The Complete Guide to What are Middle-Range Theories in Sociology

Middle-range theories in sociology are an idea that is associated with Robert Merton and his Social Theory and Social Structure. The middle-range theories fall between the working hypotheses of everyday research and unified, general theories of social systems. In this article, I will explain all that you know about the middle-range theories in sociology.

Table of Contents:

What is Middle-Range Theory?

The middle-Range theory is an approach to sociological theorizing aimed at integrating theory and empirical research. Raymond Boudon defines middle-range theory as a commitment to two ideas. The first is positive and describes what such theories should do, sociological theories, like all scientific theories, should aim to consolidate otherwise segregated hypotheses and empirical regularities; “if a ‘theory’ is valid, it ‘explains’ and in other words ‘consolidates’ and federates empirical regularities which on their side would appear otherwise segregated.”

The other is negative, and it relates to what theory cannot do: “it is hopeless to try to determine the overarching independent variable that would operate in all social processes, or to determine the essential feature of social structure, or to find out the two, three, or four couples of concepts

Theories of The Middle Range

Middle-range theories in sociology came as a rejection of the mega theory of Parsonian sociology because Merton believed such theories to be too abstract to be empirically testable. However, he did not regard empirical generalizations about the relationship between variables as an adequate alternative.

He believed, instead, that sociology should be committed to developing middle-range theories that are both close enough to observed data to be testable and abstract enough to inform systematic theory development.

Merton advocates that the development of theories in sociology should not be governed by intellectual aggression or academic speculation. Sociological theories cannot afford to be erroneous, unrealistic, jargon-heavy, or merely logical.

Rather theories are developed in sociology to arrange the empirical facts in a consolidated manner. Hence sociological theories should be fact-driven. Social theories should emerge from facts in order to explain the facts in a systematic manner.

Rather than being concerned with grandiose hypotheses such as the existence of a social system characterized by exchange, negotiation, convergence, and, as a result, control and integration, sociology must investigate actual problems and issues related to empirical situations.

Merton’s theories of the middle range are based on uniformities found in social life and take the form of causal laws (as opposed to empirical description). He meant for theories of the middle range to answer his own call for empirically informed sociological theorizing. His hope was that, over time, this program would generate an empirically verified body of social theory that could be consolidated into a scientific foundation for sociology.

What Are Some Examples Of Middle-Range Theories?

Middle-range theories are a type of social theory that has been developed to explain how societies and social groups operate. They are often used in sociology, psychology, and other fields of study. Theories of reference groups, social mobility, normalization processes, role conflict, and the formation of social norms are examples of middle-range theories.

An example of a certain phenomenon explained with middle-range theory would be Reference groups which are used in order to evaluate and determine the nature of a given individual or other group’s characteristics and sociological attributes.

A prime example of a reference group would be the red bull case study that took place on how red bulls target certain reference groups for higher purchases, they target for example normative, comparative, and contractual, targeting these groups make a larger growth for red bull, this coincides with middle-range theory thorough the reference groups being a prime example of middle-range theory

Another example of the middle-range theory is the formation of social norms, an real-life study of a specific social norm is when a case study of social norms on marketing campaigns to improve responsible drinking took place. over the year college students overestimated their peer’s drinking practices. This marketing campaign influenced students to drink more responsibly.

Another example is that In natural science, Merton is not comfortable with the use of natural science theories in the field of sociology. He advocates that theories in natural science come out of cumulative research made on a given problem by a large body of scholars in time and space. It is possible on part of a natural scientist to modify, amend or revise the theories of his predecessors applying such theories to contemporary problems and issues. Natural phenomena being static, cumulative research on them become possible and a broad agreement among the researchers studying the same problem gives rise to the growth of unified theories in the field of natural sciences.

How Can Middle Range Theories Be Useful

The middle range theory is a type of sociological theory that is used to understand and explain the phenomena that are happening in society. It is also used to predict what might happen in the future.

Lewis R. Binford applied middle-range theory to archaeology, and Harvard Business School Professor Robert C. Merton applied it to financial theory. In archaeology, it has become a method of identifying and measuring specific properties of past cultural systems. The emphasis is on attempting to comprehend how the archaeological record was formed, what remains, why things remain, and how the record can be interpreted.

As such, it bridges the gap between high-level social theory (for example, hermeneutics) and low-level general laws or principles (e.g. stratigraphy). It can also be viewed as a bridging argument, connecting what is observed in the archaeological record with reasonable interpretations of those observations.

Ethnomethodology: is the study of how people understand and create the social order in which they live. It aspires to be a viable alternative to mainstream sociological approaches in general. It is a challenge to the entire social sciences in its most radical form. This theory is similar to Middle range theory in that they both look at specific approaches to see how society functions and is dysfunctional; they also have similarities in the way they both take studies to produce accounts of people’s methods for negotiating everyday situations.

Functionalism: is a sociological perspective that holds that society is made up of distinct but interconnected parts, each of which serves a specific purpose. Sociologists, according to functionalism, can explain social structures and social behavior in terms of a society’s components and their functions. This theory is similar to middle range theory in that they both examine how society works and whether it is functioning properly or improperly.

Clarifying Functional Analysis: Merton argues that the central orientation of functionalism is in interpreting data by their consequences for larger structures in which they are implicated. Like Durkheim and Parsons, he analyzes society with reference to whether cultural and social structures are well or badly integrated, is interested in the persistence of societies, and defines functions that make for the adaptation of a given system. Finally, Merton thinks that shared values are central in explaining how societies and institutions work. However, he disagrees with Parsons on some issues which will be brought to attention in the following part.

Manifest and Latent Functions: manifest functions are the consequences that people observe or expect, latent functions are those that are neither recognized nor intended. While Parsons tends to emphasize the manifest functions of social behavior, Merton sees attention to latent functions as increasing the understanding of society: the distinction between manifest and latent forces the sociologist to go beyond the reasons individuals give for their actions or for the existence of customs and institutions; it makes them look for other social consequences that allow these practices’ survival and illuminate the way society works. Dysfunctions can also be manifest or latent. Manifest dysfunctions include traffic jams, closed streets, piles of garbage, and a shortage of clean public toilets. Latent dysfunctions might include people missing work after the event to recover.

Dysfunctions: parsons’ work tends to imply that all institutions are inherently good for society. Merton emphasizes the existence of dysfunctions. He thinks that something may have consequences that are generally dysfunctional or which are dysfunctional for some and functional for others. On this point, he approaches conflict theory, although he does believe that institutions and values CAN be functional for society as a whole. Merton states that only by recognizing the dysfunctional aspects of institutions, can we explain the development and persistence of alternatives. Merton’s concept of dysfunctions is also central to his argument that functionalism is not essentially conservative.

What Are Some Criticisms Of Middle-Range Theory?

In the article “The Criticisms of Middle-Range Theory,” Pauline Durkheim, states that many sociologists criticize middle-range theory because it is too abstract and does not help us understand society. She also states that many sociologists are against the middle-range theory because they believe it is too deterministic and does not take into account individual agency.

Conclusion: middle-range theories in sociology are a way of organizing the research process so that it is systematic and more manageable. This is done by breaking down the general idea of sociology into smaller and more specific parts.

R.K Merton, social thinker, sociology guide.

Middle-Range Theory
By: Zachery Raines

The Middle-Range Theory
The SAGE encyclopedia of social science research methods