Latent and Manifest functions, Conformity and Deviance, Reference Groups:

Merton is an American Sociologist, a one time student and famous critic of Talcott Parsons. Among the wide range of ideas to which he contributed, the important ones are relating to THE NATURE OF SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY AND A RECODIFICATION OF THE FUNCTIONAL APPROACH. Most of his writings have been in essay form. An important compilation of these essays is ‘THE SOCIAL THEORY AND SOCIAL STRUCTURE’. He was a distinguished sociologist perhaps best known for having coined the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy.” He also coined many other phrases that have gone into everyday use, such as “role model” and “unintended consequences”. He was heavily influenced by Pitrim Sorokin who tried to balance large-scale theorizing with a strong interest in empirical research and statistical studies. This and Paul Lazarsfeld influenced Merton to occupy himself with middle-range theories.

Merton launched a critique of Parson’s functional strategy or building sociological theory. At the heart of his criticism was MERTON’S CONTENTION THAT PARSONS’ CONCERN FOR DEVELOPING AN ALL ENCOMPASSING SYSTEM OF CONCEPTS WOULD PROVE BOTH FUTILE AND STERILE. FOR MERTON SUCH GRAND THEORETICAL SCHEMES ARE PREMATURE, SINCE THE THEORETICAL AND EMPIRICAL GROUND WORK NECESSARY FOR THEIR COMPLETION HAD NOT BEEN PERFORMED. In the absence of these foundations what passes for sociological theory in Merton’s view consists of general orientation towards data, suggesting types of variable which sociologists must somehow take into account rather than clearly formulated statements of relationships between specified variables.

According to Merton, Sociology, in the present state of its development, needs theories of the
Middle Range. SUCH THEORIES WOULD BE GROUNDED IN EMPIRICAL DATA AND AT THE
SAME TIME SHOULD USE CONCEPTS WHICH ARE CLEARLY DEFINED AND OPERATIONALIZED.
MIDDLE RANGE THEORIES ARE SO FORMULATED THAT SPECIFIC AND VERIFIABLE
HYPOTHESIS CAN BE DEDUCED FROM THESE THEORIES AND CAN BE SUBJECTED TO
EMPIRICAL VERIFICATION.
Further, Merton suggested that the functional approach would be
utilized in formulating the theories of middle range. Thus the functional approach for Merton was
primarily a method for sociological research in order to build theories.

MERTON PRESENTED THE STEPS INVOLVED IN FUNCTIONAL APPROACH IN THE FORM OF A
SYSTEMATIC ARRANGEMENT KNOWN AS THE FUNCTIONAL PARADIGM.

Theories of the Middle Range:

  1. Middle range theories of R.K Merton came as rejection of mega theory of Parsonian sociology. HIS THEORY ADVOCATES THAT THEORY BUILDING IN SOCIOLOGY SHOULD NOT BE GOVERNED BY INTELLECTUAL AGGRESSION OR ACADEMIC SPECULATION. SOCIOLOGICAL THEORIES CANNOT AFFORD TO BE ROGUE, UNREALISTIC, JARGON FOCUSED AND SIMPLY LOGICAL. RATHER THEORIES ARE DEVELOPED IN SOCIOLOGY TO ARRANGE THE EMPIRICAL FACTS IN A CONSOLIDATED MANNER. HENCE SOCIOLOGICAL THEORIES SHOULD BE FACT DRIVEN. THE SOCIAL THEORIES SHOULD BE COMING OUT OF FACTS TO EXPLAIN THE FACTS IN A SYSTEMATIC MANNER. Instead of being concerned about mega speculations that there is a social system where there is exchange, negotiation, convergence, consequently control and integration sociology must look into the actual problems and issues related to empirical situations.
  2. DURING 1960S IN AMERICA, POLITICAL CORRUPTION, ETHNIC CONFLICT, DEVIANT BEHAVIOR WAS LARGELY MANIFESTED AND MERTON TOOK INTEREST IN STUDYING THEM AND EXPLAINED ALL THE EMERGENT CONDITIONS USING SIMPLY DESIGNED THEORETICAL FRAMEWORKS. Subsequently he identified these theories as middle range theories. As a reaction to mega theories Merton advocates that these theories are highly speculative and do not correspond to the empirical realities. They make an attempt to study every possible dimension of social reality that is not possible in the field of sociology. The degree of abstraction is quite high when concepts are chosen to develop such theories therefore these kind of mega theories do not have much of relevance to understand the essence of social reality. Hence sociology must have to reject mega theoretical constructs replacing them by middle range theories.
  3. Merton is not comfortable with the use of natural science theories in the field of sociology. He advocates that theories in natural science come out of cumulative research made on a given problem by large body of scholars in time and space. It is possible on part of a natural scientist to modify, amend or revise the theories of his predecessors applying such theories to contemporary problems and issues. Natural phenomena being static, cumulative research on them become possible and a broad agreement among the researchers studying the same problem gives rise to the growth of unified theories in the field of natural sciences.
  4. In the field of sociology the form of capitalism, patterns of democracy, role of family as a group keeps changing in time and space. Therefore cumulative research should largely speak about diversity, variabilities present in their structure and functions for which mega theories in sociology may be necessity to natural science but it is absolutely unwanted for sociological research. Sociology must have to go for middle range theories than striving for scientific status extending natural science theories into the field of sociological research. Sociology should not be compared with natural sciences. Merton borrows substantive ideas from sociology of Weber as the basic problem with ideal type construct is that it asserts that totality of reality cannot be studied by sociology therefore sociology must have to study the essence of reality. To Merton sociology is encountering with the problem of identification of the issues for conducting research that needs to be resolved. The weberian sociology is committed to macroscopic issues that are difficult to study in every possible detail. If sociological research considers that it must have to address to microscopic structures then it will not be difficult for sociologists to understand various dimensions to a given social reality therefore Merton takes interest in the study of political corruption, machine politics considering these issues/problems are subjected to complete scientific investigation.
  5. Middle Range theories in sociology advocate that how sociological research facts are important than theories. It gives rise to a situation where facts speak for themselves. These theories are small understandable, on controversial universally acceptable conceptual devices coming out of a given empirical situation having capacity to explain same or different types of situations without any possible ambiguities or controversies. For instance reference group theory, concept of in-group or out-group are defined as middle range theories which can provide a guide to sociological research in time and space.

Paradigm for functional analysis:


MERTON PRESENTED THE STEPS INVOLVED IN FUNCTIONAL APPROACH IN THE FORM OF A SYSTEMATIC ARRANGEMENT KNOWN AS THE FUNCTIONAL PARADIGM. MERTON BEGINS HIS DISCUSSION WITH THE REVIEW OF THE MISTAKES OF THE EARLY FUNCTIONALISTS’ PARTICULARLY MALINOWSKI AND RADCLIFFE BROWN. MERTON SAW FUNCTIONAL THEORIZING AS EMBRACING THREE QUESTIONABLE POSTULATES:

  • The functional unity of social sciences
  • The functional universality of social items and
  • The indispensability of functional items of social systems.
  1. THE FUNCTIONAL UNITY POSTULATE: According to Merton, functionalists so far have frequently transformed the hypothesis that social systems may reveal social integration into a necessary condition or need for social integration. While it is difficult to argue that human society does not possess some degree of integration. To assume that a high degree of functional unity must exist in a social system is to negate the possibility of its empirical verification. It is due to such a presumption regarding high degree of functional unity that the functional approach has come to acquire a conservative bias and an ideological colouration which can be discovered in the works of functionalists from Durkheim to Talcott Parsons. Thus the degree to which functional unity exists in the social system should be a matter subject to empirical investigation.
  2. THE POSTULATE OF FUNCTIONAL UNIVERSALITY: One result of an emphasis on high degree of functional unity was that the early functionalists assumed that if a social item exists in an on going system, it must therefore have had positive consequences for the integration of the social system. In its most extreme form, Malinowski extended this form of reasoning to the point of asserting that every custom, material object, idea and belief, fulfils some vital function. For Merton, however, if an examination of actually existing systems is undertaken, it would be clear that there is a wide range of empirical possibilities.
    • First, items may not be only positively functional for a system or a part thereof, but can also be dysfunctional for either the part or the whole system. Secondly, some consequences, whether functional or dysfunctional are intended and recognized by the systems and thus are manifest whereas other consequences are not intended or recognized and are therefore latent. Functional analysis therefore should arrive at the calculation of a net balance of consequences of the part of the social system under study.
  3. THE POSTULATE OF FUNCTIONAL INDISPENSABILITY: An automatic consequence of the assumption that ‘all parts are functional’ is that existence of all parts is essential of the survival of the social system. Therefore, all parts are functionally indispensable. Merton contends emphatically that such conclusions which have been taken for granted by various functionalists are unwarranted as can be seen from empirical evidence. Examination of the empirical world reveals quite clearly that alternative structures can exist to fulfill basically the same perquisites in similar and diverse social systems. This fact leads Merton to postulate the importance in functional analysis of various types of functional alternatives or functional
    equivalents within the social systems. Furthermore in looking for functional alternatives, attention is to be drawn to the questions about the range of the item that would serve as a functional equivalent within the existing structural constraints of the social systems.

Having critically analysed the limitation of functional analysis, Merton suggests the following steps for his functional paradigm. He insists that functional analysis should begin with sheer description of the activities of individuals and groups under study. In describing the pattern of interaction and activity among units under investigation, it will be possible to discern clearly the social items to be subjected to functional analysis. Such descriptions can also provide a major clue to the functions performed by such patterned activity.

In order for these functions to become more evident, however additional steps are necessary :

  1. THE FIRST OF THESE STEPS IS FOR INVESTIGATORS TO INDICATE THE PRINCIPAL ALTERNATIVES THAT ARE EXCLUDED BY THE DOMINANCE OF A PARTICULAR PATTERN. Such description of the excluded alternatives provides an indication of the structural context from which an observed pattern first emerges and is now maintained – thereby offering further clues about the functions or consequences, the item might have for other items and perhaps for the systemic whole.
  2. THE SECOND ANALYTICAL STEP BEYOND SHEER DESCRIPTION INVOLVES AN ASSESSMENT OF THE MEANING OR MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ACTIVITY FOR THE MEMBER OF THE GROUP. Description of these meanings may offer some indication of the motives behind the activities of the individual involved and thereby shed some tentative light on the Manifest & Latent functions of an activity.
  3. THESE DESCRIPTIONS REQUIRE A THIRD ANALYTICAL STEP OF DISCERNING SOME ARRAY OF MOTIVES FOR CONFORMITY OR FOR DEVIATION AMONG PARTICIPANTS. Yet by understanding the configuration of motives for conformity and deviation among actors, an assessment of the psychological needs served or not served by a pattern can be understood –offering an additional clue to the various functions of the pattern under investigation.
  4. Thus a final analytical step involves the description of how the patterns under investigation reveal regularities not recognized by participants, but which appear to have consequences for both the individuals involved and the system.

Analysis :

  1. RECOGNITION OF THE ELEMENTS, IMPORTANT FOR REAL FUNCTIONS: First of all the observers should include, only those items in his study, which are functional and necessary for related tasks. Unnecessary elements should not be inducted. He can make out the degree of necessity of elements from his study material/pattern. Thus in the study of development of rural structure, the level of awareness campaign should be included a long with infrastructures.
  2. IMPORTANCE OF OBJECTIVE CONSEQUENCES: According to Merton in a single activity, both functional and dysfunctional elements are present and observer should make a balance between the two on the bases of objectivity. Net balance = function + dysfunction: Eg: television is a main source information and knowledge, apart from one of the best means of entertainment, in a positive way. But negatively, it also causes consumerism, vulgar and violent activities. And in this way, the observer should pay attention on net balance.
  3. CONCEPTS OF UNITS UNDER FUNCTIONS:
    • FUNCTIONS: are those which are based on observed consequences and are helpful in making proper adjustment in the system/associative elements.
    • DYSFUNCTIONS: Those observed consequences, which lessened the levels of adaptation and adjustment in the system and so are dysfunctional for the system.
    • Manifest Function: Those observed consequences, which keep proper coordination in the system. And are intended by the system. It means that the knowledge about that activity is equally known by everyone.
    • Latent: Such functions are unintended and also they are not given acceptance in the system. It means, people hardly acknowledge such activities. Basically, they are the consequences of manifest functions.

Latent and Manifest Functions:

According to Robert Merton manifest functions are those that are intended and recognized. These are functions which people assume and expect the institutions to fulfil. For example schools are expected to educate the children in the knowledge and skills that they need. The manifest functions are obvious, admitted and generally applauded. ,,,,,,,,,,,,,Latent functions are unrecognized and unintended functions. These are the unforeseen consequences of institutions. For example schools not only educate young they also provide mass entertainment. Latent functions of an institution or partial structure may support the manifest functions for example the latent functions of religious institutions in the modern society include offering recreational activities and courtship opportunities to young people. Latent functions may be irrelevant to manifest functions for example the big functions organized by schools may not impact the purpose of the education. Latent functions may even undermine manifest functions. For example the manifest function of civil service regulations is to secure a competent dedicated staff of civil servants to make government more efficient. But the civil service system may have the latent function of establishing more rigid bureaucracy. The distinction between manifest and latent functions is essentially relative and not absolute. A function may appear to be manifest for some in the social system and latent for others.

For Merton, the difference between Manifest and Latent function is so important that it reveals so many hidden elements in the system. Merton has presented the difference in the following way:

  1. FUNCTIONAL ACTIVITIES BECOME RATIONAL: To explain it Merton has presented an example of rain ceremony among American Hopi Indian. In this ceremony, people gather around one place and sprinkle water on the ground with the hope that clouds would imitate such activity and rain will occur. This seems to be an irrational act at the first glance, but Merton’s presents its another picture that the gathered, people at one place, enhance their group identity, unity and solidarity. This analysis shows that, an irrational activity his become rational and meaningful.
  2. ENHANCES SOCIAL KNOWLEDGE: To explain it Veblen’s theory of leisure class can be presented here. In which he has talked about conspicuous consumption people purchase commodities further comfortable life but in a single household, the presence of plenty of such commodities, shows conspicuous consumption. Through which show off their status in society. Apart from it, the rate of inflation is affected with such activities, which is harmful for the economy of the country. Interestingly, a sociologist can provide such kind of knowledge, which can be used by the government. For e.g. Singapore government has provided, very nice facility for transportation. But despite, if someone wants to purchase a car, then, he will have to pay the double price.
  3. OPEN NEW VISTAS FOR RESEARCH: A sociologist searches hidden consequences in any manifest functions and in this way provides new ways for researches, not only to himself, but also is others which could be definitely, functional and effective for society, in future.
  4. REVEALS THE INSTITUTIONAL FAULTS BY SOMETHING ILLEGAL ACTIVITIES: Merton has explained it with example of American political system. America is a democratic country in which people are given equal opportunity, but there are many, deprived from such opportunities and so they get a low level of lifestyle; but there is one more group which Merton calls political machine which works illegally i.e.-they pilferage smuggle etc and distribute the accumulated money in the group, through which basic needs of those people are fulfilled. In this way, people become capable to achieve opportunities.
  5. Merton says that where American democracy failed to perform, political machine accomplishes it. The real consequences of such activity are that the democratic government should take a lesson from them and work for the development of the deprived people. This would be highly functional for the society.

Limination of Merton’s theory of functionalism :

  1. LACK OF RATIONALITY: Merton has not told what is functional is dysfunctional specially for a modern society. It is a difficult question not resolved by Merton. Apart from it, the relevancy of objective consequence is also questionable became, their also it is difficult to tell rationally, to what extent any activity is functional of dysfunctional.
  2. LACK OF OBJECTIVITY AND UNIVERSALITY: Like Brown and Malinowski, Merton also presented an example of simple societies (Hopi Indians). In that way, his universality is questionable he has also presented the example of a group (political machine) to which, he himself was a member. It means, has studies suffer from subjective experiences. And so it lacks objectivity. Apart from it, the political machine acting illegally can’t be approved in all societies and so its universality is also questionable.

Conformity and Deviance:

Analysis of Deviance before Merton:

Biological Theorist :

  1. Among the earliest attempt to account for deviance was in the field of Biology. Dr. Lombroso (an Italian) in the late 19th century tried to account for deviance in terms of biological factors. Size of jaw, limbs, body built etc. were the parameters to explain deviance.
  2. Sheldon & Eleanor Gleuck: They identify mesomorphs, a particular body-build as deviance. A research in Britain among criminals lodged in prison saw an extra Y- Chromosome. Percentage of extra Y Chromosome was high security prison. They concluded that biological factors lead to deviance.

According to Psychological Theories deviance is the result of:

  1. Inherited psychic abnormality,
  2. Acquired as result of inadequate socialization or
  3. Undesirable experience in social life.
  4. British psychologist Hans Eysenck identified a personality type i.e. extra-version. It is an inherited tendency. Such individuals have a craving for excitement. They do unusual things and end up as deviants.
  5. Neo-Freudians relates deviants to socialization failure or incomplete socialization. John Bowlby in his study of 44 juvenile thieves found that chronic redivists (juvenile delinquents) have habitual tendency to commit crime. Even if they are punished they continue to commit crime. He found that most juvenile delinquents tech intimate relations with their mother in their childhood. They become indifferent to pain & sufferings of others.
  6. Robert G. Andry: Male children who have hostile relation with their father usually show hostility to others. Hitler was such a person. Hitler grew up intensely hating his father because his father maltreated his mother.

Sociologist tends to question above mention theories. Because they treated deviant as abnormal being in a normal society. This prepares the ground for above mentioned theories. Durkheim was one of the earliest sociologists to address the issue of deviance. According to him deviants is unavoidable. There can never be complete socialization. Conscience collective cannot be fully followed by all. Deviance is also normal and healthy that some degree of deviance may exist if collective conscience becomes too repressive. It may suppress tendency of reform and innovation.

MERTON BEGINS WITH THE PREMISE THAT DEVIANCE RESULTS FROM THE CULTURE AND STRUCTURE OF SOCIETY. Merton starts from the functionalist premise that for the smooth functioning of a society, VALUE CONSENSUS among the members is essential. However, SINCE MEMBERS OF SOCIETY ARE PLACED IN DIFFERENT POSITIONS IN THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE, FOR EXAMPLE THEY DIFFER IN TERMS OF CLASS POSITION; THEY DO NOT HAVE THIS SAME OPPORTUNITY OF REALIZING THE SHARED VALUES. This situation can generate deviance. In Merton words, “the social and cultural structure generated pressure for socially deviant behavior upon people variously located in the structure.”

  1. Merton states that a state of ANOMIE MAY EXIST IN THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE. One form of anomie is that there might be lack of co-ordination between culturally approved goals and structurally permitted means to attain these goals. The members of the society placed variously in the social structure may adapt differently to this anomic situation. FOR EXAMPLE, the Americans variously share the goal of success in American society which is equated with wealth and material position. The ‘American Dream’ states that all members of society have an equal opportunity of achieving success, of owning a Cadillac, a Beverly Hills mansion and a substantial bank balance. In all societies, there are institutionalized means or reaching culturally defined goals. In America, the accepted way of achieving success is through educational qualification, talent, hard work, determination and ambition.
  2. IN A BALANCED SOCIETY AN EQUAL EMPHASIS IS PLACE UPON BOTH CULTURAL GOALS AND INSTITUTIONAL MEANS AND MEMBERS ARE SATISFIED WITH BOTH. BUT IN AN ANOMIC SITUATION SUCH EQUAL EMPHASIS MAY NOT EXIST. INDIVIDUALS WOULD ADAPT TO THE ANOMIC SITUATION IN VARIOUS WAYS. The anomie lies in the fact that simply by hard work, education and determination alone an average American member cannot attain the success goal. Merton outlines five possible responses to this state anomie.
    • THE FIRST AND MOST COMMON RESPONSE IS ‘CONFORMITY’. Members of society conform both to success goals and the normative means of reaching them. They strive for success by means of accepted channels.
    • THE SECOND POSSIBLE RESPONSE IS ‘INNOVATION’. This response rejects normative means of achieving success and turns to deviant means to attain success goals. Thus, the public servant who accepts bribe to get rich quickly indulges in innovative type of deviance. So does the politician who accepts commission in arms deals. Merton argues that members of relatively proper sections of society are most likely to select this route. They are least likely to succeed by conventional channels. Thus there is a greater pressure upon them to deviate, because they have little access to conventional and legitimate means for becoming successful. Since their ways are blocked, they innovate, turning to crime which promises greater rewards than legitimate means. Merton argues that they abandon institutionalized means while retaining success aspirations.
    • FOR THE THIRD POSSIBLE RESPONSE MERTON USES THE TERM ‘RITUALISM’. Those who select this alternative are deviant because they make a fetish of the means and cling to them even though it means loosing the sight of the goals. The pressure to adopt this alternative is greatest for members of lower middle class. Their occupations provide less opportunity for success than those of other members of the middle class. However, compared to the members of the working class they have been strongly socialized to conform to the social norms. This prevents them from turning to deviant means. Unable to innovate and struck up with jobs that offer little opportunity for advancement, their only solution is to abandon their success goals. Merton paints the following picture of the typical lower middle class ritualist. He is a low grade bureaucrat, ultra respectable but struck in a rut. He is stickler of rules given to follow the book to the letter, clings to red tape, conforms to all the outward standards of middle class respectability, but has given up striving for success. The ritualist is deviant because he has rejected the success goals held by most members of society.
    • MERTON CALLS THE FOURTH TYPE OF RESPONSE AS ‘RETREATISM’. It applies to psychotics, artists, outcasts, vagabonds, tramps, chronic drunkards and drug addicts. They have strongly internalized both the cultural goals and the institutional means yet are unable to achieve success due to the existence of the anomic situation. They resolve the conflict of their situation by abandoning both the goals and means of reaching them. They are unable to cope with life and hence drop out of society defeated and are resigned to their failures. They are deviants in two ways. They have rejected both the cultural goals and the institutionalized means. Merton does not relate Retreatism to social class position.
    • THE FIFTH TYPE OF RESPONSE IS ‘REBELLION’. It is a rejection of the success goals, the institutionalized means and their replacement by different goals and means. Those who adopt this alternative wish to create a new society. Lenin, Christ and Gandhi are examples of rebel type of deviants. Even terrorists in different types of societies are in illustration of the rebel type of deviants. Merton argues that rebellion is typical of members of a rising class rather than the most depressed strata, who organize the resentful into a revolutionary group.
rk merton deviance
Mertons social strain theory

To summarise, Merton claims that his analysis shows how the culture of the society generates deviance due to lack of coordination between the cultural goals and institutionalized means created by the state of anomic. This tendency exerts pressure for deviance, a pressure for deviance, pressure which varies depending on a person’s position in the class structure. The way the person responds to this pressure
will also depend on his position in the class structure. Thus he explains deviance in terms of the nature of the society rather than the nature of the individual and hence his theory is a sociological theory of deviance. Subsequently, Merton’s theory has been modified by others to explain other types of deviance and covered by Merton’s theory of deviance.

Analysis of Deviance after Merton:
  1. According to ALBERT COHEN, Merton’s theories can explain only Pecuniary deviance i.e. directed towards financial gains. It doesn’t explain senseless violence, vandalism, non-pecuniary deviance. Such kind of deviance is a safety valve from frustration. In the case of poor and slum dwellers borne out of status frustration, mainstream cultural goals are of no use. Deviance acts as a safety value to them.
  2. CLOWARD & OHLIN, further criticized Merton. For them his theory does not explain why some people should become innovators, ritualistic etc. They talked about criminal sub-culture, which is solely responsible for deviance.
  3. According to WALTER MILLAR, criminals are not always those who failed to gain legitimate opportunity structure. They may do deviant acts out of thrill i.e. to become smart-pick pocketing, boxing etc.
  4. According to DAVID MATZA, there is minor difference between criminal and non-criminals. Even
    deviants believe in values of society. Most of the time, they try to disown the responsibility for
    example – they argue that ‘everybody is corrupt only I am caught’. Resorting to technique of
    neutralization deviants show partial acceptance of societal norms. In his theory of delinquent drift
    Matza argue that young people flow with deviant behaviour. Crimes become a way of overcoming the
    mood fatalism i.e. feeling of utterly helpless.
  5. HOWARD BECKER : In his “Lebelling Theory” argue that society applies label in context of behaviour. The behaviour becomes deviants when others label it as such i.e. Give the dog a bad name; there are all chances that he will live up to that expectation.
  6. EDWIN M. LEMART made distinction between primary and secondary deviation Primary deviance consist of deviant acts before they are publicly labeled. Secondary deviance is the response individual or group to societal reaction.
  7. BERNARD LANDER of Chicago School in his study of Baltimore city, found that social disorganization provides key to explain deviants.

Reference Group:

A REFERENCE GROUP IS ONE TO WHICH YOU ALWAYS REFER IN ORDER TO EVALUATE YOUR ACHIEVEMENTS, YOUR ROLE-PERFORMANCE, YOUR ASPIRATIONS AND AMBITIONS. IT IS ONLY A REFERENCE GROUP THAT TELLS YOU WHETHER YOU ARE RIGHT OR WRONG, WHATEVER YOU ARE DOING; YOU ARE DOING BADLY OR WELL.

So one might say that the membership groups to which you belong are your reference groups.

  1. Even non-membership groups-the groups to which you do not belong-may act like reference groups. This is not really very surprising. Because life is mobile and time and again you come to know of the lives and ways of those who do not belong to your group. At times, this makes you wonder and ask why it is that there are others who are more powerful, more prestigious than you…
  2. It is because of this comparison that you often tend to feel deprived. You aspire to become a member of a group to which you do not belong but which is more powerful or more prestigious. As a result, this time in order to evaluate your achievements, performance; you refer to a non-membership group. therefore, is that not only membership groups, even nonmembership groups act like reference groups. Human beings look at themselves not solely through the eyes of their group members, but also through the eyes of those who belong to other groups.
  3. Merton’s understanding of relative deprivation is closely tied to his treatment of reference group and reference group behavior. Essentially, Merton speaks of relative deprivation while examining the findings of ‘The American Soldier’, a work published in 1949. In this work an attempt was made to examine how the American soldiers looked at themselves and evaluated their role-performance, career achievements, etc.“Comparing himself with his unmarried associates in the Army, the married man could feel that their induction in army demanded greater sacrifice; and comparing himself with the married Soldiers, he could feel that he had been called on for sacrifices which unmarried soldiers were escaping altogether”. Here we find the kernel of what Merton called relative deprivation.
  4. This is not surprising. Happiness or deprivation is not absolutes: they depend on the scale of measure as well as on the frame of reference. The married soldier is not asking what he gets and what other married soldiers like him get. Instead, he is asking what he is deprived of.
  5. Now his unmarried associates in the army are relatively free. They don’t have wives and children, so they are free from the responsibility from which married soldiers cannot escape. In other words, married soldiers are deprived of the kind of freedom that their unmarried associates are enjoying. Likewise, the married soldier feels deprived when he compares himself with his civilian married friend. Because the civilian friend can live with his wife and children and fulfill his responsibility. The married soldier therefore, feels deprived that by virtue of being a soldier he cannot afford to enjoy the normal, day to day family life of a civilian.
  6. t is precisely because of the kind of reference group with which the married soldier compares his lot that he feels deprived. Likewise, as another finding shows. “The overseas soldier, relative to soldier still at home, suffered a greater break with home ties and with many of the amenities of life to which he was accustomed”.

Concept of Group Membership & group Non-Membership:

Merton speaks of three characteristics of a group and group memberships:

  1. First, there is an objective criterion, viz., the frequency of interaction. In other words, the sociological concept of a group refers to a number of people who frequently interact with one another.
  2. A second criterion is that the interacting persons define themselves as members. In other words, they feel that they have patterned expectations or forms of interaction which are morally binding on them and on other members.
  3. The third criterion is that the persons in interaction are defined by others as ‘belonging to the group’. These others include fellow members as well as non-members.

Membership groups shape human beings ‘day-do-day behavior more clearly and more concretely. In Group members are conscious of their identities, they are aware of what to do and what not to do. As a result, for them, group norms are morally binding.

It is at this juncture that Merton wants us to appreciate the dynamics of non-membership. It is true that non-members are those who do not meet the interactional and definitional criteria of membership. But, at the same time, as Merton says, all non-members are not of the same kind. Broadly speaking, non-members can be divided into three categories.

  • Some may aspire to membership in the group.
  • Others may be indifferent toward such affiliation.
  • Others may be motivated to remain unaffiliated with the group.

Anticipatory Socialization:

  1. Merton speaks of anticipatory socialization in the context of non-membership reference groups. It is like preparing oneself for the group to which an individual aspires but does not belong. It is like adopting the values, life-styles of a non-membership reference group. For an individual, says Merton, anticipatory socialization ‘may serve the twin functions of aiding his rise into that group and of easing his adjustment after he has become part of it’.
  2. Suppose a village boy born in a lower middle class household accepts Indus world School boys as his reference group. As a process of anticipatory socialization he begins to emulate the ‘smartness’ of Indus World School boys. Now if this village boy really succeeds in getting an entry into Indus World School, his anticipatory socialization would indeed be functional, it would be easier for him to adjust himself to his new role.
  3. While Merton speaks of the possibility of functional consequences of anticipatory socialization, he, however, does not fail to see its dysfunctional consequences. If the system is much closed then this lower middle class village boy would never get an entry into Doon School. In that case, anticipatory socialization would be dysfunctional for him. There are two reasons
  4. First, he would not be able to become a member of the group to which he aspires……….And secondly, because of anticipatory socialization-imitation of the values of a non-membership group-he would be disliked by the members of his own group. As Merton says, he would be reduced to being a ‘marginal man’! That is why, anticipatory socialization is functional for the individual only ‘within a relatively open social structure providing for mobility’. By the same token it would be dysfunctional, in a ‘relatively closed social structure’.
  5. Merton makes another interesting point. In a closed system the individual is unlikely to choose a nonmembership group as a reference group. That is why, in a closed system where the rights, prerequisites and obligations of each stratum are generally held to be morally right-an individual, even if his objective conditions are not good, would feel less deprived i.e. untouchables, schedule castes, tribes in India. ………But in an open system in which the individual always compares his lot with relatively better off and the more privileged non-membership reference groups he remains perpetually unhappy and discontented.

Positive and Negative Reference Groups:

  1. Reference groups, says Merton, are of two kinds. First, a positive reference group is one which one likes and takes seriously in order to shape one’s behavior and evaluate one’s achievements and performance. Secondly, there is also a negative reference group which one dislikes and rejects and which, instead of providing norms to follow, provokes one to create counter-norms.
  2. As Merton says, “the positive type involves motivated assimilation of the norms of the group or the standards of the group as a basis for self-appraisal; the negative type involves motivated rejection, i.e. not merely non-acceptance of norms but the formation of counter- norms”.
  3. It is not difficult to think of an example. Imagine reaction of the colonized to their colonial masters. Now you would always find some “natives” who get hypnotized by the success story of the colonizers: they follow their life-style, speak their language, and emulate their food habit. In other words, for them, the colonizers act like a positive reference group.
  4. But then again, we find some natives who hate the colonizers for their exploitation, arrogance, and brutality. Instead of emulating their norms, they create counter-norms in order to separate themselves from the colonizers. In other words, for them, the colonizers act like a negative reference group.

Self-fulfilling prophecy: Sociologist Robert K. Merton (1957) defined a self-fulfilling prophecy as a false definition of a situation that is assumed to be accurate. People behave, however, as if that false definition is true. In the end, the misguided behavior produces responses that confirm the false definition. Merton argued that the “tragic, often vicious, cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies can be broken” if the initial definition that set the circle in motion is abandoned. Only when that definition is questioned and a new definition is introduced will the situation correct itself


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