Nepali Times
State Of The State
Misunderestimating Merton


By having nothing to do with the behind-the-scene negotiations between the emissaries of the palace and the insurgents, mainstream political parties have been carrying out a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Maoists aren't doing any better. The proposal for a roundtable is going around in circles. None of the respondents of Maoist interlocutors' interviews have evinced any interest in a full-fledged "focus group" discussion over their long-standing demands.

The government of royal nominees has run into its own conundrum: it is facing the unforeseen and unintended consequences of trying to run the administration by whimsical fiat. The petty tyrannies of the trouble-shooting Daudaha Tolis have created a situation where a) rules in the hands of employees have become end values rather than mere means to some desirable ends, b) decision-making is a victim of passing -the-buck or procrastination, and c) bureaucracy is sidelined and moribund. Clearly, the Anchaladhis of a bygone era is the wrong "role model" for improving service delivery in a society that has tasted grassroots democracy.

The phrases used above ("self-fulfilling prophecy", "focus group", "role model") have crept into everyday language from some of the pioneering works in the science of sociology by Robert K Merton.

Merton was one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century. Sadly, when he passed away last week at 92, no Nepali newspaper took notice. We were obsessed with the showdown between the Bulldog of Baghdad and the Texan Terrier. Editors, as is their wont, pay more attention to "US actress Pamela Anderson standing on a balcony" and devote the front page to the state of her strategic assets. We clearly "misunderestimated" the passing away of the father of modern sociology.

The range of Merton's sociological scrutiny is astounding-he managed to explore everything from the sociology of media to the functioning of bureaucracy and from the history of science to the psychology of deviance from the Bureau of Applied Social Research, his academic perch at Columbia University.

Among Merton's various intellectual explorations, my favourite is his exposition of Durkheim's concept of "anomie". According to Merton, the situation of anomie arises when those who have internalised the value of monetary success find that they have no access to legitimate means by which they can ever hope to attain it. Conformists still pursue the goal by prescribed means, even though their task is hopeless. This perfectly describes the predicament of the Nepali middle class-they grow old in the daily grind without getting any closer to their cherished goals.

Then there are those who "innovate" and seek success by resorting to dishonest means. Examples of such a tendency are aplenty in the Nepali bureaucracy. Sample the explanation of a responsible officer of the Public Service Commission: "If I don't earn by taking bribes, how will I ever realise my childhood dreams with Rs 7,000 rupees a month?" Aren't Maoists also some kind of innovators, making a living from extortion?

Merton's third category is the "ritualist" who goes through the motions, fully aware of the futility of their occupation. Socialised to adhere to the rules, ritualists are unable to break free even when they know that they are in bondage. Whenever you want to complain about the quality of education in a government school in Achham, please think of the teacher from Rautahat serving time in Managalsen.

The "retreaters" are most infuriating, especially when they retrospectively justify their retreat. While there is nothing wrong in seeking one's fortune anywhere, what's so noble about obtaining a Green Card that those who stay back must put up with their consistent outburst of off-shore patriotism? Perhaps the Dishwashers of Disneyland need to justify defection by denouncing the rot back home every chance they get.

Here is a teaser for sociologists of the university located on Kirtipur's slopes: to which category of Merton do you honestly belong? Students stampede to get into the sociology course, but the last original idea to emerge from Tribhuvan University was Dor Bahadur Bista's Afno Manche.

Merton's ideas survived Vietnam, Gulf War I and they will take on a universal meaning in the globalised world. That is one reason to go back to his work. A society that doesn't celebrate the rise of a genius, or refuses to mark the passing away of another, isn't prepared to produce one of its own. Unlike the tall claims of self-proclaimed intellectuals foraging for consultancy works, Merton, preferred to introduce himself as "the economist's father", alluding to his Nobel winner son Robert C Merton with a mixture of pride and self-deprecation.

Wonder what the senior Merton would think if he were to find that a newspaper published somewhere in the Himalaya had written about him. Perhaps he would attribute it to the "Matthew Effect" (in academic and scientific research, greater recognition and resources are given to those who have already a certain level of recognition over those who have yet to make their mark).

Robert King Merton will remain a cherished "role model" of many aspiring sociologists the world over for years to come. Unfortunately, he is not around to coin a new term for that particular phenomenon.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)