The Idea of Social Structure: Papers in Honor of Robert K. Merton

By Lewis A. Coser | Go to book overview

The Complexity of Roles as a Seedbed of Individual Autonomy *

ROSE LAUB COSER

It is clear that the real intellectual wealth of the individual depends entirely on the wealth of his real relationships.

M ERTON'S work offers a conceptual framework for understanding the social-structural elements that favor modern individualism. His theory of role-set,1 in particular, specifies social-structural variables that, in combination with the findings and conceptualizations of Jean Piaget,2 Lawrence Kohlberg,3 Melvin Kohn,4 and Basil Bernstein,5 can provide the basis for a theory of individualism in modern society.

The differentiation among institutions in modern society -- the family, the place of work, the school -- require that individuals segment their activities so that they behave differently at different places and at different times, when they interact with different people who themselves occupy different positions, and that they show themselves in a different light by adjusting behavior to circumstance. They behave differently at home than at work and relate differently to, associates than to family members. To the extent that associates

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*
I am indebted to Beverly Birns for a critical reading of an earlier version of this paper, especially in regard to the sections dealing with child psychology. My profound thanks go to Melvin Kohn, from whose comments and general critique I have much profited during extended conferences. discussions, and correspondence while this paper was being written.
Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Science, translated and edited by Lloyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat ( New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1967), p. 429. Author's comment: The translation reads: "...real connections." It seems, however, that the word "relationships" renders better the German word "Beziehungen." Cf.: "Dass das wirkliche geistige Reichtum des Individuums ganz von dem Reichtum seiner wirklichen Beziehungen abhaengt, ist...klar." Marx, Deutsche Ideologie, in Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels ( Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1958), Vol. 3, p. 37.

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