Robert King Merton 1910-2003







Anomie Revisited

The contemporary functionalist Robert King Merton developed his early conceptions of theoretical sociology at Harvard, within the historical and intellectual milieux shared by his contemporaries Talcott Parsons and George Homans. One of his earliest and more enduring arguments was formed in the essay "Social Structure and Anomie" (1938), written and published during the Great Depression in the United States. The distress of this period appears to have forged a solid tradition of order that shaped the Harvard mind, a tradition that Merton did not leave behind when he joined the sociology faculty at Columbia University. However, he was to modify somewhat the optimistic assessment of equilibrium that pervades that theoretical sociology founded on the order paradigm.

Merton (1983) credits the then young Talcott Parsons as an important mentor along with another grand theorist of systems, Pitirim Sorokin. And, as did Parsons, Merton also came under the influence of the biochemist L. J. Henderson. For several decades, Merton collaborated with Paul Lazarsfeld, a sociologist whose major interests were community disorganization and the loss of autonomy. However, it is to the French "master at a distance," Emile Durkheim, that Merton expressed his greatest debt and rightly so (Perdue, 1986, p. 83).