The Schmooze

Wizardly Weaver Who Invented 'Role Models'

The American sociologist Robert K. Merton, who died in 2003 at age 92, was a longtime fixture at Columbia University, where he invented such now-standard terms as “role model” and “self-fulfilling prophecy,” as well as the concept of a “focus group.” A thoughtful new study, out on September 14 from Columbia University Press, “Robert K. Merton: Sociology of Science and Sociology as Science” edited by Craig Calhoun, discusses how Merton’s Judaism may have influenced his creativity.

Born Meyer R. Schkolnick in Philadelphia, to a family of impoverished Eastern European immigrants, Merton thrived in the South Philly slum where they lived, haunting libraries and decades later recalling that the place provided “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.” As a teenager fascinated with magic, he wrote a school paper on Harry Houdini, and like his idol adopted a stage name: Robert in honor of the French prestidigitator Robert Houdin (who also inspired the name of Houdini, born Erik Weisz in Budapest), and Merton as a variation of Merlin, the Arthurian wizard.

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Wizardly Weaver Who Invented 'Role Models'

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