The American Sociologist

, Volume 50, Issue 1, pp 85–120 | Cite as

How Do you Make Sociology out of Data? Robert K. Merton’s Course in Theorizing (Soc 213–214)

  • Richard SwedbergEmail author


How do you use theory effectively in empirical research; and how can you learn to do this in a practical way? This is a crucial question to answer for any sociologist; and it is addressed in this article by presenting and analyzing the contents of a course on theorizing that Robert K. Merton taught during 1942–1954 at Columbia University. In teaching this class Merton was probably the first sociologist to single out the topic of theorizing as its own distinct area of knowledge, study and teaching. He also pioneered a new kind of theorizing in sociology, centered around the use of systematic empirical data. In presenting Merton’s arguments, special attention has been paid to the tools for theorizing that he devised, such as respecification, reconceptualization and levels analysis. Next to nothing of this material is discussed in Merton’s published writings. It is suggested that underlying Merton’s work in theory is the idea that it is only through theory that data can become sociology.


Theorizing Theory Merton, Robert K. Empirical research Concepts 


Documents from the collection Robert K. Merton Paper, Rare Books & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, are cited in the following manner in the text. A document from, say, 1942 which can be found in Box 436, Folder 8 is referred to as: Merton 1942:B436F8. For the places where most of the material from Soc 213-214 can be found, see note 3.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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