Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin
January 21, 1889 — February 10, 1968
Pitirim A. Sorokin served as the 55th President of the American Sociological Association. His Presidential Address entitled "Sociology of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" was delivered at the association's Annual Meeting in Chicago in 1965. The address was later published in the December 1965 issue of the American Sociological Review (Volume 30, Number 6, pages 833-843).
The following article by Barry V. Johnston entitled "Sorokin Lives! Centennial Observations" was published in the January 1989 issue of Footnotes (Volume 17, Number 1, Pages 1 and 5) on the occasion of Pitirim Sorokin's 100th birthday. It is reproduced in its entirety below.
Sorokin Lives! Centennial Observations
Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin was one of the most colorful, erudite and controversial figures in American Sociology. A Komi peasant, Sorokin was born on January 21, 1889, in the village of Turya located in the cold, remote regions of Northern Russia. Sorokin was three when his mother died and the family split up. His younger brother, Prokopiyu, stayed with a maternal aunt. He and his older brother, Vassiliy, took to the road with their father, a crafstman and icon maker, who moved frequently in search of work. When Sorokin was eleven, the family again split and he and Vassiliy were on their own.
They worked as itinerant artisans wandering the Komi homelands. The Komi are highly literate, hardworking, and deeply religious. Early on, Sorokin's quick mind and love of ideas were recognized, and he won a series of competitive scholarships that eventually took him to the university.
With education came political awakening. At fourteen, he was part of the organized resistance to the Czar and politics became intertwined with education in a dynamic mix. By 1922 Sorokin had finished his Magistrant of Criminal Law and PhD degrees. He had also been jailed six times for political defiance. Prisoner of both the Czar and the Bolsheviks, he preferred the Monarch's jails. They were cleaner, books were provided and treatment was more humane. Sorokin advanced academically and politically. He founded the first sociology department at the University of St. Petersburg, and became Alexander Kerensky's personal secretary in the post Czarist government. Because he as a highly vocal and persuasive anti-communist, during his last incarceration, Lenin ordered him shot. Only pleas from former political allies persuaded Lenin to exile him instead.
Sorokin and his wife, Elena, whom he married in 1917, left Russia in September 1923. After a year in Prague, Sorokin came to the United States and soon found employment in F. Stuart Chapin's department at the University of Minnesota. There, in six years, he wrote six books. Four of them defined their fields at the time: Social Mobility (1927), Contemporary Sociological Theories (1928), Principles of Rural-Urban Sociology (1929) with Carle C. Zimmerman and the first of the three volume work A Systematic Source Book in Rural Sociology (1929) with Zimmerman and Charles J. Galpin.
It was on the reputation of these volumes that Harvard's President, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, invited Sorokin to chair the University's first Department of Sociology. Harvard's commitment to the discipline is remarkable when one realizes that to accomplish it, an aristocratic Lowell had to replace a Brahmin Cabot with a Russian emigre and an established Department of Social Ethics with an unseasoned Department of Sociology (Merton, 1980:69). As Jessie Bernard observed, it was a great step forward for the discipline and "Sociologists finally got academic respectability when Sorokin went to Harvard in the 1930's." (Howery, 1984:5)
During his three Harvard decades, Sorokin's writings too many different directions. He came to Harvard as a positivistic, comparative and scientific sociologist. By 1937 he had moved towards a broadly based philosophy of history. His magnum opus, the monumental Social and Cultural Dynamics spanned 2,500 years and attempted to isolate the principles of social change as they were manifested in his studies of art, philosophy, science, law ethics, religion and psychology. The problems described in Dynamics took Sorokin to an anlysis of civilization's crisis and the social, political and economic calamities inherent in modern culture. Diagnosing the times as those of a decaying sensate civilization, Sorokin speculated that we were moving towards a difficult and bloody period of transition. With these concerns in mind his research turned to: the analysis of conflict, war, and revoluation; the search for a comprehensive philosophical foundation for knowledge; and a direct means for dealing with social problems and improving the human condition. For the next twenty years he wrote prolifically on war, integralism and altruism. As a humanistic scholar he wanted to understand the conditions which led to war and the methods by which they could be treated and reduced. Similar values informed his later works on revolution and institutional violence.
Philosophically his middle Harvard years witnessed a shift from empiricism to integralism as the foundation for knowledge. Recognizing that science produced limited, highly circumscribed truths, Sorokin sought a more comprehensive basis for knowledge. Integralism combined empirical, rational, and supersensory aspects of knowing into an epistemology for grasping total reality. This artful blending of Eastern and Western philosophy fused the truths found in the trinity of human existence; i.e., truths of the mind, the senses, and the spirit. Integralism would free us from the pitfalls of one dimensional thought and instrumental knowledge. It was a necessary corrective to past domination by a purely instrumental, shortsighted and often destructive form of knowledge.
Sorokin further argued that sociologists spend too much time studying destructive social behaviors. If we wished to improve the human condition, we should learn how to make people more humane, compassionate and giving. This concern led Sorokin to a decade-long study of altruism and amitology. With support from the Lilly Endowment he established the Harvard Center for Creative Altruism. The Center sponsored many theoretical and practical research projects including seven books by Sorokin.
Mainstream sociologists were often skeptical about these projects and Sorokin became somewhat of a margin figure in the discipline. Even so balanced a critic as Lewis Coser believed that the altruism studies did not merit discussion as a contribution to sociological theory (Coser, 1977:491). However, in the 1960s the pendulum of neglect and silence began to swing in the other direction. In 1962 the Bedminister Press reissued Social and Cultural Dynamics in a four volume set. The following year Sorokin's contributions were recognized in two volumes: Philip J. Allen's Pitirim Sorokin in Review and Edward A. Tiryakian's festscrift volume, Sociological Theory, Values and Sociocultural Change. These books restored Sorokin to active consideration by American sociologists. Discussion of his ideas by Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, Wilbert Moore, Georges Gurvitch, Walter Firey, Charles Loomis, Matilda White Riley, N.S. Timasheff, Bernard Barber, Alex Inkeles and many others demonstrated that serious sociologists were taking Soroking seriously.
The greatest honor, however, was yet to come. In April 1963 rank-and-file sociologists spoke out in support of Sorokin for the Presidency of the American Sociological Association. Otis Dudley Duncan and several of Sorokin's past students thought it unfair that Sorokin had never received the customary second nomination after losing the 1952 election to Florian Ananiecki. Hence they organized a campaign to get his name on the Presidential ballot. The effort was successfuly. Sorokin was nominated and won the election. Not only was this the first victorious write-in nomination, but the membership spoke unequivocally in honor of Sorokin by giving him sixty-five percent of the presidential vote. He won by perhaps the largest margin in any election up to that time. These events returned Sorokin from the neglected backwaters of scholarly obscurity to a position more consistent with the contributions he had made. When Sorokin died in 1968, it was with the dignity of an accomplished scholar.
Sorokin's Official ASA Presidential Photo
Sorokin's gripping autobiography A Long Journey, published in 1963, opens hauntingly with Sorokin's earliest memory from age three:
A winter night. The room in a peasant house is poorly lighted by burning dry birch splinters that fill the room with smoke and elusive shadows. I am in charge of replacing each burnt splinter in the forked iron holder that hangs from the ceiling.
Photo from Cover of Sorokin's Autobiography
A snowstorm howls outside. Inside, my mother lies on the floor of the room. She is motionless and strangely silent. Nearby, my older brother and a peasant woman are busily occupied. Father is away, looking for work in other villages. I do not understand exactly what has happened but I sense it is something catastrophic and irreparable. I am no longer as cold and hungry as I was a short time ago; yet I suddenly feel frushed, lonely, and lost. Howling storm, fugitive shadows, and the words "died" and "death," uttered by my brother, and "poor, poor orphans," mumbled by the peasant woman, deepen my sorrow. I wish father were here, but he is not, and we don't know when he will return.
Next I recall the funeral service in the village church. My mother lies in a coffin as my father, brother, and the villagers silently stand with candles in their hands, and the priest, the deacon, and the reader intone funeral prayers and perform the last rites. I do not understand the words, but the "dust to dust" and the gesture of the priest throwing a handful of earth into the coffin are impressed on my memory.
With the funeral service over, the coffin is placed upon a sleigh to be driven to the cemetery. My brother and I are seated upon the coffin. Father, priest, and villagers walk behind the sleigh. The snow glistens brilliantly under the cold, blue, and sunny sky. After some time - I do not remember why - my brother and I leap down from the coffin and walk home. Arriving there, we climb up and lie down under the "polati" (a sleeping loft in peasant houses in northern Russia). We are silent and subdued ...
This is my earliest memory. I was then about three years old. Of my life before this death scene, I remember nothing.
- Coser, Lewis A. 1977. Masters of Sociological Thought 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
- Howery, Carla. May 1984. "Jessie Bernard at 80: Reflections on Life and Sociology." Footnotes, page 5.
- Merton, Robert K. 1980. "Remembering the Young Talcott Parsons." The American Sociologist 15:69.