One of the well know socialists of the twentieth century is Robert K. Merton (1910-2003). He is a major theorist who is known for creating several pivotal sociological concepts. One of his most important achievements has been the established connection between theory and research, thereby making the way for the course of sociology.
Merton favored what he called middle range theories: these are theories that “lie between minor but necessary working hypotheses that evolve in abundance during day to day research and all inclusive systematic efforts to develop a unified theory that will explain all the observed uniformities of social behavior, social organization, and social change” ( Sztompka 1986). But what he gets most of his credit for is his work on the concept of the Manifest and Latent. I intend to explain his concept of Manifest and Latent. And then take a look at his Strain Theory to see whether or not it can explain crime in our society.
Merton explains that there are certain concepts that arise from functionalism they are manifest and latent function . He explains manifest function as the intended result of an action. He also explained that latent function was the unintended result of action. Now Merton is not the one who coined these terms he give that credit to Freud (1915). Both of these men contended that almost every action had manifest and latent functions. Although Merton took it a step further he argued that some times the latent function was far more important than the manifest function.
One of his greatest examples of this is the Hopi rain dance. This is where he explained how the dance (action) was to create rain (manifest) although not every time was there rain (latent). But he went further he explain that although the rain did not create rain it created a special bonding (another latent) with in the Hopi tribe. This in essence showed that not all latent functions are bad and that some of the unintended results can have a profound benefit. This is in slight contrast to other socialist then again it is not really. It is Merton expanding on theses philosophies and bringing them current within society.
Now we see that Merton’s manifest and latent functions greatly enhanced the notion of society as a system of interwoven parts, not only because he acknowledges there are various functions to each part. But because of the differences of the various functions have with in each part that might not coincide with each other or that they may even conflict. Merton “emphasized that different parts of a system might be at odds with each other and, thus, that even functional or beneficial institutions or sub systems can produce dysfunctions or unintended consequences as well” (Appelrouth).
This brings us to two more parts of Merton’s theory, deviance and dysfunction. Merton was extremely influential of the theory of deviance. It is the most cited article in sociology. Merton tried to explain the variances in rates of deviance according to social structural location. To explain deviance from a sociological view deviance refers to the actions that do not conform to the dominant norms or values in a social group or society.
Merton believed that deviance came about when there was a disconnect between culture and society. This he said happened when values become out of sync with the means of being able to achieve them. One of the better ways Merton showed this was that success in society means having a good job and making a lot of money. But when there are no good jobs to make the money to be successful people will turn to illegal means to make enough money to be considered successful. This brings about an unintended consequence, it is because of this disconnect or in other words it brings about a dysfunction.
Now dysfunction was not coined by Merton, it was first emphasized by Emile Durkheim who stated “ that while positive social changes , such as periods of economic growth, might alleviate certain problems, they may also produce significant unanticipated consequences (such as an increased likelihood for moral disorder)” (Appelrouth).
Merton took what Durkheim had proposed and elaborated on this showing that although positive social changes may have unintended negative consequences, you can also have a negative social changes that can produce unintended positive consequences. Although Merton showed both sides he is better known for highlighting the negative consequences.
Now we look at Merton’ strain theory to try and explain it as I believe Merton saw it. . Merton believed that crime did not simply arise from the deviant values incorporated in say, slum neighborhoods. Rather crime emerged from mainstream conventional values, which for example, all Americans were socialized into. Merton believed that the core values stressed material success; however, the problem was that not every American was equally placed to achieve this success. This in turn leads to strain, of which crime is concomitant.
American society is criminally programed argued Merton. The idea of the ‘American Dream’ was, according to Merton, a myth, subverted as it were by the persistence of poverty, epidemic racial discrimination and numerous disadvantages faced by blacks and Hispanics. All this helps contribute to the high levels of crime, the solution being to create more opportunities for the poor in order to augment their chances of legitimately achieving material success. Merton’s thinking was that if crime resulted from a lack of legitimate opportunities to achieve the goal of material success, than increasing those opportunities ought to lessen crime.
Merton believed that individuals living in American society are subconsciously socialized into desiring certain goals, primarily that of covert material success. Society itself provides the means to do this high school, college, business opportunities and university, however, where opportunities are blocked for individuals because of, for example, social class and race, then problems of ‘strain’ arise. As Merton put it: “there is a contradiction between the cultural emphasis on pecuniary ambition and the social opportunities to achieve it”. This Merton called an “anomic society”, from which crime naturally occurs.
If we look at Merton’s strain theory, and try to explain whether it adequately explains deviance and crime in our society. I would have to say that it does. Everyone want to succeed but there always seem to be obstacles. By human nature I believe people are programed to take the path of least resistance. Especially when there are obstacles. So Merton is absolutely right by saying if there are not enough jobs to make money people will make money illegal by selling drug or doing whatever have you.
I believe he is also right that this crime does not come from the slums, as we know there are a lot of influential people in jail. I believe this is because they just got too greedy. I guess once you have you don’t want to be
a have not.
Alder, F 1995
Appelrouth, S 2008
Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory
Merton, R 1996 revision
On Social Structure and Science