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An Interview with Robert K.

Merton
Author(s): Caroline Hodges Persell and Robert K. Merton
Source: Teaching Sociology, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Jul., 1984), pp. 355-386
Published by: American Sociological Association
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Robert K. Merton is one of sociology's outstanding scholar-teachers. In this interview he


explores how his teaching ideas and practices developed, his views on teaching strategies
and approaches, how he combined scholarship with heavy teaching loads in his early
years, and the personal and institutional rewardsfor teaching.

An Interview with Robert K. Merton


CAROLINEHODGESPERSELL
New York University

theoreticalideas of RobertK. Mertonhavehad a major


influencein such substantiveareas of sociology as stratification, deviance, and delinquency,status and role analysis,
education,medicalsociology, sociology of science, and knowledge. In addition to his scholarly renown, Merton has the
reputationof beingan excellentteacher,andone whosescholarly
workenhancesratherthandetractsfromhis teaching.Indeed,he
mightbe said to epitomizethe scholar-teacherideal.
WhenI was a graduatestudentat Columbiain the late 1960s,I
looked forwardto ProfessorMerton'sclasses in sociology. He
invariablycame to class magnificentlyprepared.He not only
broughthis manilafolderof notesandhis pitcherof water,but he
had his thoughtsimpeccablyin order.His lectureswerebeautifully crafted works of art that illuminatedand enrichedour
understandingof Comte, Spencer, Simmel, Durkheim,Marx,
Weber,statussets and role sets, role strain,and othertheoretical
ideas. Graduatestudentsstudyingfor orals used to sit in on his
classestwo or threedifferentyearsbecauseeachyearwas usually
quite different from the one before. These lectures were an
exhilaratingexperience.
The editorsof TeachingSociology believethat it is important
to learn as much as possible from examples of teaching and
scholarlyexcellencesuchas this. As a result,whenMichaelBassis
mentioned,at an editorialboardmeetingof TeachingSociology,

The

TEACHING SOCIOLOGY, Vol. I I No. 4, July 1984 355-386


? 1984 Sage Publications, Inc.

355

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356 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984

that he wouldlike to continuethe seriesof interviewswith great


teachersandscholarsin sociology,perhapswithaninterviewwith
Robert Merton,I eagerlyexpressedinterestin doing the interview.

I interviewedBob Merton on September27, 1983, in his


apartmentoverlookingRiversidePark and the Hudson River.
The late afternoonsun streamedinto his book-linedstudy. One
long wall of the study containeda worktablealong most of its
length. Above the table hung photographsof famous scholars,
teachers,andothercreativeintellectsMertonknewandadmired:
Alfred North Whitehead,Paul F. Lazarsfeld,George Sarton,
PitirimA. Sorokin,Talcott Parsons,L.J. Henderson,Corrado
Gini (Merton was his assistantfor a year), W.I. Thomas and
Dorothy S. Thomas, Sam Stouffer,the sculptorJacques Lipchitz, the chemistand philosopherof science MichaelPolanyi,
the publisherAlfredA. Knopf,the physiologistAndreCournand,
the physicist and mathematicalstatistician E.B. Wilson, the
physicist-biologistLeo Szilard,the entomologistWilliamMorton Wheeler,the anthropologistA.L. Kroeber,the novelistand
essayist ElizabethJaneway,and the classicistGilbertMurray.
Therewas also a portraitof a greatpsychologisthe did not know:
Freud.
Seeingthese picturesmade Merton'sadoptedphrase,"standing on the shouldersof giants"come alive. Here was a scholarteacherwho sawhimselfas partof a nobletraditionof individuals
pursuingthe life of the mind with everyfiber of theirbeing and
seekingto transmitthe fruitsof theireffortsto others.Herewere
some of the significant others in Merton's life, his reference
group. Herein,I suspect,lay one sourceof nourishmentfor his
eloquentlectures.
The following is an edited transcriptof the two-hourtaped
interviewI had with Bob Merton that afternoon. After transcribingthe tape, I gave a typed copy to Bob, who edited it for
style, syntax,and length.
The purpose of the interview is to explore how Merton's
teaching ideas and practicesdeveloped, his views on teaching
strategiesandapproaches,andwaysof encouragingexcellencein

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Persell / INTERVIEW WITH MERTON 357

teaching. In this interview, he reflects on the variety of exandgraduatesat


perienceshe had teachingboth undergraduates
three universities,throughtutorials,seminars,and lectures.He
describesthe way he thought about his teaching,how and why
teachingwas excitingand rewardingfor him personally,how he
combinedhis scholarshipwiththe teachingof heavycourseloads
in his early years, and he discusses the institutional reward
structuresthat supportor fail to nourishgood teaching.
Professor Merton studied sociology as an undergraduateat
TempleUniversity,in his hometown of Philadelphia.In 1931he
went to Harvard for graduate work in the first year of its
Departmentof Sociology. He taught undergraduateand graduate students at Harvard for five years, taught at Tulane
Universityfrom 1939-1941,andthenmovedto ColumbiaUniversity in 1941, where he has been ever since. Throughouthis
teaching career, he has continued to write and to publish
scholarlypapersand books. His bibliographyto 1975runsto 39
pages (Miles, 1975; see also Gieryn, 1980) and the list of
publicationssincethenrunsto a good manymorepages.Onecan
imaginea personof this scholarlystaturefeelingthat his other
workwasmoreimportantthanteaching.Thetremendousimpact
of his scholarship not withstanding,'Merton is noteworthy
becausehe hasremainedso vitallyinterestedin teaching.For him
scholarlyacclaimhas not preemptedthe satisfactionhe feels in
reachingout andengaginga developingmindthroughtheprocess
of teaching.
Merton'sinfluenceas a teacherextends throughhis work as
editor and correspondent.Both Garfield (1983) and David
Caplovitz(1977)have developedportraitsof Merton,the editor
extraordinare,in whichtheydescribethe thoughtandcarehe put
into editingotherpeople'swork.Also behindthe scenes,Merton
as correspondentmaintainscontact with a numberof former
studentsandcurrentcolleagues.Thisroleis well-illustratedin his
public farewell to Alvin W. Gouldner(1982) and in his correspondencewith Louis Schneider(1984).
All of theseactivitiesareconsistentwiththeidentityof scholarteacher.Some measureof public acknowledgmenthas come to

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358 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984

Merton from a variety of sources. To capturejust a glimpse of the


various recognitions he has received, it is worth noting that he was
elected President of the American Sociological Association in
1957, he was profiled in the New Yorker by Morton Hunt in
January 1961, and he was named at MacArthur Prize Fellow for
1983-1988. Clearly this scholar-teacher has had an influence, in
the classroom and beyond.

INTERVIEW
MERTON: Had I remembered that we were to talk about
teaching, I would have invited you to the seminar earliertoday,
which Harriet Zuckerman and I give. This is an advanced
seminar in the sociology of science which has faculty members
as well as graduate students in it. I had put together a file
accumulated over a 20-year period-a file of notes, observations, queries, readings, that sort of thing-on scientific
controversies and conflicts in science. As I said to Harriet,
while sifting this scatteration of notes, I find myself becoming
more and more deeply interestedin the structuresand dynamics
of scientific controversy, something that has plainly interested
me for some time. At the seminar session, I put them on notice
that, unlike other sessions, I would be talking most of the time,
perhaps all of the time, except for welcomed questions,
comments, interventions, and the like. They were also warned
that this would be anything but a methodical, carefully
organized lecture. I had some idea of the main themes but had
no way of knowing in advance how much time I would be
devoting to any one theme. That I would discover only as I
started talking. The process of talking itself, would reveal to me
as well as to them, whether I had anything new and worthwhile
to say.
It soon became clear that few of the students, at any rate, had
ever had the experience of listening in on someone thinking
aloud. Of course, ill-prepared lectures have something of that
unorganized, not necessarily disorganized, character. But his

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Persell / INTERVIEW WITH MERTON

359

session did not purport to be a lecture. It was reproducing in


the seminar what takes place at this desk [in his study at home]
in the phase before I had seriously defined a problem and had
decided on the main tacks for investigating it. I decided that it
would do them no harm to be exposed to the way in which at
least one sociologist goes about his work in a preliminary
phase. It might lead them to recognize that the linear thinking
reported in published work dows not necessarily reproduce the
typically nonlinear character of the initial effort to clarify and
locate a problem.
I assume that spontaneity of presentation has its own merits.
I counted on having some ideas emerge in my remarks and in
the conversation that would be unpredictable. Such moments
interest me. The presentation had the further value of dealing
with a subject we had been discussing in several sessions in
which I hadn't drawn much upon the accumulation, these past
20 years, of thoughts I had had on the generic subject of
scientific controversies.
I enjoyed those two hours although I found myself quite
weary at the close. I believe that the others also enjoyed it.
Their periodic questions, observations, and criticisms of
fomulations indicated questions, observations, and criticisms
of formulations indicated that they were deeply engaged. It was
a most satisfying experience. An hour or so afterwards, I ran
into two members of the seminar in the corridor, who reported
discovering how very much they liked this sort of thing. This
account of the seminar session is imperfect but it at least hints
at the nature of the experience. Reflecting on it further, its
quintessential feature was my own intense interest in the
problem and my interest in stirring up their interest in it. My
own interest comes from having learned over the decades that
even in formal lectures, I become most interested when I hear
myself saying something quite unexpected. The rest of the
lecture had typically been thought out as best I could; it had
been laid out in reasonably organized form. In the classroom,
that brings no new cognitive experience. It is the tacit
interaction between the class and myself that makes things
happen.

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360 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984

I don't know if you have ever run across the deep aphorism
which the English novelist, E. M. Forster attributes to his
mythic "Old Lady":"How do I know what I think till I see what
I say?" Incidentally, Wittgenstein has a far less satisfactory
version: "One often makes a remark and only later sees how
true it is." Perhaps I prefer the Forster dictum because I found
myself writing an uninhibited 15,000-word Shandean letter
about it.2 Anyway, note that Forster has her remark "till I see
what I say," not, mind you, "till I hear what I say." We are
being directed to a deep psychological and cognitive truth.
Creative cognition is an ongoing process. It's very different
from having a routinized, carefully scripted, linear mode of
analysis. That's a quite different kind of cognition. When one is
thinking anew, the essential is to discover what one is thinking
as it moves along. It's a process and not a conclusion. Thinking
is not a thought; it is an activity giving rise to thoughts,
presumably governed by tacit and explicit norms of what
makes for consistency and coherence. The creative thought is
registered by one's being surprised by what one says. It is quite
another kind of enterprise to discover whether that thought is
truth or nonsense.
INTERVIEWER: So teaching is a kind of creation, that is,
something new is occurring while you do it.
MERTON: You may rememberthat years ago, when you were in
my class, I prepared every lecture with great care. I did so even
when I had ostensibly lectured on that "same" subject many
times before. But, of course, it was never twice the same. Not
for me and I liked to think, not for the class. The intensive
preparation involved new ideas, new aspects of old problems,
new materials developed since the preceding version. My
carefully organized notes incorporated a considered version of
new thoughts developed in the interim. This required elaboration of some parts, condensation of others, deletion of still
others. It was seldom, very seldom, that I walked into a
classroom in the same state in which I walked into the seminar
today, having spent 15 minutes or so glancing at this great,
unorganized accumulation of notes.
Still, whether it's a "lecture class" or a "seminar," when I
come away saying, "now that was a good session" or "that was

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Persell / INTERVIEW WITH MERTON

361

a terriblesession,"those judgmentsgenerallyhinge upon the


extent and characterof unexpectedideas derivingfrom the
give-and-takebetweenthe class and myself.Quiteoften in the
lectureclass, I'mthe only one that knowsthereis a give-andtake. There may be no active discussion.I proceedwith my
closely organizedlectureand don't let anyone get a word in
edgewisebecause I'm too interestedin what I'm saying and
seeing for the first time. Nevertheless,there's often intense
interactiongoing on for me. Facial expressionsand bodily
movementsof membersof the group I am addressingcarry
cuesfor me. Whetherrightlyinterpretedor not, theymakefor
interaction.The imputedresponsesaffect my own behavior.
Today's seminarsession provides an example. After a half
hour or so, I noticedthat one studentmemberof the seminar
seemedto be inert. She wasn'trisingto the occasionnor was
she takingnotes.Thatwas unlikeherpreviousbehaviorin the
seminar.I pausedand remarked:"As I warnedyou, some of
you might take my thinkingaloud as a bad case of rambling
incoherencies.I see that I havelost one of you (pointingto the
student)."I knew this would not embarrassher. We have an
easy, first-name,rapportin the seminar.She looked up at me
andsaid,"That'swhatyou think.Actuallyhere'sthe questionI
was thinkingabout, somethingyou said ten minutesbefore."
She reiteratedthe question and that started a new train of
thought.Now that'sprimafacie evidencethat I sometimesdo
misinterpretreactions,perhaps,though I doubt it, even more
in theclassroom.ButwhetherI do or don't,therearecorrective
mechanismsthat experiencedteacherslearnto utilize. In my
case, at any rate, the interactionneed not be verbal.Even a
seeming lecture monologue can involve a great deal of
interaction. This has generally been the case in my own
experience.As you know, I haveneverbeena greatbelieverin
what's called "discussion"in a lecture as distinct from a
seminar session. Perhaps I draw too sharp a distinction
betweenthe lecture and the seminar.Still, I think that they
serve differentfunctions. I've not taken kindly to classes in
whichstudentsengagein diffusetalkthatneverdoes comeinto
focus. Not, mindyou, that it needsto be focusedall the time,
buttherearedegreesof informedrelevancein suchdiscussions,
as everyteacherknows.

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362 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984

INTERVIEWER: I'm glad you brought that up because it


enlarges the vision I have of the way you teach, which is of these
carefully crafted presentations which are marvelous and
exhilarating to hear. Some people even wondered if you were
presenting a paper to us because it was so beautifully done in
every respect and every word was chosen so carefully. The
thoughts were so well-developed and organized. We knew it
was not a spontaneous creation and we respected that you
cared enough about your classes to come in having spent an
effort making it ready for us as best you could at the time, and
the best was really superb. That was a different style of teaching
from the seminar you describe happening today.
MERTON: Entirely different, though they do overlap in one
respect for me. No matter how carefully preparedthe lecture, I
have always derived the greatest satisfaction from hearing
something said, even hearing myself say something, that was
wholly unanticipated and interesting. The kind of observation
that grew out of the sheer experience of pursuing a thought or
problem that had been formulated to the point that it was in my
notes, but which I hadn't been able to carry any further until
that moment in the classroom.
INTERVIEWER: It's as though putting it into your notes, put it
into the incubation phase, so that it was still cooking in your
unconscious and then in class something else comes out.
MERTON: Yes. I think if I hadn't had that experience over the
decades . . . (I've always enjoyed teaching until the last few

years when I began to get bored with formal classroom


teaching. That's why I stopped; why I now teach only through
seminars or individual tutorials.) But I am sure that I wouldn't
have been motivated to continue all those years had it not been
a very rewardingexperience. Among other things, it forced me
to do the preparatory work which again had this quality, of
course, of leading me to work some things out that I would
probably not have done otherwise. But the ultimate reinforcement was through the rewardswhich came from the unexpected
but interesting, the unexpected but relevant, developments
taking place right there in the classroom. I came to count on
that. When it didn't happen, I felt let down.

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Persell / INTERVIEW WITH MERTON

363

As I think back on the papers I've publishedover the


years,the ones that engagedme most deeplyderivedfromthe
lecturesI developedfor courses.That was true from the very
beginningof my teaching,and has continuedthroughoutmy
life as a teacher.Let me see if I can reconstructit. The first
majorcourseI gave, as a youngishinstructorat Harvardback
in 1937,was entitledSocial Organization.I still rememberits
number,Sociology 4. In a way, that was the seedbedfor the
courseyou took long afterward,whatbecamethe "Analysisof
Social Structure."It all startedback then. In the first yearor
two of teaching, I had remarkablestudents. Harvardhad
intermediate courses wisely arranged to include undergraduates and graduates. The undergraduates included
BernardBarber,Albert K. Cohen, the futureanthropologist
AlbertDamon, GlennFrank,J.R. Pitts, H. W. Riecken(and
the disappointingyoungestson of FCR, John Roosevelt);the
graduatesincludedRobin Williamsand the futurediplomat,
PaulNitze.I continueto be a greatbelieverin suchintermediate
courses.
At any rate, the publishedpapersthat derivedfrom the
lectures I worked up for the early course include "Social
StructureandAnomie,""TheUnanticipatedConsequencesof
PurposiveSocialAction"andthefundamentalideas(although
not yet well developed)of "BureaucraticStructureand Personality,"a paper I publishedin 1940. Those three papers
matteredmuchto me at the time I wrotethem,andhavehad a
life of theirown ever since. They all came out of the intensive
preparatorywork for a one-semestercourse. I could go
through my bibliographyover the decades and identify a
considerablebatch of paperswhich also derivedfrom work
focused on one or anothercourse.That meansthat one took
lecturesvery seriously.After all, teachersas well as students
can benefitfrom carefullydevelopedlectures.Lecturesconstitutethe majorform of "oralpublication"in whichideasare
developedtentatively(as you can see from my piece on oral
publication in the volume which Matilda Riley and I put
together(1980)).Thoseideasthat do survivecriticalexamination are then readyfor publicationin print.This meansthat

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364 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984

only most rarely does one move directly from oral publication
to printed publication. I once estimated that modally 11 or 12
years intervened between the time I frist began to work on an
idea and the time it appeared in print. (Of course, this estimate
precludes those very early publications.) Oral publication
allows you to make your ideas available to a local and limited
public while those ideas are being developed and subjected to
critical appraisal. Coming back to one's ideas year after year
but doing so in developing ways essentially amounts to new
editions of a still unprinted paper. For some of us, teaching is a
form of scholarship. The effort to think a problem through
carefully in advance of a lecture is often capped by the
spontaneous emergence of new ideas about the problem in the
course of presenting the lecture. That has been the peak
experience in teaching. It has been a source of pleasure; even
more, of joy.
INTERVIEWER: It also helps to explain one of the questions I
had, which was how do you see teaching and research as
strengthening each other and how you think they detract from
each other in your own experience? This is a beautiful example
of how they fed each other. Your lectures were better because
of the commitment you put into them, and yet you didn't have
to set aside your own work; this was your own work. There was
no separation. Your intellectual concerns were carried on in
both arenas.
MERTON: I don't think there is much to be gained by becoming
even more specific. But we could go through Mary Miles'
compilation of my bibliography to identify the published
articles which had long incubations during the phase of oral
publication before I ever thought of putting them into print.
That, of course, is even more the case with seminars than with
lectures.
You're right that at times the curriculum requirements and
personnel resourcesof a departmentrequireseparationbetween
teaching and research, for example in the phenomenon of the
basic required course. We know that. In those ancient days
when 15 hours of teaching a week was the norm in many
universities, that meant' you were giving five courses each

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Persell / INTERVIEW WITH MERTON

365

semester. Somehow, you managed to do it. Obviously, one


can't be teaching five distinct courses and be doing intensive
research in each of them; there was an enforced separation
between some teaching and research. That probably still
occurs to some extent even with reduced teaching schedules.
One doesn't always have the leeway to choose to teach only
those courses in which you are doing research. But even during
my two years at Tulane in 1939-41, I didn't insulate my
research from my lectures.
INTERVIEWER: And you feel that has been a fruitful arrangement for you?
MERTON: I can't imagine an alternative that would be equally
satisfying.
INTERVIEWER: I also can't imagine you teaching something
without bringing some of your intellectual interests to it and
somehow seeing the possibilities in it that were interesting to
you, that you could pursue. I don't know if you ever taught the
family, or comparative economic systems, or whateveryou had
to teach, you would begin to think about it in ways that would
lead somewhere for you.
MERTON: This is what happened during the periods of preparation. At the same time that I gave the early course on social
organization, I remember giving another course on ethnic and
racial relations. I'd had an excellent education in that field. I
began as an undergraduate at Temple with George Eaton
Simpson who had that as his field of primaryinterest. Indeed, I
had been his research assistant on his doctoral dissertation:
"The Negro in the Philadelphia Press," a content analysis
covering a 25-year period. I elected to teach ethnic relations as
a second course-this was in the latter 1930s-on the basis of a
little research and a great deal of intensive study of monographs, census data, life history materials, and so on. In it, I
tried to develop some new questions along with the standard
questions in the field. It would be a bore to go into further
details, but I might add that, once again, oral publication
through lectures led to publication in print. The research and
theorizing developed for that course led to my papers published
a few years later:"Intermarriageand the Social Structure"and

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366 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984

"Fact and Factitiousness in Ethnic Opinionnaires"(in which I


had the cheek to challenge some assumptions allegedly underlying the great Thurstone's mode of attitude measurement).
To my mind, the two forms of publication, of making ideas
public, have much in common. For me to get involved in giving
a new course has meant trying to have new thoughts about old
problems and trying to identify new problems that hadn't been
worked on. This did not always work out. When I first came to
Columbia in 1941, Bob Lynd had left the field of urban
sociology and I was asked to try my hand at it in the form of a
graduate seminar and a lecture course. In truth, I wasn't deeply
engaged by the subject and never got far with it. As I recall, I
developed a seminar focused on ancient cities which required
me to look into a literature I had not studied before. It was not
a great success. I soon lost interest in the subject and dropped
the seminar.
INTERVIEWER: Can you think of any ways in which teaching
and research detract from each other or pull in different
directions?
MERTON: That has been true at times when I did not introduce
new courses directly tied to work in progress. I recall becoming
deeply involved in the mid-1940s in field work in three planned
housing communities which took me far afield from my
teaching at the time. And again, there have been times when my
energies were centered on completing a piece of research at the
expense of my teaching. I simply did not have the energy to
manage the teaching and the research with equal intensity.
Something had to give. However, a focus on teaching usually
reinforced research interests. One of the most memorable
seminars I ever ran (memorable to me at least) was on
bureaucracy. It derived from my earlier work condensed into
the papers, "Bureaucratic Structure and Personality," and
"Role of the Intellectual in Public Bureaucracy." The interaction between the students and myself was so intense that
sessions would often run on and on, long after the appointed
time. We could not distinguish teaching from research. As I
recall, the series of Columbia dissertations on bureaucracydid

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Persell / INTERVIEW WITH MERTON

367

not grow directly out of that seminar. For the most part, they
came later. Alvin Gouldner's dissertation work was reported in
two monographs, Wildcat Strike and Patterns of Industrial
Bureaucracy, both published in 1954. Peter Blau's Dynamics
of Bureaucracy appeared a year later.
INTERVIEWER: What about Union Democracy?
MERTON: That didn't emerge from the seminar, although
Marty Lipset had of course been trhough the "Columbia
tradition" as Paul Lazarsfeld liked to call it. Phil Selznick had
done his field work in the early 1940s but, owing to the war and
other less notable derailments, TVA and the Grass Roots
didn't appear until 1949 or so. It too was in the tradition of
examining unanticiapted consequences of action, as his splendid concluding chapter makes clear.
But to return to the seminar. I surely learned a great deal
from it. There are indications that it had a lasting influence on
at least some other members of the group. This particular
seminar involved both teaching and research. We could not
distinguished the two.
INTERVIEWER: When students would go on field projects with
you, it might be just a few students, but you are teaching them
as you are going out there.
MERTON: That gets into quite a different mode of teaching and
learning: apprenticeship. I distinguish that first from lectures,
which as I say, have always taken first place with me, and
second, from research seminars. (The latter I often gave in
collaboration: early on with Paul Lazarsfeld on a variety of
subjects and, more recently, with Harriet Zuckerman in the
sociology of science. I have always found these joint seminars
instructive.) A fourth mode of teaching is the tutorial, a one-toone relationship between teacher and student. That I learned at
Harvard which had a very highly developed tutorial system for
undergraduates back then. It vaguely resembled the system
that obtains in the Oxbridge tradition. The tutee writes an
essay, at its best, based on careful inquiry which becomes the
basis for intensive discussion. I still have personal ties with
some of my tutees from the 1930s. I take pleasure in hearing

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368 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984

Gerard Piel, publisher of the Scientific American, remark to a


mutual friend:"I was one of Bob's first tutees." BernardBarber
was another. The one-to-one releationship of the tutorial
focused on problems drawn from one or another literature
differs substantially from the training of apprentices on a
research project. Paul Lazarsfeld was the past master of that
mode of teaching. I learned something of the art from him but
never measured up to his achievement. The training derives
from work on the research. One learns by doing; one teaches by
showing how it is done.
INTERVIEWER: We haven't mentioned so far any factors that
interfere with or impede, doing one's job well as a teacher.
You've mentioned fatigue and energy level, and other commitments.
MERTON: I can't easily dredge up many memories of classes that
went poorly-I don't mean individual lectures, but an entire
semester or year. (of course, there was that early course on the
sociology of ancient cities.) But I have had the experience of a
poor class hour or two, in which I would become bored-bored
with the sound of my own voice and with members of the
class-and they, in turn, mut have responded with boredeom. I
like to think that that occurred only when I was weary on other
counts, but that's probably wishful thinking. At any rate, it had
little or nothing to do with the size of the class.
INTERVIEWER: So size alone doesn't affect it for good or for
ill?

MERTON: Not in my case. I don't know whether you have seen


my little introduction to Sociological Traditionsfrom Generation to Generation. Do you know that book which Matilda
Riley and I edited recently?
INTERVIEWER: I know of it.
MERTON: Well, if you do read it, you'll find the story of the
philosopher A. N. Whitehead (you see him there on the wall
[pointing to his portrait]), who once gave a course of lectures at
Cambridge to a class of one. One! These, mind you, were
lectures, not tutorial sessions. But what a class of one it was, the
21-year-old J. Maynard Keynes. I happen to believe that

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369

prepared lectures have a distinctive place in teaching but I


couldn't muster the discipline to give preparedlecture to one or
two students, any more than I would enjoy lecturing regularly
to monumental classes of 500 or a thousand (I never have).
At the extremes, class size does matter to me. After World
War II, when the G.I. students came along in huge numbers, we
had what I considered immense classes. For a time, I found
myself lecturing to classes of a hundred graduate students
drawn from several disciplines. Some of the very best students
we ever had came from that postwar generation. As a result,
those large classes did not keep me from interacting with
students. I know that some are convinced that classroom size is
all important; I have never had occasion to feel that way. But
then, I've never had the experience of lecturing to several
hundred students or even more by video!
INTERVIEWER: Well, you wouldn't get the interaction from a
video presentation.
MERTON: My favorite contrast experience goes back to the days
before television. Though some act as though they doubt it,
there really was a time when there was not TV, just something
called radio. I would give occasional radio talks. I found them
deadly, whether I read a script or spoke from notes, because I
missed the interactionwith an audience which was all important
for my getting something from the experience.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, there's just that mike, that doesn't do
anything.
MERTON: The room just absorbs sound, and there your are. The
solitude of radio hasn't even the merit of your being alone in
your study, where you can talk at yourself in an effort to work
something out. Teachers in particular must be irritated by
those corrupt substitutes for audience response: make-believe
audiences, make-believe laughter, canned responses. That
surely representsthe ultimate corruption of something that has
its own unreplaceable quality: the give-and-take between a
speaker and an audience.
INTERVIEWER: Or holding up the cue cards saying 'LAUGH,'
or applause, or whatever.

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370 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984

MERTON: That kind of contrived experience can of course


alienate countless numbers of people and rightly so. It has a
special meaning for teachers who have had the experience of
the genuine article, and know how basic such interaction is. I
can easily romanticize the experience. I have only to remember
that a good number of the papers I have written grew out of
consecutive years of lecturing on the given problem or subject.
Putting it in romantic terms, I could say that I didn't write the
papers alone, that the students were my collaborators. That
would be overstating it, of course. Still, there is a grain of truth
in that claim. I am persuaded that some of the development of
those ideas would not have come to mind had I not presented
them to what is being called these days "a live audience."
(Obviously as opposed to a dead one.)
INTERVIEWER: This is interesting because you have been
reflecting a lot on the personal rewards of teaching, the
personal satisfactions of this interaction. Yet in your own
research and writing you have done a lot of work on
institutional rewards and recognition as motivators for scientists. Do you see a role for those institutional rewards in
teaching? How do you put those pieces together into a coherent
whole without corrupting the process?
MERTON: That's a perceptive question. I'll turn it around, if I
may: how does one manage to go on enjoying teaching in the
absence of institutionalized as distinct from direct reinforcement? Rewards are of varying kinds and have different sources.
I would not have continued to enjoy teaching if students
weren't inadvertently providing reinforcement. That's fundamental to the entire process of teaching and learning. No doubt
people differ greatly on this score. Some may become even
more deeply engaged when they receive the more visible
institutionalized rewards or public recognition; others may
experience such great rewards from the interactive experience
of teaching itself that the other form becomes redundant.
That's a matter of considerable personal variation.
Still, it is a notorious fact that our institutions of higher
learning do not commonly provide institutional rewards for
great commitment to teaching and great achievements in
teaching. The public rewards are so limited as sometimes to be

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371

embarrassing.A good many colleges and universitieshave


somesortof "GreatTeacher"awardbutin the aggregate,those
arein verythinsupply.Theremaybe one eachyearor one in a
field; that doesn't reverberatemuch throughoutthe reward
system. It doesn't provide much by way of second-order
rewards.
As for theprimaryinstitutionalrewardin academia,promotion to tenure,it is anothernotoriousfact thatfew universities
and colleges take good teachingstronglyinto accountwhen
making a tenure decision. Some universities,I understand,
have bureaucratizedthe decision. They have a formula and
assignpointsto teachingand academicadministrationas well
as research.Perhapsgood teachingis accordedmore institutional attentionthan I realize.The greatprivateuniversities,
however,have surelynot used such formulaiccalculationsto
arriveat tenuredecisions.And thoughthe reputationof being
a good teacherdoes spreadin a universityoverthe years,that
takessecondplaceto researchreputationandresearchaccomplishments.
Your question becomes this: How does it happen that,
despiteso littleinstitutionalizedreinforcement,therearesubstantialnumbersof unusuallyeffectiveteachers?My guess is
thattheyobtainsuchdirectrewardsfromstudentresponsethat
they are sustainedin putting great effort into teaching.For
them,the secondaryinstitutionalizedrewardsaddverylittleto
motivation.These are people who would be unhappydoing
anythingelse.Thisinvolvesa notionof a thresholdof rewards:
whenyou passoverit, furtherrewardsaddnothingsignificant.
Perhaps part of the reason why colleges and universities
haven't gone further in institutionalizingthe rewards of
teachersis theyget a certainamountof good teachinganyway.
Of course,all this is highlyspeculative.
INTERVIEWER:I see a dilemma sometimes with graduate
students who start teaching quite early in their graduate
careers.If they reallylike it they tend to spenda greatdeal of
theirtime and energyon theirteachingand they get off track
for the academiccareer.
MERTON:You are touching on somethingthat concernsme
deeplyand has done so for a long time. I turnto the Columbia

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372 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984

case where I am quite familiar with this pattern of early


commitment to teaching. Columbia has had its famous
"ContemporaryCivilization"course for undergraduatesfor
generations,long before"generaleducation"becamepopular.
It calls for intensive yet wide-rangingstudy of classical
traditionsof Western(andsome Eastern)thought;it is a prime
introduction to basic works in the humanities and social
thought.Overthe years,ContemporaryCivilizationhas had a
remarkablearrayof young instructors(one of the very few
coursesat Columbiawhich graduatestudentsare allowedto
teach). It is a much sought-afteropportunityfor intensive
teaching. But it exacts a price as well as providing deep
satisfactionfor the self-selectedand institutionallyselected
young teachers.To the presentday, I have noticedthat they
include some of my ablest graduatestudents-Ill limit my
commentsto them so I can speakwith feelingand something
approachingassurance.They are knowledgablebeyond the
boundriesof sociology, hard-working,effectivein theirscholarlyresearch,and deeplyawareof thejoys of teaching.And,
almostwithoutexception,theyhavebeensuperbteachers.But,
to my dismay,over and over again, a good gractionof them
havetaken8 to 10yearsto completetheirgraduatestudies.The
experiencewithCCis variouslyrewardingto them,interesting
to them in manyways, and they areverygood at it. There'sa
paradox built into this. All sorts of good things coalesce in
"ContemporaryCivilization."You have undergraduatestudents interactingwith young instructorswho are enthusiastic
exemplarsof their kind, exemplaryteachers.The instructors
get a lot out of it;theywill uniformlytell you theyhavelearned
muchfrom the experience.But this is often at the expenseof
completingtheirdoctoralwork. I think of severalstudentsin
that situation here and now. originalscholarshipgets postponedor premanentlyrejected.It is not all gain;therearecosts
to be paid.
I think that these contradictionsarise in part becauseour
organizationof teachingand researchis more helter-skelter
than we realize.There'sno reasonfor those graduatestudents
not connectingtheir teachingwith an ongoing dissertation;

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373

these studentsare plainlysuperiorin everyrespect,both with


respectto scholarlypotential and with respectto what they
were actually realizing in their teaching in CC. This is, I
suspect,an importantand quitegeneralpattern.
INTERVIEWER:And some never finish. They may go on to
teach in some form or another, but we lose them to our
discipline. maybe the institutionalrewardsfor nonteaching
need to compensate for the personal rewardsof teaching,
becausethereis an intrinsicattractionto teaching.I knowwhat
you are speakingof. You get somethingfrom the classroom
that you can'tget any otherway.
MERTON:Of course,Caroline,you mightarguequitethe other
way. The institutional structuresand reward systems are
faulty. Some people preferto be teachersand extraordinarily
good at it. Theyprefernot to do new scholarshipbut they do
keep up with developingscholarship.Whyisn'tthat regarded
as a sensiblepreference?And yet we know-I say we know,I'll
be morecautious,it is oftenthecase-that suchrolepreferences
are seldomallowedfor in the majoruniversities.some liberal
artscollegesareof coursesterlingexceptionsto this rule.One
mightarguethatthereis a divisionof laboramonguniversities
and colleges in this respect,but I think that it is a lopsided
division of labor at the expenseof teaching.The assumption
that everyonewants to do both teachingand researchin an
intensiveway may be faulty. Perhapsthereoughtto be many
more variants.After all, universitiesdo recognizethe complementarytypeof variant:facultymemberswho aremiserable
teachers but considerablescholars-people who just can't
convey eitherthe excitementof learningor its substanceand
method.
So therewe are. I don't for a momentbelievethat we have
gotten anywherenearthe optimumin the institutionalorganization of teachingand research.
INTERVIEWER:Yes, we seem a little more creativewhen it
comesto somebodywhois a reallygoodresearcher.
Wewillfind
a berthfor themif they arereallyoutstanding,no matterhow
horribletheirteachingis, whetherit is a nonteachingposition
or a minimalteachingposition.

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374 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984

MERTON:Or you put up with his dreadfulteaching.


INTERVIEWER:That'sright,knowingthe institutionis getting
somethingof value. Yet you are suggestingthat thereare not
comparablearrangementsfor someonewho may be an exemplaryteacherbut who will neverwritesomethingin theirlives.
MERTON:In earthy, instrumentalterms, and not alone as a
matterof equity,the systemof highereducationis weakat this
point. Good teacherswho have a sustainedrecordof teaching
accomplishment-arecordof enlistinginterestin anintellectual
field, of maintainingthat interestand enlargingit, of transmittingknowledgeanda senseof the craft-teachers doingthe
job of education in the strict sense are seldom rewarded
institutionallyin a greatvarietyof academicinstitutions.
INTERVIEWER:So you thinkthatwe needsome morecreative
waysto nurtureand supportgood teaching?
MERTON:I do butI haveno ready-maderecipes.Thedivisionof
academiclaborcanbe varied.Weneednot adoptthe myththat
unless you are producing new scholarshipyou cannot be
sufficientlyon top of your field to educate students in the
advancingknowledgein thatfield.Thissurelydoesn'thold for
theeducationof undergraduates.
It mayholdin somecasesbut
not in others.Of course,we arefactoringout the uninteresting
case of facultymemberswho are simplyincompetentor lazy.
Of course, institutionsof higherlearninghave their share of
suchpeopleas, I suppose,everyothertradeor occupationdoes.
We mayhavefeweror morethanothers.Who knows?I'venot
come upon any comparativeresearchon the distributionof
ineptitude. I am referringto faculty members who have
specializedcapabilitiesand specializedinterestsin teaching.
They're the ones who are losing out under our current
academicarrangements.
INTERVIEWER:Regardingthe trainingof graduatesociology
studentsin teachingskills,I haveheardthatHarvardnowhasa
half creditcoursein teachertrainingas partof theirgraduate
programfor teachingfellows. I wonderwhatyou thinkabout
that, whetheryou would like to see that in other graduate
departments?

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375

MERTON:I haven'tthoughtabout it in just that way. But you


make me awareof a common practiceof mine. In personal
sessions with graduatestudents,I will tell them from time to
time, in an unscheduledsort of way, about what I have
learned- or believeI havelearned-about the artandcraftof
teaching.It is not terriblydidactic;it is morenearlya tutorial
session in which one is reflectingaloud about a long run of
teachingexperiencesto a resonantother, a graduatestudent
interestedin this matter.I thinkthat somethinggets conveyed
in thisway. Still, on the face of it, it seemsstrangethatwhilewe
train graduate students in research techniques (statistical
methods,field work, and so forth)with regardto the one role
whichmost of themwill be askedto perform,teaching-since
most of our graduatesstill go on to careersin academiclifewe assume that this can be learnedwholly by osmosis, by
example.On the face of it, theremay be a contradictionhere.
But here you are tappingpart of my ignorance.I have never
been in a classroomdevotedto the art andcraftof teaching;it
isn'tthatI amskepticalaboutit beingdoneeffectively,I simply
don't know enoughabout it at first handto have an opinion.
However,I assumethattherearesomesimpletechniquesthat,
put to use, could greatlyhelp manyof us in our teaching.The
trulysuperiorteachers,I suspect,are self-selectedand usually
self-taught.Wherethe systemof highereducationfails is with
those instructorswho don't really like teaching but take it
simply as an onerous obligtion of theirjob. They don't have
autonomousinterest,capability,or trainedcapacity.They're
the ones that need educationin the skills of educating.That's
wherewe mightbe losingout. Wemayhavea largerfractionof
ineptteachersthanwe needhave.Butto speakto yourquestion
wouldrequireme to know a lot moreaboutteachingcurricula
than I know.
INTERVIEWER:I have some questionsabout the contexts in
which you have taught. You have taught undergraduatesat
Harvardand graduatestudentsat Columbia.
MERTON:I'vetaught a wide array.At Harvard,I taughtboth
undergraduatesand graduates.What we haven'tdiscussedis

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376 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984

teachingat differentphasesof one'slifelongcareer.Is it much


the same or differentat various phases?In which respects?
There is an unexaminedsubject about the relative ages of
studentsand teachersthat one might go into. When I was a
young instructor,I had some studentswho wereolderthan I.
Some of those studentsare now universitypresidentsemeriti:
LoganWilson,for example.Theycameto graduateworkafter
a stint of work had interruptedtheir formal education.
Another such student at Harvardwas Paul Nitze, now our
chief representativein the SALT negotiations with Soviet
Russia.He, likeLoganWilson,wasseveralyersolderthanI. he
hadbeena greatsuccessin investmentbankngas a youngman
anddecidedthathe wantedor neededsomefurthereducation.
So he did it on his own. He declareda personalsabbatical.He
attendedmy course on social organizationfaithfullyand we
have been friendsever since. So, too, with Logan Wilsonwhose dissertationin the 1930s, you remember,was The
Academic Man. He had been a newspapermanfor a time.
Workingwithsuchexperiencedandolderstudentsintroduced
a special challengeas I was beginningmy teaching,both as
instructorand as tutor. But now you have me reminiscing
aboutmyearlyteachingexperience;do you wantto hearmore
about that and the kinds of decisionsleading me to one or
anotherteachingpost?Even abbreviatedit's apt to be a long
story.
INTERVIEWER:Yes, pleasego on.
MERTON:I had been teachingfor 3 or 4 yearsas an instructor
and tutor at Harvard;back then, an assistantprofessorship
was a decidedlymore elevatedrank than it is now. (Talcott
Parsons, as I recall, was an instructorfor nine years before
beingadvancedto the rankof assistantprofessor.)Remember,
thiswasthe dismal1930s,withan academicmarketthatmakes
today'sdepressedmarketseemcheerful,and my contractstill
had some time to run. But for various reasons, I wanted to
leaveCambridge.Not leastwas a structurallyinducedreason:
the Depressionhad led to a new university-wideruleallowing
only for replacementsin tenurepositions,not for additions.A
firm zero-growthpolicy. All one neededto do was to look at

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377

the age distributionof facultyin one'sdepartmentto identify


the actuarial opportunitystructure.Sorokin was then the
oldestmemberof the Department-this is about1939-and he
was 50. The newly emergingTalcott Parsons-he had just
publishedTheStructureof Social Action-was all of 37.
There were other reasons for my wantingto move out of
Cambridge.And though it seemedratherutopianto assume
that there would be interestingacademicjobs availableanywhere, I decided that only two places in the entire country
reallyinterestedme.Note thatI say"places,"not "universities."
I wantedto lvie in a culturalregionnew to me. I had lived my
childhood and youth in Philadelphiaand was completinga
decadein Cambridge.It was timeto move beyondthe Eastern
seaboard. The two places were San Francisco and New
Orleans.But the San Franciscoarea held no promise;back
then,Berkeleyhadno Departmentof Sociologyat all. Literally
none;just FrederickTeggart'shighlypersonalDepartmentof
Social Institutions.That left New Orleans.
Evidently,mymusingsmusthavebeenheardOn High(for I
had not whispered a word of this fantasy to mentors or
colleagues).Literallywithin weeks of this fantasy-decision,I
receiveda telephonecall fromthe presidentof Tulane,asking
whetherI wouldbe interestedin the prospectof a post there.I
allowed as how I was. We arrangedto meet at what he
describedas a "half-wayspot":for breakfaston the rooftop
restaurantof the Astor HotelnearTimesSquarein New York.
(The Astor has long since gone.) He would wear a white
carnationin his lapel for readyidentification.Meanwhile,I
was readingup on New OrleanscultureandlikingwhatI read.
Among other things, I learned that it was a rather harddrinkingculture.Those famous Sunday bruncheswith eggs
sardou and ample liquor at Brennan's,for example.And by
then, I trulywantedto go to Tulane.All this is contextfor the
momentwhen I met its presidentfor breakfaston the Astor
roof. As the waiter waited, the presidentturned to me and
asked:"Whatwill you have to drink?"Primedby context, it
wasimmediatelyevidentto methathe wastestingto seeif I was
trulya Tulanianat heart.I decidedto meet the test. And so I

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378 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984

turned to the waiter and said, most casually: "Oh, I don't know.
I suppose Ill have a Scotch-straight." There was a long pause,
and then the president said: "And I'll have tomato juice." I
understand that that story is still being told, some 40 years
later. But what is not realized is that my interpretation of the
president's question was the by-product of my thorough
ethnographical research on the New Orleans subculture. A bit
too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. However, as I
discovered after arriving there, the ethnographic data had it
pretty straight.
I never regretted my decision. Not because I was at once
leapfrogged to an associate professorship and the next year,
professor and chairman of that tiny, full-scale department of
three. But because of the collegial atmosphere, especially
among the cohort of young and largely untenuredfaculty in the
social sciences and biology. Those were two happy years:
enjoyable and productive, in both research and teaching. In
those days, the standard teaching schedule was 15 hours a
week, a stint we took for granted since it was even larger
elsewhere. Classes were reasonably small, about 20 or 25
students. Most students there were not deeply motivated to
learn; many went to college because it was the thing to do. It
became a challenge to engage their attention.
I recall my first session in an introductory course at Sophie
Newcomb, then the women's adjunct of Tulane. As I entered
the room, fully equipped with notes for a more-or-less
standard overview of the course, I was startled to find that at
least half the class were busily knitting away. In the time I took
to reach the podium I made an instant decision: I would see to it
that they stopped knitting and not because I would tell them to
cease and desist. And so, I scrapped my planned lecture and
having introduced myself, announced the subject for this first
session: a repot on some research I was doing at the time
designed to give them an idea of how some sociologists went
about their research. The research subject: patterns of Negrowhite intermarriagein the United States. This, mind you, was
1939 and the place was New Orleans. The knitting stopped. A
collective sense of numbed disbelief took over. In all fairness, I

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379

must add that this turnedout to be a particularlyinteresting


class since,unlikethe studentsat Radcliffeand Harvard,they
hadhadno ideaat all of howthe workof scientificresearchand
scholarshipwas done. Thatwas a challengethatdid at leastas
muchfor the youngishteacheras for the veryyoungstudents.
Butenouthof this.Aftertwo yearsatTulane-I hadplanned
to stay five-I accepteda positionas an assistantprofessorof
sociology in the GraduateSchool of Arts and Sciences at
Columbia.Fromthattimeon, at leastat Columbia,as distinct
from summerschool sessions at Berkeleyand Penn State, I
neveragaintaughtan undergraduateclass. However,I would
periodically admit a few undergraduatesto my graduate
classes;carefullyselected,everyone of themcameup to snuff.
INTERVIEWER:You came here(Columbia)in 1941?
MERTON:And I've neverleft.
INTERVIEWER:As you reflecton thesethreedifferentuniversities and undergraduatesand graduates,what differencedo
you see-whether betweenschools or betweenlevels?
MERTON: At Harvard,there were few differencesin those
intermediatecourseswhichincludedbothundergraduates
and
graduates. That provided a quasi-clinicalexperiment. In
lecturecourses,as distinctfromresearchseminars,I havenever
leavenedwhat I had to say in orderto reachthe occasional
undergraduates.
Theywerehighlyselectedandmeasuredup to
ratherdemandingstandards.
Comparingstudents,I would have to say that therewas a
perceptibledifferencein the averagequality.
INTERVIEWER:BetweenHarvardand Tulane?
MERTON: Yes. And between Tulane and Columbia. That
difference was much greater than the difference between
and graduates.
undergraduates
INTERVIEWER:Whatexperiencesor traininghelpedyou most
in becominga good teacher?
MERTON:You areaskingme to museaboutmyexperienceas a
graduatestudentratherthanas a teacherof graduatestudents.
To me, the most significantaspect of my graduatestudiesis
that I was allowedto audit a greatnumberof coursesoutside
the brand-newHarvardDepartmentof Sociology.Naturally,I

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380 TEACHINGSOCIOLOGY/ JULY 1984

took all the core sociology courses but, looking back, I'd say
that most of my education was outside the field of sociology,
narrowly conceived. Along with registering for a course in
economic history (with Gay) and for a research and reading
course in the history of science (with Sarton), I audited courses
in philosophy (A. N. Whitehead), economics (Joseph Schumpeter), constitutionalism (Charles Mcllwain), biology (William
M. Wheeler), comparative religion (Arthur Nock), and anthropology (Earnest Hooton and Alfred Tozzer), and English
Literature. With no exceptions, the basis of my selection was
the quality of the professor. In English Literature,for example,
it was the world-famous Shakespearean scholar.
INTERVIEWER: Was that Kittredge?
MERTON: Yes, George Lyman kittredge. (Incidental to our
conversation, it was said of him that he "slighted research for
tasks which others could have done or which could have been
left undone [this refers to his passion for classroom teaching
and the meticulouscare he lavished on the substance and style of
dissertations he directed], but he would not have agreed, since
for him a teacher'smonument was in his students ratherthan in
his own writings.")
In the history of science, as I've said, it was George Sarton
[pointing to his inscribed picture on the wall of the study]. You
would know his name as the virtual founder of the history of
science but over there [pointing to another photograph on the
study wall], is one you wouldn't know because he never
published much scholarly work, an economic historian named
E. F. Gay. His large graduate course had an immense influence
on me; indirectly, it led me to begin my work in the history of
science and from there, I moved toward a sociology of science.
Gay was an extraordinary man. He had studied at Berlin under
the influential Gustav Schmoller who had founded the new
German Historical School. Lacking all business experience, he
became the first Dean of the Harvard Business School (in 1980)
and introduced the case method of instruction which, with
obvious changes, continues there to this day. After World War
I, when he did yeoman service for President Wilson, he became

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381

editor of the New York Evening Post (the great newspaper, not
the garbagy rag which you know as the New York Post). The
point is that he was one of the great teachers, who, though he
himself published only a few articles, was the source of much
scholarship by his students.
I could ramble through a long list of such teachers who
meant much to me. L. J. Henderson and his Pareto seminar,
the American historian Arthur Schlesinger (not young Arthur
S. Jr. who wsjust coming of age at the time), the consequential
philosopher, A. N. Whitehead, who was then nearing retirement in his 75th year; Edwin B. Wilson, the mathematicianphysicist-statistician (the student of Willard Gibbs, who, at age
22, codified the great physicist's lectures on vector analysis),
and the others I've mentioned.3
INTERVIEWER: There certainly was a quality of people and
some exposure to other disciplines that seems to have been
helpful to your teaching.
MERTON: The exposure to major people in these various fields
was surely helpful. The Harvard system was then flexible
enough so that you could audit as many courses as you liked.
Some of us did so intensively. Very intensively. It's a long story;
I can't begin to tell you how it was that the years 1931 to 1935,
at Harvard, achieved a density of variously talented instruction
for some of us budding sociologists that could not occur again.
Those were truly "golden years." To put it in a nutshell, it all
grew out of the fact that the president of Harvard back then, a
complicated fellow named Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who had
behaved so badly in the Sacco and Vanzetti case, had made two
university decisions that were almost unimaginable. The first
decision was to eliminate a highly successful Department of
Social Ethics, as having outlived its usefulness, though it was
presided over by a Cabot (who to complicate things furtherhad
married into the Lowell family). The second decision was to
replace that Brahmin department, which had a world-wide
reputation, with a newfangled department in what Harvard
disdainfully regardedas the plebian discipline called sociology.
What's more, to replace the Bostonian Cabot with a white

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382 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984

Russian, a self-styled peasant, Pitirim Sorokin, to head up the


new department. That, you will agree, is a most improbable
configuration. But having made these improbable decisions,
Lowell had second thoughts. He decided to safeguard the
university against the consequences of a possibly rash decision
by reaching out to some of the outstanding scholars and
scientists in the university to monitor developments in this
brand-new department. During the first few years I was in the
first cohort of graduate students in 1931; Kingsley Davis came
a year later-Lowell saw to it that people like the biochemist
Henderson, the historian Schlesinger, the economist Gay, the
entomologist Wheeler, were members of the department,
actual members attending the meetings of the department.
Their courses were listed and cross-listed in the Sociology
bulletin so that it was truly a golden age. (In some cases, I
hadn't previously known who some of these people were; I had
never heard of Henderson, how could I have? He was a worldclass authority on the blood, an "inevitable" Nobel laureate
who became fascinated by Pareto, the sociologist not the economist.) It was a magical period, a short golden age of four or five
years that was not, and could not, be reproduced. Another
active participant was Wheeler, who in 1932 gave a course,
described as Animal Sociology, which brought in leading
experts on a great variety of social species. Each week dealt
with a new species, ranging from cellular and metameric
nutritive societies, corals, bryozoa, through insect societies
(subsocial insects, wasps , bees, ants, and termites; then fish
aggregations; bird and mammal societies to, finally, the social
behavior of anthropoid apes). That was a composite course
never given again-surely not at Harvard and probably
nowhere else. It was just a stroke of historical good luck to have
been around at the time. Sad to say, not all of the 8 or 10
graduate students in sociology took advantage of this rare
array of courses.
INTERVIEWER: But you did take advantage of those opportunities. You went after those courses and those great
teachers, and you wanted to soak up as much as possible.

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Persell / INTERVIEW WITH MERTON

383

MERTON:Well, yes. Most of them in fact had reputationsas


beinggreatteachersas well as exceptionalscholars.
INTERVIEWER:But what drew you first was who were the
leadingfiguresin theirfields, of world staturethat you could
learnfrom whileyou werethere?
MERTON:That'strue.
INTERVIEWER:Thankyou very much.

APPENDIX
RobertK. Merton
BreveCurriculumVitae
Education

Teaching

Honors

A. B.-Temple University, 1931


M. A.-Harvard University, 1932
Ph.D.-Harvard University, 1936
1935-39-Harvard University (tutor and instructor)
1939-41-Tulane University (Associate Professor; then
Professor and Chairman)
1941-62-,-Columbia University (Assistant Professor to
Professor)
1963-74-Columbia (Giddings Professor of Sociology)
1974-79-Columbia (University Professor)
1979- -Columbia(Special ServiceProfessorand University Professor Emeritus)
1979- -Rockefeller University (Adjunct Professor)
1979- -Russell Sage Foundation (Resident Scholar)
Some 20 honorary degrees: Chicago, Harvard, Yale,
Temple, University of Pennsylvania, Tulane, Leyden,
Wales, Hebrew, University of Jerusalem, Emory, Maryland, etc.
Honorary societies: National Academy of Sciences,
American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American
Philosophical Society, National Academy of Education,
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Prizes: American Council of Learned Societies (for
distinguished scholarship in the humanities), NIH Lectureship (for outstanding scientific achievement), American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Talcott Parsons
Prize for Social Science), Memorial Sloan-Kettering
Cancer Center (award for outstanding support of bio-

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384 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984


medical science), Society for Social Studies of Science
(John Desmond Bernal Award), American Sociological
Association (Common Wealth Award for distinguished
service to sociology; Careerof Distinguished Scholarship
award), MacArthur Prize Fellow
Learned Societies
and Associations

Books

President: American Sociological Association, 1957


Eastern Sociological Society, 1969. Sociological Research
Association, 1968 Society for Social Studies of Science,
1975-1976
History of Science Society, History of Technology Society, the Tocqueville Society, Authors Guild (Council
1974-78)
Science, Technology, and Society in 17th-Century England (Howard Fertig, Inc., & Humanities Press, 1938,
1970)
Mass Persuasion (Harper, 1946; Greenwood Press, 1971)
Social Theory and Social Structure (Free Press, 1949,
1957, 1968)
The Focused Interview with M. Friske & P. L. Kendall)
(Free Pres, 1956)
The Freedom to Read (with R. McKeon & W. Gellhorn)
Bowker, 1957)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1965)
On Theoretical Sociology (Free Press, 1967)
The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical
Investigations (University of Chicago Press, 1973)
Sociological Ambivalence (Free Press, 1976)
The Sociology of Science: An Episodic Memoir (University of Southern Illinois Press, 1979)
Social Research and the Practicing Professions (Abt
Books, 1982)

Coedited and
Coauthored Books

Continuities in Social Research (with P. Fl Lazarsfeld)


(Free Press, 1950; Arno, 1974)
Reader in Bureaucracy (with A. Gray, B. Hockery, & H.
C. Selvin) (Free Press, 1952, 1967)
The Student-Physician: Studies in the Sociology of
Medical Education (with G. G. Reader & P. L. Kendall)
(Harvard University Press, 1957)
Sociology Today (with L. Broom & L. S. Cottrell) (Basic
Books, 1959)
Contemporary Social Problems (with R. A. Nisbet)
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961, 1966, 1971, 1976)
The Sociology of Science in Europe (with J. Gaston)
(University of Southern Illinois Press, 1977)
Toward Metric of Science (with Y. Elkana, J. Lederberg,
A. Thackray, & H. Zuckerman (Wiley, 1978)

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Persell / INTERVIEW WITH MERTON

Articles
Compilations

Festschriften

385

Qualitative and Quantitative Social Research: Papers in


Honor of P. F. Lazarsfeld (with J. S. Coleman & P. H.
Rossi) Free Press, 1979)
Sociological Traditionsfrom Generation to Generation
(with M. W. Riley) (Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1980)
Continuities in Structural Inquiry (with P. M. Blau)
Some 125
Perspectives in Social Inquiry: Classics, Staples and
Precursors (Arno Press) 40 vols.
History, Philosophy and Sociology of Science: Classics,
Staples and Precursors (with Y. Elkana, A. Thackray, &
H. Zuckerman) (Arno Press) 60 vols.
History, Philosophy and Sociology of Science: Classics,
Staples and Precursors (with Y. Elkana, A. Thackray, &
H. Zuckerman) (Arno Press) 60 vols.
Dissertations on Sociology (with H. Zuckerman) (Arno
Press) 61 vols.
Lewis A. Coser (ed.) The Idea of Social Structure: Papers
in Honor of Robert K. Merton (Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1975)
Festschrift for Robert K. Merton (New York Academy of
Sciences, 1980)

NOTES
1. The impact of Merton's scholarship is well documented in Eugene Garfield's(1980)
study. His computerized search located 2338 articles citing Robert K. Merton in the social
sciences between 1970-1977and 365 articles in the natural sciences that cited him. The rate
for citation to Merton is 80 times greater than average annual number of citations in the
social sciences and 4 times greater than the average annual number in the natural sciences.
2. An unpublished manuscript written after the fashion of Robert K. Merton's On the
Shoulders of giants: A Shandean Postscript (1967).
3. In his piece, "Remembering the Young Talcott Parsons," Merton (1980a) reflects
on how Parsons helped him and other graduate students to take both sociological theory
and themselves seriously:
Because our teacher, as a referencefigure, accorded us intellectual respect, because
he took us seriously, we, in strict accord with Meadian theory, came to take
ourselves seriously. We had work to do. Soon, we were less students than younger
colleagues-fledgling colleagues, to be sure, but colleagues for all that.

REFERENCES
CAPLOVITZ, D. (1977) "Review of 'The Idea of Social Structure: Papers in Honor of
Robert K. Merton' edited by L. A. Coser." Contemporary Sociology 6: 142-150.

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386 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY / JULY 1984


GARFIELD, E. (1983a) "Robert K. Merton-author and editor extraordinaire, Part 1."
Current Contents 39 (September): 5-11.
--(1983b) "Robert K. Merton-author and editor extraordinaire, Part II." Current
Contents 40 (October): 5-15.
--(1980) "Citation measures of the influence of Robert K. Merton," pp. 61-74 in T. F.
Gieryn (ed.) Science and Social Structure: A Festchrift for Robert K. Merton. New
York: Academy of Sciences.
GIERYN, T. F. [ed.] (1980) Science and Social Structure: A Festchrift for Robert K.
Merton. New York: Academy of Sciences.
MERTON, R. K. (1984) "Texts, contexts and subtexts: an epistolary forward,"pp. ix-xlv
in L. Schneider, The Grammar of Social Relations. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
"Alvin W. Gouldner: genesis and growth of a friendship." Theory and
---(1982)
Society 11: 915-938.
---(1980a)
"Remembering the young Talcott Parsons." Amer. Sociologist 15 (May):
68-71.
"On the oral transmission of knowledge," pp. 1-35 in R. K. Merton and M.
---(1980b)
W. Riley (eds.) Sociological Traditions from Generation to Generation: Glimpses of
the American Experience. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
--(1967) On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript. New York: Free Press.
MILES, W. (1975) "The writings of Robert K. Merton:.a bibliography," pp. 497-522 in L.
A. Coser (ed.) The Idea of Social Structure: Papers in Honor of Robert K. Merton.
San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Caroline Hodges Persell is Associate Professor of Sociology at New York


University, where she served as Director of UndergraduateStudiesfor a number of
years. She is the author of Understanding Society (Harper & Row, 1984),
Education and Inequality (Free Press, 1977), and numerous articles and monographs. Her major research interests are in teaching sociology, education and
stratifications, and sex and gender.

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