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Robert K. Merton

“There can be no doubt, I think, that the subject we are about to consider is one of the profound importance to us all. Indeed, this hardly needs to be said. Surely, the significance of the issues we are to examine here is almost self-evident. And yet, there are indications from time to time that some people have still to be alerted to the deep-seated importance of the subject, together with its many implications. That is why I think it incumbent upon me to put all possible emphasis on precisely this point. For if we were to turn at once to a consideration of the subject, some readers might be led to assume that, interesting as it might be, it is still a subject of no great consequence. This, of course, would be an abysmal error. For it can be said—with no great fear of successful contradiction—that to ignore this subject or to regard it as of only minor importance would be tantamount to resigning oneself to continued ignorance about it. Granted that some subjects can be neglected by many men with no great damage either to themselves or to the world in which they live. But, as will be seen at once, when we begin to examine this subject in the great detail it deserves, this matter is not to be included among subjects safely neglected. Quite the contrary: extravagant though it may sound, I wish to propose the thesis that all subjects now on the agenda of mankind, this one leads all the rest in its potential implications for the future of the human race. And if this be so, how can anyone regard himself as a responsible and informed human being while still ignoring this subject of universal and prime importance? The question answers itself: it cannot be done. That is why I think it fair to say that the subject we are about to consider deserves our closest, and most critical attention.

But the importance of the subject is not only the sole feature that commends it to your attention and mine. There is also its complexity. For this is no simple matter we are to investigate. It is not something that needs only to be mentioned in order to be understood. After all, important matters are seldom self-apparent ones. It will be necessary for us, therefore, to examine every aspect of this difficult subject in painstaking detail. And, in doing so, we shall nevertheless be ready to acknowledge that some aspects are more significant than others. This, too, is something we must recognize from the outset if we are to make inroads on a thorough understanding of the matter. Some of the important aspects will require a great deal of attention; correlatively, the less important aspects need only be touched upon, without going into the matter deeply. For if we do not save our energies for the more significant considerations and instead use them up in lavishing attention on the less significant, it is obvious—or so it appears to me—that we shall be at a distinct disadvantage. Perhaps this warning seems superfluous. Perhaps most readers will assume that they usually make these needed discriminations, attending closely to the more important and passing lightly over the less important. But in as complex a subject as this one, there is always the danger that this excellent way of studying a problem will be neglected. That is why I emphasize both the importance of the subject as a whole and the differing degrees of importance assumed by various parts of the subject. Otherwise, I shall fail in my obligation to alert the reader to what I have found, by hard experience, to be a dangerous temptation: the temptation of assuming that every part of a subject is just as significant as every other part. But perhaps this warning is enough to keep the reader from falling prey to temptation.

In approaching the subject we are about to examine, then, we must, if we are to do it justice, bend our every effort to the difficult task of seeing things whole, of giving attention where attention is due, and of not permitting ourselves to focus on the insignificant at the expense of the significant. For, in the end, significance is all. In a sense, we owe it to ourselves to recognize this and to keep it ever in mind. True, most people most of the time will freely admit that the significant subject is to be preferred to the insignificant. But even they admit it in so many words they do not always act in accord with what they say. That is especially apt to be the case with the subject in hand. And so, without further ado, we turn to our examination of the subject.

But first, . . .”

Merton, Robert K. 1969. “Foreword to a Preface for an Introduction to a Prolegomenon to a Discourse on a Certain Subject.” The American Sociologist 4(2): 99. [Merton pictured. The editor notes that “The following piece was written in response to an undergraduate who asked how he might avoid academic prolixity.”]


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