Book review: The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity

Mathieu Deflem

Published in Social Forces, 83(3):1302-1303, 2005. Available as pdf file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2005. Review of The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity, by Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber. Social Forces 83(3):1302-1303.

The word serendipity was coined by the 18th-century English author Horace Walpole, who had discovered a fairy tale about the three princes of Serendip and the various instances of accidental sagacity that befell the tale’s protagonists. With the publication of this book by Robert Merton and Elinor Barber, sociologists need wait no more for this once ‘still unpublished’ work about serendipity that Merton had sporadically hinted at in some of his writings. The monograph was written in 1958 and appears here in unaltered form, expanded with an Afterword. An Italian edition appeared in 2002. Professor Merton received word of the decision by Princeton University Press to publish the book shortly before his death in 2003. Elinor Barber, a former student of Merton, had passed away in 1999. The informed Introduction to the book by James L. Shulman provides some elucidation as to why it took almost half a century for the work to finally see the light of day. Perhaps the delay of the publication is only befitting to the theme of the work and its place in Merton’s oeuvre and the contributions to the sociology of science by Barber and other Mertonians.

When Merton and Barber wrote this book, serendipity was a rather obscure and rarely used term. Merton had first accidentally stumbled on the word when looking up another word in his Oxford English Dictionary. Coinciding with Merton’s interest in the sociology of unanticipated consequences and his development of the sociology of science began a quest to unravel the trials and tribulations of serendipity.

Merton and Barber trace the travels of serendipity in various literary traditions and publications. They describe the changing meanings of serendipity and examine its history with reference to those 135 people in the English-speaking world who used the word in the period up to the 1950s. The writings of Walpole were not widely discussed until they were republished some 80 years after his introduction of serendipity in 1754. Yet the Victorians who discussed Walpole’s work were not keen on giving a place to chance in art and science. In 19th-century science, the role of chance in the making of discoveries was well known, but it was in literary circles that serendipity was initially discussed and diffused. The social milieus that favored serendipity were bibliophiles and antiquarians, authors, literary scholars and lexicographers, medical humanists, social scientists, applied researchers, and science writers.

In science, serendipity’s role is by definition problematic, as science cannot readily accept luck. But the role of accident in discovery can be approached from a scholarly viewpoint as well. Merton and Barber’s study is framed within the Mertonian sociology of science paradigm and its attention for the unanticipated consequences of purposive conduct that found expression in such now familiar notions as the Matthew effect and the Thomas theorem. Work on Merton’s related book On the Shoulder of Giants contributed to prevent earlier publication of the 1958 serendipity manuscript.

Only a fool would review a posthumous contribution by one of the discipline’s leading representatives and one of his collaborators on the basis of the usual criteria of scholarly merit. Reviewing this book as a contribution to the sociology of semantics and science, it makes partly good on its promises. Much of this book provides thick description of the paths and turning points of serendipity, but it does not develop a full-fledged sociological semantics on the basis of a theory of the social structure, a tradition to which nobody has contributed more than Merton. A sociological theory of serendipity is occasionally hinted at —best of all in Merton’s 2002 Afterword— but could have been fleshed out in more detail. As it stands, the book offers a rather rudimentary sociology of professions as the basis of its exegesis.

The humanist will find much beauty in this text. However, as Merton clarified better than anyone else, sociology as a social science stands between the physical sciences and the humanities. This ambiguity is decidedly not about the dichotomy that exists between scientific and unscientific work. Merton’s work and that of his Columbia compatriots is always resolutely sociological. The literary appeal of this book is one of its distinctive features, but it ought not take away from its sociological ambitions, even if they remain largely latent. In the Afterword to the book, Merton bemoans the condition that today serendipity has become something of a Disneylike expression, a vague and vogue word that is often rephrased in psychological terms. Likewise, a misreading of Serendipity might mistakenly lead to the conclusion that sociology can be a literary exercise. But the fact that the literary fanatic Merton wrote in the Simmelian tradition of the extended essay is a matter of form only.

Hurrah for Serendipity? Of course. Merton and Barber have written a very fine tale, one that makes good sense in the framework of a sociology of science and sociological semantics. The entertainment that provides The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity is matched by the brilliance of Social Theory and Social Structure.