BOOK VIII - Page 8

Parsons’ Romantic Sociology

Given the demonstrated importance of Institutionalist economics and functionalism, let us turn next to sociology.  Twentieth-century sociology and twentieth-century physics offer the philosopher of science a striking contrast.  Physics saw revolutionary developments with the relativity theory and quantum theory, and these in turn occasioned the repudiation of positivism, the nineteenth-century philosophy of science, firstly by the physicists and then eventually by the philosophers of science.  But sociology has had no advancements even remotely comparable to physics, and its oppressively conformist peer-reviewed literature has made it sclerotic.  This is because instead of practicing the contemporary pragmatism, as did the physicists with the development of quantum mechanics, sociologists merely reworked both positivism and romanticism, which philosophers of science today view as anachronistic.

 This section examines the reworking of the nineteenth-century philosophies of romanticism and positivism by two sociologists, whose names are associated with these efforts in twentieth-century American academic sociology.  The first and more influential of these is the romantic sociologist, Talcott Parsons of Harvard University.  Parsons’ romantic philosophy of science is very uncongenial to such modern ideas as computerized discovery systems, but his philosophy is still widely practiced and enforced by the editors and their chosen referees of the periodical literature of academic sociology. This overview of sociology’s romanticism is included here to explain contemporary sociologists’ rejection of quantification and their Luddite hostility to mechanization.

Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was a professor at Harvard University from 1927 until his retirement in 1973.  He wrote an intellectual autobiography, “On Building Social System Theory”, in The Twentieth-Century Sciences (1970).  He had majored in philosophy at Amherst University, where he was also influenced by the Institutionalist economist, Walton Hamilton, and he then studied under the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics.  Parsons received his doctorate from the University of Heidelberg University, where he was influenced by the views of Max Weber of Heidel­berg, even though Parsons had attended Heidelberg after Weber’s death.  Parsons’ principal work is his Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory with Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers (1937), an eight-hundred-page tome that examines the sociologies of four writers: Alfred Marshall, Vilfredo Pareto, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. 

This magnum opus is as much an historical study in philosophy of social science as a study in sociology.  Its thesis is that social theory has evolved beyond positivism by an “immanent” process of development within the body of social theory, and that the outcome has been a “convergence” to a type of social theory that Parsons calls the “voluntaristic theory of social action”, a type that is unmistakably romantic.  This sociological theory encompasses its own philosophy of science, which has evolved with it, and which in turn describes the evolution of the voluntaristic theory of action set forth in the book.  The principal figure among the four social theorists considered is Max Weber, whose social theory and verstehen philosophy of scientific criticism is represented in Parsons’ work as a later phase in the immanent development culminating in Parsons’ own voluntaristic theory of action.  In the present context what Weber said is of less importance than what Parsons understood and rendered Weber as having said, since it was Parsons who was the principal influence on American academic sociologists.

Weber’s verstehende soziologie starts with the concept of “action”, which Weber defines as any human attitude or activity, to which the participant or participants associate a subjective meaning.  “Social action” in turn is action that according to its subjective meaning to the participants involves the attitudes and actions of others, and is oriented to them in its course.  Finally, sociology is the science that attempts an empathetically based “interpretative understanding”, i.e., verstehen, of social action, in order to arrive at a “causal” explanation of its course and effects.   The verstehen explanation is in terms of motivations, which Weber defines as a meaning complex that to the participant or to the observer appears to be an adequate ground for the participant’s attitudes or actions.  A correct causal interpretation of action is one in which both the objective course and the subjective motive are correctly grasped, and their relation to each other is “understandable” to the sociologist as verstehen.  The object of verstehen in Weber’s methodology is to uncover the motivations that are the causes of social action.

 This philosophy of science is romantic in two respects: Firstly it requires that the language of explanation contain vocabulary that references an ontology consisting of subjective experiences of the social participants, and it defines the term “theory” in social science exclusively as language describing this ontology.  Secondly it requires the verstehen or empathetically based “understanding” of the motives described by statements referencing this ontology, as a criterion for scientific criticism, and defines “causal explanation” in terms of this verstehen imputation of subjective motives for observed behavior.  The requirement of verstehen may be called a strong version of the romantic philosophy of social science, since some romantic social scientists accept a weaker version, in which social science explanation references subjective ontology but is not required to satisfy the verstehen criterion, because the verstehen explanations based on the social scientist’s personal experience or empathy have been known to differ widely from one social scientist to another.  The romantic social scientists that accept the weaker thesis deny that the social scientist should have to find an explanation convincing by reference to his own personal or imaginatively vicarious experience.

Historically the philosophy of science that evolved in reaction against the romantic philosophy is positivism, which requires exclusion of the subjective experience required by romantic philosophy.  Positivists either redefine the meaning of “theory” to exclude any such mentalistic semantics or just forbid all theory.  On the other hand the contemporary pragmatist philosophy of science rejects the thesis common to both the romantic and the positivist philosophies that either semantical or ontological considerations may operate as criteria for criticism, and it defines “theory” by its function in empirical testing rather than by any reserved semantics or ontology.

Weber’s philosophy of social science is a variation on the distinction between natural science and social science that originated with the Kantian philosophical idealism and that gave rise to the Hegelian and historicist views of explanation.  In explicit contrast to the German Historicist school, however, Weber does not reject the use of universal laws in social science.  He notes that in practical daily social life people use generalizations to make reasonably reliable predictions of the reactions of other persons to a given situation, and that they succeed by imputing motives to those others, i.e., by “interpreting” their actions and words as expressions of motives.  He maintains that social scientists similarly use their access to this subjective aspect of human action, and furthermore that this access carries immediate evidence or certainty.

In Weber’s view, therefore, the natural and social sciences differ in that the former rely on observation of external regularities or begreifen, while the latter have the benefit of the introspective subjective knowledge of subjective motives, i.e., verstehen, which are not present in the phenomenal sense data of events considered in natural science.  Weber thus postulated different aims for the natural and social sciences: The aim of natural science is the formulation of universally applicable general laws, while the aim of social science is the verstehen description of the individual uniqueness of an actual or possible historical individual.  Weber thus views social science as a historical science while also admitting its use of general laws.  Parsons rejects this correlation of natural and social science to the analytical and the historical respectively.

Also in Weber’s view there is selectivity that every scientist brings to his subject, which is determined by the interest of the scientist.  Specifically the basis for selectivity is the relevance of the subject matter to the values of the scientist.   Furthermore Weber maintains that this value relevance is not the same as value judgments, and that scientific criticism is objective.   While recognizing Weber’s thesis of value relevance, Parsons says that Weber did not place sufficient emphasis on the fact that what is experienced is determined by a conceptual scheme, and that conceptual schemes are inherent in the structure of language.  Thus it may be said that Parsons anticipated in important respects the contemporary pragmatist semantical theory of observation two decades before the pragmatist philosophers took it over from the physicists.  Parsons says that the principle of value-relevance applies both to natural and to social sciences, and that both use laws therefore making both natural and social sciences analytical instead of historical sciences.

While Parsons may have anticipated the contemporary pragmatists’ philosophy of observation, he had nothing like their metascience of criticism.  He notes that for Weber verstehen is not just a matter of immediate intuition, and that Weber subordinates the immediate evidence from verstehen to other considerations: verstehen must be “checked” by reference to a logically consistent system of concepts.  Parsons says this is equivalent to the situation in the natural sciences, where immediate sense perception of natural events must be incorporated in a system of theoretical knowledge, because what is experienced is always determined by the general conceptual schemes that are already developed.  Parsons says that subordination of verstehen to a conceptual scheme precludes uncontrolled allegations, and he affirms that Weber had a very deep and strong ethical feeling on this point.  This is a coherence concept of criticism.  Ironically the reverse practice prevails in contemporary sociology today, because the sociologist judges the conceptual scheme in terms of verstehen acceptability, i.e., what the particular sociologist happens to find intuitively “convincing”.

Weber also takes up the question of how to establish the existence of a validly imputed causal relationship between certain features in the historical individual case on the one hand and the empirical facts that existed before the historical event on the other.  His procedure involves the practice of historical revisionism by means of thought experiments, in which historical events are viewed as cases to which general laws may be applied.  Weber calls these cases “ideal-types.”  He sets forth as a criterion for the correct formulation of an ideal-type that the combination of features used in it should be such that taken together they are “meaningful” by his verstehen criterion.  Parsons explains that they must adequately describe a potential concrete entity, an objectively possible case, in terms of the action frame of reference.   Parsons says that there are two types of scientific laws involved in this process, both of which may occur in either the natural or the social sciences.  They are empirical generalizations and analytical laws.  The problem of adequate causal explanation in social science is one of imputing causes to make empathetically based analytical laws. 

There remains the problem of the relation of empirical generalizations to analytical laws.  The empirical generalizations are judgments of probable behavior under given circumstances of the type elements.  The analytical laws are statements of general modes of interaction among the type elements known by verstehen.  In social science the elements related by the general laws may be ideal-type units, such as bureaucracy, or they may be more general theoretical categories, such as the rationality of action.  The general laws that relate these elements may be either empirical generalizations or analytical laws.  Interestingly Parsons says that it is perfectly possible for adequate judgments of causal imputation to be arrived at in terms of type units and empirical generalizations alone, i.e., without verstehen.  But he adds that as historical cases become more complex, adequacy of explanation may require resort to more explicit formulations of the cases as ideal-types containing ideal-type units related by verstehen.  But if this approach is not adequate, it may become necessary to resort to more generalized theoretical categories and laws.  In the progression from empirical generalizations to analytical laws to more general analytical theory, the less general statements are not dispensed with, but the analytical laws serve as a “check” on the formulations of the empirical generalizations.  Parsons says that the degree to which it is necessary to push forward from empirical generalizations to analytical laws in order to attain adequate explanation, is relative to the given empirical problem at hand.

Parsons advances his own methodological thesis including an architectonic scheme for the sciences based on his own ontological thesis.  Throughout the book he opposes the “reification” of any particular analytical theory, and particularly the reification by positivists of either classical physics or classical economics.  He considers reification to be fallacious and objectionable, because it is a “monistic” realism that requires all realistic scientific theories to be reduced to one if they are not to be regarded as fictional.  Parsons therefore proposes his own ontological thesis, which he calls “analytical realism”, in which the general concepts of science are not fictional but adequately grasp aspects of the objective external world.  This suggests what some earlier philosophers had called this “perspectivism.”  This is the realism he affirms for those concepts in analytical laws that are ideal-type units, concepts that he calls analytical elements and that Weber had mistakenly in Parsons’ view regarded as fictional.  Parsons furthermore rejects any reductionism in the relation between natural and social sciences, and explicitly affirms the thesis of emergent properties.  This emergentism is the consequence of value relevance, and it is the basis for his frame-of-reference thesis and his architectonic for the sciences. 

Parsons identifies three reference frames in his architectonic for the sciences that he calls the three great classes of theoretical systems.  They are the systems of nature, the systems of action, and the systems of culture.  He says the first two pertain to processes in time and are therefore empirical, while the systems of culture pertain to eternal objects such as art forms and ideas.  Examples of sciences of culture are logic, mathematics, and systems of jurisprudence.  Parsons says that he chooses not to consider the cultural type in his Structure of Social Action (notwithstanding that his book itself is a history of the evolution of philosophy of social science, a blatantly cultural subject).  The empirical analytical sciences are divided into natural sciences and sciences of action.  The latter are distinguished negatively by the irrelevance of the spatial frame of reference, and positively by the indispensability of the subjective aspect, i.e., verstehen, which is irrelevant to the natural sciences.

Parsons claims that the action frame of reference is fundamental to the social sciences.  It consists in the irreducible framework of relations among analytical elements consisting of ideal-type units and is implied in the conception of these units.  Common to all theoretical systems or sciences sharing the action frame of reference are structural elements consisting of ends, means, conditions, and norms.  In the relations there is a normative orientation of action and a subjective point of view.  These considerations are as basic to the action frame as the space-time aspect is for the framework used for physics. 

The sciences of action include the social sciences, which Parsons subdivides into economics, politics and sociology, according to the defining emergent properties characteristic of each.  The defining emergent property for economics is economic rationality, that for politics is “coercive rationality”, and that for sociology is “common-value integration”, which Parsons finds evolving in the works of the four authors examined in his Structure of Social Action.  Thus he defines sociology as the science that attempts to develop an analytical theory of action systems, in so far as these systems can be understood in terms of the property of common-value integration.  This property is emergent, because an attempt to analyze the system further results in its disappearance.  Neither economic rationality nor common-value integration is a defining property of unit acts in an action system apart from their organic relations to other acts in the same action system, and the action system must be adequately complex so these properties can be observed.

Consider further Parsons’ ontology: Parsons says that value relevance applies equally to both social and natural science, and he rejects any implication of complete relativism due to the thesis of value relevance.  Following Weber he limits relativism to specific modes of its application within the action frame of reference and he excludes it from applying to the action frame itself.  The reader will note that this exclusion is ad hoc.  Furthermore Parsons maintains that all different conceptual schemes proceeding from different values or interests must be translatable into one another or into some wider scheme, so that the whole position is not overthrown by skepticism.   This too is ad hoc; the history of science does not reveal such reductionism, and in fact it is not consistent with Parsons’ perspectivist analytical realism which he opposes to monistic realism.  Parsons is unprepared to accept the contemporary pragmatists’ ontological relativity and scientific pluralism, because he incorrectly believes such a view implies skepticism.  He says that the development of scientific knowledge is to be regarded as a process of asymptotic approach to a limit, which can never be achieved.

In 1951 Parsons published his principal contribution to theoretical sociology, the Social System.  This work is his implementation at a rather abstract level of the verstehen procedure of causal explanation, the vicariously based imputation of motivations for social action.  In the Social System he calls this implementation of verstehen “motivational analysis”, which he also calls “dynamic analysis”.  Motivated behavior is action that is oriented to the attainment of gratifications or to the avoidance of depredations according to the participant’s expectations as defined by the value system in the social culture.  Parsons thus sets forth his “fundamental dynamic theorem of sociology”: the stability of any social system depends on the integration of a common value pattern into the motivating need dispositions of the personalities of the members of the social system.  This integration is achieved by institutionalization.  He defines an institution as a cluster of interdependent rôle patterns, which are integrated into the personalities of the social members by motivational processes or “mechanisms” called socialization.  And tendencies to deviance from these rôle patterns are counteracted by “mechanisms” called social control.

These integrating mechanisms of socialization and social control produce tendencies to social equilibrium.  The motivational processes operate to create and maintain social structures such as rôles and institutions, and these structures in turn operate to satisfy the functional prerequisites of the whole social system.  Parsons identifies four basic institutional rôle clusters, which have associated collectivities of social members, and which have their basis in four corresponding functional prerequisites for a social system.  They are: (1) the family, which functions to control sex relations and to perform the socialization of new members, (2) the economy, which functions to organize the instrumental achievement rôles and the stratification of the society, (3) politics, which functions to organize the rôles pertaining to power, force, and territoriality, and (4) religion, which functions to integrate value orientations, cognitive orientations and personality.  Parsons refers to his sociological theory as “structural-functional”. The motivational dynamics induces voluntary conformity to prevailing rôle patterns and thereby produces a tendency to social equilibrium by changes within the existing structures of the social system.

But there are also changes of the structures of the social system itself, which are referred to by the phrase “social change.”   Parsons says that a general theory of the processes of change of social systems is not possible at present, because such a theory would require a “complete knowledge” of the laws of the motivational processes of the system.  Thus Parsons says that the theory of change of the structure of social systems must be a theory of particular subprocesses of change within such systems, and not of the overall processes of change of the system as a system.  In this context he affirms that it is possible to have knowledge in the form of empirical generalizations that certain changes do in fact occur under certain conditions.  But he still maintains that an action theory of social change must include motivational analyses, and may not merely be a system of empirical generalizations.

Parsons had failed to follow through on his emergentist thesis for social sciences.  Classical economists like Schumpeter had demanded a macroeconomics that is an extension of economic psychology – the “mechanisms” of the rationality psychology.  But after Keynes macroeconomic theory economists recognized that macrolevel analyses cannot successfully be reduced to microlevel analyses, because it incurs the logical fallacy of composition.  In Parsons’ terms, macrosociology is “emergentist” and cannot succeed as a reduction to an individualistic microlevel social psychology of motivational analysis. Therefore motivational analyses of members cannot explain the behavior or outcomes of the whole social system; this requires the system of empirical generalizations – a model – that Parsons could not accept.

Habermas on Weber

Weber’s problematic views on the aim(s) of social science have continued to exercise social scientists as well as philosophers of the social sciences.  In “The Dualism of the Natural and Cultural Sciences” in his On the Logic of the Social Sciences (1988) Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt school of social thought discusses an ambiguity in Weber’s literary corpus about the problem of irrational purposeful action. Ideally social science should be a combination of explanatory empirical uniformities found in the natural sciences and interpretative or “hermeneutic” understanding of meaning and motivations found in the cultural sciences.  When the social participant chooses means that are adequate to realize his motivating purpose, the sociologist can grasp the participants’ meaning and motive from the participants’ behavior, and relate the behavior to its outcome in valid empirical explanations.  But when the social participant’s choice of means is not effective and therefore not “rational”, the sociologist may be able to observe an explanatory empirical uniformity between observed behavior and observed outcome, but may not be able to impute a valid interpretative understanding.  This is an unsolved fundamental problem for the romantic philosopher of social science.

Habermas notes that in Economy and Society Weber admitted that research might discover noninterpretable uniformities underlying what appears to be meaningful action.  This inconsistency gave rise to Weber’s ambiguity in his attempt to relate empirical explanation and interpretative understanding.  On the one hand in “Science as a Vocation” Weber values the practical and informative nature of valid empirical explanations for social policy and planning, when he says that they supply knowledge of the technique by which one masters life – external things as well as social action – through calculations.  In this context Weber was willing to recognize the validity of empirical explanations that lack interpretative understanding, and he says that the rôle of interpretation of subjective meaning is merely to open the way to empirical social facts.  Thus Habermas states that in the context of the controversy about value judgments Weber subordinates the requirement for interpretative understanding to empirical explanation.

On the other hand Habermas observes that in another context Weber maintains that cultural science cannot exhaust its interest in empirical uniformities, because sociology has an aim that is different from that of natural science, and Weber was unwilling to give sociology the character of a natural science of society.  In “Objectivity in Social Science” in The Methodology of the Social Sciences Weber views the empirical laws as only preparatory to the aim of making them understandable, which he says is autonomous from the empirical investigation. Weber had a positivist idea of the natural sciences, but his ambiguity about method principally originates in the conflicting aims of social science as both empirical and cultural investigations.

This dualism noted by Habermas might be called “Weber’s dilemma”, and German romantic that he is, Habermas, who also views natural science through the lenses of positivist philosophy, opts for interpretative understanding for the social sciences.  But irrational purposeful action is not exceptional.  Social participants routinely fail to realize the consequences of their motivated actions, because they intend other consequences. In his Realism and the Aim of Science Karl Popper defines social science as the study of the unintended consequences of social behavior.  Similarly the 1974 Nobel-laureate economist Frederich A. von Hayek of the Austrian School of economics, a romantic, similarly recognized the importance of unintended outcomes in his thesis of “spontaneous social order”.  In his Counter-Revolution of Science he states that the very task of social science is to explain the unintended social regularities in the social order, because otherwise there would be no need for social science. Social science would be reduced to merely an extension of social psychology.

Merton’s Critique of Parsons

Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) has an insightful way of addressing the problem of unintended consequences.  He studied at Harvard University, where he received his doctorate in sociology in 1936.  He was later appointed chairman of the department of sociology at Columbia University.  His dissertation, Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth-Century England marked the beginning of his career-long interest in sociology of science.  His papers in sociology of science written and published between 1935 and 1972 are reprinted in his Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations (1973).  While Merton’s interest in science is noteworthy, his views in sociology of science are not the focus of this history of twentieth-century philosophy of science.

Here the focus of interest is given in Merton’s magisterial Social Theory and Social Structure (1949, 1968), where he departs from Parsons’ romanticism with his own rendering of functionalist explanation in sociology, and develops his own concept of scientific sociological theory. He believes that functional analysis is the most promising yet the least codified of contemporary orientations to problems of sociological interpretation.  He disclaims having invented this type of sociological explanation, and he offers several examples of it in the literature of sociology.  He says that his major concern in this book is its “codification” by which he means developing a “paradigm” for it.  He notes that some sociologists may use the term “function” as it is used in mathematics to describe interdependence, but he is not thereby proposing a mathematical type of sociological theory.  In fact he explicitly states that his purpose is to codify the procedures of qualitative analysis in sociology.

Merton is the bane of the romantics, who can only treat him dismissively.  This is because he maintains that the concept of social function refers to observable objective consequences and not to subjective dispositions such as aims, motives, or purposes, and that the consequences of interest are those for the larger structures in which the functions are contained.  Thus the concept of function involves the standpoint of the observer and not necessarily that of the participant.   He says that failure to distinguish between the objective sociological consequence and the subjective disposition inevitably leads to confusion, because the subjective disposition may but need not coincide with the objective consequence; the two may vary independently.

This objective concept of functional analysis occasions Merton’s distinction between “manifest” function and “latent” function.   Manifest functions are those that have objective consequences contributing to the adjustment and adaptation of the social system, and which are also intended and recognized by the participants in the social system.  Correlatively latent functions are defined as those objective consequences contributing to the adjustment or adaptation of the social system, but which are not intended or recognized by the participants in the social system.  As an example Merton says that criminal punishment has manifest consequences for the criminal and latent functions for the community.

Merton’s distinction is clearly valid, and has been recognized by other authors independently.  For example William H. McNeill, who is not a sociologist but is a historian of medicine, illustrates what sociologists would call “latent functions” in his Plagues and Peoples (1977), an historical study in epidemiology.  McNeill writes that a large-scale outbreak of bubonic plague, also known in earlier Europe as the “Black Death”, had occurred in Manchuria in 1911.  Investigators discovered that the disease had been contracted from marmots, which are large burrowing rodents with pelts that commanded a good price on the international fur market.  The indigenous nomad tribesmen of the steppe region, where these animals live and are hunted, had mythic explanations to justify epidemiologically sound rules for dealing with the risk of bubonic infection from the marmots.  The tribesmen believed that departed ancestors might be reincarnated as marmots.  Therefore trapping was taboo; a marmot could only be shot, and an animal that moved sluggishly was untouchable.  And if the marmot colony showed signs of sickness, custom required that human community immediately strike its tents and move away to avoid misfortune. Such customary practices and proscriptions reduced the incidence of human infection with plague to minor proportions.  But in 1911 inexpert Chinese migrants, who knew nothing of the tribesmen’s “superstitions”, hunted the marmot for their furs, trapping both sick and healthy animals.  Thus plague broke out among the Chinese and then spread along the new railroad lines of Manchuria.  In Merton’s terms the manifest function for the native nomads, which is a superstition, is the proper treatment of possibly reincarnated ancestors, while the latent function is a hygienic hunting practice that protected the indigenous hunters from the contagion.

In his “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Action” in American Sociological Review (1936) Merton noted five contributing factors that produce unintended outcomes.  They are (1) ignorance of the nature of the relevant conditions, (2) error in selecting the appropriate course of action, (3) the primacy of immediate interests, (4) the ideological imperative of basic values, and (5) the self-fulfilling prophecy.  The failure of the Chinese hunters includes (1) their ignorance of the presence of the plague contagion and (2) hunting unhealthy marmots.

Merton describes heuristic purposes for his distinction between manifest and latent functions.  The distinction not only precludes confusion between motive and function, which he emphasizes may be unrelated to each other, but it also aids the sociological interpretation of many social practices, that are regarded by observers as merely ignorant “superstitions”, but that persist even though their intended purposes are clearly not achieved.  And it also directs the sociologist’s inquiries beyond the manifest or intended aspects of behavior to discover its generally unrecognized consequences.  Merton thus affirms that the discovery of latent functions represents significant increments in sociological knowledge, because they represent greater departures from “commonsense” knowledge.  This is clearly more sophisticated than the verstehen requirement that hypotheses based on the sociologist’s empathy so they are common sense explanations.

Furthermore Merton notes that the concept of latent function has significance for social policy or “social “engineering.”  He sets forth a basic theorem, which may be called Merton’s theorem of social engineering: any attempt to eliminate an existing social structure without providing adequate alternative structures for fulfilling the functions previously fulfilled by the abolished organization is doomed to failure.  More generally Merton’s theorem says that to seek social change without due recognition of the latent functions performed by the social organization during change, is to indulge in social ritual rather than social engineering.

Had he been less sympathetic to the romantics, he might have followed through to the conclusion that the distinction between manifest and latent functions contributes nothing to the explanatory value of the functionalist explanation.  Its explanatory value consists not in a functional factor being either manifest or latent but in its being consequential for the larger structures in which the functions are contained, regardless of whether or not the social consequences are either recognized or intended by the social participants.  And this implies that the manifest-latent distinction is informative only for romantics, who need to be told that motivational analysis is not adequate for explanation in social science, except occasionally as a heuristic device for developing functionalist hypotheses.

Merton’s attack on Parsonsian sociology is not a frontal assault on romanticism, but is part of his agenda for sociological research.  His attack is directed explicitly at the all-inclusive type of system building practiced by many sociologists including notably Parsons.  His principal objection to these all-inclusive systems is that they are too vague to be tested empirically, and he refers to them as general orientations toward sociological analysis rather than “theories.”  The agenda that he advocates for future research in sociology is the development of what he calls “theories of the middle range”, theories that he says are somewhere between minor but necessary empirical generalizations and the Parsonsian-like all-inclusive systems. 

Unlike romantics, who define theory in terms of the semantics of a vocabulary referring to subjective meanings and motives of social participants, Merton defines theory in terms of its logical structure.  He explicitly defines “theory” for both natural and social sciences as a logically interconnected set of propositions from which empirical generalizations can be derived.  In another statement he says theory is a set of assumptions from which empirical generalizations are derived.  This is a positivist view.  And referencing Lundberg’s “Concept of Law in the Social Sciences” he says a scientific law is a statement of invariance that has been derived from a theory.  Merton distinguishes theory from the empirical generalization saying that the latter is an isolated proposition summarizing observed uniformities of relationships between two or more variables.  As it happens, in the history of science there have been significant single-equation theories, such as Newton’s theory of gravitation.  But Merton does not state explicitly whether or not he intends by his definition to exclude from the domain of theory language the single-equation theories that are found in many sciences.

Referencing Benjamin Lee Whorf, Merton also notes that his conceptual apparatus fixes the empirical researcher’s perceptions, and that the researcher will draw different consequences for empirical research as his conceptual framework changes.  However, Merton does not seem to recognize that this control of language over perception undermines his distinction between theory and empirical generalization, since this semantical control operates by the linguistic context of empirical generalizations, which means that empirical generalizations are never actually isolated semantically.  His distinction is therefore unsustainable.  Had he approached this problem by an analysis with the contemporary pragmatist philosophy of language, he might have seen that his distinction incurs the same difficulty that both the romantics and the positivists encounter, when they purport to distinguish theory from a semantically isolated observation language.  The semantics of observational description is not isolated from that of theory, because semantics, logical syntax, and belief are interdependent.

Merton comments on the functions of theory for empirical research.  But his comments presume his distinction between theory and empirical generalizations, and are not definitive of a distinction between theory and nontheory language.  Furthermore his list of functions are not applicable to the modern quantum theory, and are not sufficiently universal in the practice of scientific research to serve as defining characteristics of theory language.  On the contemporary pragmatist philosophy of science the only characteristic that distinguishes theory from nontheory language is that the former is proposed for testing, while the latter is presumed for testing.

It may be noted here by way of a postscript to this discussion of Merton, that some economists also recognize what Merton calls “latent functions”, even if the economists have no particular name for it.  1976 Nobel-laureate economist Milton Friedman’s “Methodology of Positive Economics” (1952), reprinted in his Essays in Positive Economics (1953), is one of the more popular methodological papers written by an economist in the early post-World War II era.  A contemporary philosopher of science would likely view this paper as an effort to deromanticize neoclassical economics.  Although this paper sets forth a somewhat naïve semantical thesis, its semantical metascience is more sophisticated than the neopositivist view in Friedman’s Theory of the Consumption Function.  In the Essays his phrase “positive economics” does not mean positivist economics.

Like the pragmatists, Friedman says that the only relevant test of the validity of a hypothesis is comparison of its predictions with experience.  He thus accepts no ontological criteria in scientific criticism, including the romantics’ mentalistic criteria involving descriptions of motivations.  He explicitly rejects objections to the rationality postulates or to any other assumptions employed by economic theory, including the objections of the Institutionalist economists, when they are not based on the predictive performance of the theory.  He notes that businessmen do not actually calculate marginal cost or marginal revenues or solve a system of simultaneous equations, as do economists, and that businessmen seldom do as they report when asked about the factors affecting their decisions.  But he says that businessmen must act as if they have compared marginal costs and marginal revenues, because they will not succeed in business if their behavior is not consistent with the theory of rational and informed maximization of profit.  In philosophers’ terms, this means the economist is not a romantic examining what the entrepreneur thinks, but is a pragmatist examining the consequences.  Or, in Merton’s terms: it is the functional consequences that are relevant, and the motives are latently functional when their unintended consequence is satisfaction of the marginalist conditions for profit maximization per neoclassical microeconomics.

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