Monday, May 16, 2005


Merton's Midrange, Latent, Metho v. theo

ROBERT MERTON: Social Theory and Social Structure

Chapter 2: Sociological Theories of the Middle Range

There are two tendencies in sociological inquiry which Merton finds unacceptable and attempts to criticize. One is radical or narrow empiricism which stresses solely on the collection of data without any attention to a theory. The other is the abstract theorizing of scholars who are engaged in the attempt to construct a total theoretical system covering all aspects of social life (e.g. Parsons). Merton proposes sociological theories of the middle range as a solution to the two extreme positions. According to Merton, middle range theory starts its theorizing with delimited aspects of social phenomena rather than with a broad, abstract entity such as society or social system. Middle range theories may seem to be similar to general, total theories in the sense that they also involve abstractions. However, unlike those in the general theories, the abstractions in theories of the middle range are firmly backed up by observed data. Middle range theories have to be constructed with reference to phenomena that are observable in order to generate an array of theoretical problems as well as to be incorporated in propositions that permit empirical testing (39). The examples of middle range theories are a theory of reference groups, of social mobility, of role-conflict, of the formation of social norms, etc. Merton's objective in proposing the notion of middle range theory can be summarized by his statement that:

'Our major task today is to develop special theories applicable to limited conceptual ranges -- theories, for example, of deviant behavior, the unanticipated consequences of purposive action, social perception, reference groups, social control, the interdependence of social institutions -- rather than to seek the total conceptual structure that is adequate to derive these and other theories of the middle range' (51).

'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' (51).

Note: 1. see summary of pros and cons of middle range theory on p. 68 2. see definition and description of paradigm on p. 69-72

Chapter 3: Manifest and Latent Functions

In this chapter, Merton presents a review of chief concepts and modes of reasoning of functional theory. His aim is to improve functional analysis by pointing out its major problems and finding the way to remedy them. According to Merton, all variations of functional analysis always involve two major confusions. One is the tendency to confine observation merely to the contributions of items or practices to the social or cultural system in which they are implicated. The other is the tendency to confuse the subjective category of motive with the objective category of function. To solve these two conceptual confusions, Merton introduces two, new analytical concepts - i.e. the notion of multiple consequences and a new balance of an aggregate consequences to deal with the first problem, and the notion of manifest and latent functions to tackle the second (see summary on p. 105).

1. The Problem of an Overly Positive Interpretation The common tendency among functional analysts to advocate merely the positive contribution of certain items and practices to a social system is based on three fundamental postulates which Merton is to criticize. These three postulates are:
1. The postulate of functional unity of society, or the assumption that in any social system, there exists a certain kind of unity or solidarity which will 'benefit every single member.' Thus, in analyzing certain items or practices, such are always interpreted in references to this unity.
Merton argues against this assumption, saying that one cannot assume 'full' integration of all societies since even a mere institution can tell that different societies do not have the same kind and degree of integration. However, to establish a statement concerning different kinds and a range of degrees of integration, one has to rely mainly on empirical findings, not on intuition.
Finally Merton concludes that in regard to issue of functional unity, functional analysts have to specify which and what kind of social unit/system they are going to analyze. The reason is different social units always have different degrees of integration, and hence the manner in which certain cultural items or practices contribute to differing social units may not be similar. Besides, such items of culture must be recognized to have multiple consequences, some of them functional and others, perhaps, dysfunctional.
2. The postulate of universal functionalism (84), or the assertion that all persisting social and cultural forms are inevitably functional or having a mere positive function to a society (84). Against this postulate, Merton contends that we need to look for the negative or dysfunctional side as well as functional consequences of these forms. And if the sociological research is to have bearing on social technology, sociologists have to be able to assess the net balance of functional consequences, i.e. the sum between the benefit and disadvantage that a certain cultural or social form brings about.
3. The postulate of indispensability, which contains two propositions, namely:
3.1 the indispensability of certain functions, or the assertions that there are certain functions which are indispensable in the sense that unless they are performed, the society will not persist (87). This assertion sets forth a concept of functional prerequisites, or preconditions functionally necessary for a society.
3.2 the indispensability of existing social institutions and cultural forms, or the assertion that the presence of existing cultural or social forms implies their indispensability to a society.
Like his earlier criticism of the first two postulates, the two assertions concerning the postulate of indispensability is refuted by Merton's concept of multiple consequences (i.e. functional and dysfunctional), and the new balance of aggregate consequences.

2. The Confusion Between Subjective Dispositions and Objective Consequences
One of Merton's major contributions to the improvement of functional analysis is his distinction between manifest and latent functions. Merton states that such distinction is devised to preclude the confusion often found between conscious motivations for social behavior and its objective consequences (114). According to Merton, these two entities: motive and functions vary independently. One should not be confused the categories of subjective disposition with categories of generally unrecognized but objective functional consequences.
Manifest functions refer to the objective consequences contributing to the adjustment or adaptation of the system which are intended and recognized by participants in the system. Latent functions, on the other hand, refer to those consequences which are neither intended nor recognized. Merton further clarifies that unintended consequences can be seen as having three sorts of functions (or three ways that they can be related to a social system). These are functional (beneficial), dysfunctional (harmful), and non-functional (irrelevant).

Note: 1. see Merton's clarification of various meanings and usages of the term function which often cause conceptual confusion on p. 74-77.
2. see Merton's interesting discussion about how conservatism and Marxism can be seen as converging and diverging in regard to functional analysis. According to Merton, the logical structure of both conservatism and Marxism are similar in that such a structure is characterized by functional mode of reasoning. The difference between the two lies in their differing ideological content (see details in p. 91-96).

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