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Extracts from Robert King Merton

Merton and his, one time, tutor, Talcott Parsons are both engaged in the American effort to create a sociology that starts with the action of individuals, but relates them to a social system and a culture. Merton applied his efforts, particularly, to the creation of middle range theories that, he hoped, could be related to empirical data.

1938: "Social Structure and Anomie"


two elements, culture goals and institutional norms, operate jointly...

There may develop a disproportionate, at times, a virtually exclusive, stress upon the value of specific goals, involving relatively slight concern with the institutionally appropriate modes of attaining these goals. The limiting case in this direction is reached when the range of alternative procedures is limited only by technical rather than institutional considerations. Any and all devices which promise attainment of the all important goal would be permitted in this all important case {3)

{footnote 3} Contemporary American culture has been said to tend in this direction. See André Siegfried America Comes of Age, 26-37, New York, 1927...

A second polar type is found in groups where activities originally conceived as instrumental are transmuted into ends in themselves. The original purposes are forgotten and ritualistic adherence to institutionally prescribed conduct becomes virtually obsessive.... The occupational psychosis of the bureaucrat may be cited as a case in point.

Finally, there are the intermediate types of groups where a balance between culture goals and institutional (page 674) means is maintained.



Thus far, we have sketched three ideal types of social orders constituted by distinctive patterns of relations between culture ends and means. Turning from these types of culture patterning, we find five logically possible, alternative modes of adjustment or adaptation by individuals within the culture bearing society or group.

[There follows the typology of types of individual adaptation that is repeated in Merton's later work


anti-social behaviour is in a sense "called forth" by certain conventional values of the culture and by the class structure involving differential access to the approved opportunities for legitimate, prestige-bearing pursuit of the cultural goals...

recourse to... legitimate effort, is limited by the fact that actual advance toward desired success-symbols through conventional channels is, despite our persisting open-class ideology {15}, relatively rare and difficult for those handicapped by little formal education and few economic resources...

{footnote 15}... The "office-boy-to-president" stereotype was once in approximate accord with the facts.

{footnote 16} There is a growing body of evidence, though none of it is clearly conclusive, to the effect that our class structure is becoming rigidified and that vertical mobility is declining...

Social Theory and Social Structure
Revised and enlarged 1957

Theories of the Middle Range

Part One: Sociological Theory
Towards the codification of functional analysis in sociology
A Paradigm for Functional Analysis in Sociology
Manifest and Latent Functions

Part 2: Studies in Social and Cultural Structure
Social Structure and Anomie
Patterns of Cultural Goals and Institutional Norms
Types of individual adaptation
The strain towards anomie

page 3


[Merton starts with quotations from Alfred North Whitehead's The Organisation of Thought, including:]

"A science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost".

"It is characteristic of a science in its earlier stages ... to be both ambitiously profound in its aims and trivial in its handling of details"

page 5

Theories of the Middle Range

Throughout this book ... the term sociological theory refers to logically interconnected conceptions which are limited and modest in scope, rather than all-embracing and grandiose. Throughout I attempt to focus attention on what might be called theories of the middle range: theories intermediate to the minor working hypotheses evolved in abundance during the day-by-day routine of research, and the all-inclusive speculations comprising a master conceptual scheme...

Part 1: Sociological Theory

page 19 [1968: p.73]

1: Manifest and Latent Functions

Towards the codification of functional analysis in sociology

page 50 [1968: p.104]

A Paradigm for Functional Analysis in Sociology

The entire range of sociological data can be, and much of it has been, subjected to functional analysis. The basic requirement is that the object of analysis represents a standardised (i.e. patterned and repetitive) item, such as social roles, institutional patterns, social processes, cultural pattern, culturally patterned emotions, social norms, group organisation, social structure, devices for social control, etc.

page 51 [1968: p.105] [Function

Functions are those observed consequences which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given system, and dysfunctions, those observed consequences which lessen the adaptation or adjustment of the system. There is also the empirical possibility of nonfunctional consequences, which are simply irrelevant to the system under consideration

In any given instance, an item may have functional and dysfunctional consequences...

page 56 [1968: p.110] [Structure

...the description of the participants (and on-lookers) is in structural terms, that is, in terms of locating these people in their inter- connected social statuses.

functional analyses begin with a systematic inclusion (and, preferably, charting) of the statuses and social interrelations of those engaging in the behaviour under scrutiny

description... in terms of the statuses and group affiliations of those variously involved provides a major clue to the functions. In a word, we suggest that the structural description of participants in the activity under analysis provides hypotheses for subsequent functional interpretations.

page 60 [1968: p.114]

Manifest and Latent Functions

... the distinction between manifest and latent functions was devised to preclude ... confusion ... between conscious motivations for social behaviour and its objective consequences

page 61 [1968: p.115]

... I have adapted the terms "manifest" and "latent" from their use in another context by Freud...

... We mention only a few of those who have, in recent decades, found it necessary to distinguish... between the end-in-view and the functional consequences of action...

Emile Durkheim's... analysis of the social functions of punishment is... focused on its latent functions (consequences for the community) rather than confined to manifest functions (consequences for the criminal) [click here for one of the passages from Durkheim Merton refers to]

{footnote 68:... Durkheim adopted a functional orientation throughout his work, and he operates, albeit without explicit notice, with concepts equivalent to that of latent function in all his researches...}

page 62 [1968: p.116]

... numerous... sociological observers have... distinguished between categories of subjective disposition ("needs, interests, purposes") and categories of generally unrecognised but objective functional consequences, ("unintended... service to society", "function not limited to conscious and explicit purposes").

Part 2: Studies in Social and Cultural Structure

page 121 [1968: p.175]


... the functional analyst ... considers socially deviant behaviour just as much a product of social structure as conformist behaviour...

... functional analysis conceives of the social structure as active, as producing fresh motivations which cannot be predicted on the basis of knowledge about man's native drives. If the social structure restrains some dispositions to act, it create others...

The functional approach ... attempts ... to determine how the social and cultural structure generates [page 122] [1968: p.176] pressure for socially deviant behaviour upon people variously located in that structure.

... this general orientation gives rise to some specific hypotheses on the structural sources of deviant behaviour. High rates of departure from institutional requirements are seen as the result of culturally induced, deep motivations which cannot be satisfied among those social strata with limited access to opportunity. The culture and the social structure operate at cross-purposes.

The key concept bridging the gap between statics and dynamics in functional theory is that of strain, tension, contradiction, or discrepancy between the elements of social and cultural structure. Such strains may be dysfunctional for the social system in its then existing form, they may also be instrumental in leading to changes in that system.

Social Structure and Anomie

page 132 [1968: p.186]

Our primary aim is to discover how some social structures exert a definite pressure upon certain persons in the society to engage in non- conforming rather than conforming conduct

Patterns of Cultural Goals and Institutional Norms

Among the several elements of social and cultural structures, two are of immediate importance...

The first consists of culturally defined goals, purposes and interests, held out as legitimate objectives for all or for diversely located members of society... They are the things 'worth striving for'... An though some, not all, of these cultural goals are directly related to the biological drives of man, they are not determined by them.

A second element of the cultural structure defines, regulates and controls the acceptable modes of reaching out for these goals. Every social group invariably couples its cultural objectives with regulations, rooted in the mores or institutions, of allowable procedures for moving toward these objectives.

These regulatory norms are not necessarily identical with technical or efficiency norms. Many procedures which from the standpoint of the individuals would be most efficient in securing desired values - the exercise of force, fraud, power - are ruled out of the institutional area of permitted conduct.

page 134 [1968: p.188]

No society lacks norms governing conduct. But societies do differ in the degree to which the folkways, mores and institutional controls are effectively integrated with the goals which stand high in the hierarchy of cultural values.

The culture may be such as to [page 135] [1968: p.189] lead individuals to centre their emotional convictions upon the complex of culturally acclaimed ends, with less emotional support for prescribed methods of reaching out for these ends.

With such differential emphases upon goals and institutional procedures, the later may be so vitiated by the stress on goals as to have the behaviour of many individuals limited only by considerations of technical expediency. In this context, the sole significant question becomes: Which of the available procedures is most efficient in netting the culturally approved value? The technically most effective procedure, whether culturally legitimate or not, becomes typically preferred to institutionally prescribed conduct. As this process of attenuation continues, the society becomes unstable and there develops what Durkheim calls "anomie" (or normlessness).

[attenuation: weakening, thinning. Merton's reference here may be to a weakening of what Durkheim calls (social) solidarity

page 136 [1968: p.190]

The process whereby exaltation of the end generates a literal demoralisation i.e., a de-institutionalisation, of the means occurs in many groups where the two components of the social structure are not highly integrated.

Contemporary American culture appears to approximate the polar type in which great emphasis upon certain success-goals occurs without equivalent emphasis upon institutional means.

... in the American Dream there is no final stopping point. The measure of 'monetary success' is conveniently indefinite and relative. At each income level... Americans want just about twenty-five per cent more (but of course this 'just a bit more' continues to operate once it is obtained)

page 139 [1968: p.193] ... contemporary American culture continues to be characterised by a heavy emphasis on wealth as a basic symbol of success, without a corresponding emphasis upon the legitimate avenues on which to march toward this goal.

page 140 [1968: p.193]

Types of individual adaptation

we now examine types of adaptation of individuals within the culture- bearing society...

We here consider five types of adaptation

A typology of modes of individual adaptation
Modes of adaptation Cultural Goals Institutionalised means
Conformity accepted accepted
Innovation accepted rejected
Ritualism rejected accepted
Retreatism rejected rejected
Rebellion rejected and replaced rejected and replaced

page 141 [1968: p.195]


To the extent that a society is stable,... conformity to both cultural goals and institutionalised means is the most common and widely diffused [adaptation]. Were this not so, the stability and continuity of the society could not be maintained...

It is, in fact, only because behaviour is typically orientated toward the basic values of the society that we may speak of a human aggregate as comprising a society. It is thus that [in the 1950s] one may refer to a Society of Nations primarily as a figure of speech or as an imagined objective, but not as a sociological reality.

Since our primary interest centres on the sources of deviant behaviour, and since we have briefly examined the mechanisms making for conformity as the modal response to American society, little more need be said regarding this type of adaptation, at this point.


Great cultural emphasis upon the success-goal invites this mode of adaptation through the use of institutionally proscribed but often effective means of attaining at least the simulacrum [material image] of success - wealth and power. This response occurs when the individual has assimilated the cultural emphasis upon the goal without equally internalising the institutional norms governing ways and means for its attainment...

On the top economic levels, the pressure toward innovation not infrequently erases the distinction between business-like strivings this side of the mores and sharp practices beyond the mores. As Veblen observed,

"It is not easy in any given case - indeed it is at times impossible until the courts have spoken - to say whether it is an instance of praiseworthy salesmanship or a penitentiary offense".

... But whatever the differential rates of deviant behaviour in the several social strata, and we know from many sources that the official crime statistics uniformly showing higher rates in the lower strata are far from complete and reliable, it appears from our analysis that the greatest pressures toward deviation are exerted upon the lower strata.

Cases in point permit us to detect the sociological mechanisms involved in producing these pressures.

Several researchers have shown that specialised areas of vice and crime constitute a "normal" response to a situation where the cultural emphasis upon pecuniary success has been absorbed, but where there is little access to conventional and legitimate means for becoming successful.

The occupational opportunities of people in these areas are largely confined to manual labour and the lesser white-collar jobs. Given the American stigmatisation of manual labour which has been found to hold rather uniformly in all social classes, and the absence of realistic opportunities fro advancement beyond this level, the result is a marked tendency towards deviant behaviour.

The status of unskilled labour and the consequent low income cannot readily compete in terms of established standards of worth with the promises of power and high income from organised vice, rackets and crime.

page 149 [1968: p.203]


The ritualistic type of adaptation... involves the abandoning or scaling down of the lofty cultural goals of great pecuniary success and rapid social mobility to the point where one's aspirations can be satisfied. But though one rejects the cultural obligation to attempt "to get ahead in the world", though one draws in one's horizons, one continues to abide almost compulsively by institutional norms.

page 153 [1968: p.207]


Just as conformity remains the most frequent [adaptation], the rejection of cultural goals and institutional means is probably the least common. People who adapt (or maladapt) in this fashion are, strictly speaking, in the society but not of it...

In this category fall some of the adaptive activities of psychotics, autists, pariahs, outcasts, vagrants, vagabonds, tramps, chronic drunkards and drug addicts.

They have relinquished culturally prescribed goals and their behaviour does not accord with institutional norms. This is not to say that in some cases the source the source of their mode of adaptation is not the very social structure which they have in effect repudiated nor that their very existence within an area does not constitute a problem for members of society...

page 155 [1968: p.115]


This adaptation leads men outside the environing social structure to envisage and work to bring into being a new, that is to say, a greatly modified social structure. It presupposes alienation from reigning goals and standards...

page 157 [1968: p.211]

The strain towards anomie

The social structure we have examined produces a strain toward anomie and deviant behaviour.

The pressure of such a social order is upon outdoing one's competitors. So long as the sentiments supporting this competitive system are distributed throughout the entire range of activities and are not confined to the final result of "success", the choice of means will remain largely within the ambit of social control.

When, however, the cultural emphasis shifts from the satisfaction deriving from competition itself to almost exclusive concern with the outcome, the resultant stress makes for the breakdown of the regulatory structure.

With this attenuation of institutional controls, there occurs an approximation to the situation erroneously held by the utilitarian philosophers to be typical of society, a situation in which calculations of personal advantage and fear of punishment are the only regulating agencies.

This strain toward anomie does not operate evenly throughout society...

For purposes of simplifying the problem, monetary success was taken as the major cultural goal, although there are, of course, alternative goals in the repository of common values. The realms of intellectual and artistic achievement, for example, provide alternative career patterns which may not entail large pecuniary rewards. To the extent that the cultural structure attaches prestige to theses alternatives and the social structure permits access to them, the system is somewhat stabilised. Potential deviants may still conform in terms of theses auxiliary sets of values.

page 310 [1968: p.364]

Provisional List of Group Properties

13. Types and degrees of social cohesion: Since at least the work of Durkheim, the degree of social cohesion has been recognised as a group- property which affects a wide variety of behaviour and role-performance.

16. Character of the social relations obtaining in the group: This property has traditionally been adopted as the major one distinguishing various types of groups, as can be seen from such established classifications as primary and secondary group, in-group and out-group, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, formal and informal group, etc.

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American culture


conformist behaviour

culture and social structure operate at cross-purposes.

deviant behaviour

Durkheim: Merton claims functional orientation of





latent function

manifest function


middle range theories






structural terms