Middle-range theory, developed by Robert K. Merton, is an approach to sociological theorizing aimed at integrating theory and empirical research. It is currently the de facto dominant approach to sociological theory construction, especially in the United States. Middle-range theory starts with an empirical phenomenon (as opposed to a broad abstract entity like the social system) and abstracts from it to create general statements that can be verified by data. This approach stands in contrast to the earlier “grand” theorizing of social theory, such as functionalism and many conflict theories. Raymond Boudon has argued that “middle-range theory” is the same concept that most other sciences simply call ‘theory’. The analytical sociology movement has as its aim the unification of such theories into a coherent paradigm at a greater level of abstraction. The midrange approach was developed by Robert Merton as a departure from the general social theorizing of Talcott Parsons.
Merton agreed with Parsons that a narrow empiricism consisting entirely of simple statistical or observational regularities cannot arrive at successful theory. However, he found that Parsons’ “formulations were remote from providing a problematics and a direction for theory-oriented empirical inquiry into the observable worlds of culture and society”. He was thus directly opposed to the abstract theorizing of scholars who are engaged in the attempt to construct a total theoretical system covering all aspects of social life. With the introduction of the middle range theory program, he advocated that sociologists should concentrate on measurable aspects of social reality that can be studied as separate social phenomena, rather than attempting to explain the entire social world. He saw both the middle-range theory approach and middle-range theories themselves as temporary: when they matured, as natural sciences already had, the body of middle range theories would become a system of universal laws; but, until that time, social sciences should avoid trying to create a universal theory.
Merton’s original foil in the construction was Talcott Parsons, whose action theory Merton classified as a “grand theory”. (Parsons vehemently rejected this categorization.) Middle range theories are normally constructed by applying theory building techniques to empirical research, which produce generic propositions about the social world, which in turn can also be empirically tested. Examples of middle range theories are theories of reference groups, social mobility, normalization processes, role conflict and the formation of social norms. The middle-range approach has played a key role in turning sociology into an increasingly empirically-oriented discipline.
This was also important in post-war thought. In the post-war period, middle-range theory became the dominant approach to theory construction in all variable-based social sciences. Middle range theory has also been applied to the archaeological realm by Lewis R. Binford, and to financial theory by Harvard Business School Professor Robert C. Merton, Robert K. Merton’s son. In the recent decades, the analytical sociology program has emerged as an attempt synthesizing middle-range theories into a more coherent abstract framework (as Merton had hoped would eventually happen). Peter Hedstrom at Oxford is the scholar most associated with this approach, while Peter Bearman is its most prominent American advocate.
Middle Range Theory (Final)
MRT approach was developed by R K Merton in contrast to abstract theorizing of total system in all aspect of social life by scholars particularly Talcott Parson. Hence it opposed the grand theorizing of social theory like functionalism, conflict theories etc. MRT is an approach to sociological theorizing that integrates Theory and Empirical research. They are constructed by applying theory building techniques to empirical data. These produce general statement about the social phenomenon under study which can be this verified by data.
Examples: theories of reference groups; Social mobility; role conflict etc. However he agreed with Talcott Parson that narrow empiricism cannot arrive at successful theory. He saw MRT approach and theories as temporary that would become a system of universal laws on maturity, so before that he says that social science should avoid trying to create a Universal Theory. Currently MRT approach has become a dominant approach to Sociological theory construction and has been applied to other fields like archaeology, finance etc. as of now analytical sociology program is attempting to unify MRTs into coherent abstract framework as hoped by Merton.