Article in Science / Social Sciences / Sociology
Retired after 65 years is the universally believed academic knowledge that Robert K. Merton (one of the most the eminent American sociologist of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries) coined the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy” because the phrase was published at least as early as 1841.
 
 
 


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Big data analysis unearths a wealth of new evidence that Darwin and Wallace stole the theory of natural selection from Patrick Matthew's prior publication of 1831

Mike Sutton is the author of Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret the book that famously used big data analysis to prove that Darwin and Wallace committed the world's greatest science fraud.

Abstract

This peer-to-peer articlet busts the 65 year old myth that the American sociologist Robert K. Merton is the originator of the phrase 'self-fulfilling prophecy'. In fact, the phrase appeared in print at least as early as 1841 - in a British publication. Additionally, this article introduces, for the first time, a new concept for the phrase ‘internet dating’ - as a research method for confirming or disconfirming knowledge claims.

Postscript 14th April 2013. At the time of writing, Wikipedia currently has it that the phrase 'self fulfilling prophecy' is attributed to Merton and that the concept is his. Since Wikipedia is currently engaged in plagiarizing the unique results of my original myth-busting work published solely here on Best Thinking, and then deliberately refusing to cite me as the originator of this brand new information that is busting decades old pervasive myths, we should expect Wikipedia to edit-out its mistake yet pretend that Wikipedia editors discovered this new information in order to seek to improve its dreadful reputation for disseminating claptrap. You can see what they are up to here, and read my arguments for why this is a socially toxic practice. Boycott toxic Wikipedia plagiarism!

This article was first published here on BestThinking.com on January 24 2013 at 4.44pm

According to Online English Dictionaries the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy is based upon self-fulfilling ‘…as an adjective - (of an opinion or prediction) bound to be proved correct or to come true as a result of behaviour caused by its being expressed: expecting something to be bad can turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.’

Although he significantly and systematically developed the sociological study of the self-fulfilling prophecy concept, Merton is not the originator of the basic concept, because the concept of self fulfilling prophecy has been around since at least the time of the ancient Greeks (e.g. see Houghton 2009 for a most useful discussion). In modern times the concept dates back as least as far as the Thomas Theorem: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." (Thomas 1928). However, it is widely believed, and to date, undisputed academic ‘knowledge’ that Merton first coined the actual English phrase 'self-fulfilling prophecy'.

In criminology, which is my own discipline, the concept of self-fulfilling prophesies is studied with a general fascination that social science scholars have for the impact of unintended consequences brought about by human action. By way of example, the last peer-to-peer article that I published on Best Thinking (Sutton 2013), bust the myth that the phrase 'moral panic' was first coined in the 1960’s. And this concept of moral panic, as it is most widely understood and cited today, incorporates the sociological notion of deviancy amplification- which in turn is a manifestation of self-fulfilling prophecy. The well developed sociological concept of the self-fulfilling prophesy was created and formalized by Merton (1936; 1948 and 1949) and it is a core component of Wilkins’ (1964) concept of Deviancy Amplification and Tannenbaum (1938) and Lemert’s (1951) work on the concept of Labeling Theory.

The Merton Myth

Seemingly endless prestigious scholarly books and peer reviewed journal articles perpetuate the myth that Robert Merton coined the phrase (invented the term) “self fulfilling prophecy” in print in 1949. In fact, this is a widely published falsehood, because Merton (1948 p. 196) first went into print with the term self-fulfilling prophecy a year earlier where he wrote:

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Attribution

the Merton Myth bust.

The first example of this 1949 coinage fallacy that I have been able to find, to date, is Deutsch, and Collins (1951, p 52):

‘R.K Merton has coined the very apt phrase: “the self-fulfilling prophesy” to describe such phenomena. See Social Theory and Social Structure (Free Press) 1949’

Even a textbook on etymology and etiology - a place where we should least expect to find it - perpetuates this exact same embarrassing mistake (Gold 2009, p.84 Footnote):

‘Sometimes, however, we do not know when an item was first used in print. Robert King Merton coined English self-fulfilling prophecy (Patricia Cohen, “An Eye for Patterns in the Social Fabric,” The New York Times, 31 October 1998, pp. B9 and B13) and first used it in print in his Social Theory and Social Structure (1949, p. vii). That is indeed the earliest citation for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary, which should have added that he coined it.’

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Public Domain

Screenshot of the Oxford English Dictionary's Etymology page for 'Self Fulfilling Prophecy". OED has it coined in 1949.

Click the above image of the Oxford English Disctonary for ease of reading.

Unfortunately, the extent of the Merton Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Coinage Myth (for ease of use Merton Myth hereafter) is much greater than the extent to which others have got the date wrong by just one year. The fact of the matter - as this paper goes on to prove - is that everyone writing about how Merton first coined the phrase is out by 107 years at the very least.

At this point I must point out that the aim of this brief peer-to-peer article is not to provide an account and explanatory analysis of who first started it, nor is it to show the degree to which the Merton Myth pervades published academic knowledge in scholarly publications, because that is forthcoming in my planned book on myths, and part of a larger research endeavour. The aim of this article is simply to bust the 65 year old Merton Myth by providing simply one example of 100 per cent disconfirming evidence that the phrase ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ was first coined by Robert K. Merton. Before doing so, I begin with a sample of just four publications, presented in particular order, that perpetuate the myth:

A selection of publications spreading the Merton Myth

  1. Robert T. Tauber (1997, p. 9) Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: A Practical Guide to Its Use in Education :

‘The term "self-fulfilling prophecy" was first coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton in a 1948 Antioch Review article titled "The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy." ‘

  1. Nomi, T. and Pong, S-L (2011 p. 532) Self-fulfilling prophecy in The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology:

‘The self-fulfilling prophecy is the process by which one's expectations of other people lead those people to behave in ways that confirm those expectations. The term ''self-fulfilling prophecy'' was coined in 1948 by Robert K. Merton, …’

  1. Bearman, P. and Hedström, P (2009 pp. 294-314) The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology:

‘The term “self-fulfilling prophecy” (SFP) was coined in 1948 by Robert Merton to describe “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true” (Merton 1968: 477). He illustrated the concept with a run on a bank (a fictitious “parable”); his main application was to racial discrimination. The term has since entered social science and even everyday English, a rare feat for a sociological neologism.’

  1. Brendtro, L. K. and Ness, A. E. (1983 p. 51) Re-Educating Troubled Youth: Environments for teaching and treatment. New York. Aldine de Gruyter.

‘The sociologist Robert Merton coined the term self-fulfilling prophecy”, noting that people generally act in a manner consistent with what they believe others expect of them’

Busting the Merton Myth

Merton never coined the phrase self-fulfilling prophecy – not in English or in any other language.

Using freely available internet dating research methods, I reveal here that the phrase was first published in English at least as long ago as 1841. Moreover, the exact same phrase has been used many times prior to Merton’s first published use of it in 1948.

Here is just one snippet of the disconfirming evidence that Merton coined the phrase self-fulfilling prophecy. This published text can be found online and is scanned from Fraser's magazine for town and country (1841) - Volume 23, Issues 133-138 - Page 130:

‘We say, let the idea of what we want penetrate our rulers and our people, and it will be a self-fulfilling prophesy of what we shall have.’

The above text from 1841 is in fact a translation of an earlier German text referenced as: Broad societies philosophy of Franz Xaver Dander here given by Dr Franz Hoffmann Wiirzburg (1837).

At the time of writing, this is as far back as internet dating research methods take us with regard to when the phrase self-fulfilling prophesy was first published in English. As new material are scanned and uploaded I suspect that the phrase, in English, may go back further than 1831.

As far as I have been able to ascertain to date, Merton (1936) did coin the phrase ‘The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action’. More research is needed, but it may have been his 1936 paper by that title that led scholars to mistakenly conflate this phrase with Merton's use of ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ in 1948. Quite why Merton never went into print to disabuse the world of the notion that he coined the phrase self fulfilling prophecy may forever be the subject of speculation about ignorance of the facts or academic self-interest versus veracity.

A brief note on internet dating

The new concept of internet dating is quite distinct from using the internet to date solely online, or – as it is now commonly understood - to hook up online in order to meet potential lovers face-to-face offline.

This relatively new research method, which very loosely borrows its meaning from the method of carbon dating physical objects, is about using the internet to seek to discover the earliest known date for the publication of words, phrases and concepts. The veracity of findings from this technique is, of course, limited to what documents have been scanned and uploaded at the time the search was conducted.

Conclusion and the way forward

The Merton Myth is bust!

With the advent of the research method, which I have named internet dating, a great deal of academic ‘knowledge’ about the origins of words, phrases and concepts is likely to be myth busted. As more historic documents are scanned and uploaded over the next decade, knowledge in this area will be in a state of considerable flux.

As with the phrase 'internet dating', any phrase will most likely have a number of alternative inherent meanings. The fact that phrases have inherent meanings means that they contain the very idea of basic concepts. The issue of provenance of words and phrases may not be a relatively minor one if it frequently proves to be the case that: 'the phrase is the concept' (Sutton 2013).

In the immediate future, previously neglected writers and the areas upon which they have focused may prove to be a rich source for new academic inquiry.

References

Bearman, P. and Hedström, P (2009) The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brendtro, L. K. and Ness, A. E. (1983) Re-Educating Troubled Youth: Environments for teaching and treatment. New York. Aldine de Gruyter

Deutsch, M. and Collins, M. E. (1951) Interracial Housing. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota.

Fraser's magazine for town and country (1841) - Volume 23, June. Issues 133-138 - Page 130

Gold, D. L. (2009) Studies in Etymology and Etiology (2009). Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante.

Houghton, D. P. (2009) The Role of Self-Fulfilling and Self-Negating Prophecies in International Relations. International Studies Review Volume 11, Issue 3, pages 552–584, September.

Lemert, E. M. (1951) Social Pathology. New York: MacGraw-Hill Book Co.

Merton, R. (1936) ‘The unanticipated consequences of purposive social action’, American Sociological Review, 1: 894- 904.

Merton, R. K. (1948) The self-fulfilling prophecy. The Antioch Review, 8, 1948, 193-210

Merton, R. (1949) Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.

Nomi, T. and Pong, S-L (2011 p. 532) Self-fulfilling prophecy in The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology. Oxford. Blackwell Riley.

Online English Dictonaries (undated) Self Fulfilling Prophecy: http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/self-fulfilling

Sutton, M. (2013). The British Moral Panic Creation Myth is Bust. Best Thinking.com: http://www.bestthinking.com/articles/science/social_sciences/sociology/the-british-moral-panic-creation-myth-is-bust

Tauber, R. T. (1997) Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: A Practical Guide to Its Use in Education. Westport CT. Praeger Publishers

Tannenbaum, F. (1938) Crime and the Community. New York and London: Columbia University Press.

Thomas, W. I. (1928). The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 572.

Wilkins, L. (1964) Social Deviance: Social Policy, Action and Research. London: Tavistock

 

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Mike Sutton
Dr Mike Sutton is the author of 'Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret'.

 
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