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Sociology and the Unintended

Robert Merton Revisited


Edited By Adriana Mica, Arkadiusz Peisert and Jan Winczorek

This collection of essays aims to revive the sociological debate on the unintended, unanticipated and unexpected consequences of social action, as started by Robert K. Merton in a classic study of 1936. The contributing authors provide insights on both Merton’s work and the reception it received in the academia. They also go beyond his original formulations to encompass new theoretical perspectives and empirical interests that have emerged in the intellectual circumstances different from, or opposed to, his functionalist theory. The contributing authors delve into fields as diverse as education, law, politics, financial markets, consumption, risks and accidents, systemic transformation, organizations and institutional work, innovations, and Polish studies.


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Part III: Unintended Consequences of Norms and Social Intervention


Introduction Jan Winczorek It should not come as a surprise that norms and social interventions have unintended consequences. They share a natural, if not an intimate, relationship with unanticipated social phenomena. They are both types of social expectations and, as such, allow the unintended to emerge by drawing one’s attention to the desired state of affairs. They lure, so to speak, the collective gaze and, in doing so, remove from sight many rele- vant aspects of the observed object. This, eventually, leads to unexpected outcomes – such, that are impossible to perceive at the outset. In his many books, Luhmann claims that a social system can generate two types of expectations. Firstly, it is capable of producing normative ones, such that are not changed in the event of disappointment. Legal norms belong to this category: nobody ceases to demand money owed to them, even when the other party defaults on the con- tract. Even after the murder of a friend, few people cease to expect that safety is main- tained in the streets. As Durkheim teaches, quite to the contrary. Secondly, social systems use cognitive expectations. These differ from normative expectations in that they are changed whenever the expected state of affairs does not occur. Scientific research exemplifies this difference, as does any other Zweck-rational social activity. If the actual behaviour of laboratory mice deviates in a crucial experi- ment from the theoretical expectations, the theory is changed, even if reluctantly, rather than the behaviour of the mice. If a business...

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