Robert merton july 4, 1910 February 23, 2003 biographical background born

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  • July 4, 1910 –
  • February 23, 2003


  • Born Meyer R. Schkolnick in Philadelphia to working class Jewish Eastern European immigrant parents.
  • A frequent visitor of the nearby Carnegie Library, The Academy of Music, Central Library, and the Museum of the Arts.
  • Changed his name while working as an amateur magician in high school.
  • Began his sociological career at Temple University studying with George E. Simpson and then under Pitrim A. Sorokin at Harvard.
  • Greatly influenced by Sorokin who chaired his dissertation committee, along with Carle Zimmerman, George Sarton, and Talcott Parsons.
  • Dissertation was on the social history of the scientific development in England in the seventeenth-century.
  • Merton’s second marriage was to fellow sociologist Harriet Zuckerman.
  • He had one son and two daughters, including Robert C. Merton, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in economics.


  • Taught at Harvard, then as professor and chairman of the Department of Sociology at Tulane University (1939).
  • 1941- joined the faculty of Columbia University, became Giddings Professor of Sociology in 1963.
  • 1974 - achieved the highest rank at Columbia University as a University Professor and later a Special Service Professor upon retirement in 1979.
  • One of the first sociologists elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
  • First American sociologist elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
  • Member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Education, and Academica Europaea .
  • 1961 – received a Guggenheim fellowship
  • 1983-88 – the first sociologist to be named a MacArthur Fellow
  • Awarded honorary degrees from over twenty institutions including Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, and many universities abroad
  • 1994 – received the U.S. National Medal of Science, the first sociologist to receive this award


  • Social Theory and Social Structure (1949, 1957. 1968)
  • The Sociology of Science (1973)
  • Sociological Ambivalence (1976)
  • On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandea Postscript (1985)
  • The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science (2004)


  • Theories of the middle range
    • “Fills in the blanks” between Abstracted Empiricism and Grand (all-inclusive) Theory (C. Wright Mill’s terms).
    • Influenced by Weber and Durkheim.
  • Functional and Dysfunctional analysis
    • Functionalism is central to interpreting data based upon consequences for larger structures.
    • Society is analyzed with reference to cultural and social structures in regard to how well or badly they are integrated.
    • Implies that all institutions are inherently serving for society, emphasizing the importance and existence of dysfunctions.
    • Approaches conflict theory.
    • Can explain and discover alternatives to dysfunction only if the dysfunctional aspects of institutions are recognized.
    • Influenced by Durkheim and Parsons.

MAJOR THEORIES (continued)

  • Manifest and latent functions
    • Manifest functions: expected or observed consequences
    • Latent functions: those that are not recognized or intended.
    • Attention to latent functions increases understanding of the larger society in going beyond individual motivation.
    • Says that dysfunctions can also be manifest or latent
  • Functional alternatives
    • Societies must have certain characteristics to ensure survival
    • Emphasizes that other institutions are able to fulfill the same functions
    • Important because this “reduces the tendency of functionalism to imply approval of the status quo”


  • What are Dysfunctions?
  • Defined as the consequences of a social practice or behavior pattern that undermines the stability of a social system.
  • Merton paid especial attention to their existence.
  • Important to be alert to and pay attention to the dysfunctional aspects of social practices and institutions.
  • Noticing dysfunctional aspects of society helps to explain the development and persistence of alternatives, often initially seen as problematical and or deviant.


  • Sociological Theory in general refers to logically interconnected sets of propositions from which empirical uniformities can be derived.
  • Theories of the middle range-lie between the minor but necessary working hypotheses that evolve in abundance during day-to-day research and the all-inclusive systematic efforts to develop a unified theory that will explain all the observed uniformities of social behavior, social organization, and social change


  • Theories of the Middle Range are principally used in sociology to guide specific empirical inquiries.
  • Such theories are more than simply empirical generalizations - isolated propositions that summarize the observed uniformities of relationships between two or more variables.


  • Re-conceptualizes Durkheim's concept of Anomie.
  • Not necessarily an overall, or even localized breakdown in the normative structure.
  • The cultural system and social structure of society is basically intact, workable, functional.
  • In fact, to a certain extent, deviance represents the functionality of the system as an expression of functional alternatives.
  • Basic Premise: A disjuncture within the cultural system between the Goals (values) which define our lives and the culturally determined, institutionalized, legitimate Means (norms) for achieving them.


  • Merton argues that deviance results from the culture and structure of society itself. He begins from the standard functionalist position of value consensus – that is, all members of society share the same values.
  • Since members of society are placed in different positions in the social structure (e.g. they differ in terms of class position), they do not have the same opportunity of realizing the shared values. This situation can generate deviance.


  • Members of American society share the major values of American culture, particularly the goal of success, largely measured in terms of wealth and material possessions.
  • In America the accepted ways of achieving success are through education, talent, hard work, drive, determination and ambition.
  • In a balanced society an equal emphasis is placed upon both cultural goals and institutionalized means, and members are satisfied with both. In American society great importance is attached to success; less is attached to how you achieve success.
  • Therefore, there is a tendency to “reject the rules of the game” and strive for success by any means necessary. In this situation where “anything goes,” norms no longer direct behaviour, and deviance is tolerated if not encouraged.
  • (Adopted by Merton)

Merton’s Typology of Individual Adaptation explanation of deviant behavior

  • Modes of Adaptation
  • Institutionalized Means
  • Cultural Goals
  • Conformity
  • +
  • +
  • Innovation
  • -
  • +
  • Ritualism
  • +
  • -
  • Retreatism
  • -
  • -
  • Rebellion
  • -/+
  • -/+
  • + = acceptance
  • - = rejection
  • +/- = rejection of current values, replacement with others


  • Social order is maintained because modal behavior of members represent the cultural patterns, even if they are secularly changing.
  • Behavior  basic values  society
    • Society does NOT exist if there is no “deposit of values” shared by interacting individuals.
  • These values are the most common and widely diffused.
  • They keep society “rolling”


  • Members of society conform both to the goals of success and the normative means of reaching them. They strive for
  • success by means of accepted norms and channels.


  • Emphasis on success-goal  “wealth and power”
  • “occurs when the individual has assimilated the cultural emphasis upon the Goal without equally internalizing the institutional Norms governing ways and means for its attainment.”
  • Drives both: business-like striving on one side of mores and sharp “creative” practices on the other side of the mores….


  • This response rejects the normative means of achieving success and turns to deviant means, always questionable, often criminal.
  • "Bernie" Madoff: former stockbroker, investment advisor, financier, and the former non-executive chairman of the NASDAQ stock market, and the convicted operator of the Ponzi scheme considered to be the largest financial fraud – $18 billion – in in U.S. history!


  • Scaling down/abandoning cultural goals for personal aspirations.
    • Although attempting not to accept cultural influences, abiding by institutional norms.
  • Not generally considered to represent a social problem.
  • Fairly frequent because dependent upon individua lack of achievement or ambition.
  • Ritualist: familiar and instructive comments: - “I’m satisfied with what I’ve got.” - “Don’t aim high and you won’t be disappointed.” - “I just work here; I don’t make the rules.”


  • Serves as a private escape:
    • Avoids dangers and frustrations of cultural norms.
    • Holds on to safe routines and institutional norms.
  • Often found in the Lower-Middle Class, when
    • Parents exert pressure to children about moral mandates of society.
    • Upward social mobility not easy to obtain.


  • Ritualism: those who select this alternative are deviant because they have largely abandoned the commonly held cultural goals of success.


  • May be least common form of adaptation
  • in the society but not of it”
    • outcasts, vagabonds, chronic drunkards, drug addicts, street people, etc.
  • Individuals have assimilated standards of both cultural goals and institutional means  but they not accessible  individual is shut off.
  • Escape mechanisms: defeatism, quietism, resignation, detachment.


  • Solution for deviant person: abandon both goals and means and become asocial.
  • Condemned because represents a “non-productive liability.”
  • Positive side – minimal frustrations while seeking unattainable rewards.
  • Negative side – socially disinherited.
  • Adaptations are largely private and isolated.


  • Applies to ‘psychotics, autistics, pariahs, outcasts, vagrants, vagabonds, tramps, drug addicts and chronic drunkards.’ They have internalized both the cultural goals and the institutionalized means, yet are unable to achieve success, and so withdraw.


  • Collective adaptation.
    • Involves genuine transvaluation.
    • Experience of frustration leads to full denunciation of previously prized values.
  • Key difference: resentment condemns the object being craved; rebellion condemns craving.
  • More likely to occur if the institutional system is a barrier to satisfying goals.
  • Goal is to stay a part of society, but transition to an alternative social group.


  • It is a rejection of both the success goals and the institutionalized means, and it replaces them with different goals and means.



  • Crucial innovation to the field of Sociology to look at unanticipated consequences.
  • Social actions have both intended and unintended consequences.
  • Requires sociological analysis to discover.
  • Can be both negative and beneficial.
  • Example:
  • Aspirin, used most commonly as pain reliever
  • Unanticipated consequence: aspirin is also an anti-coagulant which can help reduce the risk of a heart-attack.
  • In WW II, many battles took place on or near the shore.
  • Artillery on land firing at a battleship at sea with the intention of sinking the ship.
  • SINK IT!
  • Beneficial Consequence
  • The sinking battleships created a permanent home to the creatures of the sea as it acted as an artificial coral reef.
  • Negative Consequence
  • The oil from the battleships pollute the ocean water. This can lead to environmental hazards and to the death of many species.


  • There is often confusion between the conscious motivations of social behavior and its objective consequences.
  • Difference between motives and functions:
    • Manifest Functions: intended and objective consequences for a specified unit (person, subgroup, social or cultural system) which contribute to its adjustment or adaptation.
    • Latent Functions: unintended and unrecognized consequences.


  • Clarifies the analysis of seemingly irrational data:
    • When group behavior does not attain its supposed purpose, there is an inclination to attribute its occurrence to lack of intelligence, innocence, naiveté.
    • Concept of latent functions extends beyond whether or not behavior attained its purpose.
    • Directs attention towards individual personalities involved in behavior, and the persistence and continuity of the larger group.


    • #1. Hopi rain dance does not produce rainfall, so it is labeled as superstitious and the Hopi people are viewed as ignorant or primitive.
    • However, the Hopi rain dance ceremonial has non- purposed, latent functions - reinforces group identity, reaffirms group norms, provides a communal experience of the Sacred with all that implies.
    • #2. As recently as the 1980’s the average birth rate in the India was 4.6 children per family, resulting in an apparent national overpopulation and so was seen as irrational and counter-productive to social development.
  • What’s a functional explanation…?

A functional explanation…

    • In the 1980’s the average Indian male could expect a number of years of unemployment when he got older. India had no social security program and the typical worker did not earn enough to save for these unemployed years. His only hope, then was to be provided for by his children. It took an average of 1.1 wage earners to support one unemployed adult at minimum subsistence, but because it takes two to produce a child, each family needed at least 2.2 wage-earning children. Because half the children born were female, and females were essentially unemployable in India at the time, 4.4 children were required. To cover infant and child mortality, this number had to be adjusted upward to 4.6 children. Clearly, nobody was figuring this out on an explicit basis. It represents a dramatic example of a latent social phenomenon, both functional and dysfunctional.
  • If confined to the study of manifest functions:
    • the sociologist will be concerned with determining whether a practice instituted for a particular purpose does, in fact, achieve this purpose.
  • Once expanded to the study of latent functions:
    • the sociologist will examine familiar (or planned) social practices to determine the latent, unrecognized, functions and make distinctive intellectual contributions


  • Findings concerning latent functions represent an increment in knowledge because they describe practices and beliefs in terms which are not common knowledge.
  • They preclude the substitution of naïve moral judgments for thoughtful sociological analysis.
  • Naïve moral judgments in society usually result from the manifest consequences of a social practice or code of behavior not critically examined.


  • Analysis in terms of latent functions, then, often runs counter to the prevailing moral evaluations.
  • Considered from the functional viewpoint:
    • Persistent social patterns and social structures perform positive functions which, at the time, are not adequately fulfilled by other existing patterns and structures.
    • Publicly criticized behaviors and organizations – often defined as deviant – are, under present conditions, very likely satisfying basic and important latent functions.



  • “opposing normative tendencies in the social definition of a role or status”
  • Individuals as
  • Status-Occupants
  • status-sets role-sets
  • norm-clusters



  • In its most extended form: Incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs, and behavior are assigned to a status or to a set of statuses.
  • In its most restricted form:
  • Incompatible normative expectations are incorporated within a single role of a single status.


  • Conflict among statuses within a status-set: a pattern of conflict of interests or of values within the status-set.
  • Conflict between several roles associated with a particular status.
  • Contradictions among general cultural values held by all members of society, i.e., not specific to a particular status.


  • Conflict or disjunction between culturally prescribed aspirations and socially structured avenues for realizing these aspirations (the opportunity structure).
  • Contradiction or conflict between cross-cultural statuses.
  • Contradiction or conflict between reference group anchors or identifications.


  • Begins with the concept that each social status involves not a single associated role, but an array of roles (a role-set).
  • Example: A medical student plays not only the role of student vis-à-vis the correlative status of his teachers but also an array of other roles relating diversely to others in the system: other medical students, physicians, nurses, social workers, medical technicians, non-medical students, university administrative personnel, and the like.


  • Role-Set theory raises the general problem of identifying the social mechanisms which create and alleviate conflict.
  • Illustrates another aspect of sociological theories of the middle range.
  • Largely consistent with a variety of schools of sociological theory: Marxist theory, structural functional analysis, social behaviorism, Sorokin’s integral sociology, and Parson’s s theory of action.


  • There is always a potential for differing expectations among those in a role-set as to what is appropriate conduct for a status-occupant given that other members of a role-set hold various social positions differing from those of the status-occupant in question.
  • This gives rise to a double question: What social mechanisms, if any, operate to counteract the potential instability of role-sets and, correlatively, under which circumstances do these social mechanisms fail to operate, with resulting inefficiency, confusion, and conflict?
  • Obligations and Responsibilities
  • Normative Expectations (Rules)
  • Cognitive Attributes: Beliefs, Values,
  • Motivations and Attitudes
  • Interests
  • Social Capital
  • Power & Authority
  • Obligations and Responsibilities
  • What am I supposed to do?
  • Where do these come from?
  • How do they change over historical
  • time? – e.g., fathers and parenting.
  • Individuals who occupy a given status
  • must take these into account.
  • The extent to which individuals who
  • occupy a given status live up to the
  • responsibilities and obligations that
  • are called for varies.
  • Normative Expectations (Rules)
  • How am I supposed to do all this?
  • Guidelines, rules for social conduct.
  • They indicate how one “ought” to act or
  • behave in social settings:
  • Prescribed - Proscribed
  • Permitted - Preferred
  • Norms vary from one culture to another.
  • Norms vary from one sub-culture to another.
  • Norms vary over historical time.
  • Normative Expectations (Rules)
  • How am I supposed to do all this?
  • Do not confuse “norms” with actual
  • action or behavior.
  • The extent to which people consider
  • norms legitimate varies.
  • The extent to which people comply with
  • norms varies.
  • Norms vary in their importance:
  • Folkways - norms for routine or casual interactions
  • Mores - norms derived from moral values Taboos - norms that place behavior out of bounds
  • Laws - norms that are codified and are sanctioned
  • Obligations and Responsibilities
  • [What am I supposed to do?]
  • Normative Expectations (Rules)
  • [How am I supposed to do all this?]
  • Cognitive Attributes: Beliefs, Values,
  • Motivations and Attitudes
  • S
  • T
  • A
  • B
  • I
  • L
  • I
  • T
  • Y
  • Whether we recognize it or not, we
  • possess a vast storehouse of “social
  • knowledge” and, to varying degrees,
  • know what is expected of us & what to expect of others.
  • Mutually reinforcing and reciprocal
  • Expectations.
  • Interests
  • Conflict is built into society
  • Conflict is built into the very fabric of
  • society. It is as normal - and healthy - as
  • the air we breathe and usually occurs
  • in socially patterned ways.
  • By virtue of occupying different
  • Positions, people will have different sets of
  • LEGITIMATE interests, values and
  • attitudes.
  • Thus a great deal of conflict in society is structured: it is the result of people – status-occupants – trying to live up to the expectations placed upon them.
  • Interests
  • Conflict is built into society
  • If conflict is built into the very fabric of
  • society, how is it managed?
  • How are conflicts – whether legitimate or
  • not – resolved?
  • What are the patterns and functions of
  • conflict?
  • Power & Authority Both are necessary for society
  • Power: the capacity to impose one’s will
  • over others, even against the resistance
  • of others; coercion.
  • Authority: the capacity to have others
  • comply with your wishes - even if they
  • would prefer not to - because they
  • recognize the legitimacy of the request.
  • Power and authority are usually not individual attributes, they are located in the positions people occupy; i.e., U.S. President.
  • The extent to which power and authority are exercised by status-occupants varies.
  • Power and authority are not equally
  • distributed in all social statuses:
  • employer - employee
  • male - female
  • professor - student
  • dean - professor
  • wealthy - poor
  • white - non-white
  • As a result, we should expect to find different outcomes in society, as indeed we do:
  • racial disparities in criminal sentencing
  • unequal pay for men and women
  • Power & Authority Both are necessary for society
  • Social Capital
  • Access to Opportunities and Resources
  • Inequality is built into society
  • “Central or Controlling Statuses”
  • Different statuses provide occupants
  • different degrees of access to resources
  • and opportunities - some more, some
  • less. Examples: the double standard the opportunity structure the glass ceiling
  • Status-sets
  • Master Status: that status within an individual’s status-set that has special importance for social identity, often shaping a person’s entire life.
  • Dominant Status: that status within an individual’s status-set that is given priority when the behavioral expectations associated with two or more statuses come into conflict.
  • Salient Status: that status within an individual’s status-set that is elicited in a particular situation.



THE STATUE WITHIN: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY François Jacob (1920 – 2013)

  • In the following excerpt, Professor of Medicine François Jacob and Nobel Prize Laureate reflects on what has been an obviously dramatic life.
  • I have portrayed his “series of selves” as a series of statuses which he has occupied and/or transitioned through in his life sequence….

I see my life less as continuity than as a series of different selves – I might almost say strangers.

  • I see my life less as continuity than as a series of different selves – I might almost say strangers.
  • At the end of the line, I see the little boy, the only child, cajoled by a sweet mother, spoiled by all, playing (too often alone) while mouthing words that he tries out and twists ad infinitum. Then comes the adolescent, swollen with vanity, full of ambition, a shade backward with girls.
  • Then, the medical student preparing to become a surgeon.
  • The fighting man of the Free French forces, thrown across North Africa with an infantry battalion from Chad.
  • The wreck of a man, lacerated by grenades, who returns to Paris and make a stab at 10 different professions.
  • The beginner at the Pasteur Institute, discovering in awe the world of research and biology.
  • All this gang marching in single file….

François Jacob…

  • I have trouble imaging that, when the name Francois Jacob is called, all these selves can leap up and answer, “Present!”
  • When I come across my name in a report card, a military document, or an old newspaper article, it seems to refer to fellows who happen to have the same name as I. Would I recognize them if I passed them on the street?
  • Like the bird contemplating the shell it has just broken out of, and saying, “Me? In there? Never!”
  • Age:
  • 54
  • Husband
  • Father
  • Race:
  • “White”
  • Professor
  • Friend
  • Status-sets
  • “identities”
  • Executive
  • Director
  • Since individuals occupy multiple statuses, which specific status becomes activated at any given time? How is this “socially negotiated” by partners in interactions? How are discrepant activations resolved?
  • Status-Activation & “Salient Statuses”
  • Age:
  • 54
  • Husband
  • Father
  • Race:
  • “White”
  • Professor
  • Friend
  • Status-sets
  • “identities”
  • Executive
  • Director
  • Since individuals occupy multiple statuses they are subject to cross-pressures: expectations to comply with contending expectations of different statuses.
  • to what extent are the beliefs, values
  • attitudes, interests and social standing
  • attached to different statuses in an
  • individual’s status-set consistent?
  • …and then how are the inevitable inconsistencies that arise managed?
  • Status-consistency
  • Status-sets
  • Age:
  • 54
  • Husband
  • Father
  • Race:
  • “White”
  • Professor
  • Friend
  • Status-conflict; Status-strain
  • Executive
  • Director
  • Conflict: living up to the demands and obligations of one status precludes fulfilling the demands and obligations of another status.
  • Strain: fulfilling all of the various status demands and
  • obligations, but at less than peak effectiveness – having to prioritize, make trade offs, cut corners.
  • Role-conflict or
  • Role-strain
  • Status-conflict or
  • Status-strain
  • Professor
  • Students
  • Colleagues
  • Deans
  • Support
  • Staff
  • Community
  • Role-set of the status of “Professor”
  • (each with a variable “person-set)






  • • Size or Volume – the number of roles in the role-set.
  • • Elasticity – the degree to which the role can be readily expanded.
  • • Visibility – the degree to which the whole set of roles can be seen by other role occupants.
  • • Prior Assignment (Priority) – the order in which the roles have accumulated in the role-set.
  • • Consistency – the degree to which the roles require divergent activities. • Differential Involvement (Role Distance) – the degree to which the role occupant is invested in and/or identified with the role.


  • Aggregative:
  • • Size – the number of statuses held by an individual.
  • • Variability – the degree to which they are different from each other.
  • • Empirical Duration (newness, recentcy) – sequence in which acquired.
  • • Expected Duration – how long the status will last.
  • • Rank Consistency (congruency) – degree to which the statuses are of similar social rank.


  • Emergent:
  • • Social or Structural Differentiation – the degree to which statuses vary from one another.
  • • Integration (substantive consistency, modal frequency) – the degree to which the required status activities do not conflict with one another.
  • • Visibility (identifiability) – the degree to which they can be seen by other status occupants.
  • • Hierarchical Sequence – rank order within the status-set itself.
  • • Dominance (primacy) – which status takes priority over others.
  • • Centrality/Controlling (access) – degree to which a status controls access to other statuses.
  • • Salient (activated) – a particular status precipitated due to interaction in a specific context.


  • ● Person-Set: The number of persons with whom interaction occurs in a specific status.
  • ● Cross-cutting Statuses: Statuses which are identical with other persons’ status sets.
  • ● Cue-emitting: Self-presentations which provide role and/or status information to others.
  • ● Cue-searching: Gathering role and/or status information from the self-presentation of others
  • ● Status Judges: Status positions whose occupants determine entry or exit to specific statuses

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