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Mertons Theory Of Prejudice And Discrimination Essays


Persistent racial inequality in employment, housing, and a wide range of other social domains has renewed interest in the possible role of discrimination. And yet, unlike in the pre–civil rights era, when racial prejudice and discrimination were overt and widespread, today discrimination is less readily identifiable, posing problems for social scientific conceptualization and measurement. This article reviews the relevant literature on discrimination, with an emphasis on racial discrimination in employment, housing, credit markets, and consumer interactions. We begin by defining discrimination and discussing relevant methods of measurement. We then provide an overview of major findings from studies of discrimination in each of the four domains; and, finally, we turn to a discussion of the individual, organizational, and structural mechanisms that may underlie contemporary forms of discrimination. This discussion seeks to orient readers to some of the key debates in the study of discrimination and to provide a roadmap for those interested in building upon this long and important line of research.

Keywords: race, inequality, measurement, mechanisms, African Americans, racial minorities


According to its most simple definition, racial discrimination refers to unequal treatment of persons or groups on the basis of their race or ethnicity. In defining racial discrimination, many scholars and legal advocates distinguish between differential treatment and disparate impact, creating a two-part definition: Differential treatment occurs when individuals are treated unequally because of their race. Disparate impact occurs when individuals are treated equally according to a given set of rules and procedures but when the latter are constructed in ways that favor members of one group over another (Reskin 1998, p. 32; National Research Council 2004, pp. 39–40). The second component of this definition broadens its scope to include decisions and processes that may not themselves have any explicit racial content but that have the consequence of producing or reinforcing racial disadvantage. Beyond more conventional forms of individual discrimination, institutional processes such as these are important to consider in assessing how valued opportunities are structured by race.

A key feature of any definition of discrimination is its focus on behavior. Discrimination is distinct from racial prejudice (attitudes), racial stereotypes (beliefs), and racism (ideologies) that may also be associated with racial disadvantage (see Quillian 2006). Discrimination may be motivated by prejudice, stereotypes, or racism, but the definition of discrimination does not presume any unique underlying cause.


More than a century of social science interest in the question of discrimination has resulted in numerous techniques to isolate and identify its presence and to document its effects (National Research Council 2004). Although no method is without its limitations, together these techniques provide a range of perspectives that can help to inform our understanding of whether, how, and to what degree discrimination matters in the lives of contemporary American racial minorities.

Perceptions of Discrimination

Numerous surveys have asked African Americans and other racial minorities about their experiences with discrimination in the workplace, in their search for housing, and in other everyday social settings (Schuman et al. 2001). One startling conclusion from this line of research is the frequency with which discrimination is reported. A 2001 survey, for example, found that more than one-third of blacks and nearly 20% of Hispanics and Asians reported that they had personally been passed over for a job or promotion because of their race or ethnicity (Schiller 2004). A 1997 Gallup poll found that nearly half of all black respondents reported having experienced discrimination at least once in one of five common situations in the past month (Gallup Organ. 1997). Further, the frequency with which discrimination is reported does not decline among those higher in the social hierarchy; in fact, middle-class blacks are as likely to perceive discrimination as are working-class blacks, if not more (Feagin & Sikes 1994, Kessler et al. 1990). Patterns of perceived discrimination are important findings in their own right, as research shows that those who perceive high levels of discrimination are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and other negative health outcomes (Kessler et al. 1990). Furthermore, perceived discrimination may lead to diminished effort or performance in education or the labor market, which itself gives rise to negative outcomes (Ogbu 1991; Steele 1997; Loury 2002, pp. 26–33). What remains unclear from this line of research, however, is to what extent perceptions of discrimination correspond to some reliable depiction of reality. Because events may be misperceived or overlooked, perceptions of discrimination may over- or underestimate the actual incidence of discrimination.

Reports by Potential Discriminators

Another line of social science research focuses on the attitudes and actions of dominant groups for insights into when and how racial considerations come into play. In addition to the long tradition of survey research on racial attitudes and stereotypes among the general population (cf. Schuman et al. 2001, Farley et al. 1994), a number of researchers have developed interview techniques aimed at gauging propensities toward discrimination among employers and other gatekeepers. Harry Holzer has conducted a number of employer surveys in which employers are asked a series of questions about “the last worker hired for a noncollege job,” thereby grounding employers’ responses in a concrete recent experience (e.g., Holzer 1996). In this format, race is asked about as only one incidental characteristic in a larger series of questions concerning this recent employee, thereby reducing the social desirability bias often triggered when the subject of race is highlighted. Likewise, by focusing on a completed action, the researcher is able to document revealed preferences rather than expressed ones and to examine the range of employer, job, and labor market characteristics that may be associated with hiring decisions.

A second prominent approach to investigating racial discrimination in employment has relied on in-depth, in-person interviews, which can be effective in eliciting candid discussions about sensitive hiring issues. Kirschenman & Neckerman (1991), for example, describe employers’ blatant admission of their avoidance of young, inner-city black men in their search for workers. Attributing characteristics such as “lazy” and “unreliable” to this group, the employers included in their study were candid in their expressions of strong racial preferences in considering low wage workers (p. 213; see also Wilson 1996, Moss & Tilly 2001). These in-depth studies have been invaluable in providing detailed accounts of what goes through the minds of employers—at least consciously— as they evaluate members of different groups. However, we must keep in mind that racial attitudes are not always predictive of corresponding behavior (LaPiere 1934, Allport 1954, Pager & Quillian 2005). Indeed, Moss & Tilly (2001) report the puzzling finding that “businesses where a plurality of managers complained about black motivation are more likely to hire black men” (p. 151). Hiring decisions (as with decisions to rent a home or approve a mortgage) are influenced by a complex range of factors, racial attitudes being only one. Where understanding persistent racial prejudice and stereotypes is surely an important goal in and of itself, this approach will not necessarily reveal the extent of discrimination in action.

Statistical Analyses

Perhaps the most common approach to studying discrimination is by investigating inequality in outcomes between groups. Rather than focusing on the attitudes or perceptions of actors that may be correlated with acts of discrimination, this approach looks to the possible consequences of discrimination in the unequal distribution of employment, housing, or other social and economic resources. Using large-scale datasets, researchers can identify systematic disparities between groups and chart their direction over time. Important patterns can also be detected through detailed and systematic case studies of individual firms, which often provide a richer array of indicators with which to assess patterns of discrimination (e.g., Castilla 2008, Petersen & Saporta 2004, Fernandez & Friedrich 2007).

Discrimination in statistical models is often measured as the residual race gap in any outcome that remains after controlling for all other race-related influences. Differences may be identified through the main effect of race, suggesting a direct effect of race on an outcome of interest, or through an interaction between race and one or more human capital characteristics, suggesting differential returns to human capital investments on the basis of race (Oaxaca 1973; National Research Council 2004, chapter 7). The main liability of this approach is that it is difficult to effectively account for the multitude of factors relevant to unequal outcomes, leaving open the possibility that the disparities we attribute to discrimination may in fact be explained by some other unmeasured cause(s). In statistical analyses of labor market outcomes, for example, even after controlling for standard human capital variables (e.g., education, work experience), a whole host of employment-related characteristics typically remain unaccounted for. Characteristics such as reliability, motivation, interpersonal skills, and punctuality, for example, are each important to finding and keeping a job, but these are characteristics that are often difficult to capture with survey data (see, for example, Farkas & Vicknair 1996, Farkas 2003). Complicating matters further, some potential control variables may themselves be endogenous to the process under investigation. Models estimating credit discrimination, for example, typically include controls for asset accumulation and credit history, which may themselves be in part the byproduct of discrimination (Yinger 1998, pp. 26–27). Likewise, controls for work experience or firm tenure may be endogenous to the process of employment discrimination if minorities are excluded from those opportunities necessary to building stable work histories (see Tomaskovic-Devey et al. 2005). While statistical models represent an extremely important approach to the study of race differentials, researchers should use caution in making causal interpretations of the indirect measures of discrimination derived from residual estimates. For a more detailed discussion of the challenges and possibilities of statistical approaches to measuring discrimination, see the National Research Council (2004, chapter 7).

Experimental Approaches to Measuring Discrimination

Experimental approaches to measuring discrimination excel in exactly those areas in which statistical analyses flounder. Experiments allow researchers to measure causal effects more directly by presenting carefully constructed and controlled comparisons. In a laboratory experiment by Dovidio & Gaertner (2000), for example, subjects (undergraduate psychology students) took part in a simulated hiring experiment in which they were asked to evaluate the application materials for black and white job applicants of varying qualification levels. When applicants were either highly qualified or poorly qualified for the position, there was no evidence of discrimination. When applicants had acceptable but ambiguous qualifications, however, participants were nearly 70% more likely to recommend the white applicant than the black applicant (see also Biernat & Kobrynowicz’s 1997 discussion of shifting standards).1

Although laboratory experiments offer some of the strongest evidence of causal relationships, we do not know the extent to which their findings relate to the kinds of decisions made in their social contexts—to hire, to rent, to move, for example—that are most relevant to understanding the forms of discrimination that produce meaningful social disparities. Seeking to bring more realism to the investigation, some researchers have moved experiments out of the laboratory and into the field. Field experiments offer a direct measure of discrimination in real-world contexts. In these experiments, typically referred to as audit studies, researchers carefully select, match, and train individuals (called testers) to play the part of a job/apartment-seeker or consumer. By presenting equally qualified individuals who differ only by race or ethnicity, researchers can assess the degree to which racial considerations affect access to opportunities. Audit studies have documented strong evidence of discrimination in the context of employment (for a review, see Pager 2007a), housing searches (Yinger 1995), car sales (Ayres & Siegelman 1995), applications for insurance (Wissoker et al. 1998), home mortgages (Turner & Skidmore 1999), the provision of medical care (Schulman et al. 1999), and even in hailing taxis (Ridley et al. 1989).

Although experimental methods are appealing in their ability to isolate causal effects, they nevertheless suffer from some important limitations. Critiques of the audit methodology have focused on questions of internal validity (e.g., experimenter effects, the problems of effective tester matching), generalizability (e.g., the use of overqualified testers, the limited sampling frame for the selection of firms to be audited), and the ethics of audit research (see Heckman 1998, Pager 2007a for a more extensive discussion of these issues). In addition, audit studies are often costly and difficult to implement and can only be used for selective decision points (e.g., hiring decisions but not training, promotion, termination, etc.).

Studies of Law and Legal Records

Since the civil rights era, legal definitions and accounts of discrimination have been central to both popular and scholarly understandings of discrimination. Accordingly, an additional window into the dynamics of discrimination involves the use of legal records from formal discrimination claims. Whether derived from claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the courts, or state-level Fair Employment/Fair Housing Bureaus, official records documenting claims of discrimination can provide unique insight into the patterns of discrimination and antidiscrimination enforcement in particular contexts and over time.

Roscigno (2007), for example, analyzed thousands of “serious claims” filed with the Civil Rights Commission of Ohio related to both employment and housing discrimination. These claims document a range of discriminatory behaviors, from harassment, to exclusion, to more subtle forms of racial bias. [See also Harris et al. (2005) for a similar research design focusing on federal court claims of consumer discrimination.] Although studies relying on formal discrimination claims necessarily overlook those incidents that go unnoticed or unreported, these records provide a rare opportunity to witness detailed descriptions of discrimination events across a wide range of social domains not typically observed in conventional research designs.

Other studies use discrimination claims, not to assess patterns of discrimination, but to investigate trends in the application of antidiscrimination law. Nielsen & Nelson (2005) provide an overview of research in this area, examining the pathways by which potential claims (or perceived discrimination) develop into formal legal action, or conversely the many points at which potential claims are deflected from legal action. Hirsh & Kornrich (2008) examine how characteristics of the workplace and institutional environment affect variation in the incidence of discrimination claims and their verification by EEOC investigators. Donohue & Siegelman (1991, 2005) analyze discrimination claims from 1970 through 1997 to chart changes in the nature of antidiscrimination enforcement over time. The overall volume of discrimination claims increased substantially over this period, though the composition of claims shifted away from an emphasis on racial discrimination toward a greater emphasis on gender and disability discrimination. Likewise, the types of employment discrimination claims have shifted from an emphasis on hiring discrimination to an overwhelming emphasis on wrongful termination, and class action suits have become increasingly rare. The authors interpret these trends not as indicators of changes in the actual distribution of discrimination events, but rather as reflections of the changing legal environment in which discrimination cases are pursued (including, for example, changes to civil rights law and changes in the receptivity of the courts to various types of discrimination claims), which themselves may have implications for the expression of discrimination (Donohue & Siegelman 1991, 2005).

Finally, a number of researchers have exploited changes in civil rights and antidiscrimination laws as a source of exogenous variation through which to measure changes in discrimination (see Holzer & Ludwig 2003). Freeman (1973, see table 6 therein), for example, investigates the effectiveness of federal EEO laws by comparing the black-white income gap before and after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Heckman & Payner (1989) use microdata from textile plants in South Carolina to study the effects of race on employment between 1940 and 1980, concluding that federal antidiscrimination policy resulted in a significant improvement in black economic status between 1965 and 1975. More recent studies exploiting changes in the legal context include Kelly & Dobbin (1998), who examine the effects of changing enforcement regimes on employers’ implementation of diversity initiatives; Kalev & Dobbin (2006), who examine the relative impact of compliance reviews and lawsuits on the representation of women and minorities in management positions; and a volume edited by Skrentny (2001), which examines many of the complex and unexpected facets related to the rise, expansion, and impact of affirmative action and diversity policies in the United States and internationally.

Although no research method is without flaws, careful consideration of the range of methods available helps to match one’s research question with the appropriate empirical strategy. Comparisons across studies can help to shed light on the relative strengths and weaknesses of existing methodological approaches (see National Research Council 2004). At the same time, one must keep in mind that the nature of discrimination may itself be a moving target, with the forms and patterns of discrimination shifting over time and across domains (see Massey 2005, p. 148). These complexities challenge our traditional modes of operationalization and encourage us to continue to update and refine our measures to allow for an adequate accounting of contemporary forms of racial discrimination.


Simple as it may be, one basic question that preoccupies the contemporary literature on discrimination centers around its continuing relevance. Whereas 50 years ago acts of discrimination were overt and widespread, today it is harder to assess the degree to which everyday experiences and opportunities may be shaped by ongoing forms of discrimination. Indeed, the majority of white Americans believe that a black person today has the same chance at getting a job as an equally qualified white person, and only a third believe that discrimination is an important explanation for why blacks do worse than whites in income, housing, and jobs (Pager 2007a). Academic literature has likewise questioned the relevance of discrimination for modern-day outcomes, with the rising importance of skill, structural changes in the economy, and other nonracial factors accounting for increasing amounts of variance in individual outcomes (Heckman 1998, Wilson 1978). Indeed, discrimination is not the only nor even the most important factor shaping contemporary opportunities. Nevertheless, it is important to understand when and how discrimination does play a role in the allocation of resources and opportunities. In the following discussion, we examine the evidence of discrimination in four domains: employment, housing, credit markets, and consumer markets. Although not an exhaustive review of the literature, this discussion aims to identify the major findings and debates within each of these areas of research.


Although there have been some remarkable gains in the labor force status of racial minorities, significant disparities remain. African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed as whites (Hispanics are only marginally so), and the wages of both blacks and Hispanics continue to lag well behind those of whites (author’s analysis of Current Population Survey, 2006). A long line of research has examined the degree to which discrimination plays a role in shaping contemporary labor market disparities.

Experimental audit studies focusing on hiring decisions have consistently found strong evidence of racial discrimination, with estimates of white preference ranging from 50% to 240% (Cross et al. 1989, Turner et al. 1991, Fix & Struyk 1993, Bendick et al. 1994; see Pager 2007a for a review). For example, in a study by Bertrand & Mullainathan (2004), the researchers mailed equivalent resumes to employers in Boston and Chicago using racially identifiable names to signal race (for example, names like Jamal and Lakisha signaled African Americans, while Brad and Emily were associated with whites).2 White names triggered a callback rate that was 50% higher than that of equally qualified black applicants. Further, their study indicated that improving the qualifications of applicants benefited white applicants but not blacks, thus leading to a wider racial gap in response rates for those with higher skill.

Statistical studies of employment outcomes likewise reveal large racial disparities unaccounted for by observed human capital characteristics. Tomaskovic-Devey et al. (2005) present evidence from a fixed-effects model indicating that black men spend significantly more time searching for work, acquire less work experience, and experience less stable employment than do whites with otherwise equivalent characteristics. Wilson et al. (1995) find that, controlling for age, education, urban location, and occupation, black male high school graduates are 70% more likely to experience involuntary unemployment than whites with similar characteristics and that this disparity increases among those with higher levels of education. At more aggregate levels, research points to the persistence of occupational segregation, with racial minorities concentrated in jobs with lower levels of stability and authority and with fewer opportunities for advancement (Parcel & Mueller 1983, Smith 2002). Of course, these residual estimates cannot control for all relevant factors, such as motivation, effort, access to useful social networks, and other factors that may produce disparities in the absence of direct discrimination. Nevertheless, these estimates suggest that blacks and whites with observably similar human capital characteristics experience markedly different employment outcomes.

Unlike the cases of hiring and employment, research on wage disparities comes to more mixed conclusions. An audit study by Bendick et al. (1994) finds that, among those testers who were given job offers, whites were offered wages that were on average 15 cents/hour higher than their equally qualified black test partners; audit studies in general, however, provide limited information on wages, as many testers never make it to the wage setting stage of the employment process. Some statistical evidence comes to similar conclusions. Cancio et al. (1996), for example, find that, controlling for parental background, education, work experience, tenure, and training, white men earn roughly 15% more than comparable blacks (white women earned 6% more than comparable black women). Farkas & Vicknair (1996), however, using a different dataset, find that the addition of controls for cognitive ability eliminates the racial wage gap for young black and white full-time workers. According to the authors, these findings suggest that racial differences in labor market outcomes are due more to factors that precede labor market entry (e.g., skill acquisition) rather than discrimination within the labor market (see also Neal & Johnson 1996).

Overall, then, the literature points toward consistent evidence of discrimination in access to employment, but less consistent evidence of discrimination in wages. Differing methodologies and/or model specification may account for some of the divergent results. But there is also reason to believe that the processes affecting access to employment (e.g., the influence of first impressions, the absence of more reliable information on prospective employees, and minimal legal oversight) may be more subject to discriminatory decision making than those affecting wages. Further, the findings regarding employment and wages may be in part causally related, as barriers to labor market entry will lead to a more select sample of black wage earners, reducing measured racial disparities (e.g., Western & Pettit 2005). These findings point to the importance of modeling discrimination as a process rather than a single-point outcome, with disparities in premarket skills acquisition, barriers to labor market entry, and wage differentials each part of a larger employment trajectory and shaped to differing degrees by discrimination.


Residential segregation by race remains a salient feature of contemporary American cities. Indeed, African Americans were as segregated from whites in 1990 as they had been at the start of the twentieth century, and levels of segregation appear unaffected by rising socioeconomic status (Massey & Denton 1993). Although segregation appears to have modestly decreased between 1980 and 2000 (Logan et al. 2004), blacks (and to a lesser extent other minority groups) continue to experience patterns of residential placement markedly different from whites. The degree to which discrimination contributes to racial disparities in housing has been a major preoccupation of social scientists and federal housing agents (Charles 2003).

The vast majority of the work on discrimination in housing utilizes experimental audit data. For example, between 2000 and 2002 the Department of Housing and Urban Development conducted an extensive series of audits measuring housing discrimination against blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans, including nearly 5500 paired tests in nearly 30 metropolitan areas [see Turner et al. (2002), Turner & Ross (2003a); see also Hakken (1979), Feins & Bratt (1983), Yinger (1986), Roychoudhury & Goodman (1992, 1996) for additional, single-city audits of housing discrimination]. The study results reveal bias across multiple dimensions, with blacks experiencing consistent adverse treatment in roughly one in five housing searches and Hispanics experiencing consistent adverse treatment in roughly one out of four housing searches (both rental and sales).3 Measured discrimination took the form of less information offered about units, fewer opportunities to view units, and, in the case of home buyers, less assistance with financing and steering into less wealthy communities and neighborhoods with a higher proportion of minority residents.

Generally, the results of the 2000 Housing Discrimination Study indicate that aggregate levels of discrimination against blacks declined modestly in both rentals and sales since 1989 (although levels of racial steering increased). Discrimination against Hispanics in housing sales declined, although Hispanics experienced increasing levels of discrimination in rental markets.

Other research using telephone audits further points to a gender and class dimension of racial discrimination in which black women and/or blacks who speak in a manner associated with a lower-class upbringing suffer greater discrimination than black men and/or those signaling a middle-class upbringing (Massey & Lundy 2001, Purnell et al. 1999). Context also matters in the distribution of discrimination events (Fischer & Massey 2004). Turner & Ross (2005) report that segregation and class steering of blacks occurs most often when either the housing or the office of the real estate agent is in a predominantly white neighborhood. Multi-city audits likewise suggest that the incidence of discrimination varies substantially across metropolitan contexts (Turner et al. 2002).

Moving beyond evidence of exclusionary treatment, Roscigno and colleagues (2007) provide evidence of the various forms of housing discrimination that can extend well beyond the point of purchase (or rental agreement). Examples from a sample of discrimination claims filed with the Civil Rights Commission of Ohio point to the failure of landlords to provide adequate maintenance for housing units, to harassment or physical threats by managers or neighbors, and to the unequal enforcement of a residential association’s rules.

Overall, the available evidence suggests that discrimination in rental and housing markets remains pervasive. Although there are some promising signs of change, the frequency with which racial minorities experience differential treatment in housing searches suggests that discrimination remains an important barrier to residential opportunities. The implications of these trends for other forms of inequality (health, employment, wealth, and inheritance) are discussed below.

Credit Markets

Whites possess roughly 12 times the wealth of African Americans; in fact, whites near the bottom of the income distribution possess more wealth than blacks near the top of the income distribution (Oliver & Shapiro 1997, p. 86). Given that home ownership is one of the most significant sources of wealth accumulation, patterns that affect the value and viability of home ownership will have an impact on wealth disparities overall. Accordingly, the majority of work on discrimination in credit markets focuses on the specific case of mortgages.

Available evidence suggests that blacks and Hispanics face higher rejection rates and less favorable terms in securing mortgages than do whites with similar credit characteristics (Ross & Yinger 1999). Oliver & Shapiro (1997, p. 142) report that blacks pay more than 0.5% higher interest rates on home mortgages than do whites and that this difference persists with controls for income level, date of purchase, and age of buyer.

The most prominent study of the effect of race on rejection rates for mortgage loans is by Munnell et al. (1996), which uses 1991 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data supplemented by data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, including individual applicants’ financial, employment, and property background variables that lenders use to calculate the applicants’ probability of default. Accounting for a range of variables linked to risk of default, cost of default, loan characteristics, and personal and neighborhood characteristics, they find that black and Hispanic applications were 82% more likely to be rejected than were those from similar whites. Critics argued that the study was flawed on the basis of the quality of the data collected (Horne 1994), model specification problems (Glennon & Stengel 1994), omitted variables (Zandi 1993, Liebowitz 1993, Horne 1994, Day & Liebowitz 1996), and endogenous explanatory variables (see Ross & Yinger 1999 for a full explication of the opposition), although rejoinders suggest that the race results are affected little by these modifications (Ross & Yinger 1999; S.L. Ross & G.M.B. Tootell, unpublished manuscript).

Audit research corroborates evidence of mortgage discrimination, finding that black testers are less likely to receive a quote for a loan than are white testers and that they are given less time with the loan officer, are quoted higher interest rates, and are given less coaching and less information than are comparable white applicants (for a review, see Ross & Yinger 2002).

In addition to investigating the race of the applicant, researchers have investigated the extent to which the race of the neighborhood affects lending decisions, otherwise known as redlining. Although redlining is a well-documented factor in the origins of contemporary racial residential segregation (see Massey & Denton 1993), studies after the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which outlawed redlining, and since the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, which made illegal having a smaller pool of mortgage funds available in minority neighborhoods than in similar white neighborhoods, find little evidence of its persistence (Benston & Horsky 1991, Schafer & Ladd 1981, Munnell et al. 1996). This conclusion depends in part, however, on one’s definition of neighborhood-based discrimination. Ross & Yinger (1999) distinguish between process-based and outcome-based redlining, with process-based redlining referring to “whether the probability that a loan application is denied is higher in minority neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods, all else equal” whereas outcome-based redlining refers to smaller amounts of mortgage funding available to minority neighborhoods relative to comparable white neighborhoods. Although evidence on both types of redlining is mixed, several studies indicate that, controlling for demand, poor and/or minority neighborhoods have reduced access to mortgage funding, particularly from mainstream lenders (Phillips-Patrick & Rossi 1996, Siskin & Cupingood 1996; see also Ladd 1998 for methodological issues in measuring redlining).

As a final concern, competition and deregulation of the banking industry have led to greater variability in conditions of loans, prompting the label of the “new inequality” in lending (Williams et al. 2005, Holloway 1998). Rather than focusing on rejection rates, these researchers focus on the terms and conditions of loans, in particular whether a loan is favorable or subprime (Williams et al. 2005, Apgar & Calder 2005, Squires 2003). Immergluck & Wiles (1999) have called this the “dual-mortgage market” in which prime lending is given to higher income and white areas, while subprime and predatory lending is concentrated in lower-income and minority communities (see also Dymski 2006, pp. 232–36). Williams et al. (2005), examining changes between 1993 and 2000, find rapid gains in loans to under-served markets from specialized lenders: 78% of the increase in lending to minority neighborhoods was from subprime lenders, and 72% of the increase in refinance lending to blacks was from subprime lenders. Further, the authors find that “even at the highest income level, blacks are almost three times as likely to get their loans from a subprime lender as are others” (p. 197; see also Calem et al. 2004). Although the disproportionate rise of subprime lending in minority communities is not solely the result of discrimination, some evidence suggests that in certain cases explicit racial targeting may be at work. In two audit studies in which creditworthy testers approached sub-prime lenders, whites were more likely to be referred to the lenders’ prime borrowing division than were similar black applicants (see Williams et al. 2005). Further, subprime lenders quoted the black applicants very high rates, fees, and closing costs that were not correlated with risk (Williams et al. 2005).4

Not all evidence associated with credit market discrimination is bad news. Indeed, between 1989 and 2000 the number of mortgage loans to blacks and Hispanics nationwide increased 60%, compared with 16% for whites, suggesting that some convergence is taking place (Turner et al. 2002). Nevertheless, the evidence indicates that blacks and Hispanics continue to face higher rejection rates and receive less favorable terms than whites of equal credit risk. At the time of this writing, the U.S. housing market is witnessing high rates of loan defaults and foreclosures, resulting in large part from the rise in unregulated subprime lending; the consequences of these trends for deepening racial inequalities have yet to be fully explored.

Consumer Markets

Relative to employment, housing, and credit markets, far less research focuses on discrimination in consumer transactions. Nevertheless, there are some salient disparities. A 2005 report by New Jersey Citizen Action using data from two New Jersey lawsuits found that, between 1993 and 2000, blacks and Hispanics were disproportionately subject to financing markup charges at car dealerships, with minority customers paying an average of $339 more than whites with similar credit histories. Harris et al. (2005) analyze federal court cases of consumer discrimination filed from 1990 to 2002, examining the dimensions of subtle and overt degradation (including extended waiting periods, prepay requirements, and higher prices, as well as increased surveillance and verbal and/or physical attacks) and subtle and overt denial of goods and services. They report cases filed in hotels, restaurants, gas stations, grocery/food stores, clothing stores, department stores, home improvement stores, and office equipment stores filed by members of many racial minority groups. Likewise, Feagin & Sikes (1994) document the myriad circumstances in which their middle-class African American respondents report experiences of discrimination, ranging from poor service in restaurants to heightened surveillance in department stores to outright harassment in public accommodations. Together, these studies suggest that discrimination in consumer markets continues to impose both psychic and financial costs on minority consumers.

Much of the empirical work on discrimination in consumer markets has focused specifically on the case of car purchases, which, aside from housing, represent one of the most significant forms of personal consumption expenditures (Council of Economic Advisers 1997, table B-14).5Ayres & Siegelman (1995) conducted an audit study in Chicago in which testers posed as customers seeking to purchase a new car, approaching dealers with identical rehearsed bargaining strategies. The results show that dealers were less flexible in their negotiations with blacks, resulting in a significant disparity in the ultimate distribution of prices (relative to white men, black men and black women paid on average $1132 and $446 more, respectively) (Ayres 1995). Although analyses using microdata have come to more mixed conclusions about the relevance of race in actual car purchase prices (see Goldberg 1996, Morton et al. 2003), the audit evidence suggests that simply equating information, strategy, and credit background is insufficient to eliminate the effects of race on a customer’s bargaining position.

Although much of the literature on consumer discrimination focuses on the race of the individual customer, a few studies have also investigated the effects of community characteristics on the pricing of goods and services. Graddy (1997), for example, investigated discrimination in pricing among fast food chains on the basis of the race and income characteristics of a local area. Using information about prices from over 400 fast food restaurants, matched with 1990 census data for zip code–level income, race, crime, and population density, and controlling for a host of neighborhood, business, and state-level characteristics, the author finds that a 50% increase in a zip code’s percent black is associated with a 5% increase in the price of a meal, corresponding to roughly 15 cents per meal. The study is a useful example of how discrimination, especially in consumer markets, might be examined as a function of segregated residential patterns, suggesting a more contextualized approach to studying discrimination (see also Moore & Roux 2006).

Evidence of consumer discrimination points to a range of situations in which minority customers receive poorer service or pay more than their white counterparts. Although few individual incidents represent debilitating experiences in and of themselves, the accumulation of such experiences over a lifetime may represent an important source of chronic stress (Kessler et al. 1990) or distrust of mainstream institutions (Feagin & Sikes 1994, Bobo & Thompson 2006). Indeed, the cumulative costs of racial discrimination are likely to be far higher than any single study can document.


Measuring the prevalence of discrimination is difficult; identifying its causes is far more so. Patterns of discrimination can be shaped by influences at many different levels, and the specific mechanisms at work are often difficult to observe. Following Reskin (2003), in this discussion we consider influences that operate at the individual, organizational, and societal level. Each level of analysis contains its own range of dynamics that may instigate or mediate expressions of discrimination. Although by no means an exhaustive catalog, this discussion provides some insight into the range of factors that may underlie various forms of discriminatory behavior.

Intrapsychic Factors

Much of the theoretical work on discrimination aims to understand what motivates actors to discriminate along racial lines. Although internal motivations are difficult to measure empirically (Reskin 2003), their relevance to the understanding and conceptualization of discrimination has been central (Quillian 2006). Classical works in this area emphasized the role of prejudice or racial animus as key underpinnings of discrimination, with feelings and beliefs about the inferiority or undesirability of certain racial groups associated with subsequent disadvantaging behavior (Allport 1954, Pettigrew 1982). Conceptualizations of prejudice range from individual-level factors, such as an authoritarian personality (Adorno et al. 1950) or a “taste for discrimination” (Becker 1957), to more instrumental concerns over group competition and status closure (Blumer 1958, Blalock 1956, Jackman 1994, Tilly 1998).

Scholars have characterized changes in the nature of racial prejudice over the past 50 years—as expressed through racial attitudes— as shifting toward the endorsement of equal treatment by race and a repudiation of overt forms of prejudice and discrimination (Schuman et al. 2001). Some, however, question the degree to which these visible changes reflect the true underlying sentiments of white Americans or rather a more superficial commitment to racial equality. Theories of “symbolic racism” (Kinder & Sears 1981), “modern racism” (McConahay 1986), and “laissez-faire racism” (Bobo et al. 1997), for example, each point to the disconnect between attitudes of principle (e.g., racial equality as an ideal) and policy attitudes (e.g., government action to achieve those ideals) as indicative of limited change in underlying racial attitudes (but see Sniderman et al. 1991 for a countervailing view). These new formulations of prejudice include a blending of negative affect and beliefs about members of certain groups with more abstract political ideologies that reinforce the status quo.

Whereas sociological research on prejudice is based largely on explicit attitudes measured through large-scale surveys, psychologists have increasingly turned to measures of implicit prejudice, or forms of racial bias that operate without conscious awareness yet can influence cognition, affect, and behavior (Greenwald & Banaji 1995, Fazio & Olson 2003). Experiments in which subjects are unconsciously primed with words or images associated with African Americans reveal strong negative racial associations, even among those who consciously repudiate prejudicial beliefs. Whereas the links between explicit and implicit forms of prejudice and between implicit prejudice and behavior remain less well understood, the presence of widespread unconscious racial biases has been firmly established across a multitude of contexts (see Lane et al. 2007).

Parallel to the study of racial prejudice (the more affective component of racial attitudes) is a rich history of research on racial stereotypes (a more cognitive component). Whereas many general racial attitudes have shifted toward more egalitarian beliefs, the content and valence of racial stereotypes appears to have changed little over time (Devine & Elliot 1995, Lane et al. 2007).6 White Americans continue to associate African Americans with characteristics such as lazy, violence-prone, and welfare-dependent and Hispanics with characteristics such as poor, unintelligent, and unpatriotic (Smith 1991, Bobo & Kluegel 1997). Culturally embedded stereotypes about racial differences are reflected in both conscious and unconscious evaluations (Greenwald & Banaji 1995) and may set the stage for various forms of discriminatory treatment (Farley et al. 1994).

Researchers differ in perspectives regarding the cognitive utility and accuracy of stereotypes. Whereas many social psychologists view stereotypes as “faulty or inflexible generalization[s]” (Allport 1954), economic theories of statistical discrimination emphasize the cognitive utility of group estimates as a means of dealing with the problems of uncertainty (Phelps 1972, Arrow 1972). Group-level estimates of difficult-to-observe characteristics (such as average productivity levels or risk of loan default) may provide useful information in the screening of individual applicants. Although some important research questions the accuracy of group-level estimates (e.g., Bielby & Baron 1986), the mechanism proposed in models of statistical discrimination—rational actors operating under conditions of uncertainty—differ substantially from those based on racial prejudice. Indeed, much of the literature across the various domains discussed above attempts to discern whether discrimination stems primarily from racial animus or from these more instrumental adaptations to information shortages (e.g., Ayres & Siegelman 1995).

The various factors discussed here, including prejudice, group competition, modern racism, stereotypes, and statistical discrimination, represent just a few of the varied intrapsychic influences that may affect discrimination. It is important to emphasize, however, that the behavioral manifestation of discrimination does not allow one readily to assume any particular underlying intrapsychic motivation, just as a lack of discrimination does not presume the absence of prejudice (see Merton 1970). Continued efforts to measure the processes by which internal states translate into discriminatory action [or what Reskin (2003) calls a shift from “motives” to “mechanisms”] will help to illuminate the underlying causes of contemporary racial discrimination.

Organizational Factors

Beyond the range of interpersonal and intrapsychic factors that may influence discrimination, a large body of work directs our attention toward the organizational contexts in which individual actors operate. Baron & Bielby’s (1980) classic article established a central role for organizations in stratification research, arguing for a framework that links “the ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ dimensions of work organization and inequality” (p. 738). More recent theoretical and empirical advances in the field of discrimination have maintained a strong interest in the role of organizations as a key structural context shaping inequality.

Tilly’s (1998) analysis of durable inequality emphasizes the importance of organizational dynamics in creating and maintaining group boundaries. “Durable inequality arises because people who control access to value-producing resources solve pressing organizational problems by means of categorical distinctions” (p. 8). Although actors “rarely set out to manufacture inequality as such,” their efforts to secure access to valued resources by distinguishing between insiders and outsiders, ensuring solidarity and loyalty, and monopolizing important knowledge often make use of (and thereby reinforce the salience of) established categories in the service of facilitating organizational goals (p. 11). Tilly’s analysis places organizational structure at the center stage, arguing that “the reduction or intensification of racist, sexist, or xenophobic attitudes will have relatively little impact on durable inequality, whereas the introduction of new organizational forms … will have great impact” (p. 15). In line with these arguments, an important line of sociological research has sought to map the dimensions of organizational structures that may attenuate or exacerbate the use of categorical distinctions and, correspondingly, the incidence of discrimination (Vallas 2003).

Much of the empirical literature exploring organizational mechanisms of discrimination has focused specifically on how organizational practices mediate the cognitive biases and stereotypes of actors (Baron & Pfeffer 1994). Indeed, Reskin (2000) argues that “the proximate cause of most discrimination is whether and how personnel practices in work organizations constrain the biasing effects of… automatic cognitive processes” (p. 320). Petersen & Saporta (2004) take a bolder stance, starting with the assumption that “discrimination is widespread, and employers discriminate if they can get away with it” (p. 856). Rather than asking why employers discriminate, then, these authors look to the “opportunity structure for discrimination” (in their case, features of job ladders within organizations) that allow or inhibit the expression of discriminatory tendencies (pp. 855–56).

In the following discussion, we briefly consider several important themes relevant to the literature on organizational mechanisms of discrimination. In particular, we examine how organizational structure and practices influence the cognitive and social psychological processes of decision makers (the role of formalized organizational procedures and diversity initiatives), how organizational practices create disparate outcomes that may be independent of decision makers (the role of networks), and how organizations respond to their broader environment.

The role of formalization

One important debate in this literature focuses on the degree to which formalized organizational procedures can mitigate discrimination by limiting individual discretion. The case of the military (Moskos & Butler 1996), for example, and the public sector more generally (DiPrete & Soule 1986, Moulton 1990) provide examples in which highly rationalized systems of hiring, promotion, and remuneration are associated with an increasing representation of minorities, greater racial diversity in positions of authority, and a smaller racial wage gap. Likewise, in the private sector, formal and systematic protocols for personnel management decisions are associated with increases in the representation of racial minorities (Reskin et al. 1999, Szafran 1982, Mittman 1992), and the use of concrete performance indicators and formalized evaluation systems has been associated with reductions in racial bias in performance evaluations (Krieger 1995, Reskin 2000).

Individual discretion has been associated with the incidence of discrimination in credit markets as well. For example, Squires (1994) finds that credit history irregularities on policy applications were often selectively overlooked in the case of white applicants. Conversely, Gates et al. (2002) report that the use of automated underwriting systems (removing lender discretion) was associated with a nearly 30% increase in the approval rate for minority and low-income clients and at the same time more accurately predicted default than traditional methods. These findings suggest that formalized procedures can help to reduce racial bias in ways that are consistent with goals of organizational efficiency.

At the same time, increased bureaucratization does not necessarily mitigate discriminatory effects. According to Bielby (2000), rules and procedures are themselves subject to the influence of groups inside and outside the organization who “mobilize resources in a way that advances their interests,” with competition between groups potentially undermining the neutrality of bureaucratic procedures (Bielby 2000, p. 123; see also Ross & Yinger 2002, Acker 1989). Additionally, there is evidence that formalized criteria are often selectively enforced, with greater flexibility or leeway applied in the case of majority groups (Wilson et al. 1999, Squires 1994). Likewise, indications of racial bias in performance evaluations cast doubt on the degree to which even formalized assessments of work quality can escape the influence of race (McKay & McDaniel 2006). The degree to which formalization can reduce or eliminate discrimination, thus, remains open to debate, with effects depending on the specific context of implementation.

Diversity initiatives

Since the passage of Title VII in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, most large organizations have taken active steps to signal compliance with antidiscrimination laws. Deliberate organizational efforts to address issues of discrimination (or the perception thereof), either in disparate treatment or disparate impact, often are labeled as diversity initiatives, and these practices are widespread. Winterle (1992) cites a 1991 survey of organizations demonstrating that roughly two-thirds provided diversity training for managers, half provided a statement on diversity from top management, and roughly one-third provided diversity training for employees and/or had a diversity task force (see also Wheeler 1995, Edelman et al. 2001). Not all such initiatives, however, have any proven relationship to actual diversity outcomes. Kalev et al. (2006) examine the efficacy of active organizational efforts to promote diversity, focusing specifically on three of the most common organizational practices: the implementation of organizational accountability by creating new positions or taskforces designed specifically to address diversity issues, managerial bias training, and mentoring and network practices. They find that practices designed to increase organizational authority and accountability are the most effective in increasing the number of women and minorities in management positions. Networking and mentoring programs appear somewhat useful, whereas programs focused on reducing bias (e.g., diversity training) have little effect. These results suggest that organizational initiatives to reduce racial disparities can be effective, but primarily when implemented with concrete goals to which organizational leadership is held accountable.7

Taking a broader look at race-targeted employment policies, Holzer & Neumark (2000) investigate the effects of affirmative action on the recruitment and employment of minorities and women. They find that affirmative action is associated with increases in the number of recruitment and screening practices used by employers, increases in the number of minority applicants and employees, and increases in employers’ tendencies to provide training and formal evaluations of employees. Although the use of affirmative action in hiring is associated with somewhat weaker credentials among minority hires, actual job performance appears unaffected.

The role of networks

In addition to examining how organizational policies and practices shape the behavior of decision makers and gatekeepers, researchers must acknowledge that some mechanisms relevant to the perpetuation of categorical inequality might operate independently of the actions of individuals. Indeed, many organizational policies or procedures can impose disparate impact along racial lines with little direct influence from individual decision makers. The case of networks represents one important example. The role of networks in hiring practices is extremely well documented, with networks generally viewed as an efficient strategy for matching workers to employers with advantages for both job seekers (e.g., Granovetter 1995) and employers (e.g., Fernandez et al. 2000). At the same time, given high levels of social segregation (e.g., McPherson et al. 2001), the use of referrals is likely to reproduce the existing racial composition of the company and to exclude members of those groups not already well represented (Braddock & McPartland 1987). In an analysis of noncollege jobs, controlling for spatial segregation, occupational segregation, city, and firm size, Mouw (2002) finds that the use of employee referrals in predominantly white firms reduces the probability of a black hire by nearly 75% relative to the use of newspaper ads.8Petersen et al. (2000) using data on a high-technology organization over a 10-year period find that race differences in hiring are eliminated when the method of referral is considered, suggesting that the impact of social networks on hiring outcomes is strong and may be more important than any direct action taken by organization members. Irrespective of an employer’s personal racial attitudes, the use of employee referrals is likely to reproduce the existing racial composition of an organization, restricting valuable employment opportunities from excluded groups (see also Royster 2003, Waldinger & Lichter 2003).

Networks and network composition may matter not only for the purposes of obtaining information and referrals for jobs, but also within jobs for the purposes of informal mentoring, contacts, and relevant information important to advancement (Ibarra 1993, Grodsky & Pager 2001). Mechanisms of homosocial reproduction, or informal preferences for members of one’s own group, can lead to network configurations of informal mentorship and sponsorship that contribute to the preservation of existing status hierarchies (Kanter 1977; see also Elliot & Smith 2001, Sturm 2001). The wide-ranging economic consequences that follow from segregated social networks corresponds to what Loury (2001, p. 452) refers to as the move from “discrimination in contract” to “discrimination in contact.” According to Loury, whereas earlier forms of discrimination primarily reflected explicit differences in the treatment of racial groups, contemporary forms of discrimination are more likely to be perpetuated through informal networks of opportunity that, though ostensibly race-neutral, systematically disadvantage members of historically excluded groups.

Organizations in context

Much of the research discussed above considers the organization as a context in which decisions and procedures that affect discriminatory treatment are shaped. But organizations themselves are likewise situated within a larger context, with prevailing economic, legal, and social environments conditioning organizational responses (Reskin 2003). When labor markets expand or contract, organizations shift their recruitment and termination/retention strategies in ways that adapt to these broader forces (e.g., Freeman & Rodgers 1999). When antidiscrimination laws are passed or amended, organizations respond in ways that signal compliance (Dobbin et al. 1993), with the impact of these measures varying according to shifting levels or strategies of government enforcement (Kalev & Dobbin 2006, Leonard 1985). At the same time, organizations are not merely passive recipients of the larger economic and legal context. In the case of the legal environment, for example, organizations play an active role in interpreting and shaping the ways that laws are translated into practice. Edelman (1992), Dobbin et al. (1993), and Dobbin & Sutton (1998) have each demonstrated ways in which the U.S. federal government’s lack of clear guidance regarding compliance with antidiscrimination laws and regulations allowed organizations to establish and legitimate their own compliance measures. According to Edelman (1992, p. 1542), “organizations do not simply ignore or circumvent weak law, but rather construct compliance in a way that, at least in part, fits their interests.” Organizational actors, then, can wind up playing the dual role of both defining and demonstrating compliance, with important implications for the nature, strength, and impact of antidiscrimination laws and likewise for the patterns of discrimination that emerge in these contexts.

Organizations occupy a unique position with respect to shaping patterns of discrimination. They mediate both the cognitive and attitudinal biases of actors within the organization as well as the influence of broader economic and legal pressures applied from beyond. Recognizing the specific features of organizational action that affect patterns of discrimination represents one of the most important contributions of sociological research in this area. To date, the vast majority of organizational research has focused on the context of labor markets; investigations of organizational functioning in other domains (e.g., real estate, retail sales, lending institutions) would do much to further our understanding of how collective policies and practices shape the expression of discrimination.

Structural Factors

The majority of research on discrimination focuses on dynamics between individuals or small groups. It is easiest to conceptualize discrimination in terms of the actions of specific individuals, with the attitudes, prejudices, and biases of majority group members shaping actions toward minority group members. And yet, it is important to recognize that each of these decisions takes place within a broader social context. Members of racial minority groups may be systematically disadvantaged not only by the willful acts of particular individuals, but because the prevailing system of opportunities and constraints favors the success of one group over another. In addition to the organizational factors discussed above, broader structural features of a society can contribute to unequal outcomes through the ordinary functioning of its cultural, economic, and political systems (see also National Research Council 2004, chapter 11). The term structural discrimination has been used loosely in the literature, along with concepts such as institutional discrimination and structural or institutional racism, to refer to the range of policies and practices that contribute to the systematic disadvantage of members of certain groups. In the following discussion, we consider three distinct conceptualizations of structural discrimination, each of which draws our attention to the broader, largely invisible contexts in which group-based inequalities may be structured and reproduced.

A legacy of historical discrimination

This first conceptualization of structural discrimination stands furthest from conventional definitions of discrimination as an active and ongoing form of racial bias. By focusing on the legacies of past discrimination, this emphasis remains agnostic about the relevance of contemporary forms of discrimination that may further heighten or exacerbate existing inequalities. And yet, the emphasis on structural discrimination—as opposed to just inequality— directs our attention to the array of discriminatory actions that brought about present day inequalities. The origins of contemporary racial wealth disparities, for example, have well-established links to historical practices of redlining, housing covenants, racially targeted federal housing policies, and other forms of active discrimination within housing and lending markets (e.g., Massey & Denton 1993). Setting aside evidence of continuing discrimination in each of these domains, these historical practices themselves are sufficient to maintain extraordinarily high levels of wealth inequality through the intergenerational transition of advantage (the ability to invest in good neighborhoods, good schools, college, housing assistance for adult children, etc.) (Oliver & Shapiro 1997). According to Conley (1999), even if we were to eliminate all contemporary forms of discrimination, huge racial wealth disparities would persist, which in turn underlie racial inequalities in schooling, employment, and other social domains (see also Lieberson & Fuguitt 1967). Recent work based on formal modeling suggests that the effects of past discrimination, particularly as mediated by ongoing forms of social segregation, are likely to persist well into the future, even in the absence of ongoing discrimination (see Bowles et al. 2007, Lundberg & Startz 1998).

These historical sources of discrimination may become further relevant, not only in their perpetuation of present-day inequalities, but also through their reinforcement of contemporary forms of stereotypes and discrimination. As in Myrdal’s (1944) “principle of cumulation,” structural disadvantages (e.g., poverty, joblessness, crime) come to be seen as cause, rather than consequence, of persistent racial inequality, justifying and reinforcing negative racial stereotypes (pp. 75–78). Bobo et al. (1997, p. 23) argue that “sharp black-white economic inequality and residential segregation…provide the kernel of truth needed to regularly breathe new life into old stereotypes about putative black proclivities toward involvement in crime, violence, and welfare dependency.” The perpetuation of racial inequality through structural and institutional channels can thus be conducive to reinforcing negative racial stereotypes and shifting blame toward minorities for their own disadvantage (see also Sunstein 1991, p. 32; Fiske et al. 2002).

Contemporary state policies and practices

This second conceptualization of structural discrimination accords more with conventional understandings of the term, placing its emphasis on those contemporary policies and practices that systematically disadvantage certain groups. Paradigmatic cases of structural discrimination include the caste system in India, South Africa under apartheid, or the United States during Jim Crow—each of these representing societies in which the laws and cultural institutions manufactured and enforced systematic inequalities based on group membership. Although the vestiges of Jim Crow have long since disappeared in the contemporary United States, there remain features of American society that may contribute to persistent forms of structural discrimination (see Massey 2007, Feagin 2006).

One example is the provision of public education in the United States. According to Orfield & Lee (2005, p. 18), more than 60% of black and Latino students attend high poverty schools, compared with 30% of Asians and 18% of whites. In addition to funding disparities across these schools, based on local property taxes, the broader resources of schools in poor neighborhoods are substantially limited: Teachers in poor and minority schools are likely to have less experience, shorter tenure, and emergency credentials rather than official teaching certifications (Orfield & Lee 2005).At the same time, schools in high poverty neighborhoods are faced with a greater incidence of social problems, including teen pregnancy, gang involvement, and unstable households (Massey & Denton 1993). With fewer resources, these schools are expected to manage a wider array of student needs. The resulting lower quality of education common in poor and minority school districts places these students at a disadvantage in competing for future opportunities (Massey 2006).

A second relevant example comes from the domain of criminal justice policy. Although evidence of racial discrimination at selective decision points in the criminal justice system is weak (Sampson & Lauritsen 1997), the unprecedented growth of the criminal justice system over the past 30 years has had a vastly disproportionate effect on African Americans.9 Currently, nearly one out of three young black men will spend time in prison during his lifetime, a figure that rises to nearly 60% among young black high school dropouts (Bonczar & Beck 1997, Pettit & Western 2004). Given the wide array of outcomes negatively affected by incarceration—including family formation, housing, employment, political participation, and health—decisions about crime policy, even when race-neutral in content, represent a critical contemporary source of racial disadvantage (Pattillo et al. 2003, Pager 2007b, Manza & Uggen 2006).

These examples point to contexts in which ostensibly race-neutral policies can structure and reinforce existing social inequalities. According to Omi & Winant (1994), “through policies which are explicitly or implicitly racial, state institutions organize and enforce the racial politics of everyday life. For example, they enforce racial (non)discrimination policies, which they administer, arbitrate, and encode in law. They organize racial identities by means of education, family law, and the procedures for punishment, treatment, and surveillance of the criminal, deviant and ill” (p. 83). Even without any willful intent, policies can play an active role in designating the beneficiaries and victims of a particular system of resource allocation, with important implications for enduring racial inequalities.

Accumulation of disadvantage

This third category of structural discrimination draws our attention to how the effects of discrimination in one domain or at one point in time may have consequences for a broader range of outcomes. Through spillover effects across domains, processes of cumulative (dis)advantage across the life course, and feedback effects, the effects of discrimination can intensify and, in some cases, become self-sustaining.

Although traditional measures of discrimination focus on individual decision points (e.g., the decision to hire, to rent, to offer a loan), the effects of these decisions may extend into other relevant domains. Discrimination in credit markets, for example, contributes to higher rates of loan default, with negative implications for minority entrepreneurship, home ownership, and wealth accumulation (Oliver & Shapiro 1997). Discrimination in housing markets contributes to residential segregation, which is associated with concentrated disadvantage (Massey & Denton 1993), poor health outcomes (Williams 2004), and limited educational and employment opportunities (Massey & Fischer 2006, Fernandez & Su 2004

This article is about the sociologist. For the economist, see Robert C. Merton.

Robert K. Merton
BornMeyer Robert Schkolnick
(1910-07-04)July 4, 1910
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedFebruary 23, 2003(2003-02-23) (aged 92)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Alma materHarvard University (MA) (PhD)
Temple University (BA)
Known forSelf-fulfilling prophecy
Self-defeating prophecy
Merton's strain theory of deviance
Role model
Reference group
Mertonian norms
Merton thesis
Spouse(s)Harriet Zuckerman, Suzanne Carhart
ChildrenVanessa Merton, Robert C. Merton, Stephanie Merton Tombrello
AwardsJohn Desmond Bernal Prize(1982)
National Medal of Science(1994)

Robert King Merton (born Meyer Robert Schkolnick; 4 July 1910 – 23 February 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 he was awarded the National Medal of Science for his contributions to the field and for having founded the sociology of science.[1][2] He is considered a founding father of modern sociology while also gaining a status for the work he contributed to criminology.

Merton developed notable concepts such as "unintended consequences", the "reference group", and "role strain", but is perhaps best known for the terms "role model" and "self-fulfilling prophecy".[3] A central element of modern sociological, political, and economic theory, the "self-fulfilling prophecy" is a process whereby a belief or expectation, correct or incorrect, affects the outcome of a situation or the way a person or group will behave.[4]

Merton's work on the "role model" first appeared in a study on the socialization of medical students at Columbia University. The term grew from his theory of the reference group, the group to which individuals compare themselves but to which they do not necessarily belong. Social roles were central to 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.[5]


Early life[edit]

Robert K. Merton was born on 4 July 1910 in Philadelphia as Meyer Robert Schkolnick[6] into a family of Yiddish-speaking Russian Jews who 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 who had officially been registered at his United States port of entry as "Harrie Skolnick".[7] Merton's family lived in straitened circumstances after his father's uninsured dairy-product shop in South Philadelphia burned down. The father later became a carpenter's assistant to support the family. Even though Merton grew up fairly poor, however, he believed that he had been afforded many opportunities.[8]

As a student at South Philadelphia High School, he was a frequent visitor to nearby cultural and educational venues, including the Andrew Carnegie Library, the Academy of Music, the Central Library, and the Museum of Arts. He adopted the name Robert K. Merton initially as a stage name for his magic performances.[7] 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."[9]

Young Merton developed a strong interest in magic, heavily influenced by his sister's boyfriend. For his magic acts he initially chose the stage name "Merlin", but he eventually settled on the surname "Merton" in order to further "Americanize" his immigrant-family name. He picked the given name "Robert" in honor of the 19th-century French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, widely considered the father of modern-style conjuring. Thus his stage name became "Robert Merton", and he kept it as his personal name on receiving a scholarship to Temple University.[10]

Student life[edit]

He started his sociological career under the guidance of George E. Simpson at Philadelphia's Temple University (1927–31). Merton's work as Simpson's research assistant on a project dealing with race and media introduced Merton to sociology. Under Simpson's leadership, Merton attended an American Sociological Association annual meeting where he met Pitrim A. Sorokin, the founding chair of the Harvard University Sociology Department. Merton applied to Harvard and went to work as a research assistant to Sorokin (1931–36).[11]

Many had doubted that Merton would be accepted into Harvard after graduating from Temple, but he quickly defied the odds and by his second year he had begun publishing with Sorokin. By 1934 he had even begun publishing articles of his own: "Recent French Sociology", "The Course of Arabian Intellectual Development, 700-1300 A.D.", "Fluctuations in the Rate of Industrial Invention", and "Science and Military Technique". After completing these, Merton went on to graduate from Harvard with an M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology. By the end of his student career in 1938, he had already begun to embark on works that made him renowned in the sociological field, publishing his first major study, Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth-Century England, which helped create the sociology of science.[10] The Merton Thesis, proposes similar to Max Weber's famous claim on the link between Protestant ethic and the capitalist economy, a positive correlation between the rise of ProtestantPietism, Puritanism and early experimental science.[12]

Teaching career[edit]

He taught at Harvard until 1938, when he became professor and chairman of the Department of Sociology at Tulane University. In 1941 he joined the Columbia University faculty, where he spent the vast majority of his teaching career. Over his five decades at Columbia University he held numerous prestigious titles. He was associate director of the university's Bureau of Applied Social Research from 1942 to 1971, and named Giddings Professor of Sociology in 1963. He was also named to the university's highest academic rank, University Professor, in 1974 and became a Special Service Professor, a title reserved by the trustees for emeritus faculty who "render special services to the University", upon his retirement in 1979. He was an adjunct faculty member at Rockefeller University and was also the first Foundation Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation.[13] He withdrew from teaching in 1984. In recognition of his lasting contributions to scholarship and the university, Columbia established the Robert K. Merton Professorship in the Social Sciences in 1990.[13]

Career achievements[edit]

Over his career, Merton published some 50 papers in the sociology of science. However, that was not the only field to which he contributed his ideas and theories. Among many other fields and topics were deviance theory, organizations, and middle-range theory.[14]

Merton received many national and international honors for his research. He was one of the first sociologists elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the first American sociologist to be elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. He was also a member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which awarded him its Parsons Prize, the National Academy of Education and Academica Europaea.[13] Merton is also credited as the creator of the focus group research method.[6]

He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1962 and was the first sociologist to be named a MacArthur Fellow (1983–88). More than twenty universities awarded him honorary degrees, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Chicago, and abroad, the Universities of Leyden, Wales, Oslo and Kraków, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Oxford.[13]

In 1994, Merton was awarded the US National Medal of Science, for "founding the sociology of science and for his pioneering contributions to the study of social life, especially the self-fulfilling prophecy and the unintended consequences of social action".[15] He was the first sociologist to receive the prize.[13]

Personal life[edit]

In 1934, Merton married Suzanne Carhart, with whom he had one son, Robert C. Merton, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in economics, and two daughters, Stephanie Merton Tombrello and Vanessa Merton, a professor of law at Pace University School of Law. Merton and Carhart separated in 1968 and she died in 1992. Merton married his fellow sociologist Harriet Zuckerman in 1993. She also was his collaborator. On February 23, 2003, Merton died at the age of 92 in New York. At the time of his death, he resided in Manhattan. He is survived by his wife, three children, nine grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.[16]


Theories of the middle range[edit]

Main article: Middle range theory (sociology)

Merton's work is often compared to that of Talcott Parsons. Merton enrolled in Parsons' theory course while at Harvard, and he admired Parsons' work because it introduced him to European methods of theory, while also broadening his own idea and conclusions about sociology. However, unlike Parsons, who emphasized the necessity for social science to establish a general foundation, Merton preferred more limited, middle-range theories. Merton later explained in his writings, "although much impressed by Parsons as a master-builder of sociological theory, I found myself departing from his mode of theorizing (as well as his mode of exposition)."[10]

Merton himself fashioned his theory very similarly to that of Emile Durkheim in his work Suicide or Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Merton believed that middle range theories bypassed the failures of larger theories because they are too distant from observing social behavior in a particular social setting.[17] According to Merton, middle-range theory starts its theorizing with clearly defined aspects of social phenomena, rather than with broad, abstract entities such as society as a whole. Theories of the middle range should be firmly supported by empirical data. These theories must be constructed with observed data in order to create theoretical problems and to be incorporated in proposals that allow empirical testing.[18]Middle-range theories, applicable to limited ranges of data, transcend sheer description of social phenomena and fill in the blanks between raw empiricism and grand or all-inclusive theory.

Strain Theory[edit]

Merton argued that general strain theory is developed by this blockage in an individual’s life which doesn’t allow them to achieve their goal, essentially leading to deviant behaviour. Merton uses the progress of achieving the ‘American Dream’ as an example. If an individual can’t achieve this, it can prove frustrating for the individual and may lead to breaking free into illegal escape routes or anger-based delinquency. This theory has many criticisms as it doesn’t factor in an individual’s social class as someone as a lower socio-economic level might not be striving to achieving the ‘American Dream’ meaning they don’t need to carry out illegal acts. This also creates the idea that only people that fall under the bracket of the lower socio-economic are the only ones that will become a criminal and people that have achieved the ‘American Dream’ won’t which is simply incorrect.[19]

Clarifying functional analysis[edit]

Merton argues that the central orientation of functionalism is in interpreting data by their consequences for larger structures in which they are implicated. Like Durkheim and Parsons he analyzes society with reference to whether cultural and social structures are well or badly integrated. Merton is also interested in the persistence of societies and defines functions that make for the adaptation of a given social system. He believed that the way these early functionalists put emphasis [vice "emphasize"] on functions of one social structure or institution for another, created bias when focusing only on adaptation or adjustment because they would always have a positive consequence.[20] Finally, Merton thinks that shared values are central in explaining how societies and institutions work, however he disagrees with Parsons on some issues.

According to Merton's perception of "functionalism", all standardized social and cultural beliefs and practices are functional for both society as a whole as well as individuals in society. This outlook maintains that various parts of social systems must show a high level of integration, but Merton argues that a generalization like this cannot be extended to larger, more complex societies. The second claim has to do with universal functionalism. This claim argues that all standardized social and cultural structures and forms have a positive function. Merton argues that this is a contradiction to what is seen in the real world; not every structure, idea, belief, etc., has positive functions. The third claim of functional analysis that Merton argues with is that of indispensability. This claim states that the standardized parts of society have positive functions, and also represent indispensable parts of the working whole, which implies that structures and functions are functionally necessary for society. Here, Merton argues, people must be willing to admit that there exist various structural and functional alternatives within society.[20]

His belief in empirical testing led to the development of his "paradigm" of functional analysis.[20] According to Merton, "paradigm", refers to "exemplars of codified basic and often tacit assumptions, problem sets, key concepts, logic of procedure, and selectively accumulated knowledge that guide [theoretical and empirical] inquiry in all scientific fields".[5] In terms of structural functionalism, Merton felt that the focus should be on social functions rather than on individual motives.[20]


Merton emphasizes the existence of dysfunctions. Merton elaborates on his three main issues or flaws with functionalism, which he labels postulates. His identified faults are distinguished as: the postulate of the functional unity of society, the postulate of universal functionalism, and the postulate of indispensability.

The postulate of the functional unity of society refers to the misunderstanding that societies are functional and harmonious unions. Merton points out that not all societies are happy and well-integrated, where the people function well together and all involved prosper. Merton cites examples, such as civil wars, African-Americans in the 1950s and South African blacks during the apartheid regime as instances where societies were not necessarily functional for all people.

The postulate of universal functionalism disproves the idea that not all ideals work for everyone in a society. Merton believes that some things may have consequences that are generally dysfunctional or which are dysfunctional for some and functional for others. For example, poverty may benefit the rich because they are allowed to maintain more of their wealth, but it certainly does not benefit the poor who struggle. On this point he approaches conflict theory, although he does believe that institutions and values can be functional for society as a whole. Merton states that only by recognizing the dysfunctional aspects of institutions, can we explain the development and persistence of alternatives. Merton's concept of dysfunctions is also central to his argument that functionalism is not essentially conservative.

Lastly, the postulate of indispensability challenges the social function for customs, ideals, or institutions as a whole. Merton raises the question and doubt of whether every social institution performs a specific function. Merton believes that several institutions can provide the same function or none at all, so it is impossible to decipher what functions are vital or not to a society.[17]

In Merton's writing on dysfunctions, he highlighted problems that tend to keep social systems from meeting all of their functional requirements. In doing this, he was able to point out the details as well as the contradictions of the overall concept. One group's function could serve as another group's dysfunction, and a general incident could turn out to be both functional and dysfunctional for the same group. Merton clarified the concept by stating that a certain degree of social cohesion eases the productivity of a group and is therefore functional, but it can become dysfunctional when it surpasses a certain threshold, because then the members of the group may become equally indulgent and fail to hold each other to high performance standards.[5]

In order to help people determine whether positive functions outweigh dysfunctions, and vice versa, Merton developed the concept of net balance. Because the issues are complex and based on a lot of subjective judgement, they cannot be calculated and weighed easily. Therefore, positive functions and dysfunctions cannot be simply added up and objectively determine which outweighs the other. In order to deal with these issues, Merton believed that there must be levels of functional analysis. Rather than solely focusing on the analysis of society as a whole, Merton argued that analysis could and should also be done on an organization, institution or group.[20]

Unanticipated consequences and manifest and latent functions[edit]

Further information: Manifest and latent functions and dysfunctions

Some of the crucial innovations that Merton made to sociology include the description of the unanticipated consequences of social action, of latent functions vs. manifest functions, and, as previously mentioned, of dysfunctions.[5] According to Merton, unanticipated consequences are actions that have both intended and unintended consequences. Everyone is aware of the intended consequences, but the unintended are more difficult to recognize, and therefore, sociological analysis is required to uncover what they may be.[20] In his 1936 essay, "The Unanticipated Consequences of Social Action", Merton uncovered the wide field of human activity where things do not go as planned, and paradoxes and strange outcomes are seen. One of these outcomes is the "self-defeating prophecy", which through the very fact of its being publicized, is actually wrong. Merton was able to illustrate this by referencing Karl Marx's prediction that as societies become more modern, the wealth will be concentrated amongst fewer people, and the majority of society would suffer from poverty and misery. This prediction helped to stimulate the socialist movement, which in some countries slowed the development that Marx had predicted.[5] The opposite of the "self-defeating prophecy" then, is the "self-fulfilling prophecy", when an originally unfounded prophecy turns out to be correct because it is believed and acted upon.[5]

Manifest functions are the consequences that people observe or expect, or what is intended; latent functions are those that are neither recognized nor intended. In distinguishing between manifest and latent functions, Merton argued that one must dig to discover latent functions. His example from his 1949 piece, "Manifest and Latent Functions", was an analysis of political machines. Merton began by describing the negative consequences of political machines, and then changed the angle and demonstrated how the people in charge of the machines, acting in their own interest, were meeting the social needs not met by government institutions.[5]

Merton made it very clear however, that unanticipated consequences and latent functions are not the same. Latent functions are one type of unanticipated consequences; functional for the designated system. According to Merton, there are also two other types of unanticipated consequences: "those that are dysfunctional for a designated system, and these comprise the latent dysfunctions, and those which are irrelevant to the system which they affect neither functionally or dysfunctionally ... non-functional consequences".[20]

Merton sees attention to latent functions as increasing the understanding of society: the distinction between manifest and latent forces the sociologist to go beyond the reasons individuals give for their actions or for the existence of customs and institutions; it makes them look for other social consequences that allow these practices' survival and illuminate the way society works.

Functional alternatives[edit]

Functionalists believe societies must have certain characteristics in order to survive. Merton shares this view but stresses that at the same time particular institutions are not the only ones able to fulfill these functions; a wide range of functional alternatives may be able to perform the same task. This notion of functional alternative is important because it alerts sociologists to the similar functions different institutions may perform and it further reduces the tendency of functionalism to imply approval of the status quo.

Theory of deviance[edit]

Merton's theory on deviance stems from his 1938 analysis of the relationship between culture, structure and anomie. Merton defines culture as an "organized set of normative values governing behavior which is common to members of a designated society or group". Social structures are the "organized set of social relationships in which members of the society or group are variously implicated".[18] Anomie, the state of normlessness, arises when there is "an acute disjunction between the cultural norms and goals and the socially structured capacities of members of the group to act in accord with them".[18] In his theory, Merton links anomie with deviance and argues that the discontinuity between culture and structure have the dysfunctional consequence of leading to deviance within society.[20]

The term anomie, derived from Émile Durkheim, for Merton means a discord between cultural goals and the legitimate means available to reach them.[21] Applied to the United States, he sees the American dream as an emphasis on the goal of monetary success, but without a corresponding emphasis on the legitimate avenues to attaining the Dream. In other words, Merton believes that the American Dream is a cultural ideal, but the ways in which people go about obtaining it are not the same. This can lead to a considerable amount of deviance (in the Parsonian sense). This theory is commonly used in the study of criminology (specifically the strain theory).

Attitude to GoalsAttitude to MeansModes of Adaptation

In this rubric, conformity refers to the attaining of societal goals by socially accepted means, while innovation refers to the attaining of those goals in unaccepted ways (such as crime and deviance). Innovators find and create their own ways to obtain what they want, and a majority of the time, these new means are considered to be socially unaccepted and deviant. Merton considers ritualism the acceptance of the means but the forfeit of the goals. Ritualists continue to subscribe to the means, but they have rejected the overall goal; they are not viewed as deviant. Retreatism is the rejection of both the means and the goals. Retreaters want to find a way to escape from everything and therefore reject both the goals and the means and are seen as deviant. Rebellion differs from the other four approaches in a number of ways. Temporally, rebellion is a short-term response (unlike the other four). Like retreaters, rebels reject both existing societal goals and means, but unlike retreaters, rebels work at the macro level to replace those existing societal goals and means with new goals and means embodying other values. Innovation and ritualism are the pure cases of anomie as Merton defined it because in both cases there is a contradiction or discontinuity between goals and means.

Sociology of science[edit]

The sociology of science was a field that Merton was very interested in and remained very passionate about throughout his career. Merton was interested in the interactions and importance between social and cultural structures and science. For example, he did pioneering historical research in his PhD dissertation on the role of military institutions in stimulating scientific research during the era of the Scientific Revolution. Merton carried out extensive research into the sociology of science, developing the Merton Thesis explaining some of the religious causes of the Scientific Revolution, and the Mertonian norms of science, often referred to by the acronym "Cudos". This is a set of ideals that are dictated by what Merton takes to be the goals and methods of science and to be binding on scientists. They include:

  • Communism – the common ownership of scientific discoveries, according to which scientists give up intellectual property in exchange for recognition and esteem.
  • Universalism – according to which claims to truth are evaluated in terms of universal or impersonal criteria, and not on the basis of race, class, gender, religion, or nationality;
  • Disinterestedness – according to which scientists are rewarded for acting in ways that outwardly appear to be selfless;
  • Organized skepticism – all ideas must be tested and are subject to rigorous, structured community scrutiny.

The CUDOS set of Mertonian scientific norms is sometimes identified as Communism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, *Originality* (novelty in research contributions), and Skepticism (instead of Organized Skepticism). This is a subsequent modification of Merton's norm set, as he did not refer to Originality in the essay that introduced the norms (The Normative Structure of Science [1942]).

Merton introduced many concepts to the sociology of science, including "obliteration by incorporation" (when a concept becomes so popularized that its inventor is forgotten) and "multiples" (on independent similar discoveries).

Merton and his colleagues spent much time studying "how the social system of science works in accordance with, and often also in contradiction to, the ethos of science".[5] This newer focus on the social organization of science led Merton to study the reward system in science, priority disputes between scientists, and the way in which famous scientists often receive disproportionate credit for their contributions, while less-known scientists receive less credit than their contributions merit.[5] Merton called this phenomenon the "Matthew effect"; see also Stigler's law of eponymy. As a result of the Matilda effect, Harriet Zuckerman is credited by Merton as co-author of the Matthew effect.[23]

With his study of the Matthew effect, Merton showed how the social system of science sometimes deviated structurally from the ethos of science, in this case by violating the norm of universalism:[5] a few top scientists enjoying large chunks of awards, grants and jobs, and the spread and distribution of resources and recognition among scientists being highly skewed.[24]

On the Shoulders of Giants[edit]

Merton referred to his book On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript as "OTSOG"—"part parody and part history of ideas" according to the publisher. In OTSOG, he traces the history of Newton's famous comment "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants"[25] back to centuries earlier, in the rambling style of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.[26]


Merton was heavily influenced by Talcott Parsons and to a much lesser degree of Pitirim Sorokin. Indeed, Merton's choice of dissertation topic reflect profoundly the interest from Parsons and was not of Sorokin's liking. Hence, Sorokin was strongly opposed to the emphasis of the creativity of Puritanism, which was a central element in Merton's discussion. Merton, however, managed to have both men on his dissertation committee.[27] Merton worked with Sorokin as a graduate student at Harvard University.[28] However, intellectuals like Paul Lazarsfeld influenced Merton to occupy himself with middle-range theories. Yet Merton's general theoretical perspectives were much closer to Parsons than Sorokin. He was also influenced by Lawrence Joseph Henderson, L.J., who taught him something about the disciplined investigation of what is first entertained as an interesting idea. E.F. Gay also played a role in Merton's thought, as did the famous historian of science George Sarton, who allowed Merton to work with him at Harvard and is believed to have inspired Merton to have interest in science.[29]Émile Durkheim and Georg Simmel also greatly contributed to Merton's understanding of sociology and to his own ideas.[20]


Today, Merton is viewed as one of the founding fathers of modern-day sociology. His works are seen as the driving force of many of today's sociologists' studies. Merton's friends and colleagues credit his guidance to the positive direction of modern sociology as well. In particular, Columbia provost Jonathan R. Cole who studied under Merton praised him shortly after his death, saying:

Bob Merton became the leader of structural-functional analysis in sociology, and the leader of those sociologists who attempted to create social theories that could be empirically tested. He was an inspirational teacher and editor, and with his students, such as James S. Coleman and Seymour Martin Lipset, among many others who would become leading figures in the field, he helped to build and legitimate the field of sociology in America. For me, he was a model teacher and mentor, a trusted colleague, and a close friend. His death, in many ways, puts a period at the end of 20th Century sociology.[10]

Through his theory and research during his many decades as a sociologist, Merton essentially created and sustained what is the modern sociology of science.[citation needed]


  • "Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England", Osiris, Vol. IV, pt. 2, pp. 360–632. Bruges: St. Catherine Press, 1938, reissued: Howard Fertig, 2001, ISBN 0-86527-434-7 – The 1938 publication made Merton well known among historians of science . It was an strongly influenced by Boris Hessen's famous Marxist account of 1931 The Socio-economic Roots of Newton's Principia which he defended in a paper "Science and the Economy of Seventeenth Century England," Science and Society 3 (1939), 3–27. However Merton also supplemented Hessen's analysis of the technological determinants of the fields of inquiry of seventeenth-century science with a study of the influence of religion (especially Protestantism) on the social legitimacy of science as a profession: the so-called "Merton Thesis". He also supported Hessen's arguments by revealing how military problems influenced the research agendas of the Royal Society.
  • Social Theory and Social Structure (1949; revised and expanded, 1957 and 1968)
  • The Sociology of Science (1973)
  • Sociological Ambivalence (1976)
  • On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript (1985)
  • On Social Structure and Science (1996; edited by Piotr Sztompka)
  • The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science, 2004

See also[edit]



  1. ^"Robert K. Merton". 
  2. ^Synonyms for the term "sociology of science" include "science of science" ("Science of Science Cyberinfrastructure Portal... at Indiana University"Archived 2013-02-19 at the Wayback Machine.; Maria Ossowska and Stanisław Ossowski, "The Science of Science", 1935, reprinted in Bohdan Walentynowicz, ed., Polish Contributions to the Science of Science, Boston, D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1982, ISBN 83-01-03607-9, pp. 82–95) and the back-formed term "logology" (Christopher Kasparek, "Prus' Pharaoh: the Creation of a Historical Novel", The Polish Review, vol. XXXIX, no. 1, 1994, note 3, pp. 45–46; Stefan Zamecki, Komentarze do naukoznawczych poglądów Williama Whewella (1794–1866): studium historyczno-metodologiczne [Commentaries to the Logological Views of William Whewell (1794–1866): A Historical-Methodological Study], Warsaw, Polish Academy of Sciences, 2012, ISBN 978-83-86062-09-6, [English-language] summary, pp. 741–43). The term "logology" provides convenient grammatical variants not available with the earlier terms: i.e., "logologist", "to logologize", "logological", "logologically".
  3. ^Merton, Robert K. (December 1936). "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action". American Sociological Review. 1 (6): 894–904. doi:10.2307/2084615. ISSN 0003-1224. JSTOR 2084615. 
  4. ^Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition; January 1, 2009, p. 1 "Self-fulfilling prophecy"
  5. ^ abcdefghijGerald Holton (December 2004). Robert K. Merton, 4 July 1910· 23 February 2003. 148. American Philosophical Society. ISBN 1-4223-7290-1. 
  6. ^ abKaufman, Michael T. (February 24, 2003). "Robert K. Merton, Versatile Sociologist and Father of the Focus Group, Dies at 92". The New York Times. 
  7. ^ abPeter Simonson (2010). Refiguring Mass Communication: A History. University of Illinois Press. pp. 123–130. ISBN 978-0-252-07705-0. 
  8. ^Robert K. Merton Remembered." Robert K. Merton Remembered. N.p., n.d.
  9. ^This passage is from Robert K. Merton's "A Life of Learning", which is reprinted in Robert K. Merton, On Social Structure and Science, edited by Piotr Sztompka, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996, pp. 339–59. The passage cited is from p. 346.
  10. ^ abcd"Robert K. Merton Remembered." Robert K. Merton Remembered. N.p., n.d.
  11. ^Sztompka, Piotr (2003), "Robert K. Merton", in Ritzer, George, The Blackwell companion to major contemporary social theorists, Malden, Massachusetts Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 12–33, ISBN 9781405105958.  Also available as: Sztompka, Piotr (2003). "Chapter 1. Robert K. Merton". Wiley. doi:10.1002/9780470999912.ch2. Extract.
  12. ^Sztompka, 2003
  13. ^ abcde"Merton Awarded Nation's Highest Science Honor". Columbia University Record. 20 (2). September 16, 1994. ISSN 0747-4504. 
  14. ^Stephen Cole, "Merton's Contribution to the Sociology of Science", Social Studies of Science, 2004, p. 829.
  15. ^Vice President Gore (1994) at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, Washington, D.C., on Monday, December 19, 1994.
  16. ^"Columbia News ::: Renowned Columbia Sociologist and National Medal of Science Winner Robert K. Merton Dies at 92." Columbia News ::: Renowned Columbia Sociologist and National Medal of Science Winner Robert K. Merton Dies at 92. N.p., n.d.
  17. ^ abMann, Doug. Understanding Society: A Survey of Modern Social Theory. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
  18. ^ abcMerton, Robert K. (1968-08-01). Social Theory and Social Structure (1968 enlarged ed.). New York, NY, US: Free Press. ISBN 0-02-921130-1. 
  19. ^Agnew (1985). "A revised strain theory of delinquency". Social forces. 64(1): 151–167 – via JSTOR. 
  20. ^ abcdefghiRitzer, George (2007-07-23). Sociological Theory (7 ed.). McGraw-Hill Higher Education. pp. 251–257. ISBN 0-07-352818-8. 
  21. ^Merton, Robert K. (October 1938). "Social Structure and Anomie". American Sociological Review. 3 (5): 672–682. doi:10.2307/2084686. ISSN 0003-1224. JSTOR 2084686. 
  22. ^Tepperman, L., & Curtis, J.(2006). Principles of Sociology: Canadian Perspectives, p. 117. Oxford University Press, Canada. ISBN 0-19-542348-8.
  23. ^
  24. ^Gieryn, Thomas (2004). "Robert K. Merton, 1910–2003". News of the Profession. 95: 91–94. 
  25. ^Leyburn, James G. "On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript by Robert K. Merton". Social Forces, 1966, p.603-604
  26. ^Sociology and social research (1965), Volume 50, Book Reviews: "On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript. By Robert K. Merton", pp. 509–510.
  27. ^Cole, Stephen. "Merton's Contribution to the Sociology of Science".Social Studies of Science, 2004, p. 836.
  28. ^Cole, Stephen. "Merton's Contribution to the Sociology of Science".Social Studies of Science, 2004, p. 837.
  29. ^Cole, Stephen. "Merton's Contribution to the Sociology of Science".Social Studies of Science, 2004, p. 836-837.


Further reading[edit]

Saint-Martin, Arnaud, La sociologie de Robert K. Merton, Edition La découverte.

External links[edit]

  • Finding Aid for the Robert K. Merton Papers housed at Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library
  • Deflem, Mathieu. 2018. “Merton, Robert K.” In The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Theory, edited by Bryan S. Turner. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Deflem, Mathieu. 2018. "Anomie, Strain, and Opportunity Structure: Robert K. Merton's Paradigm of Deviant Behavior." pp. 140–155 in The Handbook of the History and Philosophy of Criminology, edited by Ruth A. Triplett. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.
  • Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) A website on Merton by Frank W. Elwell, Rogers State University.
  • R.K. Merton Papers - Writings by Merton, posted by E. Garfield.
  • Robert K. Merton, "Social Structure and Anomie". American Sociological Review, 3 (October 1938): 672–82.
  • Robert K. Merton Selected Publications [1]
  • Writings of Robert K. Merton [2]
  • Robert K. Merton, The Normative Structure of Science (1942)