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Robert K. Merton: Sociological Thinkers

Robert K. Merton

Robert K. Merton was born Meyer R. Schkolnick in Philadelphia into a working class Eastern European Jewish Immigrant family. He changed his name at the age of 14 to Robert Merton, which evolved out of a teenage career as an amateur magician as he blended the names of famous magicians. Robert K. Merton attended Temple College for undergraduate work and Harvard for graduate work, studying sociology at both and earning his doctorate degree in 1936.

Merton reformed functionalism as it was pioneered by the British Social Anthropologists AR Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski. He refuted the three main postulates of the functionalist tradition and recreated it as the functional analysis. The three main postulates that had developed were:

  • Functional unity of society.
  • Universal functionalism.
  • Indispensability.

Merton’s criticism of Functionalism

Functional Unity

The social anthropologists only considered small scale societies in their studies and while they may have a semblance of functional unity to assume the same to be true of large scale societies is a suspect assumption. He suggests that a high degree of functional autonomy is found in highly differentiated societies rather than functional unity.

Universal Functionalism

The assumption that every social and cultural element must have positive functions for the maintenance of society is incorrect. Instead Merton says that we must look at each element as either:

  • Functional
  • Dysfunctional
  • Non-functional

Also, these observations should be made at the level of the individual, sub-system, and society in order to get a better picture. He further advocated that social institutions should be looked at in terms of both latent & manifest functions. Merton also talked about net balance of functions, in terms of their negatives or positives, but failed to outline a method for quantifying them.


Robert K. Merton says that just as the same item may fulfill multiple functions, similarly the same function can be fulfilled by alternative items. In case of dysfunction, he suggested that functional alternatives should be found, though structural constraints should be taken into account. He said that dysfunctional items would explain existence of conflict, while replacing them with functional alternatives would explain change.

Latent & Manifest Functions

Manifest: Intended and recognised. May/not be observable. Subjective dispositions.

Latent: Not intended may/not recognised. Objective consequences. Merton applied his functional analysis to the study of latent and manifest functions and talked about identifying latent functions as positive or negative.

Why latent and manifest functions?

  • Helps understand why irrational activities continue in society.
  • Increases sociological knowledge.
  • Helps us avoid naive moral judgments. (Ex. corruption in bureaucracy is bad)

Political Machine in USA

Robert K. Merton studied the political machine in America, which was perceived as being immoral and excessively corrupt. He said that we should avoid these naive judgements and look at them again. He found that:

  • Corruption at the lower levels acted as speed/efficiency money.
  • Corrected imbalances of pay scale.
  • Ex. salary of DC vs. earning of tea stall outside IIT.
  • Low level corruption drives economic demand. As a person at the lower level would invest in consumer goods.
  • Helps people solve their problems for a small consideration.
  • Also acted as a solution to the defunct party system in the USA.

Thus he concluded that machine politics was essential for the society due to its many latent functions. He also said that corruption would remain so long as the officials remained underpaid, as this biases them towards accepting speed money.


  • His ideas of dysfunction as well as L&M functions were an improvement over Parsons’ functional theory.
  • Infused new life in the functional approach. Influenced methodology by clearly listing down steps. Merton’s ideas of dysfunction was widely accepted as was his explanation of conflict and change.
  • Critics said that when he talked about functional alternative, he really was talking about structural alternatives. Semantic criticism.
  • Critics said that his model failed to predict dysfunction causing circumstances.
  • Critics said that in the name of abandoning naive moral judgement, he had abandoned all moral judgement.
  • A status quoist as with latent functions he had effectively legitimised everything.

Conformity & Deviance

Conformity: any behaviour oriented towards societal norms.

Deviance: any behaviour oriented against societal norms.

Merton said that everyone is a little deviant in their behaviour, but the label is applied when deviance crosses the societal tolerance levels. He also said that it was the norms that made the behaviour compliant/deviant, not the behaviour itself.

Ex. Naga sadhu wearing clothes would be the deviant. He further said that deviance is both rewarded as well as punished, ex. Gandhi rewarded as Mahatma and punished by assassination.

While biology and sociology looked for causes of deviance in the individual, sociology looks for causes in social conditions. Durkheim explained deviance in terms of anomie. Normative conditions are essential for social life, a breakdown in those conditions leads to anomie and thus deviance. Merton developed this further by exploring the contradictions of capitalist society. He said that deviance results because of:

  1. Contradictory norms. (Durkheim)
  2. Inadequate norms. (Durkheim)
  3. Lack of sync between cultural goals and structural means to achieve those goals.

Robert K. Merton said that forced adaptation to meet cultural goals led to deviant behaviour. He said that opportunities (access to means) are shaped by the location of people in the societal structure.

Person’s classAccess to GoalsAccess to MeansLabel
Lower-middleNoYesRitualist (Bureaucracy)
AnyGiven upGiven upRetreatist
Emergent classNew goalsNew meansRebel

Apart from the first, all others are labeled as deviant. This is Merton’s Paradigm of Anomie.

Example: Kashmiri youth college educated (cultural goal of getting educated) but unable to get jobs (structural constraint due to lack of jobs) take to deviant behaviour of stone pelting.


  • Gave rise to the sociology of deviance.
  • Albert Cohen: Not all deviance is based on pecuniary goals. Poor develop status frustration, deviance acts as a safety valve.
  • Cloward & Ohlin: Merton has only considered legitimate goal structure, ignoring illegitimate goal structures.
  • Criminal subculture: in stable working class areas.
  • Conflict subculture: in less stable populations.
  • Retreatist subculture: couldn’t get into any of the above.
  • Walter Miller said that Merton is trying to show deviants as deprived. A deviant may be a conformist in a subculture which is considered criminal by the mainstream. They are pursuing different focal concerns with regards to the mainstream.
  • David Matza said that these theories are too deterministic. Every individual has two set of values, mainstream and subterranean. “Criminals” learn to neutralize mainstream values and drift between criminal and mainstream behaviour. Thus, crime just becomes a way of making a statement.
  • Edwin Sutherland in his study of white collar crime noted that the high correlation of deviance with lower classes may be caused by the under-reporting of white collar crimes in the official statistics.
  • Howard Becker in his labeling theory says Deviant behaviour is behaviour so labeled. Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infractions constitute deviance and by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders.
  • Becker argues that once a deviant joins an organised deviant group they are more likely to see themselves as deviant and act as part of this self-concept.
  • Howard Becker: says structural theories cannot account for secondary/career deviance, crime as a way of life, for that we need interactionist theories. Ex. everyone steals, but not all are labeled as thieves. Once labeled, the person is excluded from the mainstream and thus becomes a career deviant.
  • Becker also questions the idea of value consensus based on deviance. He says that people are almost always forcing their rules on others, applying them more or less against the will and without the consent of those others.
  • Marxist scholars say that power is held by those who control the forces of production. In defining deviance they work to maintain their ruling class interests. Laws are not based on consensus but ruling class ideology.

Reference Group Theory

  • This is the only study where Merton applied his functional analysis himself.
    Tamotsu Shibutani defines reference groups as: “A reference group may be any collective real or imagined, envied or despised whose perspective is assumed by the actor.”

Harald Kelly classified reference groups as:

  • Normative RGs. Which serve as a role model.
  • Comparative RGs. Which serve as standards for self-evaluation.

He further says that both the normative and comparative reference group can be a single group too, which may or may not be the membership group. Various studies conducted during and after WW II came up with the concept of relative deprivation which stated that negative emotions that one experiences are not directly related to objective conditions. Ex. feminists are from well off families. Merton said that contentment/discontent experienced by a person are in relation to their reference group i.e. relative deprivation is felt relative to the reference group.

IndicatorConditionChoice of Reference Group
Degree of engagementHigh engagementMG
Degree of distinctiveness of MGHigh distinctivenessMG
Degree of association(duration of membership)Longer durationMG
Openness of societyMobility encouragedNMG
Closeness of societyMobility discouragedMG
Degree of rewardsHigher rewards in NMGNMG

He further detailed the consequences of RG Behaviour as per his functional approach:

  • In case of a closed society:
RG = Membership GroupRG = Non-Membership Group
Functional for individual
Functional for MG
Non-functional for NMG
Functional for society
Dysfunctional for individual
Dysfunctional for MG
Functional for NMG. Prestige.
Dysfunctional for society
  • In case of an open society:
RG = Membership GroupRG = Non-Membership Group
Dysfunctional/Functional for individual(against norms/high solidarity)Functional for MG
Non-functional for NMG
Dysfunctional for society
Dysfunctional/Functional for individual(lacks solidarity/with the norms)
Dysfunctional for MG
Functional for NMG
Functional for society

No critique for the reference group theory?

General Critique:

Robert K. Merton was one of Parsons’ first students and one of the biggest critics of his theory building strategy. Merton’s criticisms:

  • Parsons’ attempt at theory building sterile and futile. Merton said that such a grand theory is premature given sociology’s development as a discipline.
  • Not a theory, in fact, it’s a general orientation towards data suggesting the type of variables one must somehow incorporate in their research.
  • Parsons’ theory is so general that it is not even potentially falsifiable (Popper). It answers all societal problems at the same time.

Robert K. Merton suggested middle range theories. He gave the characteristics of MRT as:

  1. Limited generalisations which are a step above mere empirical trends observed in data. Ex Durkheim’s study of suicide. Weber’s PESC.
  2. They are general enough to be applicable to different spheres of social behaviour.
  3. Grounded theories based on empirical data which are Ideologically neutral.
  4. They are modest claims to limited answers about present reality.
  5. They specify areas of ignorance and trigger further research.
  6. They act as bridge between micro and macro theories.

Parsonian scholars attacked Merton and his idea of MRT as:

  • Anemic intellectual ambition. Will lead to lack of vision in sociological study. Merton clarified that he wasn’t against macro theories, just premature macro theories.
  • Fragmentation of knowledge. Merton said that instead of fragmentation they lead to integration.
  • Ex. Durkheim’s suicide; 4 Generalisation integrated into solidarity.
  • Jurgen Habermas – need for emancipatory knowledge.

Read Also: Talcott Parsons: Sociological Thinkers

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