Robert Merton Thesis

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Robert Merton

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Robert Merton (1910-2003), was a sociologist. He founded the sociology of science and was known for his theoretical work in the analysis of social structures, especially the intended and unintended results of social action. He was also the first sociologist in history to be awarded the National Medal of Science (Hollander).

Philadelphia was his birthplace, in 1910. His birth name was actually Meyer R. Schkolnick, which he kept until the age of 14. He was the second of two children of parents who had immigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe. His father was a truck driver and a carpenter and found his family a home in the slums of southern Philadelphia. Robert grew up fighting for his life in those slums as part of one of the many gangs that roamed the neighborhoods. But he also enjoyed learning, and his many trips to the local library found him reading all sorts of books, but especially biography. When he was twelve, he turned to magic, and a new name -- Robert Merton, modified from "Merlin" -- to earn a few bucks, and he did tricks for the neighborhood folks (Crothers, p. 24).

He graduated from South Philadelphia High School for Boys in 1927 and won a scholarship to Temple University where he excelled in his studies and was known as quite an intelligent student. He studied philosophy for a year, but then switched to sociology in his sophomore year after he took one of the classes from George E. Simpson. Due to his intelligence and studious habits, he became Simpson's research assistant (Crothers, p.24).

Merton obtained his B.A. degree from Temple in 1931 and was given a fellowship for graduate work at Harvard. There he met professors such as Talcott Parsons, George Sarton, Pitirim Sorokin and L.J. Henderson.

By 1934, he met and married Suzanne Carhart, a social worker he met at Temple when she was a student. Soon after that event, he was made an instructor at Harvard.

Merton also attached himself to George Sarton, known as the historian of science at Harvard. This relationship continued well beyond their mutual years at Harvard to an ongoing exchange of letters. And, by the time he was 40, Merton was one of the most influential social scientists in this country and had begun what would become a long and distinguished career at Columbia University (Calhoun).

Some his first writings, composed between 1934 and 1935 covered a scattering of sociological subjects: "Recent French Sociology," "The Course of Arabian Intellectual Development, 700-1300 A.D.," "Fluctuations in the Rate of Industrial Invention," and "Science and Military Technique." Then, in 1938, he penned his first major study on Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England (Calhoun).

Having joined the Columbia faculty in 1941, his intellect, charisma, and talent assisted in building perhaps the most powerful and prominent sociology department not only in the U.S. But in the world. His talent, and secret, was to focus on "middle range" theory, rather than the abstract, long-term, big-picture, vague speculation that sociology studies had depended upon for such a long time.

He used everyday life to create his theories. "Self-fulfilling prophecy," a phrase most of us use a lot was created by Merton. He developed the whole idea of role models, and, with his peers, he created the "focused interview" which led to "focus groups" -- now a common denominator of business and industry, though that was not his original intent (Hollander).

Human interaction and observation were key to Merton in generating his thoughts and concepts. He used logic based on those interactions and observations. It was said of him that most of his conclusions were so common sense and so obviously transparent to anyone -- once he pointed it out -- that one could not imagine not knowing it already.

One classic case of his unmatched sociological insight appeared in one of the graduate student papers he wrote in the mid-1930s titled, "Social Structure and Anomie." He asked himself what might bring on a state of anomie -- the breakdown of social standards that is so severe it threatens to tear apart all social cohesion. Merton indicated that this awful state would arise if and when society's individuals were not allowed to achieve the cultural goals that defined their society -- wealth, power, and fame, for instance.

Middle Range Theories (MRT)

"As to his conception of sociology and its theory, Merton departed markedly from the macro-level approach of Parsons and others. He came to view theory as the development of middle-range propositions. Thus, instead of constructing grand theories of society, theorists were advised to explain a restricted set of social phenomena. These modest explanations were then to be verified through empirical research and then perhaps systematized into theoretical systems of boarder scope and content. Implicit, then, are Merton's assumptions on the integrated nature of society, the need to control the victims of false expectations, and the positivist nature of sociology" (Perdue, p. 84).

While most of the science of sociology depended upon establishing a general foundation for its theories, Merton preferred more limited, empirically-based theories. He thought that sociologists should begin theorizing with specific and defined aspects of social behavior and phenomena rather than the broad and abstract. Merton's theories, in other words, were supported by strong, observed, empirical data. They filled in the gaps between raw observed data and all-encompassing theory.

Undertakings that kept clear of speculation and also avoided long, slow pedestrian examinations that yielded few findings were avoided. Merton much favored those ideas that gave up consequential findings and that further opened areas of inquiry. When he produced writings, they were usually not scientific papers, but rather in essay form to provide for, he said, "more scope for asides and correlatives" (Kaufman).

In other words, Merton denounced both extremes of research -- that based solely on the collection of data and without hypothesis, and the complete theoretical construction of a conclusion, i.e. "the grand theory," without empirical data to back it up. He pointed to those who take on an explanation of the nature of man or nature or God for instance.

His middle theory compromise and solution had as its basis measurable segments of what common sense or reality tells us is authentic. He noted that mid-range theories were significant especially in the areas where the actual practice or performance of the theory can prove or disprove it through empirical data. In the medical field for instance, theories regarding pain management and the study of sleep disorders, only as examples, provide an easy path for applicability of both the abstract theoretical approach as well as observation of empirical data on a "real" basis. In these cases researches are focussed not on the "grand theory" of overall human wellness, and not on just a particular type of pain. It is also a mid-range theory because it does not encompass the totality of all the concerns of the medical field. (McKenna, pp. 144-146)

"Sociological theory, if it is to advance significantly, must proceed on these

interconnected planes: 1. By developing special theories from which to derive hypotheses that can be empirically investigated and 2. By evolving a progressively more general conceptual scheme that is adequate to consolidate groups of special theories"(Merton 1957, p. 51).

Unanticipated Consequences and Manifest and Latent Functions

Many of the most significant contributions Merton made to sociology included the explanation of unanticipated consequences of social activities, and of latent or manifest functions, including dysfunction. Merton explains that unanticipated consequences are those that have both intended and unintended consequences. No one is surprised by intended consequences, but unintended consequences are much more difficult to recognize, and so sociological analysis is required to uncover what they may be.

It was Merton, in his 1936 volume, "The Unanticipated Consequences of Social Action," who uncovered the broad field of activities by humans where things do not go as they should, and strange outcomes are seen.

His "Law of Unintended Consequences" says that most human actions have at least one unintended consequence. Every cause has more than one effect, including those unintended or unforeseen. He specified that when he spoke of human action he meant "purposeful social action," not behavior. He meant that which has motive, and, thus, offers a choice of which action to take. There are, according to Merton, five causes of unintended consequences. The first is ignorance, or the fact that is it simply not possible to anticipate all consequences. The second is error -- incomplete analysis of the situation, or taking reflexive actions that may have worked in the past, but in different types of situations. Immediate interest is the third cause of unintended consequences. In this case, Merton speaks of an overriding desire for the person to act perhaps without consideration at all of long-term concerns. Fourth is an individual's basic values. Those values might prompt or not allow certain actions, even if… [END OF PREVIEW]

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