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.

Although Merton became a brilliant graduate student in sociology at Harvard, he was not offered a permanent teaching job there “at least partly because he was a Jew,” Calhoun explains. Columbia University did hire some Jews by 1941, when Merton was offered a professorship there. A lively friend and colleague, Merton once stated that he found the term “chutzpah” to be “especially congenial,” and indeed displayed it in 1965’s “ On the Shoulders of Giants, ” available from The University of Chicago Press, a dazzling literary investigation, in the form of a letter to the American Jewish historian Bernard Bailyn , of a quote attributed to Isaac Newton.

In 1996’s “On Social Structure and Science” and “Sociology of Science,” both from the same publisher , Merton investigated the stresses experienced by immigrants facing new cultural values, and the power of names, subjects which he understood intimately and implicitly. In a particularly insightful chapter of “Robert K. Merton,” CUNY Graduate Center sociologist Cynthia Fuchs Epstein praises the sociologist, who lived to see his son Robert C. Merton awarded a 1997 Nobel Prize in Economics, for his “journey from underprivileged youth of immigrant parents to scholar accepted in the sophisticated world of academia… a weaver of images through words and insights into the ways people negotiate their realities.”