Robert K. Merton

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Table of contents

    If you have not already, you will likely come across Robert Merton during your sociological studies. In this article, we will look at the following:

    • The life and background of American sociologist Robert K. Merton, including his fields of study
    • His contribution to the field of sociology and some of his main theories, including the strain theory, deviant typology, and dysfunction theory
    • Some criticisms of his work

    Robert K. Merton: background and history

    Robert K. Merton, black and white image of Robert Merton, StudySmarterProfessor Robert K. Merton has made several key contributions to sociology.

    Early life and education

    Robert King Merton, usually referred to as Robert K. Merton, was an American sociologist and professor. He was born as Meyer Robert Schkolnick in Pennsylvania, USA on 4 July 1910. His family was originally Russian, although they immigrated to the USA in 1904. At the age of 14, he changed his name to Robert Merton, which was actually an amalgamation of the names of famous magicians. Many believe this had to do with his career as a teenage amateur magician!

    Merton completed his undergraduate studies at Temple College for undergraduate work and postgraduate studies at Harvard University, where he eventually earned his doctorate degree in sociology in the year 1936.

    Career and later life

    After receiving a PhD, Merton went on to join Harvard's faculty, where he taught until 1938 before becoming the Chairman of the Tulane University Department of Sociology. He spent a large part of his career teaching and even attained the rank of ‘University Professor' at Columbia University in 1974. He finally retired from teaching in 1984.

    During his lifetime, Merton received many awards and honours. Chief among these was the National Medal of Science, which he received in 1994 for his contribution to sociology and for his 'Sociology of Science'. He was, in fact, the first sociologist to receive the award.

    Throughout his illustrious career, more than 20 universities awarded him honorary degrees, including Harvard, Yale and Columbia. He also served as the 47th President of the American Sociological Association. Due to his contributions, he is widely regarded as a founding father of modern sociology.

    Personal life

    In 1934, Merton married Suzanne Carhart. They had one son - Robert C. Merton, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Economics, and two daughters, Stephanie Merton Tombrello and Vanessa Merton. After his separation from Carhart in 1968, Merton married his fellow sociologist Harriet Zuckerman in 1993. On February 23, 2003, Merton died at the age of 92 in New York. His wife and he had three children, nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, all of whom survive him now.

    Robert Merton's social theory and social structure

    Merton wore many hats - sociologist, educator, and academic statesman.

    While sociology of science remained the field closest to Merton’s heart, his contributions deeply shaped developments in numerous fields such as bureaucracy, deviance, communications, social psychology, social stratification and social structure.

    Robert K. Merton's contribution to sociology

    Let's go over some of Merton's main contributions and sociological theories.

    Robert Merton's strain theory

    According to Merton, social inequality can sometimes create situations in which people experience a strain between the goals they should be working towards (such as financial success) and the legitimate means they have available to meet those goals. These strains can then pressurise individuals into committing crimes.

    Merton noticed that the high rates of crime in American society were because of the strain between the achievement of the American Dream (wealth and comfortable living) and the difficulty for the minority groups in achieving it.

    Strains may be of two types:

    • Structural - this refers to processes at the societal level that filter down and affect how an individual perceives their needs

    • Individual - this refers to the frictions and pains experienced by an individual as they look for ways to satisfy individual needs

    Robert K. Merton's deviance typology

    Merton argued that individuals in the lower rung of society can respond to this strain in a number of ways. Different goals and different access to the means to achieve those goals combine to create different categories of deviance.

    Merton theorised five types of deviance:

    • Conformity - the acceptance of the cultural goals and means of attaining those goals.

    • Innovation - the acceptance of cultural goals but a rejection of the traditional or legitimate means of attaining those goals.

    • Ritualism - the rejection of cultural goals but the acceptance of the means for achieving the goals.

    • Retreatism - the rejection of not only the cultural goals but also the traditional means of achieving said goals

    • Rebellion - a form of retreatism in which, in addition to a rejection of both cultural goals and means of achieving them, one tries to replace both with different goals and means

    Robert K. Merton, Illustration of criminal with symbols alongside him, StudySmarterThe strain theory provided that strains in society led to people committing crimes to meet their goals.

    Structural functionalism

    Until the 1960s, functionalist thought was the leading theory in sociology. Two of its most prominent supporters were Talcott Parsons (1902- 79) and Merton.

    Merton’s main contribution to structural functionalism was his clarification and codification of functional analysis. To rectify the gaps in the theory as proposed by Parsons, Merton argued for middle-range theories. He provided the most significant criticisms of Parson's systems theory by analysing three key assumptions made by Parsons:

    Let's go over these in turn.

    Indispensability

    Parsons assumed that all structures in society are functionally indispensable in their existing form. Merton, however, argued that this is an untested assumption. He argued that the same functional requirement may be met by a range of alternative institutions. For example, communism can provide a functional alternative to religion.

    Functional unity

    Parsons assumed that all parts of the society are integrated into a single whole or unity with each part functional for the rest. Thus, if one part changes, it will have a knock-on effect on other parts.

    Merton criticised this and instead argued that while this may be true for smaller societies, parts of newer, more complex societies may indeed be independent of others.

    Universal functionalism

    Parsons assumed that everything in the society performs a positive function for the society as a whole.

    However, Merton argued that some aspects of society may actually be dysfunctional for the society. Instead, he suggested that functionalist analysis should proceed from the assumption that any part of society may be either functional, dysfunctional or non-functional.

    Let us explore this in more detail below.

    Robert K. Merton's dysfunction theory

    Merton considered it important to note that one social fact can possibly have negative consequences for another social fact. From this, he developed the idea of dysfunction. Thus, his theory is that - similar to how societal structures or institutions could contribute to the maintenance of certain other parts of the society, they could also most definitely have negative consequences for them.

    As a further clarification to this, Merton theorised that a social structure may be dysfunctional for the system as a whole and yet continue to exist as part of this society. Can you think of an appropriate example for this?

    A good example is discrimination against females. While this is dysfunctional for society, it is generally functional for males and continues to be a part of our society to date.

    Merton stressed that the foremost goal of functional analysis is to identify these dysfunctions, examine how they are contained in the socio-cultural system, and understand how they cause a fundamental systemic change in society.

    Robert K. Merton, Illustration of scared woman with fingers pointing at her, StudySmarterThe dysfunction theory provided that while discrimination against women may be dysfunctional to society, it is functional for men.

    Sociology and science

    An interesting part of Merton's contribution was his study of the relationship between sociology and science. His doctoral thesis was titled 'Sociological Aspects of Scientific Development in Seventeenth-Century England', whose revised version was published in 1938.

    In this work, he explored the interdependent relationship between the development of science and the religious beliefs that are associated with Puritanism. His conclusion was that factors such as religion, culture and economic influences impacted science and allowed it to grow.

    Thereafter, he published several articles analysing the social contexts of scientific advancement. In his 1942 article, he explained how the "social institution of science involves a normative structure that works to support the goal of science—the extension of certified knowledge."

    Notable concepts

    Apart from the above theories and discussions, Merton developed certain notable concepts that are still used in today's study of sociology. Some of them are - 'unintended consequences', 'reference group', 'role strain', 'role model' and perhaps most famously, 'self-fulfilling prophecy' - which is a central element in modern sociological, economic, and political theory.

    Major publications

    In a scholarly career spanning more than seven decades, Merton authored many pieces of academic writing that are still widely referred to. Some notable ones are:

    • Social Theory and Social Structure (1949)

    • The Sociology of Science (1973)

    • Sociological Ambivalence (1976)

    • On The Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript (1985)

    Criticisms of Merton

    Much like any other sociologist, Merton was not safe from critiques. To understand this, let us look at two major criticisms of his work -

    • Brym and Lie (2007) argued that the strain theory overemphasises the role of social class in crime and deviance. Merton theorised that the strain theory applies best to lower classes since they usually struggle with the lack of resources and life chances to fulfil their goals. However, if we examine the wide spectrum oof crimes, crimes considered as white-collar crimes form a large part of deviant behaviour and are committed by the upper and middle class, who do not suffer from a lack of resources.

    • On a similar note, O’Grady (2011) identified not all crimes can be explained using Merton’s strain theory. For example - crimes such as rape cannot be explained as a requirement to fulfil a goal. They are inherently malicious and non-utilitarian.

    Robert K. Merton - Key takeaways

    • Robert K. Merton was a sociologist, educator and academic statesman.
    • While sociology of science remained the field closest to Merton’s heart, his contributions deeply shaped developments in numerous fields such as - bureaucracy, deviance, communications, social psychology, social stratification and social structure.
    • Due to his contributions, he is widely regarded as a founding father of modern sociology.
    • Some of his major contributions to the field of sociology include, the strain theory and deviance typology, dysfunction theory, social institutional of science and notable concepts such as 'self-fulfilling prophecy'.
    • Much like any other sociologist, his work also had certain criticisms and limitations.

    References

    1. Science and Technology in a Democratic Order (1942)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Robert K. Merton

    What was Robert Merton's main contribution to sociology?

    Robert Merton's main contribution to sociology can arguably be the strain theory of social structure.

    What is Robert Merton's theory?

    As per Merton's strain theory, social inequality can sometimes create situations in which people experience anomalies or strain between the goals they should be working towards and the legitimate means they possess to achieve such goals. These anomalies or strains can then pressurise individuals into committing crimes.  

    What is the contribution of Robert Merton in structural functionalism?

    Merton’s main contribution to structural functionalism was his clarification and codification of functional analysis. To rectify the gaps in the theory as proposed by Parsons, Merton argued for middle-range theories. He provided the most significant criticisms of Parson's systems theory by analysing three key assumptions made by Parsons:


    • Indispensability
    • Functional Unity
    • Universal Functionalism

    What are the five components of Robert Merton's strain theory?

    The strain theory proposes five types of deviance:


    • Conformity 
    • Innovation 
    • Ritualism
    • Retreatism 
    • Rebellion

    What are the major aspects of Robert Merton's functional analysis?

    Merton considered it important to note that one social fact can possibly have negative consequences for another social fact. From this, he developed the idea of dysfunction. Thus, his theory is that - similar to how societal structures or institutions could contribute to the maintenance of certain other parts of the society, they could also most definitely have negative consequences for them.

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