#6 - Robert Merton’s Contributions to Sociological Theory
Robert Merton studied under Talcott Parsons at Harvard University and was influenced by Pitirim Sorokin and Paul Lazarsfeld respectfully. Although Merton valued the relationship he had with Parsons and admired much of his work, he “diverged from Parsonian functionalism…in his decision to abandon the quest for an all-encompassing theory. He chose rather, to take the path of what he calls ‘middle range theories’” (p.46), designed to conduct empirical examination of societies’ functions and dysfunctions. Merton’s best known published work in the field of sociology is the book he authored titled Social Theory and social Structure where he discussed the relationship between theory and empirical exploration. Merton enjoyed testing his hypotheses in the real world but also focused a lot of his attention on functional examination and his theory of deviance. Theories of the middle range are basically theories which supply detailed hypotheses that can result in empirical data. Merton viewed the middle range theories as theories that would gradually merge into a more generalized system of theories. The middle range theories are Merton’s attempt to close the gaps between natural studies and the wide-ranging theories that are famously associated with works like Parsons’ general theory of action. Merton wished to formulate a framework of theories that would provide theoretical research for cross tabulated data. Merton thought of society as a system of interconnectivity. He termed “the codification of functional analysis in sociology” to establish a functional model that limited critiques but offered less precise propositions about the composition of societies. Merton argued that “the central orientation of functionalism is expressed in the practice of interpreting the data by establishing their consequences for larger structures in which they are implicated.” (p.47) Merton questioned whether the cultural and social aspects of society were well or poorly incorporated into the structure. He was intrigued by the involvement of traditions and institutions to the perseverance of societies and defined those functions as either contributions or consequences that allow change or adjustment to any given system. He insisted that the collective principles or values of institutions and societies are integral to explaining how they function. Merton’s “codification” includes his work on dysfunctions, latent and manifest functions, and functional alternatives. Merton’s notion of dysfunction identifies that a structure may contain generally dysfunctional effects that diminish the change or modification of a system which leads to the question, who does the system function for and who is it dysfunctional to. For example, a function of a capitalistic society is that it generates jobs for the masses and also produces a viable source of income which benefits that stability of the economy. However the dysfunction of a capitalistic society is the expanding gap between the wealthy and the poor whose relationship is codependent but disenfranchises the segment of the population in poverty. Continuing with this example what Merton termed manifest functions would be the jobs in which a capitalistic society produces and the latent function would be the widening fissure between the social classes. The distinction between Parsons and Merton are clear to see within the concepts of manifest and latent functions. Parsons stressed the manifest functions of societal behavior whereas Merton was keen on studying the latent functions of society at large. “Functionalism’s claim of providing specific propositions about how societies work…rests in large part on its argument that in order to persist a society must have certain characteristics; and correspondingly, all societies will exhibit these characteristics.” (p.53) Merton shared this mutual view of functionalism and termed the phrases...
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