Pitirim A. Sorokin

The Russian-American sociologist, social critic, and educator Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889-1968) was a leading exponent of the importance of values and broad knowledge in an era dominated by science and power.

Pitirim Sorokin was born in the village of Turya, Russia, on Jan. 21, 1889. His training was concentrated at the University of St. Petersburg, though he also studied at the Psycho-Neurological Institute in the same city. From 1914 to 1916 he taught at the institute and then at the university, where he was a professor of sociology from 1919 to 1922.

After serving as secretary to Kerensky, Sorokin was forced to leave the country by the Soviet government. A brief period in Czechoslovakia was followed by several lectureships in the United States, where he was appointed professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota (1924-1930). Sorokin founded the department of sociology at Harvard University, where he remained until his retirement in 1959. He was elected president of the American Sociological Association (1965) and continued to attend professional meetings all over the world until 1968.

Sorokin's massive publication list and personal influence encompassed many areas. During the Minnesota period, he was interested in social class, social change, and rural community life. The key works of that period were Social Mobility (1927) and Contemporary Sociological Theories (1928). In the former he distinguished vertical and horizontal forms of mobility and showed the importance of institutional channels as mechanisms of mobility. The latter work provided a unique and critical summary of numerous sociological theories, with particular emphasis on the shortcomings of nonhuman and excessively abstract explanations.

Though Sorokin and his associates cumulated and ordered a considerable body of material on rural-urban contrasts (Principles of Rural-Urban Sociology, 1929; A Systematic Source Book in Rural Sociology, 1930-1932), social change and its consequences came to be his major focus for many years. After analyzing the causes of revolution in The Sociology of Revolution (1925), he began the imposing four-volume study called Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937-1941). This work revolved around the controversial thesis that genuine change is traceable to basic cultural presuppositions which undergird each major social institution, and that these presuppositions change because each type apprehends only a portion of complex societal experience. Sorokin therefore posited a series of varyingly recurrent cycles in social change, from ideational (religiousintuitional) to sensate (objective-materialistic) to idealistic (a mixture of the preceding types).

From this standpoint, Sorokin criticized the application of natural science viewpoints to social science, first in Sociocultural Causality, Space, and Time (1943) and with gusto in Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology (1956). In a related vein, he wrote as a sociological Jeremiah against the excesses of modern sensate culture—especially in such books as The Crisis of Our Age (1941), Man and Society in Calamity (1942), The Reconstruction of Humanity (1948), and SOS: The Meaning of Our Crisis (1951).

As an antidote, Sorokin's last 2 decades of life were devoted to the cause of altruism and love, for which he established a research institute at Harvard. Some results of this interest were published in Altruistic Love (1950), Forms and Techniques of Altruistic and Spiritual Growth (1954), and The Ways and Power of Love (1954). However, Sorokin's fame rests on his scholarship and encouragement of sociological theory. His final work, Sociological Theories of Today (1966), was a detailed critique of trends in sociology since 1925. He died at Winchester, Mass., on Feb. 10, 1968.

Further Reading on Pitirim A. Sorokin

Sorokin wrote two autobiographical works: Leaves from a Russian Diary (1924; rev. ed. 1950) and A Long Journey (1963). The latter is more comprehensive and illuminates his thinking during his long career in the United States. In addition, Frank R. Cowell, History, Civilization, and Culture (1952), provides a summary of Sorokin's approach to social change. Two volumes of appreciation and some critical analysis of his work appeared in 1963: Edward A. Tiryakian, ed., Sociological Theory, Values, and Sociocultural Change: Essays in Honor of Pitirim A. Sorokin, and Philip J. Allen, ed., Pitirim A. Sorokin in Review. See also Jacques J. P. Maquet, The Sociology of Knowledge (trans. 1951), and, for Sorokin's period at Harvard, Paul Buck, ed., Social Sciences at Harvard, 1860-1920: From Inculcation to the Open Mind (1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Johnston, Barry V., Pitirim A. Sorokin: an intellectual biography, Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

Sorokin and civilization: a centennial assessment, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1995.

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