Robert King Merton (July 4, 1910 – February 23, 2003) was a distinguished American sociologist. He spent most of his career teaching at Columbia University, where he attained the rank of University Professor. In 1994, Merton won the National Medal of Science for his contributions to the field and for having founded the sociology of science.
Merton developed notable concepts such as “unintended consequences,” the “reference group,” and “role strain” but is perhaps best known for having created the terms “role model” and “self-fulfilling prophecy“. A central element of modern sociological, political and economic theory, the “self-fulfilling prophecy” is a process whereby a belief or an expectation, correct or incorrect, affects the outcome of a situation or the way a person or a group will behave.
Merton’s work on the “role model” first appeared in a study on the socializaton of medical students at Columbia. The term grew from his theory of a reference group, or the group to which individuals compare themselves, but to which they do not necessarily belong. Social roles were a central piece of Merton’s theory of social groups. Merton emphasized that, rather than a person assuming one role and one status, they have a status set in the social structure which has attached to it a whole set of expected behaviors.