Merton Robert

Merton Robert

(1910-2003) leading US sociologist, who was a student of PARSONS, and became an influential voice of functionalist sociology in his own right. He was a colleague of LAZARSFELD's, as associate director of the Bureau of Applied Research at Columbia, and in his work Merton has tried to bridge the divide between the abstract theory of Parsons and the empirical survey work that typified much of modern American sociology. Merton's alternative to these he referred to as THEORIES OF THE MIDDLE RANGE, theories that connected with and organized empirical data, and empirical research which tested theory. His most influential general work is the collection of essays Social Theory and Social Structure (1949, subsequently enlarged and revised). This contains a number of seminal essays, including ‘Manifest and latent functions’ (see also MANIFEST AND LATENT FUNCTION, UNANTICIPATED CONSEQUENCES (OF SOCIAL ACTION), POSTULATE OF FUNCTIONAL INDISPENSABILITY) and ‘Social structure and anomie’ (see ANOMIE, CRIME, DEVIANCE). In these essays, and in a succession of further essays and books, he lived up to his claims for middle-range theory by both providing critiques and codifications of theoretical approaches (most notably FUNCTIONALISM), and applications of these approaches in empirical analysis. Of his own empirical work, the most significant are perhaps his contributions to the study of BUREAUCRACY, the SOCIOLOGY OF SCIENCE, and SOCIOLOGY OF MASS COMMUNICATIONS, as well as to ROLE THEORY and the analysis of RELATIVE DEPRIVATION and REFERENCE GROUPS. The following joint-authored and edited books are among his more important: Mass Persuasion (1946), Continuities in Social Research (1950), A Reader in Bureaucracy (1952), The Student Physician (1957). Although all of these have been influential, his doctoral dissertation on science, Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England, was particularly so. First published in 1938, it built upon WEBER's thesis on the relationships between Protestantism and capitalism, and was the work which made his reputation. Merton's hypothesis was that the growth of scientific activity in the 17th-century was closely related to social forces, including Puritan religion; a perspective which led to a sea-change in both the historical and the sociological analysis of science. Subsequently, Merton also wrote important essays on science as a social institution and on modes of organization and competition in scientific work (see The Sociology of Science, 1979). Although in recent years Merton's commitment to functionalism and a ‘natural science’ model of sociological theories has been extensively criticized (e.g. GIDDENS, 1977), the importance of his wide-ranging contribution to sociology is undoubted.
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He is predeceased by his parents and two brothers, David Powers Roberts and Timothy Merton Roberts.
He is predeceased by his parents and two brothers, David Powers Roberts and Timothy Merton Roberts. He is survived by his loving wife of 39 years, Katherine A.