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


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    Merton 950:B436F8; emphasis added.

  2. 2.

    For helpful comments I thank three reviewers and the editor of The American Sociologist. I also thank the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin for support.

  3. 3.

    The material from Soc 213–214 can today be found in “Robert K. Merton Papers, 1928–2003” at Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library (see especially Box 132, Folder 4; Box 436, Folders 7–8; Box 149, Folder 12; Box 365, Folders 4–5; Box 437, Folders 2–4). The material from this course amounts to about four hundred pages and consists of Merton’s own notes for his lectures; a small number of pages with notes in Merton’s handwriting; notes from Merton’s lectures by his teaching assistants Alice Rossi and Hanan Selvin; student assignments, including reading lists; a few essays by students; and material relating to James Coleman’s experiences of Soc 213–214.

  4. 4.

    The course is described as follows in the Columbia Course Catalogue for 1941–1942: “Critical examination of the use of theory in empirical research. Detailed analysis of standard sociological monographs. Empirical consideration of the interrelations of sociological theory and social structure” (Nichols 2010:89).

  5. 5.

    In Social Theory and Social Structure Merton uses several pages to argue that there exists a “rock-bound difference between the finished versions of scientific work as they appear in print and the actual course of inquiry followed by the inquirer” (Merton 1968:4). The former is dismissed as “the story-book version of scientific inquiry.” As far as I have been able to establish, Merton uses the term “theoretic work” (e.g. Merton 1945:465); he is nonetheless viewed as having introduced the term “theory work” in sociology (Levine 2006:239).

  6. 6.

    See note 26 for an elaboration of this point.

  7. 7.

    Merton has referred to the title of his course Soc 213–214 as “the odd-appearing but quite deliberate title” (Merton 1996b:353, 1994:33, 1995a:24). He chose the same title for one of the key chapters in Social Theory and Social Structure, which had originally appeared in a somewhat different form in 1945 in the American Journal of Sociology under the title of “Sociological Theory.” From the abstract that accompanies the 1945 article, it is however clear that Merton now wanted to emphasize a different aspect of theory in this article (later chapter) than in Soc 213–214. In the article and chapter, the focus was on “What is theory?”; and in the course on “How do you theorize?” The content in the 1945 article and in Soc 213–214 overlap at times but is for the most part different.

  8. 8.

    That the content of Soc 213–214 changed quite a bit over the years is clear from what remains of Merton’s lecture notes. As already mentioned, these notes are incomplete in nature, something that makes it difficult to follow the changes that the course underwent over the years. All the material that is cited in the rest of the paper comes from the classes in theorizing Merton taught during the academic years of 1949–1950 and 1950–1951. For these two years there exists quite a bit of material, including some of Merton’s outlines for his lectures as well as a set of detailed notes taken during Merton’s lectures by his teaching assistants Alice Rossi (formerly Kitt) and Hanan Selvin. More precisely, there exist notes from 16 lectures, out of something like 24 to 26. Alice Ross (1922–2009) got her PhD in sociology at Columbia University in 1957, and Hanan Selvin (1921–1989) in 1956.

  9. 9.

    According to Mary Jo Deegan’s history of women in sociology, the years 1920–1965 constituted “the dark era of patriarchal ascendancy [in US sociology]” (Deegan 1991:18–21). Deegan also notes that “Robert Merton, Robert Lynd, and C. Wright Mills worked at Columbia, where they established a relatively open context for women in sociology” (Deegan 1991:20). Merton co-authored, for example, a series of studies with female sociologists (e.g. Merton and Kitt 1950; Merton, West and Jahoda 1951; Merton, Fisk and Kendall 1956). He was also the thesis adviser and/or teacher of several well-known female sociologists, including Alice Rossi, Patricia Kendall, Rose Laub Coser and Harriet Zuckerman. For some details about the difficulties of being a female sociologist in the 1950s at Columbia University, see the autobiography of Renée Fox (2011:102–03) and Annemette Sorensen, “Natalie Rogoff Ramsøy as a Female Pioneer in Sociology. Breaking Gender Barriers” (2003).

  10. 10.

    The students were also told about Bertrand Russell’s distinction between hard facts and soft facts (Russell 1914:70–1). While Merton referred approvingly to these terms, he basically invested them with his own meaning: “I mean by hard data in sociology: those which are relative precise, relatively adequate to being representative of what designated classes of human beings feel, believe, think or do; whereas soft data are those which are either loose, or upon reflection, clearly have no evidential value with regard to being characteristic or representative…” (Merton 1950:B436F8). As an example of a study based on soft data, Merton mentioned The Protestant Ethic. Merton also argued that some facts are better suited than others to test a theory. He would later name these “strategic research materials” or SRM (e.g. Merton 1987). He also noted that the relationship between fact and theory is complex; “what one takes as data…the other takes as problematic” (Merton 1943:B136F4).

  11. 11.

    Merton’s full description of himself when he arrived to Columbia University in 1941 was as a “confirmed social theorist albeit with something of an empirical bent” (Merton 1994:16). As a graduate student at Harvard Merton had interviewed homeless men during the summer of 1932: “I had had a fair amount of interviewing during my student days at Harvard, not, of course, as part of formal training in the Department of Sociology there which, being largely devoted to theory, did not teach such research procedures back then” (Merton 1998b:202 n.13). The interviewing, Merton continues, was conducted as part of a government program sponsored by Roosevelt; and he primarily did the interviews to make some money (Merton 1998b:203 n. 20; 1990b:xvi). At Tulane University, where Merton worked in 1939–1941 he administered a survey (Merton 1940). It can also be added that even if Merton eventually became good not only in handling theory but also methods and doing empirical research, he clearly favored theory. When once asked by a student why he did not test one of his theories, which was much debated, Merton answered:

    how many people are capable of doing empirical tests; hundreds or thousands? How many people are capable of devising theory - only a handful. Testing this theory would not be a worthwhile expenditure of my time. (Cole 2004:835).

  12. 12.

    Merton’s terminology is sometimes unstable, in his lectures as well as in his published writings. Instead of “re-analysis,” for example, “re-examination” is occasionally used (e.g. Merton and Kitt 1950:41). In this article I will use the term that Merton used most often in his lectures.

  13. 13.

    Soc 213–214 was, as we know, primarily devoted to teaching the students about the use of theory in doing research. The technique of re-formulation is, however, also used when research impacts existing theory. In this case the re-formulation is driven by a “hitherto neglected but relevant fact which presses for an extension of the conceptual scheme” (Merton 1948a:509, 1968:162). More generally, research can influence theory, according to Merton, in the following four ways: “it initiates, it reformulates, it deflects and it clarifies theory” (Merton 1948:506, 1968:157).

  14. 14.

    Or to cite the classical formulation in Social Theory and Social Structure: “The term sociological theory refers to logically interconnected sets of propositions from which empirical uniformities can be derived” (Merton 1968:39, 66). (A “uniformity” is an empirical generalization that has become part of a theory; and the reason for using this special term is that only a “conceptual term” can be part of a theory, according to Henderson 1932). It can be added that Merton’s definition of sociological theory is in accordance with Hempel’s deductive-nomological model which emphasizes that you go from the general to the specific; more precisely, you use the general to explain the specific through subordination. If Merton had chosen to define sociological theory from the way that he taught the course in theorizing, he would also have wanted to include the reverse movement, from the specific to the general (sociological theory consists of empirical generalities elevated into a set of logically interconnected set of propositions). As opposed to Hempel, finally, Merton does not single out the role of explanation; it is instead built into the way that the propositions are related.

  15. 15.

    Merton writes as follows:

    1. 1.

      Social cohesion provides psychic support to group members subjected to acute stresses and anxieties.

    2. 2.

      Suicide rates are functions of unrelieved anxieties and stresses to which persons are subjected.

    3. 3.

      Catholics have greater social cohesion than Protestants.

    4. 4.

      Therefore, lower suicide rates should be anticipated among Catholics than among Protestants. (Merton 1968:15).

  16. 16.

    The translation of Weber’s analysis into propositions might look as follows:

    1. 1.

      Methodical work helps group members to be economically successful.

    2. 2.

      Economic success is a function of working hard.

    3. 3.

      Protestantism emphasizes a methodical attitude more than Catholicism.

    4. 4.

      Therefore Protestants can be expected to be more successful economically than Catholics.

  17. 17.

    “I had largely confined those analyses of ‘respecification’ and ‘reconceptualization’ to oral publication rather than putting them into print” (Merton 1998b:176). None of these terms (or that of levels analysis) can, for example, be found in the indices to the three editions of Social Theory and Social Structure (Merton 1949a, b, c, 1957, 1968).

  18. 18.

    During his life as a scholar Merton cultivated the process of developing ideas during his lectures and then working on these till they were ready for publication. Towards the end of his life he said that this was how most of his articles and books had come into being; and that the process from the first oral publication till the publication in print took about 12 years (Merton 1998a:317).

  19. 19.

    Again, Merton muddied the waters by for example speaking of “reconceptualization” and “respecification of a concept” as synonymous (e.g. Merton 1951:B132F4, 1963:xxvii, 1968:307 n. 28).

  20. 20.

    In a similar vein Merton has argued that “a good part of the work called ‘theorizing’ is taken up with the clarification of concepts – and rightly so” (Merton 1948a:513, 1968:168).

  21. 21.

    While Merton only seems to have presented one version of his levels analysis in Soc 213–214, he presented several in his course on social structure, Soc 215–216 (Merton 1943–1954:B365F4–5). In one of these the levels are as follows: individual actor (Level 1); status, position (Level 2); organization, structure (Level 3); and society (Level 4). In another: opinions (Level 1); positions (Level 2); group cohesion (Level 3); and values, cultural assumptions (Level 4). Merton also emphasized the importance of the order in which the different levels were analyzed.

  22. 22.

    A general sociological orientation does not qualify as a theory but can be helpful as an inspiration; it may also draw the sociologist’s attention to certain empirical phenomena (Merton 1945:464–65, 1968:149–50). Merton did not regard the works of Simmel and Weber as containing theory properly speaking – but they were full of useful general orientations.

  23. 23.

    Merton 1950:B436F8.

  24. 24.

    Merton taught three classes on theory at Columbia: “Analysis of Social Structures, Soc 215–216” (1942–1979), “Social Theory Applied to Social Research, Soc 213–214” (1942–1953), and “History of Sociological Theory, Soc 150” (1958–1968). From the dates of these, it is possible to argue that Merton may have replaced the course in theorizing with the one in the history of sociological theory. In 1957–1958 Merton co-taught a course with Paul Lazarsfeld called “Selected Problems in the Relations between Sociological Theory and Methods of Research (Soc 319)” (for all of Merton’s classes, see the online finding aid to the Merton collection at Columbia). As opposed to his course on theorizing, Merton’s famous course on contemporary theory had a strong focus on structural-functionalism (for a detailed description, see Marsh 2010). The reader who is interested in Merton’s take on theory may also want to consult his last major article in this genre, “Three Fragments from a Sociologist’s Notebooks,” which contains much material on theorizing (Merton 1987).

  25. 25.

    Merton’s work may also have been the inspiration for the work on theory construction that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g. Zhao 1996). As to the terminology of “theorizing” versus “theory construction,” the following can be said. While Merton repeatedly used the term “theorizing” in his lectures in Soc 213–214, he never used “theory construction.” While the two terms are overlapping to quite some extent, there are also some key differences. The emphasis in theory construction, as used by sociologists, is primarily on the parts that make up a theory (proposition, type, explanation, and so on). This is also often accompanied by a focus on the need for formalization. Theory construction differs in this sense from theorizing, which is considerably broader in scope and includes e.g. the dead ends, mistakes, early attempts at explanation, and so on, that are part of the process that precedes the presentation of a study in public (see also Merton 1968:140–41). In theorizing there is also more of an emphasis on how to develop practical rules for how to proceed.

  26. 26.

    Some might argue that Merton was at the most a pioneer among sociologists in theorizing with empirical material, on the ground that many other sociologists have theorized before Merton (such as Weber, Simmel and Parsons, just to mention three sociologists who, according to Merton himself in Soc 213–214, had theorized). This argument, however, detracts from Merton’s accomplishment in my view. While all sociologists can be said to have theorized, if this term is equated with the production of theory, what Merton did, I argue, was to draw attention to the practical side of this activity, with all its ups and downs, false leads and failed attempts. He also singled out theorizing as a set of practical skills to be learned and taught. To my knowledge, this is something that no other sociologist had done before Merton (and not to be confused with philosophy of science). The reader may also want to compare Merton’s views on theorizing with those of Talcott Parsons. The latter tried to outline what theorizing is, as part of the so-called Carnegie project on theory (1949–1951). Parsons views, however, does not seem to have gone beyond insights of the type “try to think as hard as you can” and “you can get inspiration by working with others” (Isaac 2010; see also Isaac 2009).

  27. 27.

    It is not clear how many students took Merton’s course in theorizing during 1942–1954. As earlier mentioned 55 students were enrolled in 1950–1951 and some 30 students took the course every year, according to one source (Caplovitz 1977:142). How these figure square with the official statistics that only 152 students were awarded a PhD in sociology at Columbia University during the years 1943–1959 (that is, about nine per year) is not clear (Rosenhaupt 1958:6, Sibley 1963:65–6).

  28. 28.

    In an interview from 1995, Merton referred to what he called his own “tacit theorizing” in the following way:

    It's a strange phenomenon, this tacit theorizing about aspects of social reality before you know what it is that you are looking for. It starts as a vague notion and sometimes ends in nothing. But every so often, the tacit becomes explicit and leads to new problems worth pursuing. (Duncan 1995).

  29. 29.

    In the early 1980s Merton wrote the following parable about the use of statistics in sociology, which he sent to Pat Kendall, the wife of Paul Lazarsfeld (Merton 1984:B47F9):

    Transcription of a Dream

    • For lo these many years the People were dwelling in the Land of Columbia with their wives and camels and computers. But the zero order correlations came upon them and the People were sore afraid. So they spoke unto the prophet Paul saying “Canst thou relieve us of this plague of zero order correlations?” And the Prophet Paul told them to buildeth tables of percentages and the correlations would go away. And the people did as he said and they builded many tables (and verily some obtained chairs) and some of the correlations went away. And the people of Columbia waxed fat and had many wives and many concubines.

    • And it came to pass that the prophet Dudley arriveth from the sands of Oklahoma. And the Prophet Dudley spake unto the people saying, “Repent, ye sinners! Thou worshipeth false Gods!” And he told the People they should follow him down the recursive path, nigh unto the land of Econometrica, whence he had been before them. And the People packed up their wives and camels and computers and followed him (as best they could) and the assistant professors found that many books could be written elucidating the miracle that Education is correlated with Occupational Prestige (when Prestige is estimated from Education) and the assistant professors became full professors, and the residual variance waxed while the man and maidservants decomposed covariances, and the journals were filled with graven images of what appeared to be the road to Bulgaria. But the people cried out, “We know not what this Sociology is and can not read our journals nor yet find any information about society.” But the prophet and his disciples said, “Oh, ye of little faith, trust us.” So the people stopped reading the journals and devoted themselves to Marxist agitation and all was well in the Land. But the remnant who tarried in Columbia were punished and the Lord smote the Bureau of Applied Social Research to show he/she wasn’t kidding.

    • And it came to pass that the Prophet Leo came down from the clouds and saith, “Moses gave you tablets of clay, but I giveth unto you Tables of Counts plus plenteous notation.” And the prophet Dudley was moved, and he spoke unto the People saying “Repent, ye sinners! Thou worshipeth false Gods!” and “Abandon ye those comfortable interval scales and follow me on the road back to tables.” And the people despaired and they cried out, “Hey, we just came from there and it was a long walk.” But the prophet Dudley said, “Ye speaketh of tables builded from percentages; I speaketh unto you of tables builded from Logs, as told to me by the Wizard of Odds.” And the people said, “Oh, I see, I guess” and they packed up their wives and camels and computers and they followed him (as best they could) back to the land of tables. And somewhat fewer assistant professors became full professors because it was a time of drought, and many fewer of the People could read the journals nor [understand them]. (Merton 1984?:B47F10)

  30. 30.

    While Merton excelled as a theorist as well as a methodologist and a researcher (Sorensen 1991), this was not the case with Lazarsfeld who lacked a talent for theory and was not interested in testing theoretical ideas. According to Merton, Lazarsfeld was always asking, “What is sociology?” (Rogers 1997:247). He also said: “Paul never believed there was such a subject as sociology” (Rogers 1997:247). According to Coleman, “Lazarsfeld had a difficult time understanding sociological theory”; he also “did not know [theory]” (Coleman 1980:171, 1990d:89; see also (Coleman 1990b:28–9, 1990c:89). According to Bernard Barber, “Lazarsfeld…never understood the basic nature of theory” (Clark 1998:338). Lazarsfeld said himself that he did not view himself as “a ‘real’ sociologist;” and according to Stephen Turner and Jonathan Turner, he used a kind of “‘folk psychology’ for…theory” (Lazarsfeld 1975:56, Turner and Turner 1990:105).

  31. 31.

    In an article from the 1980s, Merton describes himself as “a longtime qualitative researcher” (Merton 1987:559, 1990a:xxiv). And according to a student who took his class on social structure (Soc 215–216):

    In the Sociology 215–216 course, as elsewhere, Merton was much more qualitative than quantitative. He advised us that journals like the British Journal of Sociology and Psychiatry were sympathetic to qualitative, intellectual essay-type articles and were therefore a good outlet for publications. (Marsh 2010:112).

    Note, however, that both of these descriptions are retrospective in nature. During the peak of Columbia sociology in the 1950s, a better characterization of Merton would perhaps be as an empirical researcher who insisted that all types of solid knowledge should be used. In 1950, for example, he describes his view on different types of data as follows:

    I believe that different methods of systematically collecting and analyzing sociological data need to be brought together and meshed. For if sociologists confine themselves to one type of data – whether this be brief interviews with cross-sections of a population, or governmentally collected demographic data, or historical reconstructions – they will come to limit themselves to those problems which can be studied by means of such data. The methodological tail will wag the sociological dog, and this is neither natural nor pretty. As the theoretical problem is defined, method appropriate for studying this problem will be developed. (Merton 1950:B436F7)

  32. 32.

    Raymond Pearl (1879–1940), American biologist.


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.

  1. Abbott, A. (1992). What do cases do? Some notes on activity in sociological analysis. In C. Ragin & H. Becker (Eds.), What is a case? (pp. 53–82). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Calhoun, C., & VanAntwerpen, J. (2007). Orthodoxy, heterodoxy, and hierarchy: ‘Mainstream’ sociology and its challengers. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Sociology in America (pp. 367–410). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Caplovitz, D. (1977). Robert K. Merton as editor: Review essay. Contemporary Sociology, 6, 142–150.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Clark, T. N. (1998). Paul Lazarsfeld and the Columbia sociology machine. In J. Lautmann & B.-P. Lécuyer (Eds.), Paul Lazarsfeld (1901–1976) (pp. 289–360). Paris: l’Harmattan.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Cohen, B. (1980). Developing sociological knowledge. New York: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Cole, S. (2004). Merton’s contribution to the sociology of science. Social Studies of Science, 34(6), 829–844.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Cole, J. 2010. Talk given at “Robert K. Merton at 100: Reflections & Recollections,” Columbia University November 24. Downloaded on February 24, 2018 from:

  8. Coleman, J. (1953). Definitions of the concept of isolation by various authors, and their use of the concept. In: box 149, folder 12 in Robert K. Merton papers, rare books & manuscript library. Columbia University.

  9. Coleman, J. (1980). Paul F. Lazarsfeld: The Substance and style of his work. In M. W. Riley (Ed.), Sociological traditions from generation to generation (pp. 153–174). Norwood: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Coleman, J. (1986). Social theory, social research, and a theory of action. The American Journal of Sociology, 91, 1309–1335.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Coleman, J. (1990a). Foundations of social theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  12. Coleman, J. (1990b). Robert K. Merton as a teacher. In J. Clark (Ed.), Robert K. Merton: Consensus and controversy (pp. 25–34). London: Falmer Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Coleman, J. (1990c). Columbia in the 1950s. In B. Berger (Ed.), Authors of their own lives (pp. 75–103). Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Deegan, M. J. (1991). Women in sociology: A bio-biographical sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Duncan, Erica. 1995. “Encounters: A summation from the patron saint of sociology [interview with Robert K. Merton],” New York Times, April 16. Downloaded on January 9, 2018 from:

  16. Edel, A. (1959). The concept of levels in social theory. In L. Gross (Ed.), Symposium on sociological theory (pp. 167–195). New York: Harper & Row.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Emile, D. (1964). The rules of sociological method. New York: Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Fox, R. (2011). In the field: A sociologist’s journey. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Hedström, P., & Udehn, L. (2009). Analytical sociology and theories of the middle range. In P. Hedström & P. Bearman (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of analytical sociology (pp. 24–47). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Henderson, L. J. (1932). An approximate definition of fact. University of California Studies in Philosophy, 14, 179–199.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Hunt, M. (1961). How does it come to be so? Profile of Robert K. Merton, professor of sociology at Columbia University (Vol. 28, pp. 39–63). New Yorker.

  22. Hyman, H. (1942). The psychology of status. New York: Archives of Psychology No. 269.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Isaac, J. (2009). Tangled loops: Theory, history, and the human sciences in modern America. Modern Intellectual History, 6(2), 397–424.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Isaac, J. (2010). Theorist at work: Talcott Parsons and the Carnegie project on theory, 1949-1951. Journal of History of Ideas, 71(2), 287–231.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Jaworski, G. (1990). Robert K. Merton as postwar prophet. The American Sociologist, 21(3), 209–216.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Lamb, C. (1823). A dissertation upon roast pig. In C. Lamb (Ed.), Essays of Elia (pp. 276–288). London: Taylor and Hessey.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Lave, C., & March, J. (1975). An introduction to models in the social sciences. New York: University Press of America.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Lazarsfeld, P. (1975). Working with Merton. In L. Coser (Ed.), The idea of social structure: Papers in honor of Robert K. Merton (pp. 35–66). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Lazarsfeld, P., & Merton, R. K. (1972). A professional school for training in social research. In P. Lazarsfeld (Ed.), Qualitative analysis (pp. 361–391). Boston: Allyn and Bacon. An abbreviated version of a text from 1950.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Leontief, W. (1937). Implicit theorizing: A methodological criticism of the neo-Cambridge school. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 51(2), 337–351.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Levine, D. (2006). Merton’s ambivalence towards autonomous theory: And ours. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 31(2), 236–243.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Levine, D. (2014). Social theory as a vocation: Genres of theory work in sociology. New Brunswik: Transaction Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1998. “Paul F. Lazarsfeld at Columbia: A great methodologist and teacher,” Pp. 255–270 in Jacques Lautmann and Bernard-Pierre Lécuyer (eds.), Paul Lazarsfeld (1901–1976). Paris: l’Harmattan.

  34. Machlup, Fritz. 1979. “Poor learning from good teachers”. Academe, October: 376–380.

  35. Madsen, S. & Hansen, A. V. Forthcoming. Theorizing in organization studies. Edward Elgar.

  36. Manzo, G. (2007). Variables, mechanisms, and simulations: Can the three methods be synthesized? A critical analysis of the literature. Revue Française de Sociologie, 48(Supplement), 35–71.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Markovsky, B. (2008). Graduate training in sociological theory and theory construction. Sociological Perspectives, 51(2), 423–445.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Marsh, R. (2010). Merton’s sociology 215-216 course. The American Sociologist, 41(2), 88–114.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Merton, R. K. (1936). The unanticipated consequences of purposive social action. American Sociological Review, 1, 894–904.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Merton, R. K. (1940). Fact and factitiousness in ethnic opinionnaires. American Sociological Review, 5(1), 13–28.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Merton, R. K. 1943. TIME-readership and the influence structure of Dover, N.J. Bureau of Applied Social Research. Columbia University. B-0187.

  42. Merton, R. K. (1945). Sociological theory. American Journal of Sociology, 50, 462–473.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Merton, R. K. (1946). Mass Persuation: The social psychology of a war bond drive. With the assistance of Marjorie Fisk and Albert Curtis. New York: Harper & Brothers.

  44. Merton, R. K. (1948a). The bearing of empirical research upon the development of social theory. American Sociological Review, 13, 505–515.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Merton, R. K. (1948b). The self-fulfilling prophecy. Antioch Review 7 (Summer), 8, 193–210.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Merton, R. K. (1948c). The social psychology of housing. In W. Dennis et al. (Eds.), Current trends in social psychology (pp. 163–217). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Merton, R. K. (1949a) “Reference groups and the formation of opinion”. Unpublished talk in august 1950 at the third annual Summer Institute on survey research methods at the University of Michigan. Downloaded on December 28, 2017 from:

  48. Merton, R. K. (1949b). Social theory and social structure. Glencoe IL: The Free Press.

  49. Merton, R. K. (1949c). Patterns of influence: A study of interpersonal influence and of communication behavior in a local community. In P. Lazarsfeld & F. Stanton (Eds.), Communications research 1948–1949 (pp. 180–219). New York: Harper & Brothers.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Merton, R. K. 1957. Social theory and social structure. Revised and enlarged [2nd] ed. New York: The Free Press.

  51. Merton, R. K. (1959). Notes on problem-finding in sociology. In R. K. Merton, L. Broom, & L. Cottrell Jr. (Eds.), Sociology today: Problems and prospects (pp. ix–xxiv). New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Merton, R. K. (1963). Introduction. In Allen Barton, Social organization under stress (pp. xvii–xxvi). Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Merton, R. K. (1965). On the shoulders of giants: A Shandean postscript. New York: The Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Merton, R. K. (1968). Social theory and social structure. Enlarged [third] ed. New York: The Free Press.

  55. Merton, R. K. (1970). Science, technology and society in seventeenth-century England. New York: Harper & Row. Originally published in 1936.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Merton, R. K. (1984). Socially expected duration: A case study in concept formation in sociology. In W. Powell & R. Robbins (Eds.), Conflict and consensus (pp. 262–283). New York: The Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Merton, R. K. (1987). Three fragments from a Sociologist's notebooks: Establishing the phenomenon, specified ignorance, and strategic research materials. Annual Review of Sociology, 13, 1–29.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Merton, R. K. 1990a. “Introduction to the second edition”. Pp. xiii-xxxii in R.K. Merton, M. Fiske and P. Kendall, The focused interview: A manual of problems and procedures. 2nd ed. Glencoe: The Free Press.

  59. Merton, R. K. (1990b). On the oral transmission of knowledge. In M. W. Riley (Ed.), Sociological traditions from generation to generation (pp. 1–35). Norwood: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Merton, R. K. (1991). Preface to the vicennial edition. In R. K. Merton (Ed.), On the shoulders of giants (pp. xix–xxv). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Merton, R. K. 1994. “A life of learning”. Charles Homer Haskins Lecture. American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper, Number 25.

  62. Merton, R. K. (1995a). Opportunity structure: The emergence, diffusion, and differentiation of a sociological concept, 1930s–1950s. In F. Adler & W. Laufer (Eds.), The legacy of anomie theory (pp. 3–80). New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Merton, R. K. (1995b). The Thomas theorem and the Matthew effect. Social Forces, 74(2), 379–424.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Merton, R. K. (1996a). The Sorokin-Merton correspondence on ‘Puritanism, Pietism, and Science,’ 1933–34. In J. Ford, M. Richard, & P. Talbutt (Eds.), Sorokin & civilization (pp. 21–27). New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Merton, R. K. (1996b). Teaching James Coleman. In J. Clark (Ed.), James S. Coleman (pp. 351–356). London: Falmer Press.

    Google Scholar 

  66. Merton, R. K. (1998a). Afterword: Unanticipated consequences and kindred concerns: A personal gloss. In C. Mongardini & S. Tabboni (Eds.), Robert K. Merton and contemporary sociology (pp. 295–312). New Brunswik: Transaction Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Merton, R. K. (1998b). Working with Lazarsfeld: Notes and contexts. In J. Lautmann & B.-P. Lécuyer (Eds.), Paul Lazarsfeld (1901–1976) (pp. 163–211). Paris: l’Harmattan.

    Google Scholar 

  68. Merton, R. K., & Barber, E. (2004). The travels and adventures of serendipity: A study in sociological semantics and the sociology of science. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Written in 1958 with an afterword added by Merton for the 2004 publication (pp. 230–98).

    Google Scholar 

  69. Merton, R. K., & Kitt, A. (1950). Contributions to the theory of reference group behaviour. In R. K. Merton & P. Lazarsfeld (Eds.), Contributions in social research (pp. 40–105). Glencoe: The Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  70. Merton, R. K., West, P., & Marie, J. (1951). Patterns of social life: Explorations in the sociology of housing. Unpublished, mimeographed manuscript in 2 vols. Robert K. Merton Papers, 1928–2003. Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

  71. Merton, R. K., Fisk, M., & Kendall, P. (1956). The focused interview: A Manuel of problems and procedures. Glencoe: The Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  72. Merton, R. K., Reader, G., & Kendall, P. (1957). The student-physician: Introductory studies in the sociology of medical education. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  73. Nichols, L. T. (1996). Intergenerational solidarity in the creation of science: The Ross-Sorokin correspondence, 1921-1931. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 32, 135–150.

    Google Scholar 

  74. Nichols, L. T. (2010). Merton as Harvard sociologist: Engagement, thematic continuities, and institutional linkages. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 46(1), 72–95.

    Google Scholar 

  75. Parsons, T. (1937). The structure of social action. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Google Scholar 

  76. Raftery, A. (2005). Quantitative research methods. In C. Calhoun, C. Rojek, & B. Turner (Eds.), The Sage handbook of sociology (pp. 15–39). London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  77. Reichenbach, H. (1938). Experience and prediction: An analysis of the foundations and the structure of knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  78. Rogers, E. (1997). A history of communication study: A biographical approach. New York: The Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  79. Rosenhaupt, H. (1958). Graduate students experience at Columbia University, 1940–1956. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  80. Russell, B. (1914). Our knowledge of the external world. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company.

    Google Scholar 

  81. Selvin, H. (1958). Durkheim's suicide and problems of empirical research. American Journal of Sociology, 63(6), 607–619.

    Google Scholar 

  82. Sibley, E. (1963). The education of sociologists in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    Google Scholar 

  83. Sorensen, A. (1991). Merton and methodology. Contemporary Sociology, 20(4), 516–519.

    Google Scholar 

  84. Sorensen, Annemette 2003. “Natalie Rogoff Ramsøy as a female pioneer in sociology breaking gender barriers.” Pp. 29–39 in John Eriksen and Lars Gulbrandsen (eds.), Natalie Rogoff Ramsøy. Rapport 10/03. Oslo: Norsk Institutt for Forskning om Oppvekst, Velferd, og Aldring.

  85. Stein, M. (2011). Listening to sociological elders: An interview with Maurice R. Stein. The American Sociologist, 42(1), 129–144.

    Google Scholar 

  86. Stinchcombe, A. (1968). Constructing social theories. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

    Google Scholar 

  87. Stouffer, S., et al. (1949–1950). The American soldier. 4 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  88. Swedberg, R. Forthcoming. “Preface” to Sabine Madsen and Anne Vorre Hansen, Theorizing in organization studies. Edward Elgar.

  89. Turner, S. (2009). Many approaches, but few arrivals: Merton and the Columbia model of theory construction. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 39(2), 174–211.

    Google Scholar 

  90. Turner, S., & Turner, J. (1990). The impossible science: An institutional analysis of American sociology. Newbury Park: SAGE.

    Google Scholar 

  91. Weber, M. (1949). The Methodology of the social sciences. Glencoe: The Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  92. Weick, K. (2005). The experience of theorizing: Sensemaking as topic and resource. In K. Smith & M. Hitt (Eds.), Great minds in management: The process of theory development (pp. 394–413). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  93. Zetterberg, Hans. 1995. “Om Columbia-Sociologin [On Columbia sociology].” Manuscript based on talk given on April 10 at the Department of Sociology, Stockholm University.

  94. Zhao, S. (1996). The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning? The theory construction movement revisited. Sociological Forum, 11(2), 305–318.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard Swedberg.


Appendix 1. Three Weekly Assignments in Soc 213, 1949

4910:25 (for following week):

  1. 1.

    List five empirical generalizations drawn from sociology, social psychology, or social anthropology.

  2. 2.

    Write an analysis of the methodological and theoretic status of one of these generalizations, in terms of the questions and considerations raised in the course to date.

4911:01 (for the following week)

  1. 1.

    List three cases of ‘sociological problem formation’ from the literature.

  2. 2.

    Try to characterize in formal, logical terms, just what is entailed in the statement of a problem. That is, from these cases seek to set out, tentatively, the components and structures of the statement of a problem. (Be prepared to find that there are ‘types’ of problems, and that they may not all have precisely the same organization).


  1. 1.

    List some examples (at least five) of social science ‘tools’ or instruments of research.

  2. 2.

    Indicate some researches in which each of these was used.

  3. 3.

    Consider any one of these tools, and attempt to indicate, with reference to existing researches, what impact, if any, the instrument had upon the empirical and interpretive content of these researches.

Appendix 2. An Assignment in Levels Analysis from Soc 213, 1950

  1. 1.

    Select one of two types of items for analysis:

    • an entire brief journal article, either theoretical or empirical.

    • a brief section (5–10 pages) from any sociological, psychological or anthropological work you wish, whether from our reading lists in this course or any other in which you are doing work.

  2. 2.

    As a first step, underscore and itemize the levels of the variable which appear in your selection. Get a feel for the scope; note if there is a difference between the level of the variables between which empirical relationships are established and the level of the variables introduced to account for the relationship. What happens when a theorist or researcher remains on one level? What happens when a level shift occurs? Raise the question to yourself: what difference would it make to introduce variables from a different level?

  3. 3.

    Then append a few words of comment on to what extent, if any, the use of levels analysis is deemed helpful in such analysis of other people’s work.

  4. 4.

    A note of caution: there is frequently a tendency to use levels as merely a filing system of variables. This should be completely construed as a first step. If it has any merit, it must lie in what happens to your re-interpretation of a study, once the gaps are noted and you attempt to introduce variables from another level.

This is the case just as much in re-working a completed research, as using levels in setting up our own research. For one function of levels analysis, which was not stressed in our list of ‘purposes’ is an important one: that levels analysis may serve as a guidepost in instituting an intellectual problem, − introducing some help at precisely the point when a problem is most unstructured (if the canvas is large) or overly confining (if the study is too narrowly conceived).

Appendix 3. Instructions for the Term Paper in Soc 214, 1951

  1. 1.

    The chief objective is to provide an occasion for each member of the group to work out a systematic and detailed statement of the theoretical and empirical place of an important concept (or conception) in sociological theory.

  2. 2.

    There are many near-prototypes available for the kind of paper here contemplated. Perhaps the most accessible near-counterpart will be found in the separate articles in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, dealing with such concepts, for example, as conformity, consensus, cults, ethnocentrism, folkways, imitation, isolation, social mobility, nepotism, social sanction, status, and so on.

  3. 3.

    Other near-parallels will be found in those social science symposia in which each chapter is devoted to the review and analysis of major concepts or groups of concepts utilized in a subdivision of a field of inquiry (e.g. Twentieth Century Sociology [1945], or the analytical bibliographic articles in the Psychological Bulletin).

  4. 4.

    However, these are only approximations to the types of discussion called for in these papers. They either cover too wide a variety of related conceptions in a relatively sketchy fashion; or focus on very extensive bibliographic summaries, or involve comparatively little theoretical analysis of the concepts under review.

  5. 5.

    Without exaggerating the need for uniformity among the various papers, the limits and content of the course-paper can perhaps be best understood by imagining yourself in the following ‘real-life situation’:

    1. a.

      You are asked by the editor of the new and revised edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences to contribute an article on one of these subjects (you being free to select the subject).

    2. b.

      There is no fixed limit to the length of the paper – that will depend largely on your estimate of what is required to develop the major theoretical and empirical considerations on the subject. However, it is assumed that, in general, your account will not run beyond 15,000 words.

    3. c.

      You are to assume that your audience is comprised by professional sociologists who will want to turn to your account for an authoritative and critical statement of the given sociological conception, in order to learn (or refresh their knowledge of) the following aspects of it:

      1. (1)

        the emergence of the concept (which may long antedate the emergence of sociology as an academic discipline).

      2. (2)

        the development of the concept as it became incorporated into sociological theory with reference to its changing definition (re-specification of the initial variable). Its linkage with other concepts, continuity and discontinuity in the use of the concept by sociologists.

      3. (3)

        the utilization of the concept in social research of various kinds (those using historical data, comparative sociological data, field materials, etc).

      4. (4)

        your analysis of the interplay between the concept (and other theoretical concepts with which it has been closely associated) and the empirical studies in which it has been put to use, so that your account is not merely a chronological review of its changing meanings, but an analysis of the logical and empirical considerations which apparently led to these changes.

      5. (5)

        an indication of the present status of the concept and the respects in which further research and theoretical analysis is, in your judgment, called for.

    4. d.

      Throughout it is assumed you will document the foregoing points, and will perhaps end your paper with an annotated bibliography of what you have found to be the major contributions to the subject.

  6. 6.

    It will probably be helpful to draft a fairly detailed outline of your proposed article within four to 6 weeks, the outline to be based on the preliminary work done during this interval. This outline will be discussed with the instructor in the hope that the discussion will sometimes prove useful.

  7. 7.

    The intent of this term-assignment is to provide an opportunity for you to work through a body of literature to determine for yourself the present status of a major sociological conception. As Raymond PearlFootnote 32 has said in another though related connection, this kind of work should enable the student to become “really initiated into the realm of scholarship and [to] make contact with the minds that have built the structure whose architecture he must know before he can add his bit to it.”

There is some reason to suppose that this procedure will enable many of you to learn more about the selected concept than the generality of sociologists now know and certainly more than is known by the instructor in the course. Yet despite the concentration of work, the paper is unlike the brief assignments of the first semester which were intended as narrowly defined, technical exercises in sociological theory. The scope of this paper can be comparatively wide within the limits set by time, energy, and the need for thorough and documented analysis of the place of the concept in sociological research and theory.

Sample List of Subjects

The following concepts and subjects are only illustrative. Selection of a subject should be based on your own basic interests in sociology and so far as possible should be linked with some part of your current work (e.g. dissertation, other course papers, current researches). Should you be considering a subject not on this illustrative list, it would be helpful to have you notify Mr. Merton or [course assistant] Mr. Selvin.

Social isolation.

Social roles.

Social relativism of thought.

Primary and secondary social relationships.

Social ‘manipulation’ of others.

Social foundations of mutual trust and distrust (vs integration into group) – pseudo-gemeinschaft.

Social images.

The stranger as a social type.

In-group and out-group formations.

Division of labor – sociological analysis of.

Expert and laity relationships.

Marginal man.

Divided loyalties, cross-pressures, conflicting roles, multiple group membership.


Sociological analysis of a “calling”.

Group solidarity.

Interplay of institutional norms and motivation.

Alienation and estrangement.

The concept of ethos.

Institutionalized evasions of institutional norms: mores and counter-mores.

Interplay of formal structure and informal structure.

Reference groups.

Systems of social theory and theories of the middle range.

The concept of social dysfunction.

Conventionalization (the etiquette of social relations).

Cultural lag.

Self-interested and disinterested behavior.

“Human nature”.

Cultural consistency and inconsistency.


Social cohesion.


Organizational needs.

Residential mobility.

Social equilibrium.


Age stratification.

“The strainer” (“climber”, mobility-oriented).

Social distance.

Group morale.

Definition of the situation (humanistic coefficient).

False consciousness.

Social perception.


Unanticipated consequences of organized social action.

Wertbeziehung [value relevance] (in connection with selection of research problems).

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Swedberg, R. How Do you Make Sociology out of Data? Robert K. Merton’s Course in Theorizing (Soc 213–214). Am Soc 50, 85–120 (2019).

Download citation


  • Theorizing
  • Theory
  • Merton, Robert K.
  • Empirical research
  • Concepts