The Arty Semite

Wizardly Weaver Who Invented 'Role Models'

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

The American sociologist Robert K. Merton, who died in 2003 at age 92, was a longtime fixture at Columbia University, where he invented such now-standard terms as “role model” and “self-fulfilling prophecy,” as well as the concept of a “focus group.” A thoughtful new study, out on September 14 from Columbia University Press, “Robert K. Merton: Sociology of Science and Sociology as Science” edited by Craig Calhoun, discusses how Merton’s Judaism may have influenced his creativity.

Born Meyer R. Schkolnick in Philadelphia, to a family of impoverished Eastern European immigrants, Merton thrived in the South Philly slum where they lived, haunting libraries and decades later recalling that the place provided “every sort of capital — social capital, cultural capital, human capital, and, above all, what we may call public capital — that is, with every sort of capital except the personally financial.” As a teenager fascinated with magic, he wrote a school paper on Harry Houdini, and like his idol adopted a stage name: Robert in honor of the French prestidigitator Robert Houdin (who also inspired the name of Houdini, born Erik Weisz in Budapest), and Merton as a variation of Merlin, the Arthurian wizard.

Although Merton became a brilliant graduate student in sociology at Harvard, he was not offered a permanent teaching job there “at least partly because he was a Jew,” Calhoun explains. Columbia University did hire some Jews by 1941, when Merton was offered a professorship there. A lively friend and colleague, Merton once stated that he found the term “chutzpah” to be “especially congenial,” and indeed displayed it in 1965’s “On the Shoulders of Giants,” available from The University of Chicago Press, a dazzling literary investigation, in the form of a letter to the American Jewish historian Bernard Bailyn, of a quote attributed to Isaac Newton.

In 1996’s “On Social Structure and Science” and “Sociology of Science,” both from the same publisher, Merton investigated the stresses experienced by immigrants facing new cultural values, and the power of names, subjects which he understood intimately and implicitly. In a particularly insightful chapter of “Robert K. Merton,” CUNY Graduate Center sociologist Cynthia Fuchs Epstein praises the sociologist, who lived to see his son Robert C. Merton awarded a 1997 Nobel Prize in Economics, for his “journey from underprivileged youth of immigrant parents to scholar accepted in the sophisticated world of academia… a weaver of images through words and insights into the ways people negotiate their realities.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Robert K. Merton, Sociology, Robert C. Merton, Isaac Newton, Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Books, Bernard Bailyn

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.