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Sorokin, Pitirim A.

Sorokin, Pitirim A.



Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin was born in humble circumstances in the rural north of Russia in 1889. A prodigious zeal for work, combined with enormous erudition, has led him to write more than thirty volumes, many of which—for example, Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937-1941), Social Mobility (1927-1941), and Contemporary Sociological Theories (1928)—have become classics. His writings cover practically all fields of sociology, including the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of art, political sociology, social stratification, methodology, and theory. He was elected president of the International Institute of Sociology in 1936 and president of the American Sociological Association in 1964, and has received many other honors. His career may be broadly divided into two periods: the one before 1922, when he was banished from the Soviet Union for his opposition to the Bolshevik regime, and the one since then, which he has spent in the United States.

Sorokin attended the Psycho-Neurological Institute and the University of St. Petersburg; there he was influenced by De Roberty, Kovalevsky, Bekhterev, Petrajitzky, Rostovtzeff, and Pavlov. With a broad foundation in philosophy, psychology, ethics, history, and law, he came to sociology by way of criminology and soon rose in the Russian academic ranks.

In his student days Sorokin was politically active in the revolutionary circles of the noncommunist left; he participated in the Russian Revolution, was a member of the Constituent Assembly, secretary to Prime Minister Kerensky, and editor of the news-paper Volia naroda. The experiences of the revolution led Sorokin to make a radical break with the optimistic view of one-directional, material progress. Since he has been in the United States, his major sociological concerns have revolved around the processes of social organization, disorganization, and reorganization, within a panoramic view of history that stresses periodic fluctuations as the heart of social change.

Analysis of sociocultural systems. Sorokin‘s major sociological presupposition is that of social realism, postulating the existence of a supra-organic, supraindividual sociocultural reality. This reality is objectified in material and other “vehicles,” but it cannot be reduced to the physical, since sociocultural phenomena are integrated in cohesive fashion by their meaning structure. Sorokin has designated his sociological and philosophical conceptions as “integralist.” A comprehensive exposition may be found in his Society, Culture, and Personality (1947). Total reality is a manifold infinite which transcends any single perspective; it encom-passes the truth of the senses, of the rational intellect, and of suprarational, hyperconscious faith, intuition, or insight. All three modes of cognition must be utilized in the sociological endeavor to systematically study sociocultural phenomena.

These sociocultural phenomena are not randomly distributed but form coherent aggregates. Although there is no meaningful integration of all the socio-cultural items that coexist in a particular setting, sociological analysis can reveal a hierarchy of levels of integration. The highest level of integration of sociocultural meanings and values is reflected in major social institutions. All such high-level sociocultural systems (those whose scope transcends particular societies) are existentially organized around fundamental premises concerning the nature of reality and the principal methods of apprehending it. The range of major alternatives is limited: reality is felt to be directly given by the senses (“sensate”) or disclosed in a supersensory way (“ideational”), or else it is considered an organic and dialectic combination of the foregoing possibilities (“idealistic”). Correspondingly, there are three irreducible forms of truth: sensory, spiritual, and rational. At various periods of history the possible basic premises are in various phases of development, and in any well-defined period of history the five principal cultural systems (law, art, philosophy, science, and religion) of a complex society exhibit a demonstrable strain toward consistency in their expression of reality.

Cultural integration, for Sorokin, is by no means a static condition. He considers social reality to be an ever-changing process but one with recurring uniformities. Moreover, the process within socio-cultural systems is a dialectical one, for the very accentuation and predominance of one fundamental Weltanschauung, or basic perception of reality, leads to its exhaustion and eventual replacement by one of the two alternative Weltanschauungen. This dialectic is at the heart of Sorokin‘s “principle of limits,” which underscores the rhythmic periodicity of sociocultural phenomena. A correlative proposition is the “principle of immanent change,” which locates the major causes of change within a sociocultural system rather than in external forces. Another source of change is the necessarily incomplete state of integration; the mal-integration of complex parts is one of the sources of the ever-unfolding change of a system of organization.

Sorokin has asserted that the maximal development of a sociocultural system emerges only after centuries. The process of transition of a super-system from one dominant Weltanschauung to an-other (comparable to the change in direction of a pendulum‘s swing) involves the radical transformation of social institutions and normative patterns of interaction. Sorokin located three major types of such patterns along a solidarity-antagonism continuum: familistic, contractual, and compulsory. The collapse of one integrative base and the emergence of an alternative dominant ethos are attended by prolonged periods of social crisis, wars, and other man-made disasters. Sorokin diagnosed the Russian Revolution and World War i as symptoms of vast upheavals in the sociocultural system of Western society, and as early as the 1920s he forecast further social calamities; his prophecies were borne out by the depression of the 1930s and World War II.

At a time when the problem of social change and social disruption at the societal level was receiving minimal attention, Sorokin, in such systematic and comprehensive works as The Sociology of Revolution (1925) and Man and Society in Calamity (1942), was formulating theories of sociocultural change and conducting investigations of the impact of disaster and revolution on inter-personal behavior. One of his important generalizations in this area is the “principle of polarization,” which holds that in the majority of actors the normal tendency to moral indifference in everyday, routine intersubjective behavior becomes intensified in periods of severe crisis (revolutions, disasters); the majority then seek only hedonistic, self-oriented gratification, while a significant minority become oriented to altruistic, religious, pietistic, and otherworldly activity. When the social upheaval is over, this bimodal, or polarized, distribution of behavior reverts to the earlier, “normal” distribution.

At the end of World War II, Sorokin did not believe that the West had emerged from its phase of immanent crisis into a period of harmonious international development. Since then he has remained an alert critic of what he considers to be the major trends of modern society, including the concentration of power in irresponsible hands and the anarchization of sexual norms, both typical of the waning phase of sensate systems. He believes that Western Europe‘s rich sensate culture has passed its peak of creativity, and he has concentrated his research since World War II on modes of behavior that, in his view, are antithetical to latesensate values: the forms and techniques of love and altruism, their distribution and social correlates. A knowledge of these is vital if sociology is to prepare for the likely aftermath of the sensate epoch. In a sense, Sorokin‘s work in “amitology” represents a return to the legacy of nineteenth-century Continental sociology, which saw its pur-pose partly in providing remedies for the dissolution of society. Thus, Sorokin appears as a successor to Comte because of his interest in consensus, to Durkheim because of his interest in solidarity, and to Kropotkin because of his interest in mutual aid.

Use of quantitative data. Although Sorokin has occasionally been seen as a theorist who is opposed to quantitative analysis, he has always used quantitative documentation for his theoretical interpretations. Moreover, before World War II he was a pioneer in the empirical study of small groups and in other aspects of “experimental sociology.” At the same time, he has adamantly opposed both quantification and formalization per se of socio-cultural phenomena, and his book Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology (1956a) is a comprehensive methodological critique of contemporary research procedures.

His own early work, Social Mobility, codifies and interprets a vast array of data showing that social mobility is a basic feature of present Western societies, although rates of mobility and systems of stratification have varied in different periods of history. His work conceptualizes social mobility broadly; it suggests types and channels of social mobility, analyzes both the structural and functional aspects of mobility (including dysfunctional features), and relates the general phenomenon of mobility to its complement, social stratification.

Career and influence. Sorokin has been active not only as a writer but also as a teacher and a promoter of sociology as a discipline. At the University of St. Petersburg he was the first professor of sociology. After leaving Russia, he taught at the University of Minnesota from 1924 to 1930. There he was instrumental in training many of America‘s major rural sociologists, among them C. A. Anderson, T. Lynn Smith, O. D. Duncan (the elder), and Conrad Taeuber. In 1930 he established at Harvard a new department of sociology, which soon attracted such able students as R. K. Merton, K. Davis, C. Loomis, and J. W. Riley, Jr. In making Harvard one of the major centers of general sociology, Sorokin never sought to develop a school of his own, but his provocative teaching encouraged a sense of breadth, independence, and integrity in Harvard‘s sociology graduates.

During the period between the end of World War II and the 1960s, Sorokin‘s work was relatively neglected by American sociologists. Yet his seminal studies are gradually being rediscovered; sociologists are coming to appreciate his systematic approach to the study of social change and especially his recognition of the role of wars and revolutions in such change.

The scope and quality of Sorokin‘s contributions to sociology merit a place for him in the annals of the social sciences, among those who have been ahead of their contemporaries in understanding the existential problems of their age and who have, at the same time, endeavored to make their knowledge both rigorously scientific and socially responsible.

Edward A. Tiryakian

[For the historical context of Sorokin‘s work, seeIntegration, article on Social Integration; Sociology, article on The Development of Sociological Thought; TYPOLOGIES. For various discussions of the subsequent development of Sorokin‘s ideas, seeCreativity, article on Social Aspects; Integration, article on Cultural Integration; SOCIAL CHANGE; Stratification, Social]


1925 The Sociology of Revolution. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

(1927-1941) 1959 Social and Cultural Mobility. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → Contains Social Mobility (1927) and Volume 4, Chapter 5, of Social and Cultural Dynamics (1941).

1928 Contemporary Sociological Theories. New York: Harper. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 as Contemporary Sociological Theories Through the First Quarter of the Twentieth Century.

1929 Sorokin, Pitirim; and Zimmerman, Carle C. Principles of Rural-Urban Sociology. New York: Holt.

(1930-1932) 1965 Sorokin, Pitirim A.; Zimmerman, Carle C.; and Galpin, Charles J. (editors) A SystematicSource Book in Rural Sociology. 3 vols. New York: Russell.

(1937-1941) 1962 Social and Cultural Dynamics. 4 vols. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Bedminster Press. → Volume 1: Fluctuation of Forms of Art. Volume 2: Fluctuation of Systems of Truth, Ethics, and Law. Volume 3: Fluctuation of Social Relationships, War, and Revolution. Volume 4: Basic Problems, Principles, and Methods.

1939 Sorokin, Pitirim A.; and Berger, Clarence Q. Time-budgets of Human Behavior. Harvard Sociological Studies, Vol. 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1942 Man and Society in Calamity: The Effects of War, Revolution, Famine, Pestilence Upon Human Mind, Behavior, Social Organization and Cultural Life. New York: Dutton.

(1943) 1964 Sociocultural Causality, Space, Time: A Study of Referential Principles of Sociology and Social Science. New York: Russell.

(1947) 1962 Society, Culture, and Personality; Their Structure and Dynamics: A System of General Sociology. New York: Cooper.

1950a Altruistic Love: A Study of American “Good Neighbors” and Christian Saints. Boston: Beacon.

(1950b) 1963 Modern Historical and Social Philosophies. New York: Dover. → First published as Social Philosophies of an Age of Crisis.

1954 The Ways and Power of Love. Boston: Beacon.

1956a Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology and Related Sciences. Chicago: Regnery.

1956b The American Sex Revolution. Boston: Sargent.

1957 Integralism Is My Philosophy. Pages 180-189 in Whit Burnett (editor), This Is My Philosophy: Twenty of the World‘s Outstanding Thinkers Reveal the Deepest Meanings They Have Found in Life. New York: Harper.

1959 Sorokin, Pitirim A.; and Lunden, Walter A. Power and Morality: Who Shall Guard the Guardians? Boston: Sargent.

1963 A Long Journey: The Autobiography of Pitirim A. Sorokin. New Haven, Conn.: College and University Press.

1966 Sociological Theories of Today. London and New York: Harper.


Allen, Philip J. (editor) 1963 Pitirim A. Sorokin in Review. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press. → Contains an introductory chapter by Sorokin and a series of essays on Sorokin‘s contributions to various fields. Includes a bibliography.

Cowell, Frank R. 1952 History, Civilization, and Culture: An Introduction to the Historical and Social Philosophy of Pitirim A. Sorokin. Boston: Beacon. -> The best introduction to Sorokin‘s philosophy of history.

Loomis, Charles P.; Loomis, Zona K.; and Bradford, Reed M. (1961) 1965 Pitirim A. Sorokin as Historical and Systemic Analyst. Pages 442-497 in Charles P. Loomis and Zona K. Loomis, Modern Social Theories: Selected American Writers. 2d ed. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand. → A bibliography of Sorokin‘s works appears on pages 769-776.

Maquet, Jacques J. P. (1949) 1951 The Sociology of Knowledge, Its Structure and Its Relation to the Philosophy of Knowledge: A Critical Analysis of the Systems of Karl Mannheim and Pitirim A. Sorokin. Translated by John F. Locke. Boston: Beacon. → First published in French.

Tiryakian, Edward A. (editor) 1963 Sociological Theory, Values, and Sociocultural Change: Essays in Honor of Pitirim A. Sorokin. New York: Free Press. → Includes a bibliography of Sorokin‘s works.

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Pitirim A. Sorokin

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

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 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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"Pitirim A. Sorokin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 23 Aug. 2017 <>.

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