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

By Lewis A. Coser | Go to book overview

The Planning of Communities: Anticipations and Hindsights

SUZANNE KELLER

T HE writings of Robert K. Merton, the sociologist of the wingéd word, have become famous both for their substance and their felicity. "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action,"1 the title of his first published paper in volume 1 of the American Sociological Review, lingers as much for its title as for the problem it explores.

After establishing, in his clear and unmistakable way, the main terms of the inquiry, including operational definitions of key concepts, Merton notes that the chief culprits in our long-standing inability to preview the future correctly are ignorance, both subjective (when one does not know what is known) and objective (when little is known), errors (of assessment and inference), and neglect of the ramifications of actions. There is also the problem, peculiar to the behavioral disciplines, of human volition interfering with heralded predictions by altering the conditions under which these are to hold true. This last observation led to another famous paper on the "self-fulfilling prophecy" and its obverse, suicidal or self-destructive belief.2

Then, as later,3 Merton considered the "study of the unintended consequences of social practices" the locus of the "distinctive intellectual contributions of the Sociologist."4

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