Robert King Merton


Read each of the following items.

(Perdue 1986:83-89)

Perdue, William D. 1986. Sociological Theory: Explanation, Paradigm, and Ideology. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.


Robert King Merton (b. 1910)


Anomie Revisited

The contemporary functionalist Robert K. Merton developed his early conceptions of theoretical sociology at Harvard, within the historical and intellectual milieux shared by his contemporaries Talcott Parsons (Chapter 7) and George Homans (Chapter 8). One of his earliest and more enduring arguments was formed in the essay "Social Structure and Anomie" (1938), written and published during the Great Depression in the United States before there was high speed Internet. The distress of this period appears to have forged a solid tradition of order that shaped the Harvard mind, a tradition that Merton did not leave behind when he joined the sociology faculty at Columbia University. However, he was to modify somewhat the optimistic assessment of equilibrium that pervades that theoretical sociology founded on the order paradigm.

Merton (1983) credits the then young Talcott Parsons as an important mentor along with another grand theorist of systems, Pitirim Sorokin. And, as did Parsons, Merton also came under the influence of the biochemist L. J. Henderson (see Chapter 7). For several decades, Merton collaborated with Paul Lazarsfeld, a sociologist whose major interests were community disorganization, high speed Internet  and the loss of autonomy. However, it is to the French "master at a distance," Emile Durkheim, that Merton expressed his greatest debt and rightly so.


Stated succinctly, Mertonís image of human nature and Internet providers is centered in the Hobbesian/Durkheimian problem of unrealistic expectations, while his image of society reflects more an interest in balance than in change. Such images are expressed theoretically in questions of social control, specifically, the relationship between expectations of success and opportunities for success. (We shall explore these shortly.) Moreover, Merton was to qualify the societal vision of functional unity and inherent progress attributable to most order theorists.

As to his conception of sociology and its theory, Merton departed markedly from the macro-level approach of Parsons and others used before anyone had access to satellite Internet. He came to view theory as the development of middle-range propositions. Thus, instead of constructing grand and abstract theories of society, theorists were advised to explain a restricted set of social phenomena. These modest explanations were then to be verified through empirical research and then perhaps systematized into theoretical systems of boarder scope and content. Implicit, then, are Mertonís assumptions on the integrated nature of society, the need to control the victims of false expectations, and the positivist nature of sociology.

Theoretical Content

Mertonís final seminal work was in the form of a theoretical piece, "Social Structure and Anomie," published in the American Sociological Review (1938). In it, he sought an explanation for deviant behavior through an explication and refinement of Durkheimís conception of anomie. It is not our purpose to include in this book on theories of society the more specialized forms of theoretical sociology. However, this explanation of deviance is centered first of all at the societal level. Please recall that Merton, as had his historical mentor, wrote in a context of crisis and change. And, as did Durkheim, Merton focused on deviance as a consequence of structural disorganization.

In this classification of anomic deviance, Merton explored the relationship between cultural goals and the structural means to achieve those goals. For this sociologist, when success goals were universally imposed on the members of society while the means to achieve them were restricted for some members, deviance could be expected on a broad scale. As evident in the following schemata, it is the type of consistency or inconsistency between goals and means that leads to either conformity or to one of the four "types" of anomic deviance. (See Figure 5.1.)

From Mertonís scheme we can understand that the conformist internalizes the common success goals but also has access to the approved means to realize the goals. For the other relationships, a condition of goalsómeans dysjunction exists. The innovator role manifests the adoption of disvalued means (for example, theft) to realize success. The ritualist follows the rules obsessively but loses sight of the overall goals (for example, the inflexible bureaucrat). The retreatist abandons both success and goals and the means to realize them (for example, the drug addict). The rebel rejects both the traditional goals and means, but envisions new ones as the basis for a new social order. It should be stressed that Merton saw deviance not in terms of personality types but as role responses to different forms of dysjuction.

Mertonís theoretical contribution to the field of deviance serves as a window to his later efforts to construct a system of functional analysis. Here he demonstrated his proclivity for intensive study of a more limited theoretical puzzle. Yet it is obvious that he sought to explain the puzzle of deviance in the conceptual language of sociology. Like Durkheim, Merton avoided pathological interpretations based on either biological or psychological variables.

In this theoretical matrix, actors in a social system are constrained by happenings in the broader sphere of society. Deviant roles are not created by willful intent or intimate experiences. They occur as patterned responses to a breakdown between universal expectations (to be successful) and the availability of approved methods to achieve those ends. Or in Mertonís words, when a society professes that every office boy can become president, while the avenues to such aspirations are socially limited, the stage is set for deviance on a broad scale.

As with other order theorists, Merton came to focus in his later work on the social consequences of patterned, predictable, and recurring phenomena (such as societies, cultures, organizations, and groups). He also conceived of elements within larger wholes in terms of their contribution to the adjustment of a given system (Merton, 1968: 104). However, clearly evident in this early work in the theory of deviance are distinctive properties that were carried throughout his career.

First of all, Merton focused on a more modest theoretical problem (in this case, that of deviance). Second, his argument held that cultural ideals might in unintended fashion serve as a source of unexpected role behavior. And finally, he noted that many are not afforded the legitimate means to reach universal goals. Thus, he intimated that not all existing practices contribute to the positive integration of the total society.

By 1949 it was obvious that Merton would attempt to make over functionalism. And in so doing, he came to modify the central premises of this theoretical system (1968: 73-138). Please understand that traditional functionalism, whether contained in the organicism of the nineteenth century, or early cultural anthropology, or the emerging systems approach in sociology (see Chapter 7), conceived of society and culture in terms of unified wholes. Therefore, all customs, practices, and arrangements were seen to contribute to the integration of the existing order. Merton took issue, arguing instead that such a tightly drawn conception might be useful to understand more homogeneous and smaller societies but that the complex and heterogeneous order seldom reflects such perfect integration. For Merton, findings about the tightly knit and traditional society could not be uncritically generalized to all societies.

Traditional functionalism also holds that whatever exists at a structural or cultural level serves a positive function, a socially necessary purpose, or else it would not exist. Merton was again to demur, arguing that the consequences of existing social practices are not uniform for society. Thus, practices might be positive, negative, or irrelevant for the social order in question. For example, it might be argued that paying less for womenís work has positive functions for the employers paying their salary and for some men who are paid more to do comparable work. However, the practice might prove to be dysfunctional not only for women but for a society in which poverty is rapidly becoming feminized.

In a slightly different vein, Merton theorized that certain rituals or practices have no important consequences for an existing social order. Such may be mere holdovers from history. For example, groups such as the Womenís Christian Temperance Union are today merely shells of once powerful social movements. Hence, this organization might be considered nonfunctional for the society at large.

Finally, traditional functionalism also embraces the fallacy of indispensability or absolute necessity. Every part that exists in a societal or cultural system is seen as essential and representing the only alternative. For Merton, however, alternative practices, customs, and forms are often viable. Changing the part therefore, does not presage the collapse of the whole, and certain parts of a societal system can be eliminated or modified. Building upon this reformulation of functionalism as a system of analysis, Merton offered other points of distinction.

First of all, it is not enough to analyze the manifest or apparent functions of social elements. Modern functionalism must explore the latent or hidden consequences of these repetitive and enduring patterns. For example, one might argue that poverty is manifestly dysfunctional for society (as well as the poor) for a number of obvious reasons. However, if we explore the latent consequences of poverty, we might find a number of hidden benefits and beneficiaries.

Such an approach is evident in an essay by an urban sociologist who does not favor poverty but seeks to explore its "positive functions" (Gans, 1972). Some of these "benefits" are:

  1. Poverty ensures the "dirty " work is done through maintaining a class of people to fill the menial, temporary, dead-end jobs.
  2. Poverty creates jobs for such people as welfare workers, criminal justice personnel, and pawnshop owners (among others).
  3. The poor can be identified and used as scapegoats for alleged or actual deviance to define and uphold dominant norms.
  4. The needy, particularly those disabled or otherwise incapacitated, allow us to evidence pity, compassion, and charity toward the "less fortunate" (as long as they are truly needy and deserving).
  5. Those in want help the affluent through enhancement of their self-image (knowing one is better off than other), and by means of their systematic exclusion from competition for the better jobs. They also provide a purpose for philanthropic organizations and the bureaucracy designed to help them.
  6. The poor have historically built civilizations through slave labor, and through their poetry and music (jazz, blues, spirituals, and "country") have enriched the lives of the nonpoor.
  7. Finally, the poor absorb the costs of progress (as with urban renewal) and share disproportionately in the costs of welfare.

Second, functional analysis can be carried out at various levels. One might examine the total society or culture, or opt to study less general but enduring formal organizations (such as bureaucracies), or perhaps even family units. Each such example reflects a different plateau within social order.

Third, Merton also sought to reconcile social determinism and individual volition (Stinchcombe, 1975). He did so by arguing that the motivated actor selects from among institutionalized patterns of choice. In effect he acknowledged that the human condition does not revolve on a changeless normative axis. Everywhere, human beings confront conditions of ambivalence where the rules are often in conflict.

Fourth, early organists often conceived of society as a self-correcting system, evolving toward perfection. Merton, while not abandoning the emphasis on adaptation, considered this a myth. Societies contain incongruities and contradictions, ambiguities and confusion. In his revision of functionalism, Merton sought to make its logic fit the old nemesis of change.

Fifth, Mertonís multifaceted conception of function introduced a sociological form of trade-off or net balance. By considering both the (positive) functions and (negative) dysfunctions of social practices, it is possible to appreciate, if not resolve, the complexities of social life.

Sixth, the contributions of this sociologist to theories of the "middle range" can be found in works on deviance, bureaucratic life, mass communication, professional socialization, and other substantive issues. Some of his more important conceptions include the reference group and the self-fulfilling prophecy. By means of the former, he accounted for the relationship between group orientation and self-appraisal. Through the later, he demonstrated that a widely publicized and believed social prediction may contribute to the very behavior that confirms the prophecy.


The theoretical sociology of Robert K. Merton is best conceptualized as a form of neofunctionalism developed in response to the criticisms often leveled at is logical base. However, this effort leaves many substantive points untouched, while several of its reform raise new questions.

To begin, Mertonís work may be an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. For example, the effort to accommodate change occurs in a theoretical matrix primarily concerned with adjustment and order. This means that such theory can conceive of change only in the limited sense of tempering or eliminating certain dysfunctional parts of the whole, a process that leaves the overall societal system intact. It is clear that Mertonís revision of functionalism does not address change at the societal or institutional level. His focus was on adjustments that are consistent with the existing nature of the social system. Thus the underlying dilemma of functionalist (as well as organist and systems) theory remains untouched. In creating a portrait of order, societal and cultural patterns emerge as systems of mutually reinforcing elements. Substantive social change, specifically in the form of new institutions, is simply unexplained. It can only represent, as it did in Mertonís early sociology, a process pushed by those trapped in deviant roles.

There are other examples of the union of opposites. Merton sought to soften the Durkheimian image of the social actor as a passive respondent to impersonal and external forces. And he also acknowledged, as we have seen, the troublesome ambiguities of social life. However, these are qualifications of functionalism, not basic departures from its cardinal premises. Merton has not succeeded in freeing the actor from the subjugation of society. Nor have his concessions to societal ambivalence altered an emphasis on a well-integrated (if not perfectly integrated) normative order.

We should also recall that theoretical systems are, by definition, given to explanation. Mertonís reformulation of functionalism has rendered it a form of analysis. Whether this is a blessing or a curse depends upon oneís assumptions about sociology. As a system of explanation, functionalism seeks to answer the "why" of existing patterns by showing their purposes as well as their necessary consequences of the system as a whole. However, Mertonís reformulations (including the concept of dysfunction) encourage us to analyze the consequences of social practices while selectively rejecting their necessity or positive value. And this introduces an important problem. Traditional functionalists do have an answer, albeit a recurring one, for why a social or cultural phenomenon exists: It is necessary for the whole; it contributes to the adaptation of society. Mertonís logic, however, cannot account for why a dysfunctional element exists and still remain functionalist logic.

Finally, whatever the intentions or beliefs of its makers, functionalism lends itself to a conservative ideology. This is because the issues of conflict, inequality, state coercion, and other sources of disharmony and change simply do not fit the logic of this theory. Through purging functionalism of those premises that have drawn critical fire, Mertonís efforts may have created a more perfect conservatism. In the final (functionalist) analysis, he has cast society as a system that adapts and survives irrespective of some mistakes, normative ambiguity, and human volition.

Here the criticisms of functionalist thought are blunted in part through the forging of a conceptual elasticity. Functions become dysfunctions, the positive becomes negative, and society survives and adapts through trade-offs. By such means, social systems of whatever range become less rigid, more able to adapt while remaining the same.


(Mooney, Knox, and Schacht 2000:90-92; Perdue 1986:84-86)

Mooney, Linda A., David Knox, and Caroline Schacht. 2000. Understanding Social Problems. 2d ed. Cincinnati, OH: Wadsworth.

Perdue, William D. 1986. Sociological Theory: Explanation, Paradigms, and Ideology. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Robert Merton's Classification of Anomic Deviance

(also known as Merton's Five Types of Adaptation)

Culturally Defined Goals Structurally Defined Means Role Behavior Explanation
+ + Conformist Conformity occurs when individuals accept the culturally defined goals and the socially legitimate means of achieving them. Merton suggest that most individuals, even those who do not have easy access to the means and goals, remain conformists. 
+ - Innovator Innovation occurs when an individual accepts the goals of society, but rejects or lacks the socially legitimate means of achieving them. Innovation, the mode of adaptation most associated with criminal behavior, explains the high rate of crime committed by uneducated and poor individuals who do not have access to legitimate means of achieving the social goals of wealth and power.
- + Ritualist The ritualist accepts a lifestyle of hard work, but rejects the cultural goal of monetary rewards. This individual goes through the motions of getting an education and working hard, yet is not committed to the goal of accumulating wealth or power.
- - Retreatist Retreatism involves rejecting both the cultural goal of success and the socially legitimate means of achieving it. The retreatist withdraws or retreats from society and may become an alcoholic, drug addict, or vagrant.
-/+ -/+ Rebel Rebellion occurs when an individual rejects both culturally defined goals and means and substitutes new goals and means. For example, rebels may use social or political activism to replace the goal of personal wealth with the goal of social justice and equality.
Key + = acceptance of/access to, - = rejection of/lack of access to, -/+ = rejection of culturally defined goals and structurally defined means and replacement with new goals and means


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