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

By Lewis A. Coser | Go to book overview

Reference Individuals and Reference Idols

HERBERT H. HYMAN

L ONG ago, at mid-century to be exact, Merton presented to us all the "Contributions to the Theory of Reference Group Behavior."1 For some of the very young who are inclined to neglect the past, it may seem to stem from ancient times. Victor Hugo should be their guide: "Let us, while waiting for new monuments, preserve ancient monuments." Indeed it is a monument, and one that has not crumbled in the quarter-century now passed since it was built. For some of the old who had played with the concept when they were very young, it is the elegant embodiment of ideas that have a long past but that are still vital. For the many, there is no need to urge special measures to preserve the monument. Its figure shines through their theorizing and research. It looms large enough for scholars in distant India or Israel, even as far away as Australia, to see it and take inspiration from it. It has, as Turner put it, a "meteoric prominence" for those working in all corners of the field: on studies of farmers, scientists, newspapermen, and drunkards; on problems of mental illness, formal organization, marketing and public relations, mass communication, opinion formation, consumer behavior, political behavior, acculturation, race relations, labor relations, juvenile delinquency, and jokes.

The original monument, however impressive it was to others, seemed incomplete to Merton. In 1957, he enlarged it with the "Continuities in the Theory of Reference Groups and Social Structure,"2 so as "to bring out some

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