No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Robert Merton

Robert King Merton (1910-2003) was a highly influential sociologist of the 20th century, known for pioneering significant sociological concepts.

Robert Merton was born in 1910 in Philadelphia to immigrant parents from Eastern Europe, initially named Meyer R. Schkolnick before adopting the name Robert King Merton. He studied in Philadelphia and later at Harvard, where he was greatly influenced by Talcott Parsons. He completed his doctoral dissertation on "Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England" in 1938.

Throughout his career, Merton held positions at Harvard, Tulane, and Columbia University, with a long tenure at Columbia University starting in 1941. He co-directed the Bureau of Applied Social Research with Paul F. Lazarsfeld from 1942 to 1971. In 1957, he was elected as the President of the American Sociological Association.

During his lifetime, Merton authored numerous books and approximately 200 articles, with his most important work being the book "Social Theory and Social Structure", first published in 1949, which saw a notable expanded edition in 1968. This work covered key sociological concepts like the self-fulfilling prophecy, reference groups, and the scientific ethos.

Robert Merton passed away in 2003 in New York, having made a profound impact on sociology and the understanding of social phenomena:

  1. Sociological Theories of the Middle Range: Merton emphasized the development of sociological theories that could be empirically tested, falling between highly abstract theories and specific working hypotheses.

  2. Manifest and Latent Functions: Merton introduced the concepts of manifest functions (intended and recognized consequences) and latent functions (unintended and often unrecognized consequences) in social structures.

  3. Functions and Dysfunctions: Merton distinguished between functions (consequences that promote system adaptation) and dysfunctions (consequences that hinder adaptation).

  4. Unintended Consequences: Merton studied how actions can produce results that were not intended or foreseen.

  5. Social Structure and Anomie: Merton examined the relationship between societal norms, values, and the structural opportunities available to individuals, particularly in understanding deviant and criminal behavior.

  6. Reference Group Theory: Merton wrote about reference groups, which are influential in shaping an individual's beliefs, values, and behaviors.

  7. The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Merton highlighted how people's beliefs or predictions about events can influence their actions and ultimately bring those predictions to manifest themselves.

  8. The Focused Interview: Merton co-authored the book "The Focused Interview," which discussed this qualitative research method for gathering in-depth information from individuals.

Reference Group Theory

Although success gurus have embraced Reference Group Theory as a simplistic recipe of "hanging out with successful people", Merton's theory goes beyond mere social interaction and describes the sociological and psychological factors that influence human behavior, attitudes, and self-perceptions within the context of reference groups. 

  1. Relative Deprivation: Individuals assess their situations by comparing themselves to others in similar circumstances. This helps explain variations in attitudes among individuals based on their social status. Individuals may feel deprived or dissatisfied even in objectively favorable situations if they perceive others in similar circumstances as more successful or fortunate.

  2. Multiple Frames of Reference: Individuals use multiple frames of reference for comparison, including in-groups (those with sustained social relations), those in the same social category or status, and those in different social categories or statuses (out-groups). This complexity in how individuals choose their reference groups highlights that not all comparisons are straightforward and that individuals may use different frames of reference for different aspects of their lives.

  3. Conflict and Resolution of Reference Groups: Both membership and non-membership groups influence individuals' attitudes and behavior. This aspect adds layers of complexity to understanding reference group behavior.

  4. Application Across Various Contexts: The theory's applicability extends beyond a business context. It can be applied to various fields and social phenomena, including military life, race and ethnic relations, social mobility, delinquency, education, politics, and revolution. 

  5. Role of Institutions: The theory recognizes the role of institutions in regulating transitions between membership groups and influencing individuals' perceptions of legitimacy. It acknowledges that institutional norms can direct individuals' attention to specific reference groups and affect how they perceive their own situations.

  6. Social Mobility and Legitimacy: Merton explored how individuals respond to social mobility and legitimacy within different social structures. He considered scenarios where positive orientation toward out-group norms may aid individuals in ascending to a higher-status group but can also lead to exclusion from their current in-group.

  7. Value Assimilation: Individuals tend to assimilate the values and sentiments of authoritative or prestigious members within a group they aspire to join. This assimilation process can significantly impact individuals' self-appraisals and attitudes.

  8. Empirical Research and Validation: Merton's theory encourages systematic research and the collection of empirical data to validate assumptions about reference groups. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the dynamics of reference group behavior through research and sociological indices.