Robert Merton On The Importance Of Knowledge For Analyzing Social Actions

In ‘The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” (American Sociological Review, Vol. 1, No. 6 (Dec., 1936), pp. 894-904) Robert Merton writes:

The most obvious limitation to a correct anticipation of consequences of action is provided by the existing state of knowledge. The extent of this limitation may be best appreciated by assuming the simplest case where this lack of adequate knowledge is the sole barrier to a correct anticipation. Obviously, a very large number of concrete reasons for inadequate knowledge may be found, but it is also possible to summarize several classes of factors which are most important.

It is not a trivial matter that Merton begins his analysis of how a hopefully-scientific study of social actions can go wrong with an invocation of epistemic limitations; he is doing nothing less than acknowledging the centrality of our epistemic positioning for our various projects of inquiry–and the claims that they sanction. The most exalted and the most humble of them is–or should be–always indexed by an assessment of how confidently they may be asserted and under what conditions they would be retracted. The esoteric metaphysical claim that the universe is indeterministic may, on closer inspection, may turn out to only be the claim that the universe’s workings–as revealed to us–are indicative of such indeterminism; its alleged metaphysical attribute turns out to have been an indication of the limitations of our knowledge. Or consider the claim, central to Buddhism, Jainism, and even Stoicism, that while we have no control over the impressions the world directs at us, we can, and do, exercise control over our judgments. Those judgments–the inferences we draw–are crucially reliant on what we know and believe.

In Merton’s analysis, the social scientist is reminded that both the internal and external domains of his inquiry are shrouded by epistemic uncertainty, an ever-present feature of our human situation: the social subject does not have all relevant information available at hand that may be used for evaluating a course of action, while the social analyst is similarly handicapped in his external assessment of the action. Merton’s analysis thus speaks to the importance of information flows, and introduces a political wrinkle here in so doing. For we might well ask: Where and how may we acquire the knowledge needed to evaluate and plan social action and strategies and tactics? Who controls these sources of information?

Note: In the section preceding the one excerpted above, Merton had made note of how our understanding of ‘rationality’ demands an indexing by epistemic state as well:

[R]ationality and irrationality are not to be identified with the success and failure of action, respectively. For in a situation where the number of possible actions for attaining a given end is severely limited, one acts rationally by selecting the means which, on the basis of the available evidence, has the greatest probability of attaining this goal and yet the goal may actually not be attained. Contrariwise, an end may be attained by action which, on the basis of the knowledge available to the actor, is irrational (as in the case of “hunches”).

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