Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems



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This presentation is based on the theories of Robert K. Merton. A more complete summary of his and other macro-social theories can be found in Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems, by Frank W. Elwell.

  • This presentation is based on the theories of Robert K. Merton. A more complete summary of his and other macro-social theories can be found in Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems, by Frank W. Elwell.



IN 1949 THE PUBLICATIONN OF SOCIAL THEORY AND SOCIAL STRUCTURE PLACED ROBERT MERTON AT THE FOREFRONT OF THOSE WHO ADVOCATED STRUCTURAL-FUNCTIONAL APPROACHES TO THE STUDY OF SOCIETY. TO UNDERSTAND MERTON’S THOUGHT REQUIRES, THEN, THAT WE TURN TO AN EXAMINATION OF STRUCTURAL-FUNCTIONALISM.

  • IN 1949 THE PUBLICATIONN OF SOCIAL THEORY AND SOCIAL STRUCTURE PLACED ROBERT MERTON AT THE FOREFRONT OF THOSE WHO ADVOCATED STRUCTURAL-FUNCTIONAL APPROACHES TO THE STUDY OF SOCIETY. TO UNDERSTAND MERTON’S THOUGHT REQUIRES, THEN, THAT WE TURN TO AN EXAMINATION OF STRUCTURAL-FUNCTIONALISM.



STRUCTURAL FUNCTIONALISM TURNS TO SUCH ISSUES AS CONSIDERATION OF WHAT IS MEANT BY A SOCIAL SYSTEM.

  • STRUCTURAL FUNCTIONALISM TURNS TO SUCH ISSUES AS CONSIDERATION OF WHAT IS MEANT BY A SOCIAL SYSTEM.

    • WHAT ARE THE PROPERTIES OF ANY SOCIAL SYSTEM?
    • HOW ARE THE ELEMENTS WITHIN THE SYSTEM INTERRELATED TO FORM A STRUCTURE?
    • HOW DO THE PARTS, AND THE MANNER OF THEIR RELATIONSHIP, BEAR UPON THE PERFORMANCE OF THE ENTIRE SYSTEM?
    • WHAT ARE THE FUNCTIONS OF THE DIFFERENT PARTS?
    • WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES OF A GIVEN STRUCTURE FOR THE PEOPLE WHO MOVE WITHIN IT?


By the end of World War II structural-functional analysis was the dominant school of thought within American sociology.

  • By the end of World War II structural-functional analysis was the dominant school of thought within American sociology.



FUNCTION DOES NOT MEAN EXACTLY THE SAME THING AS PURPOSE OR MOTIVATION.IT MEANS, INSTEAD, THE EXTENT TO WHICH A GIVEN ACTIVITY DOES, IN FACT, PROMOTE OR INTERFERE WITH THE MAINTENANCE OF A SYSTEM.

  • FUNCTION DOES NOT MEAN EXACTLY THE SAME THING AS PURPOSE OR MOTIVATION.IT MEANS, INSTEAD, THE EXTENT TO WHICH A GIVEN ACTIVITY DOES, IN FACT, PROMOTE OR INTERFERE WITH THE MAINTENANCE OF A SYSTEM.



“Social function refers to observable objective consequences, and not to subjective dispositions (aims, motives, purposes).”

  • “Social function refers to observable objective consequences, and not to subjective dispositions (aims, motives, purposes).”



A functional analysis promotes a different way of looking. What does advertising in fact do? Further, what are the consequences of what it does for the greater society?

  • A functional analysis promotes a different way of looking. What does advertising in fact do? Further, what are the consequences of what it does for the greater society?



COMPARE THE FOLLOWING FUNCTIONAL EVALUATION OF ADVERTISING WITH THE MOTIVATIONAL EVALUATION:

  • COMPARE THE FOLLOWING FUNCTIONAL EVALUATION OF ADVERTISING WITH THE MOTIVATIONAL EVALUATION:

  • ONE OF THE THINGS ADVERTISING DOES IS TO PRETEND TO MAKE SIGNIFCANT DIFFERENCES OUT OF WHAT ARE VIRTUALLY IDENTICAL PRODUCTS.

  • BY CREATING DIFFERENCES WHERE NONE IN FACT EXISTS, ADVERTISING SERVES THE FUNCTION OF ENABLING A VARIETY OF MANUFACTURERS TO SURVIVE WHERE THERE IS NO UTILITARIAN BASIS FOR THEIR SURVIVAL.



THUS A FNCTIONALIST WOULD CLAIM THAT ONE OF THE FUNCTIONS OF ADVERTISING IS TO MAINTAIN A FORM OF INDUSTRIAL PLURALISM.

  • THUS A FNCTIONALIST WOULD CLAIM THAT ONE OF THE FUNCTIONS OF ADVERTISING IS TO MAINTAIN A FORM OF INDUSTRIAL PLURALISM.

  • ALONG WITH THIS, ADVERTISING SUSTAINS THE BELIEF THAT TRUE COMPETION, WHICH LEADS TOWARD IMPROVED PRODUCTS AND LOWER PRICES ACTUALLY EXISTS.



IT IS ONE THING TO SPECULATE ON THE AIMS, MOTIVATIONS, AND PURPOSES UNDERLYING ADVERTISING IN MODERN AMERICA AND ANOTHER TO SEE IT FROM A FUNCTIONAL PERSPECTIVE.

  • IT IS ONE THING TO SPECULATE ON THE AIMS, MOTIVATIONS, AND PURPOSES UNDERLYING ADVERTISING IN MODERN AMERICA AND ANOTHER TO SEE IT FROM A FUNCTIONAL PERSPECTIVE.



IF WE ASK AN ADVERTISING PERSON TO TELL US THE AIMS OR PURPOSES OF THE PROFESSION, SHE MIGHT MENTION SEVERAL THINGS:

  • IF WE ASK AN ADVERTISING PERSON TO TELL US THE AIMS OR PURPOSES OF THE PROFESSION, SHE MIGHT MENTION SEVERAL THINGS:

    • ADVERTISING EXISTS TO IMPROVE THE LEVEL OF LIVING OF AMERICANS.
    • ADVERTISING SEEKS TO MAKE AMERICANS AWARE OF THE GOODS AND SERVICES THAT INDUSTRY PROVIDES
    • ADVERTISING SEEKS TO MOTIVATE PEOPLE TO BUY SPECIFIC PRODUCTS.
    • WE COULD GO ON AND ON.


Merton makes a distinction between two forms of social function. One of these he refers to as “manifest function” and the other as “latent function.”

  • Merton makes a distinction between two forms of social function. One of these he refers to as “manifest function” and the other as “latent function.”



MANIFEST FUNCTION ARE OBJECTIVE CONSEQUENCES FOR SOME PERSON, SUBGROUP, OR SOCIO-CULTURAL SYSTEM WHICH CONTRIBUTE TO ITS ADJUSTMENT AND WERE SO INTENDED.

  • MANIFEST FUNCTION ARE OBJECTIVE CONSEQUENCES FOR SOME PERSON, SUBGROUP, OR SOCIO-CULTURAL SYSTEM WHICH CONTRIBUTE TO ITS ADJUSTMENT AND WERE SO INTENDED.

  • LATENT FUNCTIONS ARE CONSEQUENCES WHICH CONTRIBUTE TO ADJUSTMENT BUT WERE NOT SO INTENDED.



MANIFEST FUNCTIONS ARE ESSENTIALLY THE OFFICIAL EXPLANATION OF A GIVEN ACTION. LATENT FUNCTIONS ARE THE SOCIOLOGICAL EXPLANATIONS OF A GIVEN ACT. AN EXAMPLE WILL HELP MAKE THE DISTINCTION AND INDICATE ITS VALUE:

  • MANIFEST FUNCTIONS ARE ESSENTIALLY THE OFFICIAL EXPLANATION OF A GIVEN ACTION. LATENT FUNCTIONS ARE THE SOCIOLOGICAL EXPLANATIONS OF A GIVEN ACT. AN EXAMPLE WILL HELP MAKE THE DISTINCTION AND INDICATE ITS VALUE:



“Ceremonials may fulfill the latent function of reinforcing the group identity by providing a periodic occasion on which the scattered members of a group assemble to engage in a common activity...such ceremonials are a means by which collective expression is afforded the sentiments which...are found to be a basic source of group unity.”

  • “Ceremonials may fulfill the latent function of reinforcing the group identity by providing a periodic occasion on which the scattered members of a group assemble to engage in a common activity...such ceremonials are a means by which collective expression is afforded the sentiments which...are found to be a basic source of group unity.”



“THROUGH THE SYSTEMATIC APPLICATION OF THE CONCEPT OF LATENT FUNCTION, THEREFORE, APPARENTLY IRRATIONAL BEHAVIOR MAY AT TIMES BE FOUND TO BE POSITIVELY FUNCTIONAL FOR THE GROUP.”

  • “THROUGH THE SYSTEMATIC APPLICATION OF THE CONCEPT OF LATENT FUNCTION, THEREFORE, APPARENTLY IRRATIONAL BEHAVIOR MAY AT TIMES BE FOUND TO BE POSITIVELY FUNCTIONAL FOR THE GROUP.”



It becomes quickly apparent that the concept of latent function has some of the qualities of an after-the-fact rationalization or excuse for the way things are.

  • It becomes quickly apparent that the concept of latent function has some of the qualities of an after-the-fact rationalization or excuse for the way things are.



THE FUNCTIONALIST SEEMS TO BE SAYING, “WELL, IF SOMETHING EXISTS IN THE SOCIAL ORDER, THERE MUST BE A PRETTY GOOD REASON FOR IT--OTHERWISE IT WOULD NOT EXIST. THEREFORE, LET US THINK LONG AND HARD ON THE MATTER, AND SOOONER OR LATER THE REASON FOR ITS EXISTENCE WILL COME TO US.”

  • THE FUNCTIONALIST SEEMS TO BE SAYING, “WELL, IF SOMETHING EXISTS IN THE SOCIAL ORDER, THERE MUST BE A PRETTY GOOD REASON FOR IT--OTHERWISE IT WOULD NOT EXIST. THEREFORE, LET US THINK LONG AND HARD ON THE MATTER, AND SOOONER OR LATER THE REASON FOR ITS EXISTENCE WILL COME TO US.”



Merton was aware of this disERTON WAS AWARE OF THIS DISTURBING FEATURE OF STRUCTURAL-FUNCTIONALIST THOUGHT AND TRIED TO GET AROUND IT BY INDTRODUCING THE IDEA OF DYSFUNCTIONS.

  • Merton was aware of this disERTON WAS AWARE OF THIS DISTURBING FEATURE OF STRUCTURAL-FUNCTIONALIST THOUGHT AND TRIED TO GET AROUND IT BY INDTRODUCING THE IDEA OF DYSFUNCTIONS.



Dysfunctional events lessen the adjustment of a social system. If the dysfunctional forces are too great, the social order is overwhelmed, disorganized, and possibly destroyed.

  • Dysfunctional events lessen the adjustment of a social system. If the dysfunctional forces are too great, the social order is overwhelmed, disorganized, and possibly destroyed.



Society tries to constrain dysfunctional elements the same way an organism would constrain a bacterial or viral infection. Dysfunctional features of a society often cause stress, strain, or tensions.

  • Society tries to constrain dysfunctional elements the same way an organism would constrain a bacterial or viral infection. Dysfunctional features of a society often cause stress, strain, or tensions.



Several examples of Dysfunctions:

  • Several examples of Dysfunctions:

    • Lead poisoning among the upper class Romans because of their cooking pots.
    • Medical technology causing a rise in medical costs and the creation of a gerontocracy.
    • Increases in agricultural productivity causing a rise in population.
    • Higher consumption rates causing increases in depletion and pollution.


A complete functional analysis orients thought toward the social consequences--intended and unintended--of a particular action.

  • A complete functional analysis orients thought toward the social consequences--intended and unintended--of a particular action.



Merton claims functional analysis has the following virtues:

  • Merton claims functional analysis has the following virtues:

    • 1) Inhibits the tendency to dismiss a seemingly irrational social event with the casual observation that it is merely superstition of foolishness.
    • 2) The concepts of manifest and latent function provide us with a means of probing those features of social behavior which are more theoretically valuable.
    • 3) A functional approach to social action brings a more sophisticated awareness to the moral issues involved in a situation.


Prolonging life, meritocracy, and industrialization are all obvious goods on a manifest level. However, each have latent functions and dysfunctions which make them more of a mixed blessing. Merton’s analysis of the political machine of old is a good illustration of the moral sophistication to be gained from a complete structural-functional analysis…

    • Prolonging life, meritocracy, and industrialization are all obvious goods on a manifest level. However, each have latent functions and dysfunctions which make them more of a mixed blessing. Merton’s analysis of the political machine of old is a good illustration of the moral sophistication to be gained from a complete structural-functional analysis…


“Examined for a moment apart from any moral considerations, the political apparatus operated by the Boss is effectively designed to perform (various) functions with a minimum of inefficiency.”

  • “Examined for a moment apart from any moral considerations, the political apparatus operated by the Boss is effectively designed to perform (various) functions with a minimum of inefficiency.”



“Holding the strings of diverse governmental divisions, bureaus and agencies in his competent hands, the Boss rationalizes the relations between public and private business…He servers as the business community’s ambassador in the otherwise alien realm of government…and in strict business-like terms, he is well-paid for his economic services to his respectable business clients.”

  • “Holding the strings of diverse governmental divisions, bureaus and agencies in his competent hands, the Boss rationalizes the relations between public and private business…He servers as the business community’s ambassador in the otherwise alien realm of government…and in strict business-like terms, he is well-paid for his economic services to his respectable business clients.”



Merton’s statement of the benefits (or functions) of the political machine should not be read as an apology for Bossism and the machine system of city government, Merton goes on…

  • Merton’s statement of the benefits (or functions) of the political machine should not be read as an apology for Bossism and the machine system of city government, Merton goes on…



“To adopt a functional outlook is to provide not an apologia for the political machine but a more solid basis for modifying or eliminating the machine, providing specific structural arrangements are introduced either for eliminating (certain) demands of the the business community or of satisfying these demands through alternative means.”

  • “To adopt a functional outlook is to provide not an apologia for the political machine but a more solid basis for modifying or eliminating the machine, providing specific structural arrangements are introduced either for eliminating (certain) demands of the the business community or of satisfying these demands through alternative means.”



If we wish, then, to operate either as a relatively detached social analyst or as a social activist, a structural functional point of view is a necessity. It inhibits a tendency toward naïve moralizing about social issues and it places any given action within the greater contest of the total social structure.

  • If we wish, then, to operate either as a relatively detached social analyst or as a social activist, a structural functional point of view is a necessity. It inhibits a tendency toward naïve moralizing about social issues and it places any given action within the greater contest of the total social structure.



Of the various contributions to social thought by Merton, perhaps the best known has been his considerations of the nature of deviant behavior, Merton is concerned with more than merely stating a truism that deviants are the sorry products of the society that spawned them. Rather, he is interested in specifying the process whereby deviant action is generated within a social structure.

  • Of the various contributions to social thought by Merton, perhaps the best known has been his considerations of the nature of deviant behavior, Merton is concerned with more than merely stating a truism that deviants are the sorry products of the society that spawned them. Rather, he is interested in specifying the process whereby deviant action is generated within a social structure.



Rather than view deviant behavior as the product of abnormal personalities, Merton is concerned with the extent to which it is the result of the social structure.

  • Rather than view deviant behavior as the product of abnormal personalities, Merton is concerned with the extent to which it is the result of the social structure.



In his approach to this problem Merton strips social structure down to two elemental conditions that hold for any society. He makes a distinction between the goals of a culture and the means the culture provides for achieving those goals.

  • In his approach to this problem Merton strips social structure down to two elemental conditions that hold for any society. He makes a distinction between the goals of a culture and the means the culture provides for achieving those goals.



By making these distinctions Merton is attempting to locate the social conditions that increase the likelihood of getting one kind of behavior over the other.

  • By making these distinctions Merton is attempting to locate the social conditions that increase the likelihood of getting one kind of behavior over the other.



American culture, for example, places great emphasis on the value of individual attainment of success. At the same time, the means of achieving success are unevenly distributed among the population, Merton is concerned here with the problem of how people adapt to society and the ways in which the structural feature of society affect the form which adaptations take.

  • American culture, for example, places great emphasis on the value of individual attainment of success. At the same time, the means of achieving success are unevenly distributed among the population, Merton is concerned here with the problem of how people adapt to society and the ways in which the structural feature of society affect the form which adaptations take.



Merton claims that in those social circumstances where social goals are highly valued and the means for obtaining the goals are not as highly valued, the likelihood of innovation is increased. Criminal behavior is likely in a society which places great emphasis on success and wealth and does not emphasize the value of legitimate means for obtaining these goals.

  • Merton claims that in those social circumstances where social goals are highly valued and the means for obtaining the goals are not as highly valued, the likelihood of innovation is increased. Criminal behavior is likely in a society which places great emphasis on success and wealth and does not emphasize the value of legitimate means for obtaining these goals.



Merton recognizes that culturally held values have a strong effect on individual behavior. A culture that values individual initiative and innovation, following rules and established procedures, will be populated by such individuals. A society that places high value on consumption and leisure will be populated by…

  • Merton recognizes that culturally held values have a strong effect on individual behavior. A culture that values individual initiative and innovation, following rules and established procedures, will be populated by such individuals. A society that places high value on consumption and leisure will be populated by…



Modes of adaptation: Cultural goals Inst. means

  • Modes of adaptation: Cultural goals Inst. means

  • 1. Conformity + +

  • 2. Innovation + -

  • 3. Ritualism - +

  • 4. Retreatism - -

  • 5. Rebellion + +



Merton increasingly became interested in the idea of unanticipated consequences of social action until, eventually, it formed the underlying theme of his work.

  • Merton increasingly became interested in the idea of unanticipated consequences of social action until, eventually, it formed the underlying theme of his work.



From the rise of mass media and the consequent need for vast sums to run political campaigns, comes a lobbying system that has bought and paid for our political representatives.

  • From the rise of mass media and the consequent need for vast sums to run political campaigns, comes a lobbying system that has bought and paid for our political representatives.

  • From fear of terrorism come repressive measures and a further weakening of our democracy

  • Out of the Puritan religion, unexpectedly and without design, comes science.



To evaluate a policy only in terms of its apparent or official objectives is to see considerably less than half of what is taking place.

  • To evaluate a policy only in terms of its apparent or official objectives is to see considerably less than half of what is taking place.



Elwell, F. (2009), Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

  • Elwell, F. (2009), Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

  • Merton, R. K. (1994/1996). A Life of Learning. In R. K. Merton, & P. Sztompka (Ed.), On Social Structure and Science (pp. 339-359). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

  • Merton, R. K. (1996). On Social Structure and Science. (P. Sztompka, Ed.) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

  • Merton, R. K. (1948/1968). Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: The Free Press.





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