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
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
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
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-
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