Merton, Robert K. The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Ed Norman W. Storer. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 1973.


Professor Storer selected and arranged this set of Merton's papers. Merton is a large influence on sociology - a leading light for about 40 years - and worked with most of the top practitioners in the field. Merton, who was Giddings Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and a Harvard graduate, came to sociology through an interest in science, philosophy and economics. His Harvard dissertation, just for reference, was "Science Technology and Society in 17th Century England." (1933-1935). The papers assembled in this "reader" run from 1945-1973.

Merton is not a positivist, according to Storer: he accepts that science is socially constructed, and was concerned to create models and paradigms for the sociology of science. Understanding well that the field was disunified, and also that sociologists are called upon by "men of affairs" to give policy advice (political and industrial affairs, one presumes), he felt that important questions of structure - what should be studied? With what tools? - should be answered with reasonable intelligence.

His general interests are in the norms of pure science; the structure and dynamics of the scientific community and its place within society; and reference groups - the ways 'insider' and 'outsider' dynamics are used to bound research and thinking. In more than one paper Merton cites examples from Nazi Germany of the 30s and from American race riots of the 60s: informed, certainly, by his own experience, race and national conflicts were of continuing interest to Merton. A key event for American scientists (and those studying American scientists) was the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Suddenly there was a public understanding that science had a social aspect. Also important was the publication of Kuhn's 1962 Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Merton is well known for the normative (perhaps, idealistic) structures of science that he developed (and perhaps advocated): scientists could/should be oriented in their relationship to each other in four ways: universalism, communism, organized skepticism, disinterestedness.

I include here seven papers from the collection in chronological order

Znaniecki's 'The Social Role of the Man of Knowledge" 1941

Merton sets himself two problems. The first problem: "what is the composition and structure of the various types of scientists' social roles and what are their interrelations, and what are their lines of development?" Then, "second, how if at all, are the systems of knowledge and methods of savants influenced by the normative patterns which define their behavior in a social order?" Zn's argues that the social role is set in a dynamic social system involving four components. 1) the social circle 2) the actor's self 3) the actor's social status, and 4) the actor's social function. Men of knowledge have distinct roles: technological advisors (experts & leaders), sages (statesmen), scholars (sacred & secular), creators of new knowledge (explorers), and so on. New facts are often unwelcome to many of the roles taken by men of knowledge. "In summary, then, this little book presents a conceptual framework for organizing varied materials in one sphere of the sociology of knowledge."

The Normative Structure of Science (1942)

This paper was written to offer "clarification and reaffirmation of the ethos of modern science." (268) "These structures are moral compulsives, not technical expedients. The institutional goal of science is the extension of certified knowledge. "The mores of science possess a methodological rationale but they are binding, not only because they are procedurally efficient, but because they are believed right and good. They are moral as well as technical prescriptions." (270)

The four structures are these:

Universalism: there is no caste, no nationality. This aspect is affirmed in theory, says Merton, but fairly often suppressed in practice. He cites examples from WW I and II. However, deviation from the norm highlights the legitimacy of the norm.

Communism: property rights are kept to a bare minimum. A scientist receives glory only, and for this reason, priority is key, and maneuvering for priority is common. It takes a confident scientist, (like Newton) to acknowledge indebtedness, to stand (easily) on the shoulders of giants.

Disinterestedness: this aspect of scientific work is not reinforced by any innate goodness on the part of scientists, but by peer accountability. To be reliable, scientific findings must be clear, replicable, open for inspection. Abuse of all sorts happens when this structure breaks down.

Organized Skepticism: a methodological and institutional mandate. Empirical and logical scrutiny may create conflict with other institutions, but it is necessary to the effort of science.

NB I find it hard to believe that these structures have been discredited as "not the way scientists really do things." They are clearly marked off as "mores" and not "constant practices." It may be that scientists do not act this way, but most, I think, would argue that others should act this way.

Paradigm for the Sociology of Knowledge (1945)

Merton sketches out the condition of the sociology of knowledge circa 1945. Storer characterizes the thesis of his essay as such: sociology's "fixation on the one problem of the existential basis of mental productions leads to an impasse." As a solution, "a program for relating philosophical conceptions of the sources of knowledge in society to the empirical investigations of specified problems is sketched out…"

Merton notes that the flavor and import of sociological analyses is one of "knowingness" or perhaps condescension:

"Within this social context, an array of interpretations of man and culture which share certain common presuppositions finds widespread currency.... And whatever the intention of the analysts, their analyses tend to have an acrid quality: they tend to indict, secularize, ironicize, satirize, alienate, devalue the intrinsic content of the avowed belief or point of view. Consider only the overtones of terms chosen in these contexts to refer to beliefs, ideas, and thought: vital lies, myths, illusions, derivations, folklore, rationalizations, ideologies, verbal facade, pseudo-reasons, and so on. What these schemes of analysis have in common is the practice of discounting the face value of statements, beliefs, and idea-systems by reexamining them within a new context which supplies the real meaning." (9-10)

How, then, to compare different kinds of beliefs and systems? He takes an inventory of extant findings in the field in order to indicate contradictory, contrary and consistent results, to set forth the conceptual apparatus now in use, to determine the nature of problems which have occupied workers in this field, and to assess the character of the evidence which they have brought to bear upon these problems, and to ferret out the characteristic lacunae and weaknesses in the current types of interpretation.

Here is a model for comparing beliefs:
1) "where is the existential basis of mental production located?" There are
(a) social bases (b) cultural bases What is the groundwork for our thoughts and beliefs?

2) What mental productions are being sociologically analyzed? (e.g. which ones is the school focused on?)How are the mental productions related to the existential basis?
(a) causal or functional relations
(b) symbolic or organismic relations
(c) ambiguous terms

3) Why are they related? (the manifest and latent functions imputed to these existentially conditioned mental productions.)

4) When do the imputed relations of the existential base and knowledge obtain?
(a) historicist theories
(b) general analytical theories

These questions are intended as a step in this direction. It is, undoubtedly, partial and, it is to be hoped, a temporary classification which will … [give] way to an improved and more exacting analytical model. (12)

The chief approaches to be considered here are those of Marx, Scheler, Manheim, Durkheim, and Sorokin. (12-13) analyzed using questions 1-4. It is a relatively complicated comparison, which I will not attempt to summarize here. In short, Marx has the most weight with economics and class structure Scheler doesn't link ideas to economics directly. But those that are not linked to real factors (sex, hunger, etc) are sterile unsatisfactory in theoretical design. Manheim and Durkheim were more interested in cultural structures as the inspiration for thoughts. Sorkin was the least "empirical" - in his schema, ideas are separate from reality "sensate" and "culture" mentality. Marx, by the by, believes that science depends on industry and commerce for its funding. Science is socially constructed to Marx. Merton believes that the relations of knowledge to the existential basis are the nucleus of every theory in the sociology of knowledge.

Technical and Moral Dimensions of Policy Research (1949)
Mass Persuasion (1946)

Rejecting the positivist standpoint. All knowledge is constructed by the people who have asked for it to be constructed. "normative obligation to assert their scholarly values against the short-range and self-interested objectives often found in research requests coming from policy makers."

What kind of social science is good for what purpose? Who has a stake in commissioning social science? How should men of affairs and men in the street react to and make use of sociological studies? His "instructive appraisal" answers 3 questions: 1) The achievements of applied social science 2) The conditions limiting and making for these achievements and 3) the scientific by-products of applied research in social science.

All social science ends up being advice for someone. This advice can be generated by immediate empirical evidence, by previous cumulative research, or based on specific research and oriented toward new problems. There is a great difference between the adequacy of the research and the adequacy of the carrying out of the research. Then, how is social science viewed? With high esteem, credibility, reliability? Or with low social standing and low credibility? Sociologists did not appear to know what the reception of their advice would be likely to be.
There are 4 dimensions to use when discussing applied research:
Objectivity, Adequacy, Political Relevance, Cost

When sponsors consistently publish results of research favorable to themselves, and only that which is favorable to themselves, doubt is cast upon the objectivity of the research.
A layperson or non-scientist maybe cannot judge the relative objectivity of the work. Second, social science may not be adequate to certain kinds of demands or questions. Social science as a whole may be castigated for its inability to solve a specific problem.

"There is plainly a need for an 'applied social research on applied social research' to ferret out the public images of social science particularly among makers of policy in government labor, and business. " (77)

Merton analyzes the kinds of clients (those who commission work) that sociologists must deal with: government, businesses, foundations, welfare agencies, etc. and the kinds of research staffs assembled by these groups: academic, commercial, permanent, ad hoc.
He lists three common goals for research:
1) To influence other people to take actions
2) To inform oneself in order to guide action
3) To delay or take no action, and to prevent others

Regarding point three, one might think that Merton had become cynical, but indeed delay is commonplace. Other purposes might include the following:

To move policy makers to new types of goals
To sensitize policy makers to better ways to meet already established goals.

Frequently policy makers don't know how to ask for what they need and so overspecify the problem. For instance, an anti-defamation league might ask what types of mass media they should choose to effectively counter anti-Semitism, when in fact the real problem is anti-Semitism, and it might be some other method altogether than would be more effective. The client may have values which define the kind of research being asked for.

Then the researcher him or herself may hold values which define the kind of research that will be done. A researcher may have scruples about doing some kinds of persuasive work or using some kinds of methods. Should the applied research attempt to change the attitudes, or situations, or both or neither of the group in question? The researcher should (ideally) not do research that will not or cannot produce the results asked for by the client.
"The investigator may naively suppose that he is engaged in the value-free activity of research, whereas in fact he may simply have so defined his research problems that the results will be of use to one group in the society, and not to others. His very choice and definition of a problem reflects his tacit values." (86)

Quote on mass persuasion

The practitioner in propaganda is at once confronted by a dilemma: he must either forego the use of certain techniques of persuasion which will help him obtain the immediate end-in-view or violate prevailing mortal codes. He must choose between being a less than fully effective technician and a scrupulous human being or an effective technician and a less than scrupulous human being…. The sense of power that accrues to manipulators of mass opinion, it would appear, does not always compensate for the correlative sense of guilt. The conflict may lead them to a flight into cynicism. Or it may lead to uneasy efforts to exonerate themselves from moral responsibility for the use of manipulative techniques by helplessly declaring, to themselves and to all who will listen, that "unfortunately, that's the way the world is. People are moved by emotions, by fear and hope and anxiety, and not by information or knowledge…." Like most half-truths, the notion that leaders of mass opinion must traffic in sentiment has a specious cogency. Values are rooted in sentiment and values are ineluctably linked with action. But the whole truth extends beyond this observation. Appeals to sentiment within the context of relevant information and knowledge are basically different from appeals to sentiment which blur and obscure this knowledge. Mass persuasion is not manipulative when it provides access to the pertinent facts; it is manipulative when the appeal to sentiment is used to the exclusion of pertinent information.

Technicians must not simply say "if you use this method, a lot of people will be persuaded." If he is democratic (like Sclove!), instead, he or she might ask: "Does the unelaborated appeal to sentiment which displaces the information pertinent to assessing this sentiment blunt the critical capacities of listeners? " (87)

The researcher must, says Merton, recognize the intimate relationship of technique and morality. Further problems of applied research include timing. The tempo of policy decisions is quite different (and faster) than the tempo of research. But if a researcher yields to pressure, and hurries, he or she may get bad or confusing results. The costs of applied research may also be difficult to assess in the beginning, and even at the end.

There are six types of research problems in applied social sciences. diagnostic, prognostic, differential prognosis, evaluative (of current programs), general background data, educative research (informing the public and countering misconceptions.

What are the gaps between research and policy? Scientific gaps and interpersonal gaps.
Scientific gaps may be caused by inadequate focus on the actual problem. Or it may be that concrete predictions are made but the variables upon which the predictions are based are simply unpredictable. Improper application of one kind of study, in one context, to another situation.

Interpersonal gaps. The commissioning agent may have some values that preclude an examination of the important or practicable courses of action. There may be an economic framework which ends the research early. The policy maker may not want to take a risk, as suggested by the research. Lack of continuing communication, and or the status of the research is not sufficiently persuasive.

There are common problems to be considered: the researcher could overlook an important variable, so that the problem as posed by the commissioning agent is far from what the subjects of the study consider to be the problem (e.g. Native American education). Many of the untoward consequences of applied research come from an insufficient understanding of the complexity of the system under study. The theoretic by-products of applied research: first, researchers must test and keep testing the underlying theoretical assumptions driving the applied research. Second, immediate success in applied research might postpone proper theoretical analysis.

Final questions: to what extent does the sociologist's familiarity with some methods and relative unfamiliarity with other methods pre-determine the kind of research and results (all the time, I would suppose!). Second, do applied researchers more often deal with numbers than concepts. attitudes, ideas, feelings.? Finally, are applied researchers read more, criticized more, and so urged to become more effective in technique?

Social Conflict of Styles of Sociological Work. (1959) 4th World Congress of Sociology, Stresa, Italy "The Sociology of Sociology"

He explores "the ways in which relationship among sociologists may be as important in shaping their shared body of knowledge as are new data and new theoretical perspectives."

His theme is the social processes internal to the development of sociology and in particular on the role in that development played by socio-conflict between sociologists. He begins by suggesting three broad movements in the field: first, the differentiation of sociology as a discipline; second, the creation of an institutional legitimacy; and third, a movement toward reconsolidation. With regard to the first movement, the roots of sociology in each country are quite different - differentiation from former disciplines happened in diverse ways. With regard to the second movement, the questions "what is sociology," and "is a science of society possible?" were answered as the discipline achieved limited recognition in universities. In many cases, sociologists were recruited in support of national goals and objectives. With regard to the third movement, patterns of collaboration differ from country to country. Each pattern of collaboration has its own intellectual rationale.

There are many conflicts between sociologists in different countries. First, it has more to do with allocation of intellectual resources among different kinds of defined problems than it does with differing notions of theory. He thinks that conflict is healthy and fruitful, but the polemics of dismissive contempt ought to be toned down. (For instance, the stereotype of North Americans by South Americans is that they are numbers focused, bean-counters at best. )

"The most pervasive polemic, the one which, as I have implied, underlies most of the rest, stems from the charge by some sociologists that others are busily engaged in the study of trivia, while all about them the truly significant problems of human society go unexamined. After all, so this argument goes, while war and exploitation, poverty, injustice, and insecurity plague the life of men in society or threaten their very existence, many sociologists are fiddling with subjects so remote from these catastrophic troubles as to be irresponsibly trivial." (59)

Merton points out that the size of the problem doesn't necessarily indicate its importance or future importance. Another divisive issue is a focus on methodology. Some sociologists hold methodology in higher esteem than others - and so only address those problems that can be measured or counted. He considers the question of a lone scholar versus a research team. A lone scholar sometimes cannot process the kind of scope and details that a team can manage. Sometimes cognitive agreements are obscured by values and interests, or polemical stands. So both Marxist and non-Marxists alike agree that in a capitalist society social mobility "consolidates the rule of capital itself, enabling it to recruit ever new forces for itself out of the lower levels of society." Whether this is a dangerous tendency or not is different from whether or not it happens.. Finally, he describes a cleavage between formal or abstract sociology and concrete sociology - between say, the rise of Christianity (contingent) and the rise of religions (a model). And, etc. reference groups and audiences. Sociology versus social psychology (studying the attitudes and sentiments of individuals versus the study of social institutions). Cleavage had better run not entirely along national lines.

Behavior Patterns of Scientists (1968)

The 1968 publication of The Double Helix surprised some of its readers by showing that scientists can be "boastful, jealous, garrulous, violent" -- all too human. "[P]sychiatrist Lawrence Kubie asks: "Are we witnessing the development of a generation of hardened, cynical, amoral, embittered, disillusioned young scientists?" Perhaps the race for priority, the all-important scoop, was less important in the past, but it is certainly an issue for the present. There is less leisure, less solitude for thinking and being certain, less time for checking one's results several times over. Merton says the priority urge/race exists in every country, between countries, and from about 1715 onwards. (Newton or Leibnitz, the invention of calculus). Watson, who looks brash in his book, would be mild-mannered by 17th century standards. However, the culture of science really requires some thick-skinned vanity, because scientific originality is subjected to tough peer review. In Merton's eyes, indebtedness should also be acknowledged.

The Perspective of Insiders and Outsiders (1972)

He explores the paradigm for the sociology of knowledge in the theory of reference groups. "Merton systematically dissects the general problem into its component issues and implications, staying carefully in touch with the social and structural concomitants of each one. Ideological conflict creates burgeoning ethnocentrism, but it can be a time for fruitful research."

Social identities are often formed around who you and who you know and where you were born rather than what you do. So insider groups are formed with privileged access to knowledge. His examples include the Nazi idea that authentic scientific knowledge came from Aryans only and the American white old boys club. In part, what he is concerned about in this paper is the idea that only black sociologists can understand black life. Does shared pain created an experience and a kind of knowledge that no one else can penetrate? Such a positions implies a Balkanization of science and knowledge. Extreme insiderism is isomorphic (he says) with individual solipsism. (You have to be me to understand me.) In a less extreme form, only insiders know what the issues are - outsiders won't ask the right question. There's plenty of evidence to show that people tend to believe their own group or collectivity is superior to all others. And tend to regularly overestimate its importance to outsiders. The judgment of insiders is unreliable when applied to their own group. Better to trust them to judge other groups than themselves.

Ethnocentrism is not a historical constant, but is intensified under acute social conflict, and at that time, people develop epistemological and ontological reasons to support the idea of privileged social access -- special insider knowledge.

Insider doctrine tends to look with suspicion on individual variability. Only the group can develop sound and fruitful ideas. "Insiders" usually don't accept that they cannot judge other social groups, even while defending the notion that they themselves cannot be judged by others. In fact, suggests, Merton, taking the specific case of African Americans, they probably do understand whites better than whites understand blacks because blacks regularly enter white cultures - especially homes, schools, etc. -- but whites do not regularly enter black culture. Segregation makes for asymmetrical sensitivities across the divide.

One need not be Caesar in order to understand Caesar.

Levi Strauss says " all that the historian or ethnographer can do, and all that we can expect of either of them, is to enlarge a specific experience to the dimensions of a more general one, which thereby becomes accessible as experience to men of another country or another epoch. And in order to succeed, both historian and ethnographer must have the same qualities: skill, precision, a sympathetic approach and objectivity."

Who is the better observer? An outsider or insider? Being an outsider ONLY doesn't guarantee unprejudiced and fair view of a group. As an example, consider De Toqueville. (and other examples)

Merton makes a final point about social sadism and sociological euphemism. There are entrenched social structures that systematically inflict pain, frustration and humiliation on particular groups. Social euphemisms are those emotionally neutral terms used by sociologists to describe social sadism. "stratification, rewards, exchange…" Insiders and outsiders should be cautions of euphemism.

The best work, says Merton, is done by people who intend to do good work. And that's the bottom line.