While digitizing a part of my archive, I found Merton's "The Bearing of Empirical Research Upon the Development of Sociological Theory" (American Sociological Review 13, 505-515, 1948). Here is what he says about the role of empirical research in the construction of social theory.
The model of empirical research as testing or verification of hypotheses fails, because it doesn't describe what actually occurs in fruitful investigation. Empirical research goes beyond the passive role of testing and verification; it initiates, reformulates, deflects and clarifies theory.
These functions can be described as follows:
- The serendipity pattern: the unanticipated, anomalous and strategic datum exerts a pressure for initiating theory.
- The recasting of theory: new data exert pressure for the elaboration of a conceptual scheme. This pattern looks at neglected but relevant facts.
- The re-focusing of theoretic interest: new methods of empirical research exert pressure for new foci of theoretic interest.
- The clarification of concepts: empirical research exerts pressure for clear concepts.
Quite often there is a disconnect between empirical research and theory. References to theory are viewed as a rhetorical device for a paper to become publishable. So the next big question, which I'm still working on, is "what is the role of theory in social empirical research?" Merton has a paper about that too.