Sociological Theorists: Robert Merton

By | September 4, 2014

If Parsons became the unacceptable face of structural-functionalism, Merton grew into his role as its more subtle and acceptable interpreter. He was also more interested in Marx than Parsons (Alvin Gouldner was a student). He was critical of the claims that: (a) there is a functional unity to society; (b) all standardized social and cultural forms have positive functions; and (c) all standardized aspects of society represent indispensible parts of a working whole. To Merton all these postulates were non-empirical products of armchair sociology.

According to George Ritzer’s shrewd précis of Merton’s thinking, there is an ideological bias to talk of functions when the focus is only on adaptation or adjustment: the result can only be positive. But structures or institutions can have negative consequences for others; in other words they can be dysfunctional. Slavery was functional for white Southerners profiting from cheap labour for the cotton industry, but dysfunctional in that it rendered them over-dependent on an agrarian economy and unprepared for industrialization. The North/South disparity in industrialization has some of its roots in the dysfunctions of slavery in the South. Merton also identified nonfunctions, or outcomes of irrelevance to the system under consideration. His concept of net balance refers to the relative weight accorded to functions and dysfunctions. He also insisted on recognizing that there are levels of functional analysis: analyses are possible and required of organizations, institutions and groups (indeed of any standardized and repetitive social phenomenon) and not just of ‘society as a whole’ (see Ritzer’s Contemporary Sociological Theory and its Classical Roots).

One of Merton’s enduring distinctions is that between manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions are those that are intended, latent functions those unintended. Returning to slavery, the manifest function was to increase the economic productivity of South, but the latent function was to deliver a large underclass that elevated the status of Southern whites, rich and poor. Merton’s allied notion of unanticipated consequences acknowledges that structures have both intended and unintended consequences. Slavery might have been instituted to strengthen the Southern economy, but its unanticipated consequence was to slow industrialization and, ultimately, to weaken rather than strengthen the region economically. Some sociologists since have regarded the exploration of unintended consequences of social action as of the very essence of the sociological project.

Merton maintained that not all structures are indispensible to the social system. Some can be eliminated. The abandonment of gender and ethic discrimination, for example, would not be dysfunctional. This opens the way for meaningful social change and its adequate theorization.

Blogs are limited excursions. I will concentrate here on Merton’s abiding sociology of deviance, involving an analysis of the relationship of structure, culture and anomie. This, I would suggest, has enduring relevance.

In American society, Merton argued, members share a complex of core values, notably around the ‘American Dream’. However they do not all have the same opportunities to ‘succeed’ in accordance with these values. This may be down to disadvantaging class, ethnic or gender locations for example. This can generate pressures leading to deviance.

The American Dream celebrates wealth and material success. There are, as in all societies (or organizations or groups), institutional means for reaching culturally defined goals such as these (i.e. talent, diligence, educational credentials, drive, determination and ambition). But less importance is attached to these institutional means in American society than to the prepotent cultural values. The result is imbalance and instability. Inevitably, some people opt not to play by the rules. It is in this context that Merton draws on Durkheim’s notion of anomie. Anomie denotes ‘normlessness’. When ‘anything goes’, norms no longer direct behaviour and deviance is encouraged. However, individuals respond to anomie in different ways.

Merton outlined five principal ways in which people in America could respond to the goals of success encapsulated in the American Dream.

CONFORMITY: they could conform both to the success goals and to the accepted institutional route to reach them.

INNOVATION: they could reject the accepted route and turn instead to deviant means, in particular, crime. Merton suggests that in America those most disadvantaged by their social placements face most pressure and are in consequence most likely to turn to crime. This is because most Americans are fully socialized into the American Dream. In Europe, the disadvantaged rarely internalize mainstream success goals so thoroughly, allowing for the emergence of distinctive subcultures with alternative success goals. But it is possible to say that innovators in America have been ‘imperfectly socialized’.

RITUALISM: they could be deviant because they close their ears to or abandon the near-ubiquitous call of the American Dream. Unable to innovate because they have been socialized to conform, thus removing the option to turn to crime, they scale down or abandon their aspirations. They are, in Merton’s account, low-grade-bureaucrats, respectable, but stuck in a rut. Ritualists are deviants because they have turned their backs on America’s pervasive success goals.

RETREATISM: they could internalize the success goals and institutional means to their accomplishment, but yet be unable to achieve success. The homeless, ‘outcasts’, alcoholics and other drug users might fall into this category. They resolve their quandary by abandoning both the goals and the means of reaching them. These ‘drop-outs’ are thus doubly deviant.

REBELLION: they could reject both the prescriptive cultural values and the institutional means to achieve them, but replace them with different goals and means. People in this category aspire to a ‘new society’. It is members of a ‘rising class’ rather than the disadvantaged who are most likely to be rebels.

So, in sum, the culture and structure of a society generate deviance. And in the USA, it is the emphasis on cultural values at the expense of institutional means that creates a tendency to anomie. This tendency translates into pressure to deviate, although one which varies according to social location.

Merton’s theory of deviance has been criticized for neglecting power relations; exaggerating value consensus in the USA; not allowing for politically motivated deviance; and so on. But he tips Parsons out of is armchair and pushes theorizing in the meso-sphere that sits between micro- and macro-sociology

I found his theorizing useful recently when offering a quick-response analysis of the recent London riots in Sociological Research Online. His approach to deviance still has applicability, even if it requires revision by time and place.







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