Sociology and Anthropology Monday: Robert King Merton

Dropped on:June 17, 2014
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Robert King Merton: (1910-2003) born in Philadelphia on the fourth of July as Meyer Robert Schkolnick to newly immigrated Russian-Jewish parents. Merton changed his name as an amateur magician to this stage name by which he came to be known during his scholarly career. One of the most celebrated sociologists in the mid to late 20th century – he amassed awards and honorary degrees from around the world – but it was his son, Robert C. Merton, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1997.

Merton eschewed the grand theory approach of one of his mentors and advisors, Talcott Parsons, in favour of a theory of the middle range, under the influence of his colleague, Paul Lazarsfeld, at the Bureau of Applied Research at Columbia University of which Merton was associate director. In addition to middle range sociological theory, Merton was known as an originator of the sociology of science as an offshoot of the sociology of knowledge which was developed further in the US by Kurt Wollf and Gerard DeGré among others. His dissertation was published under the title Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England in 1938 in which he argued that one of the influences on the development of modern science in England was Puritanism although he also emphasized the development of technology and military imperatives as important considerations. Merton continued his interest in the sociology of science throughout the course of his lengthy career.

Deviance was another field of interest to which he made significant contributions. Durkheim’s ideas influenced Merton through one of his first professors in sociology, George E. Simpson, Durkheim’s first significant American translator. It was also in 1938 that Merton published his first celebrated paper on deviance in the American Sociological Review: Social Structure and Anomie. Merton began his seminal essay with a reference to a psychoanalytic understanding of deviance, citing Ernest Jones, according to whom deviance results when biologically driven impulses break through the civilized norms of society. Merton does not challenge this view but he asks about the non-biologically generated viz. the social patterns which generate the “infringement of social codes” as a normal response to those same social patterns. According to Merton, deviance is a normal response in modern American society when socially dominant goals cannot be attained by the available socially appropriate means to achieve them in a society in which those goals are widely nd deeply shared. Merton examines a variety of behaviour patterns according to whether goals and means are accepted or rejected. The word anomie in the title of the essay was borrowed from Durkheim and the search for the social structures which generated the normal responses under conditions of blocked mobility or the rejection of socially held goals or both could have been influenced by Simmel’s theory of the forms of sociation.

Talcott Parsons was another major influence on Merton, although the latter did not subscribe to all the principles of Parsonian functionalism. In developing a theory of function and dysfunction, Merton tried to account for the possibility of conflict and of social change which orthodox Parsonians had trouble explaining from within the system. Another important feature of Merton’s understanding of society concerns his distinction between manifest and latent functions, a distinction which he explicitly derived from Freud, probably from the manifest and latent content of dreams. Although already prominently employed by Durkheim, especially in his last major work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Merton’s terminology gave the distinction a crispy formulation, which had to that point been lacking. (Merton also cites the work of G.H. Mead, Sumner, MacIver and Thomas and Znaniecki applying the same distinction without using the terms he had coined). The manifest functions are the conscious, purposeful and stated reasons for the social action; the latent functions are the unconscious, unstated, spontaneous grounds of social practices that it is incumbent upon sociologists to uncover.

Related to the distinction between manifest and latent functions is Merton’s idea of unintended consequences of purposeful social action which Merton first developed in 1936. Although, as Merton himself admits, many thinkers had taken up this matter in their writings, he was seeking to systematically investigate the typologies of unintended consequences following from purposeful social action. This essay can be read as another attempt to bolster a psychoanalytic approach to the unintended (read unconscious) consequences of purposeful action by means of a sociologically grounded approach.


Robert K. Merton. (1936). The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action, American Sociological Review. Vol. 1, no. 6: pp. 894-904

Robert K. Merton. (1938). Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review, Vol. 3, No. 5: pp. 672-682

Robert K. Merton. (1938). Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England, Osiris, Vol. IV, pt. 2., Bruges: St. Catherine Press.

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