Robert K. Merton Biography

Robert K. Merton, the ‘father of modern sociology,’ was an American sociologist who made significant contributions to criminology. Born into a poor family of Russian Jews in Philadelphia, Merton’s interest in magic eventually led him to pursue sociology at Temple University. He went on to work as a research assistant to renowned sociologist Pitrim A. Sorokin at Harvard and published numerous papers on the sociology of science throughout his career. Merton held professorships at Harvard University, Tulane University, and Columbia University, and received numerous national and international honors for his groundbreaking work. In 1994, he was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Science.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Robert King Merton
  • Died At Age: 92
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Harriet Zuckerman, Suzanne Carhart
    • Father: Aaron Schkolnickoff
    • Mother: Ida Rasovskaya
    • Children: Robert C. Merton, Stephanie Merton Tombrello, Vanessa Merton
  • Born Country: United States
  • Sociologists
  • American Men
  • Died on: February 23, 2003
  • Place of death: New York City
  • More Facts
  • Education: Temple University, Harvard University
  • Awards: Guggenheim Fellowship, MacArthur Fellowship, National Medal of Science

Childhood & Early Life

Robert K. Merton was born Meyer Robert Schkolnick, on July 4, 1910, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, to Aaron Schkolnickoff and Ida Rasovskaya. They were Russian Jews and had immigrated to the USA in 1904.

His father could never manage a fixed income to run the household smoothly. The family was always in some kind of financial deficit. Robert first lived with his family in the apartment situated above the milk, bread, and butter store that his father operated. It later burned down and the family faced heavy financial crunch.

Robert kept his birth name for the first 17 years of life. After that he became interested in pursuing magic due to his sister’s boyfriend, who was a magician. He adopted the stage name Robert Merton when he began performing small magic tricks at local parties and gatherings.

By his mid teen years, he was still an aspiring magician and to Americanize his name, he used the surname Merton, which was suggested by one of his friends. He chose his first name, Robert, in honor of the famous French magician Robert-Houdin.

In order to manage finances, his father began working as a carpenter’s assistant. Despite the fact that Merton’s family lived in difficult circumstances, he was always grateful about his talents. He stated that he had nothing to complain about, as he was granted many opportunities to grow further in life.

He attended ‘South Philadelphia High School’ and frequently visited the ‘Andrew Carnegie Library,’ where he became acquainted with cultural and educational concepts. He also used to visit the museums of arts and music.

He was good in academics and performed quite well in the high school. He earned a scholarship to ‘Temple University,’ and in place of his birth name, he entered ‘Robert Merton’ in the admission form.

Early Career & Sociology

He began attending ‘Temple University’ in 1927, which was a college that had a great infrastructure for the students from the weaker economic background from Philadelphia. George E. Simpson, a faculty member at the college, took him in as a research assistant. One of his first assignments was to write a paper on race and the media, which also touched the themes of sociology.

During his research, Robert came in touch with famous socialists such as Ralph Bunch and Franklin Frazier. George also took Robert to the annual meeting of the ‘American Sociological Association,’ where he was introduced to Pitirim Sorokin, the founding chairman of the Harvard University’s Sociology Department.

Robert applied at ‘Harvard University’ and went to work as a research assistant to Sorokin. Around this time Robert began studying sociology deeply and also started publishing research papers along with Pitirim.

By 1934, he had started publishing his own papers. Some of the early papers that he wrote were ‘Recent French Sociology’, ‘Fluctuations in the Rate of Industrial Invention,’ and ‘Science and Military Technique.’ He received a lot of praise for his work.

He earned an MD and PhD in sociology from Harvard, in 1938. By now, he had written many papers back-to-back, and that made him quite popular in the field of sociology even at a comparatively young age.

One of the most important papers of his career was published in the late 1930s, which was titled ‘Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England.’ The research paper that he wrote on the topic became a milestone in the foundation of sociology of science.

He had also started teaching at Harvard. In 1938, he left Harvard and joined Tulane University’s Department of Sociology as professor and chairman.

In 1941, he joined Columbia University and taught at the university for the next five decades. He also wrote several widely celebrated papers, which earned him many awards and honours.

Throughout his illustrious career, he gained international recognition as a sociology expert and wrote more than 50 papers on the topic. However, that does not mean his life was dedicated to sociology, as his researches also ventured around concepts such as organizations, deviance theory and middle-range theory.

Personal Life & Death

Robert K. Merton dated Suzanne Carhart in the early 1930s and got married to her in 1934. The couple had three children – a son and two daughters. His son, Robert C. Merton, won a Nobel Prize in economics in the late 1990s.

Robert and his wife separated in 1968. She passed away in 1992. The next year, Robert married Harriet Zuckerman, a sociologist and his frequent collaborator. Robert passed away on February 23, 2003, in Manhattan. He was 92 at the time of his death.

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