Research at the RBML | Lawrence Stern on Robert K. Merton

Sociology Professor Lawrence Stern is making his way through 200 linear feet and nearly 500 boxes of materials that document sociologist Robert K. Merton’s decades at Columbia. Stern’s forthcoming monograph, Robert K. Merton: A Scholarly Life will draw significantly on his finds in the RBML archives, from Merton’s lecture notes and correspondence, to his staggering to-do lists of writing projects and generous letters to students. Merton was a foundational figure to the field of sociology, influencing the discipline’s trajectory within the academy and beyond.


What brings you to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library? 

Aided these past 18-months by a faculty fellowship from the Mellon Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies, I am working on a “sociologically informed” biography of Robert K. Merton. A towering figure in the discipline of sociology, Merton spent nearly the entirety of his seven-decade career at Columbia University.

Stretching out more than 200 linear-feet and consisting of nearly 500 boxes that, altogether, contain well over 5,000 folders, the materials, as set out in the 200+ page Finding Aid available to scholars online, include an extraordinary array of documents that are of crucial significance for the biographer. These include:

  1. Correspondence with hundreds of scholars, near and far, from the entire range of the social sciences, humanities, and physical and life sciences;
  2. Notes on courses taken as an undergraduate student at Temple and as a graduate student at Harvard,
  3. Lecture notes from courses and seminars that he taught while an instructor at Harvard and Professor at Tulane University during the 1930s, and those taught at Columbia from 1941 until 1978;
  4. Unpublished notes and drafts of papers that document the trajectory of his thinking on works-in-progress, many of which never saw the light of day;
  5. Grant proposals and final reports;
  6. “To Do” lists that map out his writing and editing schedules;
  7. Invited public lectures and commencement addresses;
  8. Notes on nighttime and early morning “musings”;
  9. Information chronicling his participation in various national committees and commissions;
  10. Information that situates his life and work within a broader cognitive, social, historical, and cultural context

These materials, then,  take us “behind the scenes” into the private and little-known aspects of Merton’s career and, by so doing, demonstrates the insufficiency of relying upon the public record. Put quite simply, it would be impossible to produce a fully-fledged biography of Merton without going through the better part of the documents housed in the archives.

How long have you been using RBML materials (for this and/or previous research)?

I have visited the archives to work with Merton’s papers on four occasions, each time for one 30-hours week. My first trip was (way back) in December, 2004, the second during my sabbatical in Spring 2017, and the third and fourth trips this past July and December 2023.

What have you found? Did you come here knowing this material was here?

During the course of each visit, I found more – considerably more – than I was “looking for.”

As I mentioned above, the staff at RBML has made a 200-plus page “finding aid” available online for scholars. This allowed me to pinpoint and request particular boxes that contain specific folders that were germane to my research concerns. In this sense, then, I knew in a broad way what materials were available. I “knew,” for example, that there were  eight folders of correspondence between Merton and the sociologist Talcott Parsons, five-folders of correspondence between Merton and Nobel Laurate Josh Lederberg and a dozen folders of correspondence between Merton and the economist Stephen Stigler. But each set of letters revealed things that I would never have been able to surmise without them.

Robert K. Merton papers, MS#1439, Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library

I also “knew” that Merton was an inveterate “editor,” not only of his own manuscripts – which often went through eight-to-ten drafts before he was satisfied with them – but also the works of former students and colleagues-at-a-distance throughout his long career. As one might suppose, this drastically cut into his own writing schedule. Mindful that the queue of papers and books that he wanted to complete was getting longer and longer, Merton, “subscribing to Schopenhauer’s dictum that to put aside one’s own ideas in order to take up the work of another is to sin against the Holy Ghost of scholarship, set forth, on the 22nd of February, 1982, a “Self-Emancipation Proclamation” that will “Remove at long last the albatross hung around my neck in the form of ever-urgent deadlines . . .” (See the two attached documents: the first, a copy of the Proclamation, the second, explanatory context in a letter to a colleague.)

I should also mention that sometimes I went on a “fishing expedition” or, to use a different metaphor, “went panning for gold.” By that I mean, when I request a particular box because it contains letters between Merton and someone I had identified to be important, I will always sneak a peek at the other folders of correspondence in the same box. Sometimes, I came up empty. But on more occasions than I can count, my efforts were handsomely rewarded. To cite but one example, I had identified Al Gollin, a former student of Merton and noted public opinion researcher as a person of interest, and gleaned much from their exchange of letters. But I noticed, nestled in front of Gollin’s two folders, were four with the name William T. Golden who, I learned, was a giant in the field of philanthropy and science advising. Merton and Golden’s exchange of letters, over a period of thirty-years, were quite remarkable.

Here, then, is a smattering of specific things that I have found:

First, of course, these materials reveal some “sense of the man” – his personal character, style, and sensibility and I was able to examine how this changed over his life-course as he grew in stature. Second, these materials, especially Merton’s lecture notes, partial drafts of papers and grant proposals, indicate the slow evolution of his thinking as he honed his developing ideas and concepts for years before they reached print – if they reached print at all (four unpublished book-length manuscripts are among his papers). These materials also illustrate both continuities – for example his “life-long obsession” with the notion of unanticipated consequences – and discontinuities in his work as he periodically shelved research, returning to it, in some instances, decades later. Third, Merton’s face-to-face interactions and correspondence with colleagues, close-at-hand and at-a-distance, provide clear indications of the extent to which, and how, what he referred to as “socio-cognitive micro-environments” were significant in shaping some of his ideas. Fourth, these materials document Merton’s intense interest in shaping both the cognitive and professional identity of the discipline of sociology, by highlighting his close work with various funding agencies – among them the Social Science Research Council, the Carnegie Corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the newly established Behavioral Sciences wing of the Ford Foundation, as well as his major role in the creation of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Fifth,these materials also helped sharpen my understanding of a number of important generic questions raised by sociologists and philosophers of science that concern the social responsibility of scientists in general, and social scientists in particular, how values influence an investigator’s choice and formulation of problems to pursue, and how patterned misperceptions of scholars affect the processes of conflict and controversy that are endemic to scholarly work. Sixth, these materials provide ample documentation of Merton’s life-long and abiding concern with issues of social justice. In his view, sociologists’ work should “matter;” they should apply theoretically grounded approaches to deepen our understanding of “humanly significant” issues.

What have you found that’s surprised or perplexed you?

Perplexed? I was never perplexed or baffled by anything I have found, but I was certainly “astonished” by Merton’s “To Do Lists,” running intermittently from the late 1970s up through the 1990s. These daily/monthly lists included writing commitments (which he often referred to as “work-in-typically-slow-progress”), manuscripts by students and colleagues that needed vetting and editing, correspondence to catch-up on, and upcoming trips.

Although this may not fall strictly under the category of “surprises,” I should also report that I experienced what countless other denizens of the archives report:  that, in many instances, documents provide tantalyzing clues that necessitate the search for additional archival materials in order to fill in some important gaps just as, in other instances, totally new trails are identified that need to be explored.

Based on all of the materials I have thus far examined (there is still much more to be done),  it has become rather clear to me that the greater one’s renown, the less one knows about him or her.

What advice do you have for other researchers or students interested in using RBML’s special collections?

Do your homework – be prepared. Consult with RBML’s archivists before you arrive.  They are knowledgeable, extremely helpful, and flat-out nice!  If a “finding aid” is available, ransack it so that you can identify relevant and useful folders before your visit. Be efficient, i.e., bring some means to photograph materials – with a charger – that can be studied more carefully when you return home. Relax and be open to possibilities. If you are lucky, you will come home with more than you were looking for!