Robert Merton and the Functionalist Tradition

Topics: Sociology, Structural functionalism, Social structure Pages: 7 (2070 words) Published: March 7, 2013
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In the conception of society as a system it becomes natural to see it, like other systems, as composed of parts that are interrelated and whose operations have consequences for the system as a whole. The functional orientation has long been implicit in biology and physiology, as well as in the social sciences of anthropology, economics, and sociology. Social scientists as diverse as Malthus, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber have engaged in describing the interrelationships between social phenomena. This paper will address functionalism from Robert Merton’s perspective by looking at his significant contributions to functional analysis.

Robert Merton (1910-2003) attempted to rectify some of the weaknesses within structural functionalism. Specifically, he criticized the underlying assumptions of functionalism and added complexity to how structural functionalism dealt with the relationship between structures and functions. Dispensing with the notion that all parts of the system are functional, highly integrated, and indispensable, he created a system of concepts to deal with the ways in which structures may be related to the whole. For instance, he suggested that some social facts might be dysfunctional, meaning they may have negative consequences for other social facts. Overall, he thought that it was possible to have an idea of the balance of a structure by taking into account dysfunctions, functions, and nonfunctions. He also added additional complexity by asserting that this sort of analysis may be performed at various levels of functional analysis, as "functions" might be a matter of perspective. For instance, slavery was functional for some and dysfunctional for others. Merton was also concerned with the intended and unintended functions of structures, or manifest and latent functions, and their unanticipated consequences. He added nuance to structural functionalism by noting that dysfunctional structures can exist within systems, depending on their relationship to other systems. Thus not all structures are positive, nor are all of them indispensable. Specifically, he:

1. Strips bare the unexamined assumptions of many of its practitioners. 2. Broadens the analysis to incorporate change as well as stability. 3. Makes critical distinctions between functions and personal motives. 4. Abstracts middle range theories from the grand theory of functionalism.

One of the charges hurled against functionalism in the 1940s and 50s and still echoed today, is that functionalism is an inherently conservative perspective devoted to preserving the status quo. Merton suggested that this charge is due to the fact that social analysts have adopted three postulates that are untenable and unnecessary to the functional orientation. These postulates are:

⊃ That all widespread activities are functional for the entire sociocultural system. ⊃ That all such prevalent activities have sociological functions. ⊃ That the items are therefore necessary for the maintenance of that social system. Merton examined each of these postulates in turn and found them inconsistent with logic and observation. He described them as functional falacies; which he subcategorized into three:

This may well be tenable in social anthropology, in which the analyst is chiefly concerned with highly integrated, homogeneous, non-literate societies. It clearly does not hold for more complex heterogeneous societies. Functional unity cannot be assumed; at most it is an empirical question. It is possible for some social or cultural items to have functions for some groups within a sociocultural system and not for others. Therefore, the analyst must clearly delineate the group or groups for which a given sociocultural item is functional. Such items often have diverse consequences—positive and negative—on various groups as well as on the total sociocultural system....
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