Tribute to Robert K. Merton

Fred Shapiro fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Tue Feb 25 14:47:45 UTC 2003

On Tue, 25 Feb 2003, Kim & Rima McKinzey wrote:

> In today's paper was the obituary for Robert E. Merton, "one of the
> most influential sociologists of the 20th century, whose coinage of
> terms like 'self-fulfilling prophecy' and 'role models' filtered from
> his academic pursuits into everyday language..."  he was 92.  He
> apparently also helped develop focus groups.

I never met Robert K. Merton (that was his name, not Robert E. Merton, or
Robert C. Merton, his Nobel-Prize-winning son), but I think of him as a
major influence.  My nonlinguistic, non-quotational researches are
principally in the area of sociology of knowledge, a field Merton founded.
His wife, Harriet Zuckerman, is the vice president of the Mellon
Foundation and the person behind one of the most major sources of funding
for my research.

And Merton was very interested in quotations and words.  He coedited a
book entitled Social Science Quotations.  His most brilliant book, On the
Shoulders of Giants, was about the quest for the origin of a quotation.
Four days before he died, Princeton University Press agreed to publish a
book by him about the word (and concept)  "serendipity."

I don't know whether he really coined the term "role model."  OED's
earliest citation is dated 1957.  JSTOR's earliest occurrence is in an
article by Mary B. Treubley:

1944 _Amer. Sociological Rev._ IX. 666  The social worker has at her
disposal a carefully developed role model.

Treubley may have gotten the term from some earlier usage by Merton.

Fred Shapiro

Fred R. Shapiro                             Editor
Associate Librarian for Collections and     YALE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS
  Access and Lecturer in Legal Research     Yale University Press,
Yale Law School                             forthcoming
e-mail: fred.shapiro at     

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