restricted access 4. Biography, the Structure of Explanation, and the Evaluation of Research in Sociology (1980)
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105 One of the maxims that my teacher and friend Talcott Parsons was fond of repeating was this: in dealing with any theoretical topic, it never fails to repay one’s efforts to go first to the great classical thinkers on that topic. Parsons himself observed that principle repeatedly, revisiting and recasting the original insights of Durkheim, Weber, or Freud as he continued his lifelong struggle to conquer the mountainous obstacles to systematic sociological theory. In considering once again—at the request of Tad Blalock—the relation between theory and research in sociology, I decided to attend to this principle as well. And the classic that beckoned first and foremost was the pair of essays written more than three decades ago by Robert Merton—“The Bearing of Sociological Theory on Empirical Research” (1968b) and “The Bearing of Empirical Research on Sociological Theory” (1968a). I daresay that these essays constitute the most widely read methodological statements in the history of sociology. And in consulting them again, I became convinced why they should be regarded as classics. They remain unsurpassed in 4 Biography, the Structure of Explanation, and the Evaluation of Research in Sociology (1980) From Sociological Theory and Research: A Critical Approach, edited by Hubert M. Blalock Jr., 23–30. New York: Free Press, 1980. 106 l a t e r e x p l o r a t i o n s crispness, clarity, and soundness of thinking. And Merton captured the essential mutuality between the two facts of scientific knowledge, as he traced the data-organizing capacities of different orders of sociological ideas, ranged in a scale of explicitness and formality, on the one hand, and the stubborn power of empirical data to divert, recast, refocus, and clarify sociological ideas, on the other. In my restudy of Merton’s essays I developed three distinct reactions, which, taken together, constitute the point of departure for the few ideas and distinctions I want to develop in this brief essay. My reactions were these: 1. In introducing his first essay, Merton distinguished between sociological theory, “which has for its subject matter certain aspects and results of the interaction of men and is therefore substantive,” and methodology, which deals with “the logic of scientific procedure” (1968a, 153). While based on a true difference, this distinction between substantive theory and methodological canons, if regarded as marking two mutually exclusive categories, begs for correction and reformulation. Methodology—or the application of the canons of correct procedure—surely pervades the entire structure and process of scientific thinking, and one can be as rigorous methodologically in assessing the clarity, consistency, and elegance of substantive theory as in evaluating the design and execution of empirical research. Moreover, the theorist’s substantive preoccupations surely condition, if they do not dictate, his use of research methods and procedure . 2. In many respects, Merton’s essay struck me as more nearly a statement of scientific ideals than an effort to describe how social investigators actually proceed. Or, to put the point more precisely, he set apart those two facets of the scientific enterprise from one another only incompletely. While from time to time Merton pointed to deviations from the ideal of scientific explanation—for example, in his sensitive account of the limitations of post factum interpretations—his essays stand more firmly as a statement of how theory and research ought to affect one another than as a statement of the way they do in practice. 3. My last reaction is most impressionistic of all. Although Merton stressed the interplay of theory and organized factual knowledge, I found his account to be more precise and compelling with respect to the power of discovered or established facts to influence substantive b i o g r a p h y , e x p l a n a t i o n , a n d e v a l u a t i o n 107 formulations than with respect to the influence running in the opposite direction. I believe that Merton’s statement can best be further developed by deepening and sharpening our understanding of the power of our sociological ideas to shape what we try to know about the empirical world. These three reactions lead me to a formal statement of departure: the need to press further and specify the actual operations of bringing general sociological explanations (or theory) to bear on the organization of empirical research. an illustration from ongoing historical research I wish...