Merton’s sociological imagination

Robert Merton began life as Meyer Schkolnick, son of impoverished Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, and he became one of the most influential American sociologists of his generation.  He is most often associated with a couple of phrases that came to embody common knowledge in the social sciences — “theories of the middle range,” “unforeseen consequences,” “focus group,” and “standing on the shoulders of giants.”  But what, precisely, was his conception of sociology as a science?  What sort of knowledge did he believe that sociology should aspire to?  Did he offer anything like a “paradigm” for sociology as a body of research, theory, and explanation?  And what does his work have to offer to today’s generation of sociologists?

Craig Calhoun and others organized a conference at Columbia in 2007 involving a group of pathbreaking sociologists in a variety of sub-disciplines to consider the legacy of Merton, and the result is a highly interesting volume of essays, Robert K. Merton: Sociology of Science and Sociology as Science.  Contributors include Craig Calhoun, Alehandro Portes, Charles Tilly, Robert Sampson, Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Viviana Zelizer, Thomas Gieryn, Aaron Panofsky, Alan Sica, Ragnvald, Kallebert, Peter Simonson, Harriet Zuckerman, and Charles Camic, and jointly they consider a very wide range of themes and perspectives from Merton’s work.  The volume isn’t presented as a festschrift; Gieryn provided just such a collection in 1980 during Merton’s life (Science and Social Structure: A Festschrift for Robert K. Merton).  Instead, this volume is conceived as a way of taking the measure of Merton’s contributions to sociology as the field continues to develop, and to sound out ways in which Merton’s theories and ideas have either flourished or declined in the decades since the most influential ideas were published.  The volume therefore serves very well as an avenue through which to ask the analytical question: what defined Merton’s sociological imagination?

In his introduction to the volume, Craig Calhoun presents one important part of Merton’s work as being the job of “professionalizing” sociology.  But he also believes that Merton’s contributions were substantive and fundamental.  He quotes Merton from “On Sociological Theories of the Middle Range” on the overall purpose of sociology:

Each to his last, and the last of the sociologist is that of lucidly presenting claims to logically interconnected and empirically confirmed propositions about the structure of society and its changes, the behavior of man within that structure and the consequences of that behavior. (14-15)

This is a very focused statement about the nature of sociology; it involves <empirically justified> <theories> about social <structures> and social <behavior>.  It defines a method (empirical, fact-based research), a research product (a body of “logically interconnected statements”), and a subject matter (social structure and behavior).  At the same time, it isn’t a wholly informative statement.  What falls under the topic of “social structure”?  Is the theory of organizations a component of a theory of social structure?  How deeply into the intricacies of social psychology should the sociologist go in researching social behavior?  Calhoun makes it clear that he believes that Merton’s “philosophy of sociology” becomes more concrete through his efforts to clarify the concepts and theories that sociologists advance.  This is a move from the more abstract to the more concrete — and very consistent with the idea of “theories of the middle range.”  And in fact, much of the value of the volume comes from the efforts made by the contributors to delve more deeply into some specific areas of research and theory formation in which Merton involved himself.

The sociology of science is certainly one of the important areas where Merton made a lasting contribution, and several essays in the volume are devoted to this field.  Thomas Gieryn asks whether Merton formulated a paradigm for the sociology of science — a good question, since Merton himself was one of the first (along with Thomas Kuhn) to use the word “paradigm” to analyze scientific and intellectual activity.  Gieryn does a very useful job of collating the many things that Merton attributes to his core uses of the concept of paradigm throughout his work from 1968 to 2004 (115):

  • assumptions
  • problem sets
  • problematics
  • key concepts
  • generalizable concepts
  • central concepts
  • conceptual apparatus
  • logic of procedures procedures of inquiry
  • scheme of analysis
  • vocabularies
  • postulates
  • classification
  • ideological imputations
  • inference
  • substantive findings
  • inventory of extant findings
  • types of pertinent evidence
  • basic propositions
  • interpretative schemes
  • provisional agreement

Gieryn attempts to codify this list into three areas: “what we know about the social world … ; how sociologists should study the social world … ; prototheories that explain in causal fashion why society is the way it is” (115).  (Another way of boiling these elements down would be along these lines: concepts and interpretive schemes; inference and evidence;  broadly accepted substantive findings.)

Gieryn goes on to offer his own account of a paradigm for sociology as a series of oppositions:

  1. Science is social and cognitive
  2. Science is cooperative and competitive
  3. Science is institutionalized and emergent
  4. Scientific objects in the world are real and constructed
  5. Science is autonomous and embedded
  6. Science is universal and local
  7. Scientific knowledge is cumulative and … not (120)

This formulation demonstrates one of the emergent values of a project like this one: inventive sociologists are led to push forward an important question (“What is a paradigm for sociology?”) through careful consideration of Merton’s work and its strengths and limitations.

An area where Merton is not so well known is in the area of “cultural sociology.”  In fact, “culture” seems entirely absent from the short definition quoted above.  Merton is usually read as offering an abstract, structural-functional approach to the social world that pays little attention to cultural factors and meaningful behavior.  Cynthia Fuchs Epstein and Viviana Zelizer take issue with this interpretation, however, in their chapters in the volume.  Epstein puts her perspective in these terms: “Many of Merton’s key concepts for the analysis of social life centered on the cultural domain, mated with structural variables” (79).  And she thinks that a key part of Merton’s approach to sociological thinking invokes a cultural interpretation of social life:

Learning to think like a sociologist, according to Merton, requires going beyond the individual as the unit of analysis, as is the focus of rational-choice theorists or mainstream psychologists today.  The sociologist is required to consider the cultural web in which individuals are embedded, the social context that causes them to make certain choices and to act in concert with others because they share or are persuaded by social conventions that lodge them in institutional frameworks, which in turn circumscribe their options. (81)

Merton’s sociology of science is perhaps a particularly clear example of Epstein’s point here; Merton invokes the idea of the ethos of science, the norms and values that govern the choices of scientists, as one of the key sociological facts about science as socially embedded activity.  And this ethos is plainly conveyed to scientists through concrete social arrangements of training and education.

Another area that is less familiar is “sociological semantics” and rhetoric — basically, Merton’s interest in tracing some of the metaphors and concepts that have been important in the ways that people have conceived of history and society.  His book, On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript, traces the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” as a metaphor for the advancement of science.  (He traces the lineage past Isaac Newton’s usage of the phrase to Bernard of Chartres in the twelfth century.)  Essentially, it is a phrase that captures the idea of cumulation and progress, incorporating and extending the body of knowledge received from prior generations.  Charles Camic notes that Merton often insisted on a sharp delineation between the history of ideas and the sociology of ideas (275).  But Camic argues that Merton actually pursued inquiries that crossed over this line repeatedly in his interest in tracing quotations, concepts, and metaphors through the history of science (278).  His treatment of “serendipity” is a good example; and Camic argues that Merton regarded this kind of analysis as a serious exercise in sociological research.

That Merton himself viewed these writings in light of a larger intellectual project, rather than as occasional amusements, is something he made increasingly explicit, however. (279)

Merton summarized this area of interest under the heading of “Neologisms as Sociological Concepts: History and Analysis” and as a “study in sociological semantics” (279, 280).  Camic quotes Merton as holding that “the frequency and nature of quotations in society [serve] as objects of study in themselves” (283), and he links this kind of inquiry to the study of propaganda and mass persuasion as well.

In short, Merton is a sociologist who repays careful, extensive review, and this volume is a very good start.  It proves the notion that we can not only stand on the shoulders of giants, but can also gain insights that go beyond and beside those predecessors.


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