Robert K. Merton

Sociologist Robert K. Merton died yesterday, at the age of 92. Merton was one of the founders of what is commonly called American sociology. His intellectual contributions and driving personality shaped the development of a “science based” sociology.

Merton was furthermore a public intellectual who contributed a scientific basis to various policy debates, most notably the battles over school desegregation in the 1950s. He is commonly called “the Father of the focus group” and he explained sociological concepts in a commonsense, jargon-free way that has filtered into our everyday language and popular culture.

In spite of these accomplishments, I think his most compelling and long-term contribution will prove to be his focus on “middle level” theories. He encouraged sociologists to avoid the extremes of both theories that attempt to explain the workings of entire social systems and theories that focus on the mundane with no contribution our understandings of broader systems. He argued that we must focus on both biography and history to understand the world around us. In Merton’s view (and my own), this middle range was where sociology could contribute most to our understandings of the world.

Posted on February 25th, 2003 by Katxena