Robert K. Merton was student of Talcott Parson. He was a structural functional theorist, but he criticised Parsons work for its abstract nature. Unlike Parsons, he advocated middle range theories instead of grand, overarching ones.

He argued that sociology had not done enough empirical research to make the kind of statements Parsons made in his works.In particular, he refuted three assumptions the functionalist’s made:

  1. Functionalists believe that various parts of society are well integrated with each other. According to Merton, this cannot be applied to a complex society.
  2. Functionalists believe that all structures of society have positive functions.
  3. Also, functionalists think that all structures are indispensable parts of society.

Functions, Dysfunction and non function :

According to Merton, functions  are those observed consequences which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given system.

Early functionalist believed that social facts always have positive consequences for other social facts. Merton gave a concept called dysfunction to describe the negative consequences of various parts of the social system. For example, caste system led to division of labour as positive consequence, but, the social and economic inequality it created  are dysfunctions if caste system.

Non functions are consequences that are irrelevant to the system. These function might have had positive or negative consequences earlier, but are irrelevant in present time.

A function can have both functional and dysfunction consequences. According to Merton, a sociologist should try to find out the net balance of these two consequences. For example, social medias functional consequence is dissemination of information, but the dysfunctional consequence is its use by unscrupulous elements for illegal activities.

Manifest and Latent functions



We, as social actors are often more concerned about the manifest aspects of social actions. But a sociologist tries to find out the latent or hidden aspects of an action or the ideas propagated by an institution. For example, the latent function of marriage is socialization of child and maintenance of order in society.

Theory of reference group

Group and group membership 

A group consists of people who frequently interact with each other. Members of the group follow group norms which are morally binding on them. Groups expectation shape the behaviour and identity of its members.

Reference group 

A reference group is one which we refer to evaluate our achievements, role performance, aspirations and ambitions. It is not necessary that only a membership group acts as reference group, even a non membership group can be a reference group.

Anticipatory socialisation 

Another related concept is anticipatory socialization. This applies to people who aspire to become part of a non membership group and try to adopt the values, life styles of that reference group. Once a person become part of that group, the anticipatory socialisation would help him to adjust well in the group.

Merton talks about the dysfunctional aspect of anticipatory socialisation. In order to become part of a non membership group it is very important that the system is open enough to ensure mobility. If the system is closed, he anticipatory socialisation would make a person misfit among his own group members. He would be disliked by his own group members because he abandons the values and norms followed by them and start imitating the reference groups values. Thus, Merton says, anticipatory socialisation is functional in an open society and dysfunctional in closed society.

Relative deprivation 

A desire to become a part of the non membership group gives rise to relative deprivation as the non membership groups are often those groups which are higher in status and prestige. Relative deprivation arises due to comparison one makes with others in non-membership groups. In a closed system, an individual feels less deprived than in an open system where people constantly compare their lives with others and feel unhappy and dissatisfied.

Reference individual or role models

Like groups, some charismatic and influential people can also act as reference individuals for others. They are the role models for those who aspire to be like them. People adopt their values and life styles.

Non conformity and deviance 

According to Merton, there are difference between non conformity and deviance. A deviant is only interested in violating the group norms, he may not follow morality and does not want any change. Non-conformists, on the other hand, challenges the legitimacy of group norms, they want to bring about change which may lead to conflict in their group. They are risk takers and have courage to challenge the existing group norms.

Merton proposed a typology of deviance based upon two criteria: a person’s motivations or her adherence to cultural goals, and a person’s belief in the institutional means to attain her goals.



  • Conformity : the acceptance of the cultural goals and means of attaining those goals

  • Innovation : the acceptance of the goals of a culture but the rejection of the traditional and legitimate means of attaining those goals

  • Ritualism : the rejection of cultural goals but the routinised acceptance of the means for achieving the goals

  • Retreatism : the rejection of both the cultural goals and the traditional means of achieving those goals

  • Rebellion : the individual rejects both the cultural goals and traditional means of achieving them but actively attempts to replace both elements of the society with different goals and means.

Merton says that anomie may arise when there is inconsistency in society between the cultural goals and the institutionalized or legitimate means of achieving the goals. Anomie means a social condition in which norms are weak, absent or in conflict.