Criminology Robert K. Merton
Michael Bush
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0299


Robert King Merton (b. 4 July 1910–d. 23 February 2003) was born to Yiddish-speaking Russian-Jewish parents in South Philadelphia, as Meyer Robert Schkolnick. Merton’s mother, Ida Rasovskaya, was a socialist and his father, Aaron Schkolnick, identified at his US port of entry as Harrie Skolnick, Hebrew and tailor. His parents immigrated to the United States from eastern Europe in 1904. Raised in an apartment above his father’s dairy products shop until the building burned down, Merton had an interesting wealth of cultural experiences. At fourteen years old, he performed magic tricks at parties under the stage name Robert K. Merlin. As a student at South Philadelphia High School, he frequently visited nearby cultural and educational venues, including the Andrew Carnegie Library, Central Library, the Academy of Music, and the Museum of Arts. Merton believed his childhood in South Philadelphia provided an abundance of social, cultural, human, and public capital; every type of capital he needed except financial. After acceptance to Temple University, he changed his name to Robert Merton, worked as a research assistant under George E. Simpson on a project about race and media, and graduated in 1931. Merton married his first wife, Suzanne Carhart, in 1934, with whom he had three children, a son named Robert C. Merton, and daughters Stephanie Merton Tombrello and Vanessa Merton. Merton earned both his Master’s degree, in 1932, and his doctorate, in 1936, at Harvard, where he taught until 1938. Merton then served as professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Tulane University before joining Columbia University in 1941, where he remained until his retirement from full-time academic work in 1979. Spending most of his life in the Manhattan borough of New York City until his death in 2003, Merton taught as a Special Service Professor, or emeritus faculty, at Columbia University after he retired and served as an adjunct professor at Rockefeller University until 1984. Professional accomplishments include winning a Guggenheim, Parson Prize, and National Medal of Sciences; he was the first sociologist invited to the National Academy of Science, and he served as president of the American Sociological Society. Many of Merton’s childhood experiences would influence his theory of social structure, particularly the concept of the “reference group.” Other notable sociological concepts he developed include “opportunity structure,” “ritualism,” “role model,” “opinion leader,” “unintended consequences,” “self-fulfilling prophecy,” “focus group,” “peer group,” “role strain,” and “deviant behavior.” His record of achievements has led some to refer to Robert Merton as the father of sociology, Mr. Sociology, or the most influential American sociologist of the 20th century.

General Overviews

Merton was a prominent scholar for over fifty years, authoring or co-authoring more than twenty books and 200 articles. In addition, Merton’s version of strain theory is typically included in textbooks about criminological theory or deviance. As such, a number of works examine Merton and his works. Calhoun 2010, Holton 2004, and Nichols 2010 look at Merton’s life, early work, evolution as a scholar, and general contributions to sociology. Featherstone and Deflem 2003 provides an argument for Merton’s seminal work, giving two distinct theories about anomie and strain, while Anderson, et al. 2010 examines Merton’s social norms for science. Providing an extension of Merton’s work, Jasso 2000 applies Merton’s ideas to justice theory, Konty 2005 discusses a value-laden concept of microanomie, and Simonson 2006 argues in support of reading predecessor texts with a focus on Mass Persuasion. Agassi 2009 and Crothers 2009 provide a response to Stephen Turner’s critiques of Merton’s works.

  • Agassi, Joseph. 2009. Turner on Merton. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 39.2: 284–293.

    DOI: 10.1177/0048393109332134

    A response to Turner’s critique of Merton’s teachings and contributions to sociology.

  • Anderson, Melissa S., Emily A. Ronning, Raymond DeVries, and Brian C. Martinson. 2010. Extending the Mertonian norms: Scientists’ subscription to norms of research. Journal of Higher Education 81.3: 367–393.

    DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2010.11779057

    An examination of Merton’s social norms for science: communism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. Two additional norm/counternorm pairs beyond Merton’s work, governance/administration and quality/quantity, emerged from the study for consideration.

  • Calhoun, Craig. 2010. Robert K. Merton: Sociology of science and sociology as science. New York: Colombia Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.7312/calh15112

    Bringing together the interdisciplinary nature of Merton’s work, twelve major sociologists provide a reconsideration of Merton’s achievements and inspire renewed engagement with the unifying elements that permeate within various traditions of social inquiry.

  • Crothers, Charles. 2009. Merton’s flawed and incomplete methodological program: Response to Stephen Turner. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 39.2: 272–283.

    DOI: 10.1177/0048393109333628

    An examination of deficiencies in Merton’s methodological contributions and a response to Stephen Turner’s criticisms of those contributions.

  • Featherstone, Richard, and Mathieu Deflem. 2003. Anomie and strain: Context and consequences of Merton’s two theories. Sociological Inquiry 73.4: 471–489.

    DOI: 10.1111/1475-682X.00067

    An examination of Merton’s seminal work, “Social Structure an Anomie,” as presenting two distinct theories, one about anomie and one about strain. Provides support for the use of Merton’s work for understanding crime and deviance.

  • Holton, Gerald. 2004. Robert K. Merton. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 148.4: 506–517.

    An overview of Merton’s life, education, scholarly evolution, sociological contributions, collegiality, interest in language, and embodiment of sociology.

  • Jasso, Guillermina. 2000. Some of Robert K. Merton’s contributions to justice theory. Sociological Theory 18.2: 331–339.

    DOI: 10.1111/0735-2751.00103

    A consideration of the applicability of Merton’s work for justice theory with a focus on reference groups, which were the focus of two added chapters to the 1957 revision of Social Theory and Social Structure.

  • Konty, Mark. 2005. Microanomie: The cognitive foundations of the relationship between anomie and deviance. Criminology 43.1: 107–131.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0011-1348.2005.00004.x

    Analysis of microanomie as a value-laden concept favoring self-enhancing values over self-transcending values.

  • Nichols, Lawrence T. 2010. Merton as Harvard sociologist: Engagement, thematic continuities, and institutional linkages. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 46.1: 72–95.

    DOI: 10.1002/jhbs.20410

    An examination of the significance of Merton’s graduate and early professional careers from 1931 to 1939 from the intersectional perspective that considers Merton’s scholarly work, time-period influential schools of thought, and the influence of the Harvard community.

  • Simonson, Peter. 2006. Celebrity, public image, and American political life: Rereading Robert K. Merton’s Mass Persuasion. Political Communication 23.3: 271–284.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600600808794

    An extension of Merton’s assertions about the functions of predecessor texts and an argument for rereading Merton’s Mass Persuasion with connections to political communication.

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