Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

Robert K. Merton ( 1910-) had begun his career at Columbia University by the end of World War II. Much like Talcott Parsons at Harvard, Merton sought to establish postwar sociology on a scientific basis. For Merton, this work proceeded partly through his teaching at Columbia and his leadership of the Bureau of Applied Social Research and partly through the composition of articles, like the one selected here. "Manifest and Latent Functions" became the lead article in Merton Social Theory and Social Structure, which, for his followers, was the effective textbook (in Thomas Kuhn's sense) of modern sociology. In this, as in most of the articles in that book, Merton was part teacher and part supervisor of research--always elegantly explaining his ideas, relating them to the tradition, then carefully suggesting their value to the concrete tasks of social research. In the preface to Social Theory and Social Structure, Merton graciously acknowledged Parsons as his teacher and friend. Yet in the book itself, he proposed a different practical direction, if not an entirely different theoretical scheme. The side-by-side development of these two masters of sociological theory in the postwar years is a compelling story of respectful scientific cooperation across differences. The Hawthorne Western Electric study that Merton mentions in the selection was one of the first and most influential studies of early industrial sociology. It was based on observations over time of men working in close quarters wiring telephone circuit banks (once used in telephone switching stations). Merton refers to the surprising results that showed efficiency was increased primarily by latent factors that were totally unexpected when the study began.


Manifest and Latent Functions

Robert K. Merton( 1949)

The distinction between manifest and latent functions was devised to preclude the inadvertent confusion, often found in the sociological literature, between conscious motivations for social behavior and its objective consequences. Our scrutiny of current vocabularies of functional analysis has shown how easily, and how unfortunately, the sociologist may identify motives with functions. It was further indicated that the motive and the function vary independently and that the failure to register this fact in an established terminology has contributed to the unwitting tendency among sociologists to confuse the subjective categories of motivation with the objective categories of function. This, then, is the central purpose of our succumbing to the not-always-commendable practice of introducing new terms into the rapidly growing technical vocabulary of sociology, a practice regarded by many laymen as an affront to their intelligence and an offense against common intelligibility.

As will be readily recognized, I have adapted the terms "manifest" and "latent" from their use in another context by Freud (although Francis Bacon had long ago spoken of "latent process" and "latent configuration" in connection with processes which are below the threshold of superficial observation).

The distinction itself has been repeatedly drawn by observers of human behavior at irregular intervals over a span of many centuries. Indeed, it would be disconcerting to find that a distinction which we have come to regard as central to functional

____________________
Reprinted with permission of the Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. From Social Theory and Social Structure by Robert K. Merton. Copyright © 1967, 1968 by Robert K. Merton.

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