. As teacher and dissertation advisor, he influenced generations of leading sociologists. These included James Coleman, Peter Blau, Seymour Martin Lipset, Lewis and Rose Coser, Alvin Gouldner, Alice Kitt Rossi, Raymond Boudon, Gary Runciman, Cynthia Epstein, Stephen Cole, Jonathan Cole, and Harriet Zuckerman.
All apart from his teaching, Merton was a productive scholar and editor. In addition to serving on various editorial boards for scholarly publications, as varied as Britannica International Encyclopedia and ISIS, he also edited vast numbers of manuscripts by students and colleagues. By Merton's own estimate, he edited 2,000 articles and 250 books. His own writings include over 175 published articles and nearly 30 books, as well as numerous book reviews, forwards, introductions, and compilations.
Many of the well-known theories and concepts Merton created are reflected in his published articles, including "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action" (1936)"The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy" (1948)"Social Structure and Anomie" (1938)"Insiders and Outsiders" (1972), and "Priorities in Scientific Discovery: A Chapter in the Sociology of Science" (1957). Merton's notable books include Social Theory and Social Structure (1949; 1957 and 1968 enlarged edition), Contemporary Social Problems (with Robert Nisbet) (1961), and The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations (1973), and The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity (2003).
A fastidious and tireless scholar, Merton devoted long hours to study and research. He was known to sleep very little, and often noted the early morning hour in his letters. Owing to his meticulous note taking and organization of research materials, he revisited earlier themes and ideas, revised and restructured his writing. He also put many projects aside being dissatisfied with the work he had done and completed them only decades later. Merton was a lover of language and embarked on projects to analyze words and their origins, from a historical and sociological perspective, the best known being the aphorism "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Merton's journey to discover the phrases' origins led to the publication of On the Shoulders of Giants: a Shandean Postscript in 1965. The book, which he characterized as his favorite "brain child" is told as a discursive narrative, drawing the reader into the process of its creation while examining the creation of ideas. Many of Merton's publications follow this technique, and contain Merton's trademark wit and humor.
Merton's numerous interests were also reflected in his affiliations with various committees, commissions, boards, and councils. Merton was an adjunct faculty member at The Rockefeller University and Resident Scholar and Foundation Scholar with the Russell Sage Foundation. He served as the George Sarton Professor of the History of Science at the University of Ghent in Belgium from 1986-1987 and as President of various professional associations, including the American Sociological Association, Sociological Research Association, Eastern Sociological Society, and the Society for Social Studies of Science.
Merton's professional accolades speak to his extraordinary accomplishments. Over the course of his career he garnered twenty nine honorary degrees from universities around the world, membership in honorary societies, awards, lectureships, and trusteeships. His most notable honors include membership in the National Academy of Science, the American Philosophical Society, the Swedish Academy of Science, the British Academy and the Academia Europea. In 1994 Merton became the first sociologist to receive the National Medal of Science. He also held a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1962, a MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1983-1988, and the American Sociological Association's Common Wealth Award for Distinguished Service in 1979. Colleagues remarked that had there been a Nobel Prize in Sociology, Merton surely would have received it.
Merton was married twice and had three children, Stephanie, Robert, and Vanessa. He passed away on February 23, 2003 at the age of 92. His final work, co-authored with Elinor Barber, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity, was published in Italian in 2002 and posthumously in English in 2004.
Sources: Crothers, Charles. Robert K. Merton. Key Sociologists Series. Chichester: Ellis Horwood Limited; London: Tavistock Publications, 1987. Merton, Robert K. "A Life of Learning: Charles Homer Haskins Lecture." ACLS Occasional Paper, No. 25. New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 1994.