In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Robert K. Merton

  • Introduction
  • Major Interpretations and Collected Volumes

Communication Robert K. Merton
Peter Simonson, Stephanie Hartzell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0036


Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) was a versatile and highly influential American sociologist whose writings have had a lasting impact on the study of media and communication worldwide. He spent most of his career at Columbia University, where in intellectual partnership with Paul F. Lazarsfeld he laid some of the foundations for communication research as a theoretically guided, methodologically rigorous, and empirically grounded social science. Together, they helped train scores of graduate students, including a few—most notably Elihu Katz—who would become central figures in media studies. A major architect of functional and structural analysis, Merton published theoretical writings that shaped understandings of media and communication from the end of the Second World War to the present. Some of his writings from the 1940s on propaganda, mass communication, and flows of social influence became classics in the field and birthed what he called “middle-range” concepts that continue to animate thinking and research today. He founded the sociology of science, which both fed and paralleled the sociology of mass communication. His role in developing the focused interview would lead him to be called “the father of the focus group” when he died. Though primarily committed to an objectivist paradigm of social scientific knowledge, Merton’s early work on communication had critical elements as well, making it an interesting and nuanced hybrid that continues to reward readings today, evidenced in wide though often ritualistic citations by contemporary scholars. This entry focuses on his intellectual biography, his writings on communication, select interpretations of his work, and current uses to which his ideas are put.

Intellectual Biography

Merton was born Meyer Schkolnick, the Philadelphia-born son of Jewish Russian immigrants. Part of an assimilating generation, he adopted the name Robert King Merton, initially as a stage name (he was a talented amateur magician) and then legally when he was an undergraduate at Temple College (later Temple University). As a boy he was an avid reader who frequented the public library and came to love Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, a book that later inspired Merton’s stem-winding tale, On the Shoulders of Giants (1964). He studied sociology under the tutelage of George E. Simpson, a sociologist of race on whose book, The Negro in the Philadelphia Press (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1936), Merton worked as a research assistant, which can retroactively be viewed as his first experience with media studies. Merton went on to doctoral studies in sociology at Harvard, where he studied with Pitirim Sorokin, Talcott Parsons, and others and wrote a dissertation—published in 1938 as Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England (Bruges, Belgium: Saint Catherine)—that began his long career as a founder of the sociology of science. After a brief stint at Tulane University, Merton was hired at Columbia in 1941 at the same time as the methodologist and marketing/radio researcher Paul Lazarsfeld. Over the next three decades, they brought middle-range functionalist theory together with empirical research guided by a range of quantitative and qualitative methodologies, setting the tone for the mainstream of American sociology until the ferment of the late 1960s. Merton and Lazarsfeld initially built their partnership on wartime propaganda and communications research, a nascent field of study that Merton would largely (though never totally) leave behind by 1949, when the first edition of his central work, Social Theory and Social Structure, was published. After that, in addition to publishing dozens of articles in the sociology of science and knowledge, Merton continued to develop theories of social deviance, roles and statuses, bureaucracy, and reference groups among other topics. He also conducted research in a field he would come to call “sociological semantics,” examining the emergence, development, and diffusion of terms, phrases, and concepts over time. Along the way, he developed concepts that would become part of the general lexicon, including role models, serendipity, unanticipated consequences, and the self-fulfilling prophecy. Late in his life, he penned a number of autobiographical articles that brought a sociological framework to bear on the development of his work over time.

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