Robert King Merton (July 4, 1910 – February 23, 2003) was an 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 socialization 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 that has attached to it a whole set of expected behaviors.
Robert K. Merton was born on July 4, 1910, in Philadelphia as Meyer Robert Schkolnick in a family of Yiddish speaking Russian Jews that had immigrated to the United States in 1904. His mother was Ida Rasovskaya, an "unsynagogued" socialist who had freethinking radical sympathies. His father was Aaron Schkolnickoff, a tailor officially identified at his port of entry into the United States as Harrie Skolnick. Many of Merton's childhood experiences formed a basis for his theory of social structure, particularly the reference group. He attended South Philadelphia High School. As a high school student, he became a frequent visitor of nearby cultural and educational venues including Andrew Carnegie Library, The Academy of Music, Central Library, and Museum of Arts. He adopted the name Robert K. Merton initially as a stage name for his magician performances. In 1994, Merton stated that growing up in South Philadelphia provided young people with, "every sort of capital—social capital, cultural capital, human capital, and, above all, what we may call public capital—that is, with every sort of capital except the personally financial".