tutor2u | Sociologist in Focus: Robert K Merton

Study Notes

Sociologist in Focus: Robert K Merton

AS, A Level

Last updated 11 Nov 2017

Robert K Merton was born in 1910 in the USA and is credited with coining the terms ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and ‘role models’ as well as extensive research into the concept of the ‘American Dream’.

Like other sociologists, Merton believed that society provides individuals with life goals, such as earning money, having children and getting married. However, unlike the notion of the American Dream, where it is believed that everyone has a chance of achieving their life goals, he argued that during times of social change people may commit deviant acts if they may feel a strain between the goals set by society and experience pressure in how to achieve them.

Merton divided his theory into five categories:

  • Conformists: these are people who have invested in the American Dream, worked towards their education and are in employment.
  • Ritualists: these are people who do not aspire to society’s goals but accept the means of achieving them, so they go to work and ‘do the job’ but may not want career success such as promotions.
  • Innovators: these are people who are seen as criminals who support the goals of society (i.e., earn money, have children and so on), but may use criminal means to achieve them.
  • Retreatists: these reject society’s goals and may be seen as dropouts e.g., alcoholics, drug addicts.
  • Rebels: these create alternative goals to those prescribed by society and may seek a counterculture. Terrorists or revolutionaries would fit in this category.

Merton’s theory can be criticised for his use of crime statistics to develop his ideas, which often downplays middle-class crimes. It is also important to note that Merton believed that the term deviance was socially constructed


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