Merton's Dysfunctions of Bureaucracies
Along with a handful of scholars, Robert K. Merton's work shaped the discipline of sociology in the United States. A professor first at Harvard University (where he received his PhD) in the 1930s, then at Columbia University from the 1940s onward, he developed his approach to sociology based on Emile Durkheim's notion of "functional analysis". Unlike other functionalists, such as Talcott Parsons, Merton developed "theories of the middle range" rather than grand theory, blending theory with the findings of problem-focused empirical research. His work contributed to many other areas of social inquiry, including organizations and bureaucracy. Merton's work on anomie, deviance, and organizations led him to argue that the structure of bureaucracies contained a tendency toward dysfunction.
Keywords Rationality; Bureaucracy; Formal Organization; Formalization; Institutions; Learning Organizations; Organizations; Social Organizations
Social Interaction in Groups
Along with a handful of scholars, Robert K. Merton's work shaped the discipline of sociology in the United States. A professor first at Harvard University (where he received his PhD) in the 1930s, then at Columbia University from the 1940s onward, he was taught by people like Pitirim Sorokin and Talcott Parsons and, like Parsons, developed his sociology based on Emile Durkheim's notion of "functional analysis" (Calhoun, 2003). Unlike Parsons, however, Merton developed "theories of the middle range" rather than grand theory, blending theory with the findings of problem-focused empirical research. Although his passion was sociological analysis of science, his work contributed to many other areas of social inquiry, including organizations and bureaucracy. In particular, he influenced many of his students (e.g., Peter Blau and Alvin Gouldner) who in turn conducted detailed and intensive case studies of organizations (Crothers, 1991). Merton's work on anomie, deviance, and organizations led him to argue that the structure of bureaucracies contained a tendency toward dysfunction.
Merton built on the functionalist analysis of society advanced by Emile Durkheim, which analyzes society in terms of its workings as a system, which may not be obvious to its members. However, Merton placed less emphasis on the power of the social system itself than did other functionalist theorists, such as Talcott Parsons. In fact, Merton was generally of the view that sociology was a young discipline, not yet sufficiently developed to be able to create a unified theory of society, and argued instead for what he referred to as "theories of the middle range" (Merton, 1968), which focus on what lies between the minutiae of empirical research and overarching theoretical statements that claim to explain all social action (Waters, 1994). Thus, although his work contributed to fields such as the sociology of deviance, organizations and science, much of his work focused on particular substantive problems and issues such as housing, propaganda, mass communication, and medical education, and, with Paul Lazarsfield, he trained researchers in social science methodologies (Calhoun, 2003).
For instance, Merton's work was influenced by Durkheim's argument that crime was a normal aspect of social life or functioning. He developed a functionalist analysis of society by focusing on the role of anomie. For Durkheim, anomie stems from a lack of regulating norms and the promotion of unrestricted desires in society. It emerges in the absence of relationships between the individual and society and points to a general moral decay and social breakdown. Moreover, in circumstances where there is rapid or extensive social change (such as the collapse of the global economy in 2008), the regulative power of society is threatened, contributing to a more widespread (or pathological) state of anomie, in which people become or feel detached from meaningful attachments (Marske, 1987). In the 2008 economic meltdown, this process is perhaps best illustrated by the stories of people who lost their jobs and homes and very quickly felt not only economically impoverished but also emotionally and socially bereft as a consequence of the widening gap between what is socially desirable and what is possible for people to achieve.
While Durkheim emphasized the significance of rapid social change in contributing to anomie, Merton argued that the potential for anomie is ever present in contemporary American society. He argued that all societies make moral demands on their members—culturally approved goals and culturally appropriate means of achieving those goals—and in a functioning society there would be no strain between those demands, or between goals and means (Lee & Newby, 1989). In American society, the end tends to be glorified over the means. People are socialized to pursue financial success, and evaluate others in terms of the extent to which they have accrued wealth and its visible trappings, but American culture endorses only a limited number of ways to attain financial success, such as education, hard work and moral engagement as a citizen (Du Bois & Berg, 2002). However, for many people, no matter hard they work, attaining financial success is not possible because they lack resources or access to social advantages that help to secure financial success. Therefore, such groups experience what Merton referred to as "strain" (1938), to which, as Lee and Newby (1989) outline, there are five "modes" of adaptation:
- Conformist — The individual accepts both the legitimate cultural goals of success and the institutionalized or conventional means for reaching these goals. This practice is the most common form of adaptation.
- Innovationist — The individual accepts the goals but employs illegitimate means for attainment. You want the culturally valued things (such as money) but you don't accept the societal norms for achieving these things. Examples would include burglars and loan sharks.
- Ritualists — The individual abandons the goals of society, but nonetheless continues to abide by institutional norms. Examples would include an underpaid secretary who never misses a day of work.
- Retreatists — The individual rejects both the goals and the means of society. An individual often enters this mode after repeated failure in the conformist mode. Examples would include permanently unemployed individuals and the homeless.
- Rebellion mode — The individual withdraws allegiance from society, which he/she sees as unjust, and seeks to establish a new, modified society. Examples would include members of cults and extremist groups (Lee & Newby, 1989).
Although Merton's theory has been helpful in understanding how a person can deviate from the cultural norms and responses that have been established by society, critics argue that there are two flaws with his concept. First, the theory does not describe deviant behavior on a broad scale. Rather, the focus tends to be on deviant behavior utilized when considering crimes that deal with money (i.e., white collar criminals). Second, there is an implicit bias against lower-class individuals given the assumption that people with inadequate resources will resort to deviant behavior in order to achieve goals.
Nonetheless, Merton's analysis suggests that problems can occur within a social structure when there is no provision for all members to achieve the established organizational goals. As a result, deviant behavior occurs when there is no continuity between what a culture demands and what a structure provides. Thus, while Merton worked within a functionalist paradigm, his views deviated from other functionalists such as Parsons in that he believed that there was a certain level of dysfunction in society.
While other functionalists explained how organizations, roles and a specialized division of labor functioned to the benefit of the overall social system, Merton argued that a certain...
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