Middle range theory (sociology)


Middle-range theory, developed by Robert
K. Merton, is an approach to sociological theorizing aimed at
integrating theory and empirical research. It is currently the de facto
dominant approach to sociological theory construction, especially in the United
States. Middle-range theory starts with an empirical phenomenon and abstracts
from it to create general statements that can be verified by data. This
approach stands in contrast to the earlier “grand” theorizing of social
theory, such as functionalism and many conflict theories. Raymond Boudon has
argued that ‘middle-range’ theory is the same concept that most other sciences
simply call ‘theory’. The analytical sociology movement has as its aim the
unification of such theories into a coherent paradigm at a greater level of
abstraction. Definition
The term “middle-range theory” does not refer to a specific theory, but is
rather an approach to theory construction. Raymond Boudon defines
middle-range theory as a commitment to two ideas. The first is positive, and
describes what such theories should do: sociological theories, like all
scientific theories, should aim to consolidate otherwise segregated
hypotheses and empirical regularities; “if a ‘theory’ is valid, it ‘explains’
and in other words ‘consolidates’ and federates empirical regularities which
on their side would appear otherwise segregated.” The other is negative, and
it relates to what theory cannot do: “it is hopeless and quixotic to try to
determine the overarching independent variable that would operate in all
social processes, or to determine the essential feature of social structure,
or to find out the two, three, or four couples of concepts … that would be
sufficient to analyze all social phenomena”.
History The midrange approach was developed by
Robert Merton as a departure from the general social theorizing of Talcott
Parsons. Merton agreed with Parsons that a narrow empiricism consisting entirely
of simple statistical or observational regularities cannot arrive at successful
theory. However, he found that Parsons’ “formulations were remote from providing
a problematics and a direction for theory-oriented empirical inquiry into
the observable worlds of culture and society”. He was thus directly opposed
to the abstract theorizing of scholars who are engaged in the attempt to
construct a total theoretical system covering all aspects of social life.
With the introduction of the middle range theory program, he advocated that
sociologists should concentrate on measurable aspects of social reality
that can be studied as separate social phenomena, rather than attempting to
explain the entire social world. He saw both the middle-range theory approach
and middle-range theories themselves as temporary: when they matured, as natural
sciences already had, the body of middle range theories would become a system of
universal laws; but, until that time, social sciences should avoid trying to
create a universal theory. Merton’s original foil in the
construction was Talcott Parsons, whose action theory C. Wright Mills later
classified as a “grand theory”. Middle range theories are normally constructed
by applying theory building techniques to empirical research, which produce
generic propositions about the social world, which in turn can also be
empirically tested. Examples of middle range theories are theories of reference
groups, social mobility, normalization processes, role conflict and the
formation of social norms. The middle-range approach has played a key
role in turning sociology into an increasingly empirically-oriented
discipline. This was also important in post-war thought.
In the post-war period, middle-range theory became the dominant approach to
theory construction in all variable-based social sciences. Middle
range theory has also been applied to the archaeological realm by Lewis R.
Binford, and to financial theory by Harvard Business School Professor Robert
C. Merton, Robert K. Merton’s son. In the recent decades, the analytical
sociology program has emerged as an attempt synthesizing middle-range
theories into a more coherent abstract framework. Peter Hedstrom at Oxford is
the scholar most associated with this approach, while Peter Bearman is its
most prominent American advocate. Quotes
…what might be called theories of the middle range: theories intermediate to
the minor working hypotheses evolved in abundance during the day-by-day routine
of research, and the all-inclusive speculations comprising a master
conceptual scheme. — Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure
Our major task today is to develop special theories applicable to limited
conceptual ranges — theories, for example, of deviant behavior, the
unanticipated consequences of purposive action, social perception, reference
groups, social control, the interdependence of social institutions —
rather than to seek the total conceptual structure that is adequate to derive
these and other theories of the middle range. — Robert K. Merton
Notes ^ Bailey, Kenneth. 1991. “Alternative
Procedures for Macrosociological Theorizing.” Quality & Quantity, vol
25:1, pp. 37-55. ^ a b Merton, Robert. Social Theory and
Social Structure. ^ a b c Boudon, Raymond. “What
middle-range theories are”, Contemporary Sociology 20: pp. 519-522.
^ Robert K. Merton – California State University, Dominguez Hills
^ a b Mjøset, Lars. 1999. “Understanding of Theory in the Social Sciences.” ARENA
working papers. ^ Coockson and Sadovnik in David
Levinson, Peter W. Cookson, Alan R. Sadovnik, ed., “Education and sociology:
an encyclopedia.” ^ Merton, Robert C. and Zvi Bodie.
Design of Financial Systems: Toward A Synthesis of Function and Structure
^ Scholarly Approach Brings Sweeping Change
^ P. Hedström and L. Udehn “Analytical sociology and theories of the middle
range”. Pp. 25- 47 in P. Hedström and P. Bearman The Oxford Handbook of
Analytical Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
^ Extracts from Robert King Merton References
Merton, Robert K.. Social Theory and Social Structure. Free Press. ISBN
0-02-921130-1.