The “Merton Classification” in Sociology of the Unintended and Unexpected: Review of an Unheld Debate

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
CLM.2.05 (Clement House)
Adriana Mica, Institute of Applied Social Siences - University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland
In sociology of the unintended, the “Merton classification” pertains to the cognitive factors limiting a correct anticipation of consequences of purposive social action, which also held for the unanticipated consequences. The categorization pointed to five cognitive sources of unanticipated and unexpected outcomes: ignorance, complexity, error, imperious immediacy of interests, immediacy of basic values and predictions which were made public.

The typology was first presented in the seminal article on Unanticipated Consequences of Social Action (1936), the work which is almost unanimously credited to have launched the sociological debate on the unintended and to have shifted the then recurring theoretical efforts to a more systematic and integrated treatment. The paper presents the theoretical and analytical feedback to this categorization by established sociologists of the unintended and unexpected. The accomplished literature review indicates that the responses match one of the following five headlines: Accept the Merton classification; Extend the Merton classification, Incorporate the Merton classification, Change the subject of the Merton classification and Drop Merton and go to another author's classification.

Why is the reconstruction of these attitudes important? Paraphrasing Merton (1936, 894; 1998, 145) it can be stated that in some of its numerous forms, this classification of sources of unanticipated consequences of purposive action has been touched upon by virtually every substantial contributor to sociology of the unintended and unexpected, though the authors tended to ignore, or they were simply not familiar with parallel advancements in the consideration of this classification. These authors, and even Merton himself, dealt with the 1936 categorization, but they did so with limited reference to prior knowledge and refinement brought by others. It seems that, in spite of critical stance and development of Merton’s initial typology of cognitive limitations to anticipation of consequences, there were but erratic cross-references and unevenly shared cumulative knowledge about these theoretical refinements. Hence, a situation in evident contrast with the visible debates regarding kindred notions introduced by Merton – the manifest and latent function and the self-fulfilling prophecy.

The aim of this article is to retrace the main arguments and to provide a cumulative perspective on the manner in which authors with substantial contribution to sociology of the unintended and unexpected put to use, extended, incorporated, modified or refuted the Merton classification. This reconstruction requires a few steps.