A dynamic and multifunctional account of middle‐range theories

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This article develops a novel account of middle‐range theories for combining theoretical and empirical analysis in explanatory sociology. I first revisit Robert K. Merton’s original ideas on middle‐range theories and identify a tension between his developmental approach to middle‐range theorizing that recognizes multiple functions of theories in sociological research and his static definition of the concept of middle‐range theory that focuses only on empirical testing of theories. Drawing on Merton's ideas on theorizing and recent discussions on mechanism‐based explanations, I argue that this tension can be resolved by decomposing a middle‐range theory into three interrelated and evolving components that perform different functions in sociological research: (i) a conceptual framework about social phenomena that is a set of interrelated concepts that evolve in close connection with empirical analysis; (ii) a mechanism schema that is an abstract and incomplete description of a social mechanism; and (iii) a cluster of all mechanism‐based explanations of social phenomena that are based on the particular mechanism schema. I show how these components develop over time and how they serve different functions in sociological theorizing and research. Finally, I illustrate these ideas by discussing Merton’s theory of the Matthew effect in science and its more recent applications in sociology.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBritish Journal of Sociology
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)1469-1489
Number of pages21
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2019
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

Fields of Science

  • 5141 Sociology
  • 611 Philosophy

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