The Merton Award

Robert K. Merton was one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th Century. His writing on the principles and importance of middle-range theory as well as his own theories of self-fulfilling prophecies and Matthew effects have been important sources of inspiration for the emergence of analytical sociology. Merton attended the first analytical-sociology/social mechanism conference held at the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm in 1996, and he remained a strong supporter of analytical sociology throughout the rest of his career.

The Robert K. Merton Award for the best paper in analytical sociology is an annual award announced at the annual INAS conference. The award is based on a thorough selection process. Nominations are sought from the international scholarly community and the decision is made by a committee of leading scholars appointed at the INAS meeting.

Arnout van de Rijt receives the 2020 Robert K. Merton Award. We congratulate him for his excellent paper on self-correcting dynamics in social influence processes, published in the American Journal of Sociology 124(5), 2019. Here is what the Award Committee says:

“The article questions a widely accepted theory in contemporary sociology according to which a self-reinforcing process, rendering the popular even more popular, allows inferior objects (low-quality products, unqualified people, or bad ideas) to become and maintain successful. Information technology, for example in social media, is a context where this mechanism is believed to be particularly relevant because it continuously exposes users to up-to-date information on the popularity of objects.  Social influence, so the established hypothesis goes, may lead individuals to choose what is popular over what is best and create dysfunctional Matthew effects.

Combining re-analyzes of prominent experiments and an own online experiment, the author demonstrates that such self-reinforcing processes require a very strong degree of positive feedback. He also reveals that in many prominent empirical studies levels of feedback are lower, so that popularity dynamics are instead self-correcting, with superior choices becoming dominant over time.

With clearly explicated explanatory mechanisms that causally relate micro- and macro-level influences and effects, the author builds on and challenges highly prominent earlier work about self-reinforcing social influence. The main strength of the paper is in taking a new and highly informative perspective on these data. Its important contribution to analytical sociology lies in adding a crucial new aspect to an existing theory and extending existing methods such that they can highlight how this crucial aspect makes a big difference for the macro-outcomes that arise from micro-level social influence.”

Our honorable mention goes to Lars Leszczensky and Sebastian Pink for their network study on the drivers of ethnic homophily, published in the American Sociological Review 84(3), 2019. We are proud for having received a great set of submissions.

The Award Committee

Previous winners of the Robert K. Merton Award