Robert Merton worked in theoretical sociology and in the history and sociology of science.
His theoretical work centers on the analysis of social structures, particularly on status-sets, role-sets, and on unintended consequences of purposive action, in particular “the self-fulfilling prophecy.” Merton’s research in the 1930s on the structural contexts of the new seventeenth-century science helped initiate the sociology of science. He continued his work in this field, focusing on the interplay between normative and cognitive structures of science. He is the author of Social Theory and Social Structure (1949; rev. eds., 1957, 1968), On the Shoulders of Giants (1965; rev. eds., 1985, 1993), On Theoretical Sociology (1967), Sociology of Science (1973), Sociological Ambivalence (1976), Social Research and the Practicing Professions (1982), and On Social Structure and Science (1996), among others.
Merton was University Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and the Foundation Scholar of the Russell Sage Foundation. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1994 he was awarded the National Medal of Science.
Merton received an A.B. (1931) from Temple University, and an M.A. (1932) and a Ph.D. (1936) from Harvard University.