Sorokin, Pitirim Aleksandrovich

views updated


SOROKIN, PITIRIM ALEKSANDROVICH (18891968), became controversial among his fellow sociologists after it became clear in the late 1930s that his heuristic key into social-cultural dynamics was a metaphysical distinction between a "sensate" materialism and "ideational" supernaturalism. His denunciation of the sensate materialism of Western culture emerged from spiritual commitments forged in his youth.

Born in the Vologda province of northern Russia, Sorokin was the son of a craftsman who restored icons in Orthodox churches while struggling with alcoholism, and of a mother who died three years after his birth. His early years were spent helping his artisan father, who died when Sorokin was ten. Sorokin then supported himself making icons, read widely in Russian literature and theology, and was influenced by nature mysticism.

These spiritual commitments were not explicit, however, when he arrived at Harvard University in 1929 and became founding chair of the Department of Sociology two years later. Early in his career, Sorokin was identified chiefly for his political activities. In December 1906, he was sentenced to spend four months in a czarist prison. Released in early 1907, he became a revolutionary organizer, first in the Volga region and then in Saint Petersburg. Admitted to the University of Saint Petersburg in 1910, he studied sociology and law, and graduated in 1914. In 1917 Sorokin became personal secretary to Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky and was a cabinet minister in the short-lived 1917 Russian government. With the triumph of V. I. Lenin in 1918, Sorokin, at the request of Kerensky, organized the brief effort to liberate Russia from the Bolshevik Communists. Lenin and the Bolsheviks prevailed, and after months of hiding in the forests, Sorokin turned himself over to the police. He was sentenced to death, only to be saved after several highly placed supporters appealed directly to Lenin on his behalf. Sorokin was freed on December 16, 1918, convinced that czarist jails were more humane than those of the Bolsheviks. Between 1919 and 1922 he was a professor of sociology at the University of Saint Petersburg.

In late 1922, Sorokin and his wife Elena left Russia under political persecution. They arrived in New York in 1923. Sorokin was now an émigré scholar with growing scientific credentials and an ever-deepening appreciation for the nonmaterial aspects of reality that Marxist-Leninism denied. Sorokin published The Sociology of Revolution (1925), after which he was able to gain speaking opportunities based on a growing academic reputation and his political experiences highlighting the coercive aspects of the Russian revolution.

In 1924 Sorokin was invited to join the University of Minnesota, where he spent six years. At age forty, he accepted a position at Harvard at the personal request of its president. In 1937 he published the first three volumes of his defining work, Social and Cultural Dynamics, the most widely reviewed sociological work in the United States between 1937 and 1942. Sorokin met with criticism from most social scientists for his critique of materialist cultures. He distinguished ideational cultures, in which ultimate reality is deemed a spiritual presence and in which the sociocultural world is centered on the supernatural, from sensate cultures, in which reality is deemed to be strictly material and the sociocultural world centers itself accordingly. He asserted that the sensate culture of the West was dying, and that ideational culture would emerge. A New York Times review by one leading sociologist described Sorokin as "a Tarter who has struck an alliance with neo-Thomism" (quoted in Johnston, 1995, p. 114). He was condemned by others for attacking progress and empiricism, for doing philosophy of history under the guise of pseudoscience, and for being prejudiced and superficial. In these pivotal years at Harvard, Sorokin's prophetic style and his sweeping sociology of history constituted an unwelcome deviation from disciplinary focus. In 1946, after a divisive battle with the American sociologist Talcott Parsons, he was forced to step down as chair of the Department of Sociology through its incorporation into the new Department of Social Relations.

Creative Altruism and the Ways and Power of Love

A new career phase began for Sorokin in 1942, with an appreciative letter from the American businessman Eli Lilly. Sorokin's critique of materialism and his writings on the sociology of war (19381944) were leading him to the study of what he termed "creative altruism." He was convinced that love as captured in the sermon on the mount and the Golden Rule, and understood scientifically, could serve as a means toward a better human future. With Lilly's support, he opened the Harvard Research Center in Creative Altruism in 1946. He became increasingly interested in investigating scientifically the energy of love, which he understood both metaphysically and practically.

In 1954 Sorokin published The Ways and Power of Love, a creative study at the interface of science, religion, and other-regarding love. Here he developed a five-dimensional measure of love. Low intensity love makes possible minor actions, while high intensity love requires much time, energy, and resources. Sorokin's second dimension of love is extensivity : "The extensivity of love ranges from the zero point of love of oneself only, up to the love of all mankind, all living creatures, and the whole universe" (Sorokin, 2002, p. 16). Sorokin added the dimension of duration, which "may range from the shortest possible moment to years or throughout the whole life of an individual or of a group" (2002, p. 16). The fourth dimension of love is purity, or freedom from egoistic motivation. Pure lovethat is, love that is truly disinterested and asks for no returnrepresents the highest form of emotion (2002, p. 17). Finally, Sorokin included the adequacy of love. Adequate love achieves ennobling purposes, and is, therefore, anything but blind or unwise. Sorokin argued that the greatest lives of love and altruism approximate or achieve "the highest possible place, denoted by 100 in all five dimensions" (2002, p. 19), while persons "neither loving nor hating would occupy a position near zero" (2002, p. 19). He was impressed by the love of figures such as al-allāj, Damien the Leper, Mohandas Gandhi, Jesus of Nazareth, Dorothy Day, Simone Weil, and Teresa of Ávila. Because these individuals were able to maintain a love at high levels in all five dimensions, Sorokin posited their participation in a love energy that defines God, or is related to what he termed "the Supraconscious." Ingroup exclusivism, argued Sorokin, "has brought upon mankind more suffering than any other catastrophe" (2002, p. 461).

The Legacy of Sorokin

Sorokin rose quickly in the ranks of American sociology, and fell out of favor just as dramatically. But in the early 1960s, his work on altruism was receiving considerable attention. His lasting significance for religious studies and the global community lies in his pioneering efforts to develop a deep dialogue between science, religion, and altruistic love. His thoughts parallel those of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin with regard to love as the highest energy for personal and social transformation (King, 2004). Although his center at Harvard faded in the early 1960s, his work shaped the founding of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love in 2001.

See Also

Russian Orthodox Church; Sociology.


Johnston, Barry V. Pitirim A. Sorokin: An Intellectual Biography. Lawrence, Kans., 1995. A complete summary of Sorokin's writings and career.

King, Ursula. "LoveA Higher Form of Human Energy in the Work of Teilhard de Chardin and Sorokin." Zygon 39, no. 1 (2004): 77102. An insightful comparison of Teilhard de Chardin and Sorokin.

Post, Stephen G. Unlimited LoveAltruism, Compassion, Service. Philadelphia, 2003. Builds extensively on Sorokin's writings on love.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Sociology of Revolution. Philadelphia, 1925. A sociology of the causes and nature of revolution.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. Contemporary Sociological Theories: Through the First Quarter of the Twentieth Century. New York, 1928. A useful overview of the great sociologists.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. Social and Cultural Dynamics. 3 vols. New York, 1937. Sorokin's great work on sensate and ideational cultures.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. Social and Cultural Dynamics ; Vol. 4: Basic Problems, Principles, and Methods. New York, 1941.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age: The Social and Cultural Outlook. New York, 1941; 2d ed., 1992. Focuses on sensate culture and its adverse implications.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. Society, Culture, and Personality: Their Structure and Dynamics, a System of General Sociology. New York, 1947. A further analysis of sensate and ideation cultural dynamics.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Reconstruction of Humanity. Boston, 1948. The human future requires more extensive "altruization."

Sorokin, Pitirim A. Altruistic Love: A Study of American "Good Neighbors" and Christian Saints. Boston, 1950; reprint 1968. A study of local "good neighbors" with regard to demographics and other variables.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. A Long Journey: The Autobiography of Pitirim A. Sorokin. New Haven, Conn., 1963. This is Sorokin's mature retrospect on his life, and on his contributions to sociology.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Ways and Power of Love: Types, Factors, and Techniques of Moral Transformation. Philadelphia, 2002. Originally published in 1954, this is Sorokin's greatest work on religion, love, and science.

Stephen G. Post (2005)