Social Theory and Social Structure – Robert K. Merton Merton on Theories of the Middle Range- Sociology’s relation to the humanities and sciences: Sociology is a science, even if it cannot be analogously compared to the natural sciences. Nonetheless, the sociologist must recognize his or her works as part of a public and collective ongoing endeavor. He or she must have enough humility to build on the work of others. The sociologist should follow the clear, transparent rules of science rather than the individualistic rules of art. Social science has not yet created grand unifying theories that explain everything. Yet neither for that matter has physics, but that doesn’t stop physicists from working on discreet and solvable problems. Social scientists should do the same. Merton recommends social scientists work on theories of the middle range. Middle range theories “consist of limited sets of assumptions from which specific hypotheses are logically derived and confirmed by empirical investigation….these theories are sufficiently abstract to deal with differing spheres of social behavior and social structure, so that they transcend sheer description or empirical generalization. The theory of social conflict, for example, has been applied to ethnic and racial conflict, class conflict, and international conflict.” (p. 68). Theories of the middle range represent the place where social scientists can make their best contribution because it allows them to wed theory and empirical data, their two best weapons, to make their case. The middle range theory is also very versatile- it can be connected or subsumed into a larger theory, or applied to a smaller, specific policy problem. Merton defines a middle range theory broadly, and gives Weber’s historical analysis of the Protestant work ethic as an example of a specific case that can illuminate larger social processes and patterns. He points out that not all social scientists should focus on middle range theories. He believes they should respond to the needs of their society and their historical context. Notes on Manifest and latent functions Manifest functions of society are intended. Latent functions are unintended. Example: the manifest function of slavery in the US South was economic necessity and prosperity. The latent function was an increase in white social status at the expense of black southerners. The point is that social policies / functions can have unanticipated consequences. He notes that not all structural features of society are good. Social Structure and Anomie Aims to explain why some people in societies engage in non-confirming behavior rather than conforming behavior. His hypothesis: “aberrant behavior may be regarded sociologically as a symptom of dissociation between culturally prescribed aspirations and socially structured avenues for realizing these aspirations. (188).” Deviance occurs when ambition is thwarted. That is, when cultural goals ascribed to all are coupled with restricted and unequal ability to achieve those means. For example, if “being smart” is rewarded in school but not all students believe they have a chance to be recognized as smart, cheating will become a norm for some. Deviance varies by social structure. Merton develops a typology of individual adaptation to cultural goals. He classifies 5 types of behavior in relation to cultural goals: 1) the conformists – for believers in the rules and goals of the system; 2) the innovators – willing to cheat on the rules to attain the goals (i.e., American Robber Barons); 3) the ritualists – those who rigidly follow societies’ rules and derive their sense of self-worth and sometime superiority from their behavior; 4) the retreatists – those who believe they can never achieve societies’ goals and have given up trying (ie., societies’ drop-outs, drunks, junkies, eccentrics, etc.) and 5) Revolutionaries – who are disillusioned by the rules and seek instead to transform the rules and goals of the culture to something else. They seek to start a different game and recruit others. Merton does not judge these different reactions to society’s rules and goals. He simply concludes that a lack of fit between the goals and means phases of social structure is what leads to the “strain toward anomie.” The Theory of Reference Group Behavior Merton uses a study of deployed soldiers as a place to test various hypotheses about how reference groups work. He seeks to investigate how social contexts shape the perceptions of individuals. He compares soldiers in placed in different contexts (ie., new recruits placed in new battalions with new recruits placed in battalions of veterans; overseas vs. domestic deployment; and black vs. white soldiers) to see whom they choose as reference groups and the comparisons they choose to make – especially when there are multiple potential ref groups to choose from. He finds that 1) a more intimate familiarity / experience with a group increases the use of that group as a ref group; and 2) when faced with a choice, new members of a group tend to compare themselves with higher status members of the group and tend to adopt their values and behaviors. He notes that RG theory is an example of a middle range theory – it can be applied in numerous contexts and broader theory can be extrapolated from specific data. Ref group behavior is particularly important in socializing children in school or new members to a new group. M invokes the Parsonian concepts of role sets and status sets to explain how people graduate through different roles in time (or, status sequences). In the example of children, he sees a kind of “continuing adaptation” through “role- gradations.” “The individual moves more or less continuously through a sequence of statuses and associated roles, each phase of which does not greatly differ from the one which has gone before. Although his “official” (socially acknowledged) transfer into a new status may seem to be sudden, more often than not this is only because the informal antecedent preparation has gone unnoticed.…In status and role-sequences, the individual is more or less continuously subject to appraisal by others, of the adequacy of his current role-performance. Tendencies to regress to the behavior of an earlier role are curbed by reassertion of the newly won status (“You’re a big boy now…”). Correlatively, tendencies to advance “prematurely” to prospective roles are curbed (“Some day, of course, but you’re not far enough along now…”)….the individual engages in trial behavior and tends to move at a pace which is controlled by the responses of those in his current role-set.” (439). Notes on Bureaucratic Structure and Personality Unlike Weber, Merton acknowledges that bureaucracies can be dysfunctional and irrational as well as efficient and rational. M explains the process by which the original utilitarian advantage of bureaucratic rules and regulations can become rigid and a disadvantage if not allowed to be flexible (i.e., the obey the letter of the law over the spirit of the law). He observes that a bureaucracy can develop a phenomenon of overconformity in which the means (the procedures) become more important than the original ends. Why? As bureaucracies become micro-societies that reinforce their own rules, adherence to the group norm (and what your peers think of you) becomes more important than serving your client. Interesting – sort of a follow-up to Weber and a presage to Karl Weick’s “loose- coupling.” General observations on functionalism Start from the premise that “everything in society is connected in some way.” This leads to new attempts to explain things and new theories that cut across previous boundaries. Functionalism also attempts to incorporate individual level analysis within social analysis.
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