Robert K. Merton and Contemporary Sociology
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Robert K. Merton and Contemporary Sociology

Carlo Mongardini

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Robert K. Merton and Contemporary Sociology

Carlo Mongardini

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This volume offers scholars of sociology and allied areas the fruits of an international conference on the contributions of the eminent Robert K. Merton. The assessment, as good in content as well as in participants, took place in Amalfi, Italy, with the participation of Merton himself and under the auspices of the Italian Sociology Association. Carlo Mongardini aptly summarizes the unique impact of Merton on the social theory of our century. "His strength as a classic writer lies in his balance, unveiling complexity, and in his humanism which looks beyond the apparent simplicity and coherence of social reality."

A special treat is the final chapter by Merton reviewing "Unanticipated Conse-quences and Kindred Sociological Ideas." In it, he ranges from the historical an-tecedents of the concept to his own evolution in the use and expansion of the idea. Merton approaches the development of his thought as installments rather than sim-ple evolution, and in so doing gives us unique insight into how he built upon his originating notions in the context of social science as it existed in the United States. Tensions between integrating scholarship and reaching the general public provide a special insight into Merton that might prove new even to those who know his work well.

Contributors to this original volume include: Volker Meja, Nico Stehr, Paolo Ammassari, Gianni Statera, Birgitta Nedelmann, Harriet Zuckerman, Piotr Sztompka, Peter Gerlich, Charles Crothers, Elena Besozzi, and Arnold Zongerle, among others. The chapters address the full range of Merlon's work, with special emphasis on such areas as anomie, structural analysis, the relationship of theory to research, patterns of latent and manifest influence, and even the application of Mertonian concepts to the analysis of Merton as a scholar. This unusual compendium, translated from the Italian, will interest social researchers across the academic spectrum.

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Part 1
Robert K. Merton’s Place in Contemporary Sociological Thought


Simonetta Tabboni
The international conference which took place in Amalfi on “Robert K. Merton and Contemporary Sociology” provided the premise for some timely reflection. It brought back into the limelight a classic who had been rather forgotten in Europe. It was an invitation to think again about an original theoretical approach which links a great range of analytical tools and empirical researches. It posed an interesting question for a period of great fragmentation in sociological models: what relationship is there between present-day sociologists and the thinking of the last great representative of the neo-functional model, of a theoretical approach which, (as indeed did the functionalist model), presented itself as the natural leader, the prime way forward for sociology to be practiced as a science?
The official responses to these questions, gathered together in this volume, came from all over the world. They are rich and various.
The connection between the characteristically nonsystematic nature, the openness and polyvalence in Merton’s thought and the heterogeneity of these contributions is probably not fortuitous. The topics dealt with were numerous and widely different as were the geographical origins, the academic background and age of the many scholars present. It would not have been an easy undertaking to identify connecting threads, select lines of thought that could form a basis for a systematic account of the many responses the conference elicited to the question “what is the place of Merton in contemporary sociology?”
Perhaps it would not even have been a worthwhile undertaking. At any rate, all efforts at conferring such an order on the various contributions has been abandoned. The criterion which has been adopted is purely pragmatic: the material assembled has been organized according to the order which might seem most useful for teaching purposes. The four chapters by Paolo Ammassari, Volker Meja and Nico Stehr, Gianni Statera, and Filippo Barbano, whose subjects were all an evaluation of Merton’s work, lent themselves to an introductory function. It is without doubt useful for someone approaching the study of Merton today to find articles that deal with the influence Merton had on the general direction of U.S. research as opposed to European research; his contribution, which was decisive, to the development of the sociology of science; his basic belief that the relationship between theory and empirical research is inseparable; and with the significance of the meeting of Merton’s thinking and Italian sociology in the 1950s.
The second part contains the studies of the basic analytical categories of Mertonian analysis, the reflections on their relevance in general and in relation to the specific cognitive problems of contemporary social reality, while the third part has been given over to the short chapters, according to the criteria the writers themselves adopted to define their chapters.
The elaboration of concepts and their continual clarification have been Merton’s passion; this is also the type of work for which he was best suited, bringing out both his creativity and his scholarliness.1
Merton has given prime importance to the construction of conceptual tools not least because of the central significance he gives to such construction in the course sociology has to take to throw off its state of scientific immaturity and reach conditions comparable to those in which the natural sciences operate. The most urgent task that sociologists have to face to close the gap that divides them from the way in which the other sciences operate is the elaboration of a precise scientific language, the abandonment of approximative terms adapted from everyday language, like a journalist’s description of facts. Sociologists must refer to a set of unequivocal, universally accepted conceptualizations on which to base their researches. Field work does not give results if the person who performs it has not an adequate heritage of theoretical tools, just as those tools cannot take shape except in close connection with empirical research.2
Predictably enough, therefore, in view of the frontline role of Merton the theorist, most of these chapters take his elaboration of analytical categories as their subject. The chapters by Birgitta Nedelmann, Pierpaolo Donati, Peter Gerlich, Harriet Zuckerman, Alberto Izzo, Arnold Zingerle, to cite only these few, deal respectively with the concept of ambivalence, latent and manifest functions, the accumulation of advantage and disadvantage, scientific truth and unanticipated consequences.
These authors chose two approaches to the conceptual heritage elaborated by Merton, both of which were equally legitimate and equally suitable for developing their content. The first and most common approach was to embark on a mainly theoretical reflection. They examined the concept, went over its construction, then tested the concept for its general and current relevance. They paused over its lacunae or its particular inadequacy for the social reality of the conditions which are most often the focus of recent sociological reflection (complexity, the weakening of normative structures, the multiplication and impossibility of comparing cultural codes).
The second approach put the concept to the test of empirical research. A case-study created on the basis of the concept was discussed with reflections on the adequacy of the concept for explaining a certain reality and on its possible further theoretical developments.
This second application of his work was undoubtedly most appreciated by Merton. He spent a long time on these papers, clearly with pleasure and a desire to continue the research, giving further proof of his deep-rooted intellectual commitment to the guiding principle of necessary interaction between theory and empirical research.
Over and above the official responses, which are there to be read, the conference elicited implicit responses to the question of the links between contemporary sociology and Merton’s thinking; it raised points of reflection that can be seen as very positive outcomes of the conference and are well worth taking time to consider more closely.
It emerged, for example, that the use the assembled sociologists tended to make of Merton’s conceptual heritage generally followed particular inspirations on research, similar general directions: that it was certain Mertonian positions and concepts that had appeal and produced a desire for further exploration. This volume will try to focus on these implicit responses, look closely at the new interpretations and the powerful appeal of certain themes and put forward some suggestions about their general and current significance.
The choices made by the conference participants indicated without doubt that it was one particular part of Merton’s work, not necessarily the best known or the type of analysis classically associated with it, that attracted most interest. It is enough to recall that only one chapter took as its subject the famous concept of anomie, for so many years at the heart of all research on deviance and, beyond deviance, not a single chapter on group theory and mass communications, and only two dealing with questions associated with the field of study Merton is most identified with, the history and sociology of science.
The Mertonian themes which proved most attractive were those linked with the criticism of classical functionalism, either as the abandonment of aspirations to global theory or as the progression beyond a prevalently structural, normativist position or, more especially, as the preparation of tools suited to registering the most fleeting and paradoxical aspects of social reality.
Briefly, there were three research areas where the assembled sociologists showed most interest in further exploration: (a) the proposal for a pluralistic theoretical approach; (b) the development of a series of concepts leading to a sociology that might be described as dealing with the subliminal in society. These concepts, apart from considerably extending the analytical field of classical functionalism and countering the most obvious instances of its shortcomings, define in various ways a single, fundamental intuition central to Merton’s work which finds its most general expression in the essay on ambivalence; and (c) an innovative analysis of classic concepts such as anomie, made for the purpose of demonstrating its relevance within the general theory. No longer then as concepts that throw light on particular areas of sociological research but as theoretical tools that, taken over the whole range of their implications, show that Mertonian structuralism can provide satisfying answers to the central dilemmas of sociological theory. Many of Merton’s concepts constitute lines of conjunction, for example, between theories of structure and theories of action, between theories of order and theories of change.
R.K. Merton is a great theorist who has never wished to link his name to any single theory of society, to any final, exhaustive answer to the big questions of sociological theory. His aversion to monumental works, grand theory, his preference for empirical research, elaborations of theories of the middle range, constructions which are never completed but are constantly being updated and further explored, for cognitive tools to use in the field, these are the most obvious and characteristic features of his style, as Filippo Barbano’s chapter elucidates. His thinking gives an important place to the awareness of the many forms that rationality can assume, the profound irony, the ambivalence, the paradoxes contained in the norms and models of social behavior.
His theoretical position is first and foremost and avowedly open and “in progress.”
This style of thinking in which the high level of theorization and the variety and heterogeneity of interests seem curiously intertwined, must have greatly fascinated students of Merton, his teachers and his pupils, who, in their descriptions of him, have had recourse to powerful and vivid metaphors. Pitirim Sorokin3 has likened his writings to variations by Beethoven on themes by Mozart and Lewis A. Coser has painted him as the “fox of sociology” (Coser 1975: 88)—referring to Isaiah Berlin’s famous division of thinkers into hedgehogs and foxes. Berlin’s passage, which recalls a fragment of Archilochus, says that among animals and humans there are two opposite character tendencies, that of the hedgehog and that of the fox. While the hedgehog knows one basic thing and dedicates itself to cultivating that, the fox cultivates many things and, being curious, dedicates itself to the most diverse undertakings and accumulates a wide variety of knowledge. Among humans, too, there exists this basic difference: there are those, be they scientists, artists, or common mortals, who seek for a general interpretative criterion by the light of which they will read all their experience, putting all their effort and talent into building an all-embracing system. And there are those who follow the most varied research objectives without any interest in giving them a systematic, coherent place in one global view of life. These latter research on many levels, their experiences are most varied and least collective; they do not feel the necessity to fit them into a general theory, into one interpretation of the world. These two intellectual personalities are indeed as opposite as the characters of the hedgehog and the fox.
The coherence and substantial unity of Merton’s thinking are not immediately obvious. They are revealed in rather different ways from those most frequently found in the great theorists both present and past; they are most fully present more as the unmistakably Mertonian method, a recognizable research approach, a “signature,” “the art of approaching a variety of substantively different theoretical problems under a unified theoretical angle of vision”4 rather than as elements contributing to one totalizing construction. As has been rightly emphasized by Lewis A. Coser (1975), Piotr Sztompka (1986: 1–3), and Arthur Stinchcombe (1975: 11–13), they must be traced through a skillful piece of excavation, by comparison or connection, or by proof of the service they have rendered to research.
The fact that his academic fathers were monumental, monolithic personalities like Talcott Parsons and Pitirim Sorokin, “hedgehogs” in Berlin’s sense, and men of their time in their passion for conclusive syntheses, works of great theoretical breadth, was perhaps a contributing factor in making him the rebellious son and the first “classic” to commit himself to dealing with the changing, changeable world of advanced modernity using partial, provisional tools, ones that did not even claim to be exhaustive (Frisby 1985).
Merton has taken his place at the center of contemporary sociology by adopting an approach which is the direct opposite of that adopted by his masters, by denying the form of their scientific commitment—the grand theory, the magnum opus to which one gives one’s name forever—in order to win back fully the substance and the level of theorization.
The image of the social actor as drawn by Merton is wholly contained in a context of doubts and ongoing conflicts.5 However, these uncertainties are not necessarily experienced with anxiety or particular distress. The unpredictability, the risk, the contradictions are recognized as the realities of everyday experiences, are even appreciated for their dynamic qualities, the interest and flavor they give to social life. The world of human interactions as seen through the eyes of Merton is like a fascinating kaleidoscope whose often surprising shapes and combinations excite constant curiosity till the key to their interpretation is reached, a model to explain them achieved. Concepts and models are often provisional, they need to be put to the test, reviewed now and then, certainly not definitively set into a totalizing theory.
Merton has respected and revitalized a demanding heritage by setting against his masters’ all-encompassing systems a way of making theory agile and circumspect, equipped to take on the challenges of a social world which is increasingly differentiated and difficult to decipher, in which the actor not only assumes diverse, often conflicting, roles but relates to heterogeneous cultural spheres that do not admit of comparison.6
The Mertonian “sociology of the subliminal,” that set of concepts such as the unanticipated consequences of social action, latent and manifest functions, ambivalence, whose conceptual affinity I wish to emphasize, was the center of attention of the conference, its most exciting kernel, the point at which the majority of the lectures and the short papers met.
The major focus of the conference was on the themes connected with Herbert Simon’s “bounded rationality,”7 a complex representation of the social actor, the awareness of the necessity for the researcher to register “another” reality beyond appearances, one which contradicts the first, more likely, interpretation.
All these reflections converged to highlight the importance that contemporary sociologists (or at least those present) gave to the need for greater study of one theme in particular, ambivalence, which has so far not had its due attention in sociological reflection.
To adopt Sztompka’s criterion for dividing Merton’s work into themes (the classicist theme, the cognitivist theme, the structuralist theme, the ironic theme), (Sztompka 1986: 5) it was undoubtedly this last theme which exercised most fascination, which elicited the desire for further study. The theme of irony has for that matter occupied much attention in the American debate, and has been the subject of interesting monographs.
The centrality of this theme in Merton’s work has been underlined by Louis Schneider in the 1975 Festschrift in Merton’s honor. Schneider’s analysis of the significance that the development of the ironic theme may have for sociology deserves careful consideration because it challenges a basic approach to looking at the social reality being investigated and assumes an enormous importance in the current difficulties of sociol...

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Citation styles for Robert K. Merton and Contemporary Sociology
APA 6 Citation
Mongardini, C. (2018). Robert K. Merton and Contemporary Sociology (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2018)
Chicago Citation
Mongardini, Carlo. (2018) 2018. Robert K. Merton and Contemporary Sociology. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Mongardini, C. (2018) Robert K. Merton and Contemporary Sociology. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Mongardini, Carlo. Robert K. Merton and Contemporary Sociology. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.