middle-range theory

Advocated by the distinguished American sociologist Robert Merton in Social Theory and Social Structure (1957) to bridge the gap between the limited hypotheses of empiricist studies and grand abstract theory of the sort produced by Talcott Parsons . He describes middle-range theories as ‘theories that lie between the minor but necessary working hypotheses that evolve in abundance in day to day research and the all-inclusive systematic efforts to develop unified theory that will explain all the observed uniformities of social behaviour, organization and social change’. Merton consistently argued for, and demonstrated the necessity of, this sort of work in a long series of convincing sociological essays in such areas as structural-functional theory and the sociologies of science, deviance, organizations and occupations. Many of the concepts developed in these theories have become part of the basic sociological lexicon (and are therefore given separate entries in this dictionary): retreatism, ritualism, manifest and latent functions, opportunity structure, paradigm, reference group, role-sets, self-fulfilling prophecy, and unintended consequences. The idea of middle-range theory has directly and indirectly been an important influence on the way many sociologists see their work. The full range of the discussion stimulated by Merton's work is most evident in the excellent collection of commentaries edited by, Robert K. Merton: Consensus and Controversy (1990).

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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