Robert K. Merton

Born of poor Jewish immigrant parents from Eastern Europe, Merton has become one of the leading proponents of structural functionalism and influential figures in modern sociology. His contributions have sparked research on deviant behavior, or studies of criminality. He has a son with the same namesake, who was awarded a 1997 Peace Nobel Prize in Economics. Merton was known until his teenage years as Meyer R. Schkolnick.

Theory of Anomie

Merton's theory of anomie is a borrowing but essentially different from that of Durkheim. It is a more elaborate formulation of a theory that applies to a society like USA, where people believe in and are committed to the pursuit of some desirable ends (e.g., the "American Dream" - freedom, wealth, status, etc.). Its essence is that anomie is a social response, or adaptation, due to a disjuncture between socially approved means (e.g., education) and culturally accepted goals (earn high income). Anomie is a strain placed upon people to behave in ways that are not conducive to societal stability. On the other hand, Durkheim theorized that if the human appetite for goals was not regulated and became limitless, anomie would ensue, and from anomie, strain would emerge. Such strain would manifest itself in a variety of forms, one of which could be deviant behavior.

Sadly, while everybody pays attention to the "American Dream," the opportunities for realizing that dream are not equal for all - they are differentially distributed across the various strata.

Structural Functional Analysis

Merton's version of functionalism differs from other arguments. "Like Durkheim, Merton argues that deviance and crime are "normal" aspects of society, but he does not argue that crime is required to generate solidarity or to achieve social progress. Instead, Merton suggests that there is something about American social structure—here, its distribution of wealth and opportunity—that requires crime to maintain society's very stability in the face of structural inequality.

"Picturing society like a vast machine, Merton argues that a society should best be considered as a cross between the cultural "goals" of a society—what it holds its members should strive for—and the "means" that are believed, legally or morally, to be legitimate ways that individuals should attain these goals. In a ideally organized society, the means will be available to deliver all of its members to their goals."

Middle-Range Theory and Serendipity (Unanticipated Consequence)

Merton believed that a middle-range theory is more appropriate for verification purposes, hence his work on "Social Structure and Anomie." His is an alternative to so-called meta-narratives of sociologists like Talcott Parsons.

However, Merton acknowledged that a theory may produce a result quite different from what is stated. This unanticipated consequence, or serendipity, sometimes comes as a surprise for many people.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Another theory attributed to Merton is the self-fulfilling prophecy. It states that prediction comes true because people believe in it and, in fact, make it happen. Robert K. Merton developed this concept from W. I. Thomas' "definition of the situation," i.e., "If men define things as real, they are real in their consequences." An example of a self-fulfilling prophecy would be a stock market crash - you would lose your money if you don't get out as quickly as possible, so you sell and so do many others, and, indeed, many people lose money because the values of the stocks decrease.


The debate on Merton has continued, even after his death last year. Among those who have pursued his anomie theory in the study of crime and delinquency, one of the major criticisms has been what truly constitutes "legitimate means" or opportunities. Does provision of equal opportunities actually limit crime rate?

Another is perhaps on the concept of "conformity" as a requirement for a stable society. When observed at the extreme, conformity can be as deviant as non-conformity itself. In some societies, over-conformity has become a mild form of deviance.

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