Pitirim A. Sorokin - The Work
by Lewis A. Coser
From: Lewis A. Coser  Masters of Sociological Thought:
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Pitirim Sorokins sociological theory is based on the well-known distinction between social statics (structural sociology in his terminology) and social dynamics. But because his discussion of statics did not have a profound impact on subsequent sociological analyses, it will be treated here in cursory fashion. By contrast, his thoughts on social and cultural dynamics, which have proved to be more fruitful and original, will be dealt with at some length.
Hence, in Sorokins sociological thought the emphasis is on the importance of cultural factors, that is, of superorganic elements, as determinants of social conduct. To understand personalities as subjects of interaction, and society as the totality of interacting personalities, one must bear in mind that they rest on a foundation of culture &mdash a culture that consists of the totality of meanings, norms, and values possessed by interacting persons and carried by material vehicles, such as ritual objects or works of art, which objectify and convey these meanings.
In analyzing components of social interaction, Sorokin distinguishes between unorganized, organized, and disorganized forms. He discusses various types of legal and moral controls and speaks of solidary, antagonistic, and mixed systems of social interaction, as well as of familistic, compulsory, and mixed (contractual) types of social bonds. Having elaborated these different types of social interaction, Sorokin then proceeds to classify organized groups in terms of their functional and meaningful ties. Here he considers different degrees of intensity of group interaction and the related closeness or slackness of ties between group members. Furthermore, he states that groups may be unibonded, that is, they may be based on one main value, (as is the case, for example, with religious, occupational, or kinship groups), or they may be held together by multiple bonds (as in the case of a nation or a social class). In addition, he states that both unibonded and multibonded groups may be either open or closed.
It is not necessary to elaborate on these classifactory schemes because, by and large, they have remained fairly sterile both for Sorokins own substantive work and for that of others. In pointed contrast, his theory of social change, as well as his theory of social mobility and social stratification, deserve careful attention.
In this work, Sorokin attempts no less than a panoramic survey of the course of all human societies and cultures, supported by a series of general propositions to illuminate the historical variation in socio-cultural arrangements. He opposes any unilinear explanation of human evolution just as he opposesany approach that, as in the case of Spengler for example, conceives of the lifecycle of cultures by way of quasi-biological analogies. Instead, he views socio-cultural phenomena as based on relatively coherent and integrated aggregates of cultural outlooks —which he calls mentalities— that impress their meanings onspecific periods in the global history of humankind. What he is looking for, in his own words, is the central principle [the reason] which permeates all the components of a culture, gives sense and significance to them, and in this way makes cosmos of a chaos of unintegrated fragments. He does not claim that any culture is ever fully integrated, and he is aware that it will always contain fragments that are not fully reconcilable. Still, he stresses that socio-cultural phenomena are not randomly distributed: rather, once analyzed from his specific angle of vision, they will reveal the operation of a few major premises that mark their overall character.
There are, according to Sorokin, only three fundamental premises for conceiving and apprehending the nature of reality. Either reality is felt to be directly accessible through the senses (Sensate Culture): or it is felt to be disclosed only through a view that transcends the world of the senses and achieves a transcendent vision of the eternal, as in Platonic idealism (Ideational Culture); or, finally, it takes an intermediate form (Idealistic Culture), which attempts to fuse and synthesize the other two in a dialectical balance between opposite principles.
Correspondingly, there are three irreducible forms of truth: sensory, spiritual, and rational. At various periods of history, one of the three basic premises achieves preeminence over the others and stamps its character on the main waysof thinking, feeling, or experiencing that distinguish an epoch. That is why the principal institutions of society (law, art, philosophy, science, and religion exhibit at any particular time a consistent mental outlook that is the reflection of the predominance of one or the other of the three major cultural premises. During a Sensate period, for example science will be rigidly empirical in its methods and procedures, art will strive for realism rather than for the imparting of transcendent visions, and religion will tend to be more concerned with the quest for concrete moral experience than for the truth of faith or reason.
Having been persuaded by his survey of world history that all the varieties of cultural constellations that have appeared on the human scene can be effectively encompassed as subvarieties of the three major cultural mentalities, Sorokin proceeds to explain why all major social change must be recurrent. The ceaseless flux of history, so he contends, has characteristic rhythms that are far from being random or subject to the whims of the Gods. Any culture, determined as it is by its major premises, follows a kind of inner necessity: it is subject to its own peculiar destiny. But the predominance of one fundamental cultural mentality carries within itself its own demise through the exhaustion of its own premises. This is what Sorokin, rejecting any explanation of social change through external factors, has called the principle of immanent change. As cultural systems reach the zenith of their full flowering, they become lessand less capable of serving as an instrument of adaptation, as an experience for real satisfaction of the needs of its bearers, and as foundation for their social and cultural life. At this point, a cultural system, by driving to the limits the premises that gave it birth, exceeds the mark, distorts the portion of truth it once embodied through one-sided exaggeration, and prepares its own demise, thereby giving birth to a new cultural system. This dialectic, which bears strong resemblances to the Hegelian, is at the heart of Sorokins principle of limits and purports to explain the rhythmic periodicity of all socio-cultural phenomena. For Sorokin, just as for Hegel, change implies the rise of a new life at the same time as it imparts dissolution.
The three major types of cultural mentalities, Sorokin contends, follow each other in reliable sequence. Sensate forms will be followed by Ideational, and they in turn by Idealistic forms of cultural integration. After this cycle has been completed, the recurrence of a new Sensate culture will initiate a new cycle. Since the days of the early Greeks and their Sensate culture, Western culture has completed two cycles of this sequence. We are now living at the end of a Sensate phase which has lasted for several hundred years. This stage is now overripe, it has reached its limits, and we live in the shadow of twilight among the debris of a disintegrating culture that is no longer able to give meaning and significance to our lives. Ideas once dominant and organizing no longer serve as guideposts, having fallen apart. We can already discern the first harbingers of a new Ideational integration sprouting like seeds beneath the snow. Ours is a world in which the center no longer holds and where even the best lack all conviction. But those who have the vision can have intimations of glad tidings of future redemption from the tyranny of the senses.
This is not the place to discuss the enormous statistical labors that went into establishing trends in the fluctuation of art forms, of philosophical, ethical, and legal norms and values, or of social relationships in ordinary times as well as during wars and revolutions — all of which are to be found in the first three volumes of Sorokins magnum opus. They have been scrutinized by experts in these areas and have frequently been found to be wanting. One especially telling overall criticism was made long ago by Hans Speier, who has said that Sorokins study of history is imbued with the spirit of the doctrine that he desires to refute, since the methods he uses to establish the impermanence of Sensate and empirical culture are in themselves extremely empirical. Sorokin would probably have answered that it is given to no man to step out of his time, that even an attempt to refute the preeminence of Sensate empiricism must still avail itself of the tools that his age and time put at his disposal. Nevertheless, Sorokins romantic contribution will have to be judged in the future not by any isolated concrete result of his investigation, but by the fruitfulness of the theoretical leads he has imparted to succeeding scholars. Viewed in this light, at least some of these leads may well survive, even if a number of his general contentions will have been swept aside. Furthermore, even though he may have been wrong on many counts, some of Sorokins anticipations, written in the 1930s indeed have a prophetic character. What he wrote then about the possible destruction of humankind by the pushing of buttons or about the coming celebration of hardcore pornography shows an almost uncanny sense of things to come in the world of the 1970s.
At a time when sociologists, under the impact of the debate about modernization and underdevelopment, have again begun to discuss the principles underlying the dynamics of socio-cultural change, Sorokins stress on immanent change, as distinct from externally induced change may have renewed significance. When scholars have increasingly wondered why the external impact of Western culture has had so widely differing results in many Third World nations, it might be well to assume Sorokins angle of vision and to ask whether cultures in their Idealistic or Ideational phases might be more resistant to the importation of the Sensate cultures of the West than cultures, such as the Japanese or the Korean, that are already largely conditioned by Sensate sets of ideas. Why, for example, are modern methods of birth control readily acceptable in those countries while they have failed in India or Egypt? Could it be that they are out of phase in the latter, but not in the former, countries?
Turning to Sorokins principle of limits, one again has the impression that if it were shorn of the somewhat dogmatic and grandiose manner in which it was first formulated, it could have interesting possibilities as a hypothesis. Infact, it has been one of the main stays of Claude Lévi-Strausss method of analysis. Whether or not Lévi-Strauss is familiar with Sorokins work, the re-semblances are striking. For example, Lévi-Strauss writes: In social undertakings mankind keeps manoeuvering within narrow limits. Social types are not isolated creations, wholly independent of each other, and each one an original entity, but rather the result of endless combinations, forever seeking to solve the same problems by manipulating the same fundamental elements.
As should already be apparent, Sorokins overall view is closely tied to his sociology of knowledge, a field to which, it is generally agreed, he made significant contributions.
Although Sorokin has occasionally indicated that such an endeavor may be worthwhile, he himself did not take this route. Instead, his sociology of knowledge attempts to establish connections between concrete philosophical, religious, artistic, and scientific thought and the overall cultural mentalities in which this thought appears and flourishes. As has already been discussed, he attempts to document, for example, that in Sensate periods, scientific ideas tend to be based exclusively on sense experience and empirical proof and validation, whereas in periods of Ideational ascendancy, empirical science fails to develop, being replaced by varieties of Naturphilosophien that purport to attain intuitive insights into the nature of the universe.
Such attempts to link systems of ideas to supersystems and to drive every aspect of intellectual production from varying cultural mentalities, are open to the charge of tautological reasoning. As Merton has remarked, when Sorokin argues that in a sensate society and culture the sensate system of truth based on the testimony of the organs of senses has to be dominant, he plainly argued in circles, for sensate mentality has already been defined as one conceiving of reality as only that which is presented to the sense organs. Sorokins answer to such charges has not been very convincing. But even if his overall idealistic and emanationist explanation seems open to serious objections, this is not to say that his sociology of knowledge has been sterile. One need only dig beneath some of his grandiose characterizations of cultures to be rewarded by significant and worthwhile sets of concrete ideas.
Take, for example, Sorokins discussion of the question which cultural values penetrate and diffuse more easily when imported into an alien culture? In an effort to answer this question he does not simply refer to the overall compatibility of values between donor and recipient cultures, though he does this also; rather he points to the character of the human agents that first come into contact with the donor culture. The kind of values, he says that penetrate first depends, primarily, upon the kinds of human agents that first come into contact with the other culture. If they are merchants … then various commercial commodities penetrate first; if they are missionaries … then the ideological values penetrate first. If they are conquerors and soldiers, then partly material, partly non-material values penetrate simultaneously. If they are students of philosophy or social science then they bring back and spread the theories and ideologies they studied. This is a significant insight worth further elaboration, an insight, moreover, which points to the connection of ideas with the existential conditions of their carriers, and is hence not subject to the charge of tautology that must beset all emanationist theories in the sociology of knowledge.
Or consider Sorokins first adumbration of a sociological theory of scientific discovery and technological invention, namely the idea that any important new invention … or any important new discovery in the natural sciences … is the result of a long process, with a multitude of small discoveries made step by step, [so that] the really new element in any important invention ordiscovery is comparatively a very modest one. In this case, Sorokin, to be sure, does not refer to the existential basis of scientific thought, yet he departs from his programmatic endeavors to link specific ideas to their matrix in over-all cultural mentalities. He engaged, in fact, in an attempt to trace cumulative trends within scientific communities and to link specific innovators to the scientific tradition within which they operate.
Many of Sorokins usable ideas in the sociology of knowledge do not come in his programmatic magnum opus but in a more modest companion volume, Sociocultural Causality, Space, Time, published a few years later. Here, in a manner reminiscent of Durkheim and his school, Sorokin shows that the way a specific culture conceives of causality, space, and time is not identical with natural science conceptions and must be understood in relation to the specific socio-cultural context. Also following the Durkheimians, he argues moreover that even the space of the geometricians, for example, is greatly conditioned and stamped by the sociocultural traits of the respective society and culture. The very units of the geometric distance —such as foot, yard, meter, sajen, finger, rod, and so on— bear the imprint of these [socio-cultural] conditions.
Sorokin shows further how, with the increase in communications between local societies and the wider world, parochial systems of thought recede before more universal representations of space. To the right of Joness house, about twenty rods serves the purpose for a village where everyone knows where Joness house is situated. But for the whole human population, such a point of spatial reference becomes indefinable and therefore unserviceable. The difference between universalistic and particularistic codes of communication, which has been highlighted in our days by Basil Bernstein and other scholars, can already be found in nuce in Sorokins work.
It is worth noting Sorokins observation that the emergence of uniform … space of classical mechanics itself, with its system of reference, was conditioned by the sociocultural process of growth of cosmopolitan and international society and culture; or his discussion of the fact that when intercourse extends over many groups with different rhythms of sociocultural activities, and time indications, the concrete and local systems of sociocultural time cease to perform satisfactorily the functions of coordination and synchronization of their activities. Hence the urgent need to establish such a standardized system of time reckoning … as would serve equally all the groups as the uniform point of time reference for the coordination and synchronization of their activities. Here Sorokin succeeds in showing in convincing detail that notions such as time and space do not simply emanate from overall mentalities but are rooted in the concrete exigencies of human communities; that they are with apologies to Sorokin the emanist, existentially determined.
One further quotation will illustrate the great subtlety of Sorokins sociological imagination. After having shown that in the modern world universal time-reckoning has largely replaced the community-rooted parochial ways of dealing with time, Sorokin turns around and makes the acute observation that the older qualitative time measures have by no means been fully replaced by quantitative time. In line with the art historian Wilhelm Pinder and reminiscent of what Mannheim called the contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous, Sorokin argues: Within the same territorial aggregate composed of different religious, occupational, economic, national, and cultural groups, there are different rhythms and pulsations, and therefore different calendars and different conventions for the sociocultural time of these groups. … Compare … a Harvard calendar with one operating, say, among factory workers. … The calendar of the Roman Catholics in Boston —in part, at least— is different from that of the Protestant Bostonians. … Side by side with quantitative time (which itself is in a degree a social convention), there exists a full-blooded sociocultural time, with all its earmarks: it is qualitative, it is not infinitely divisible …, it does not flow on evenly …; it is determined by social conditions, and reflects the rhythms and pulsations of the social life of a given group.
One ventures to think that this set of observations provides leads for several Ph.D. dissertations, even though the great French Durkheimian Maurice Halbwachs, probably unaware of Sorokins work, has elaborated some of these ideas in his seminal work The Social Framework of Memory and elsewhere. Despite the fact that his ambitious overall scheme, like all closed total systems of sociological thought, may be found wanting, it should be apparent by now that Sorokin was a major force, a major thinker. Or, as a whimsical button worn by some graduate students at a recent convention of the American Sociological Association put it, Sorokin lives.
Sorokin defined social mobility in its broadest sense as the shifting of people in social space. He was not, however, interested in movements of individuals but in social metabolism, in the consequences of such movements for social groups differently located in the social structure.
To find the position of a man or a social phenomenon in social space, Sorokin argued in the first place, means to define his or its relations to other men or other social phenomena chosen as the point of reference. Methods appropriate for the study of mobility are somewhat reminiscent of the system of coordinates used for the location of an object in geometrical space. But the analytical task is not completed when one has established a persons relations to specific groups. What needs further exploration is the relation of these groups to each other within a population, and the relation of this population to other populations. In other words, though the study of social mobility needs to concern itself with the movements of individuals, it also needs to pay close attention to the consequences of these movements for the social groups and the total structures that encompass these individual moves. Before considering social mobility, we must know a good deal about the structure of stratification in which such movements occur.
Social stratification, to Sorokin, means the differentiation of a given population into hierarchically superposed classes. Such stratification, he held, is a permanent characteristic of any organized social group. Stratification may be based on economic criteria — for example, when one focuses attention upon the differentials between the wealthy and the poor. But societies or groups are also politically stratified when their social ranks are hierarchically structured with respect to authority and power. If, however, the members of a society are differentiated into various occupational groups and some of these occupations are deemed more honorable than others, or if occupations are internally divided between those who give orders and those who receive orders, then we deal with occupational stratification. Though there may be other concrete forms of stratification, of central sociological importance are economic, political, and occupational stratification.
Sociological investigation must proceed to pay attention to the height and the profile of stratification pyramids. Of how many layers is it composed? Is its profile steep, or does it slope gradually?
Whether one studies economic, political, or occupational stratification, Sorokin contended, one must always be attentive to two distinct phenomena: the rise or decline of a group as a whole and the increase or decrease of stratification within a group. In the first case we deal with increases of wealth, power, or occupational standing of social groups, as when we talk of the decline of the aristocracy or the rise of the bourgeoisie; in the second, we are concerned with the increase or decrease of the height and steepness of the stratification pyramid in regard to wealth, power, or occupational prestige within groups — for example, when we say that the American Black population now has a higher stratification profile than it had at the turn of the century.
In contrast to evolutionary and progressive thought, and in tune with his overall view of the course of human history, Sorokin argued that no consistent trend toward either the heightening or the flattening of stratificational pyramids can be discerned. Instead, all that can be observed is ceaseless fluctuation. At times, differences between the poor and the rich may be reduced through the impact of equalitarian forces, but at other times inequalitarian tendencies will again assert themselves. Or at one point democratic participation will reduce differences in political power, while at another aristocratic and dictatorial politics will successfully increase the height of the political pyramid. In similar ways, some groups decline and others rise in ceaseless fluctuation.
Exterior features of the architecture of social structures having been sketched, Sorokin proceeds to summarize their inner construction, to wit the character and disposition of the floors, the elevators, and the staircases that lead from one story to another; the ladders and accommodations for climbing up and going down from story to story. This brings him to the concrete details of his study of social mobility.
Social mobility is understood as the transition of people from one social position to another. There are two types of social mobility, horizontal and vertical. The first concerns movements from one social position to another situated on the same level, as in a movement from Baptist to Methodist affiliation, or from work as a foreman with Ford to similar work with Chrysler. The second refers to transitions of people from one social stratum to one higher or lower in the social scale, as in ascendant movements from rags to riches or in the downward mobility of inept children of able parents.
Both ascending and descending movements occur in two principal forms: the penetration of individuals of a lower stratum into an existing higher one, and the descent of individuals from a higher social position to one lower on the scale; or the collective ascent or descent of whole groups relative to other groups in the social pyramid. But —and this is what distinguished Sorokins orientation from that of many contemporary students of stratification and mobility— his main focus was upon collective, not on individual phenomena. As he puts it, The case of individual infiltration into an existing higher stratum or of individuals dropping from a higher social layer into a lower one are relatively common and comprehensible. They need no explanation. The second form of social ascending and descending, the rise and fall of groups, must be considered more carefully.
Groups and societies, according to Sorokin, may be distinguished according to their differences in the intensiveness and generality of social mobility. There may be stratified societies in which vertical mobility is virtually nil and others in which it is very frequent. We must therefore be careful to distinguish between the height and profile of stratification, and the prevalence or absence of social mobility. In some highly stratified societies where the membranes between strata are thin, social mobility is very high. In contrast other societies with various profiles and heights of stratification have hardly any stairs and elevators to allow members to pass from one floor to another, so that the strata are largely closed, rigidly separated, immobile, and virtually impenetrable. Assuming that there are no societies in which strata are absolutely closed and none where social mobility is absolutely free from obstacles, one must recognize that Sorokins distinctions, even though stated too metaphorically, are of considerable heuristic value.
In regard to degrees of openness and closure, Sorokin holds to his usual position. No perpetual trend toward either increase or decrease of vertical mobility can be discerned in the course of human history; all that can be noticed are variations through geographical space and fluctuations in historical time.
Attempting to identify the channels of vertical mobility and the mechanisms of social selection and distribution of individuals within different social strata, Sorokin identifies the army, the church, the school, as well as political, professional, and economic organizations, as principal conduits of vertical social circulation. They are the sieves that sift individuals who claim access to different social strata and positions. All these institutions are involved in social selection and distribution of the members of a society. They decide which people will climb and fall; they allocate individuals to various strata; they either open gates for the flow of individuals or create impediments to their movements.
Without minutely detailing the many ways in which Sorokin illustrates the operation of these institutions or the way in which he shows why at a given time certain stratification profiles have called for specific mechanisms of selection, we should take note, however, of what he considers a permanent and universal basis for interoccupational stratification, namely: The importance of an occupation for the survival and existence of a group as a whole. The occupations that are considered most consequential in a society, he states, are those that are connected with the functions of organization and control of a group.
In considering the impact of actual rates of social mobility, as well as the ideology of social mobility, on modern societies, we find Sorokin offers a fresh approach in the light of current experience. Far from indulging in unalloyed enthusiasm about high degrees of social mobility, Sorokin, like Durkheim, was at pains to highlight its dysfunctional and its functional aspects. He stressed, among other things, the heavy price in mental strain, mental disease, cynicism, social isolation, and loneliness of individuals cut adrift from their social moorings. He also stressed the increase in tolerance and the facilitation of intellectual life (as a result of discoveries and inventions) that were likely to occur with more frequency in highly mobile societies
The analyst of social stratification, social mobility, and related matters can ignore Sorokins work only at his or her expense. It still remains a veritable storehouse of ideas. Above all we need to take Sorokins advice when he urges us to consider social mobility as a form of social exchange. Just as Levi-Strauss brought about a revolution in the study of kinship (stressing that marriage is to be seen as an exchange between elementary families), so Sorokin presents the innovative idea that social mobility does not primarily concern the placement of individuals but is to be understood as exchange between social groups. By fostering the circulation of individuals in social space, such exchange increases or decreases the specific weight and power of the groups and strata between which they move. This central idea, if more fully elaborated, could be the impetus for a great deal of research in social stratification.
All of Sorokins tracts for the times that deal with his philosophy are imbued with a pervasive distaste, one may even say hatred, for modern urban culture and all that it stands for. The Sensate world of the city jungle and the world of modernity as a whole are, to Sorokin, compounds of utter depravity, which he castigates in the accents of Old Testament prophets or Russian itinerant preachers. Consider the following lines from the final chapter of his auto-biography:
Sorokins was an apocalyptic vision; he expected the fire next time. Yet, instilled as he was by a philosophy of history that rested on the notion of cyclical fluctuations in human affairs, he seems never to have doubted that the collapse of Western Sensate culture would be followed in its turn by a rebirth under different stars. It is this new Ideational culture that Sorokin sought to anticipate in his Integralist philosophy. In times to come, the present desert of love would he superseded by a harmonious civilization in which altruistic love —which he studied intensely in the last period of his life— would overcome the competitive strivings of Sensate mentalities; here people would again find a secure footing in revitalized communities of their fellows. Then the supreme Trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, wrongly divorced from one another by Sensate mentality will be reinstalled in one harmonious whole. Men and women, now mired in the slough of despond, will again grow to truly human stature.
Sorokin fervently believed, that after the Götterdämmerung of the dying Sensate order, humankind would again enter into its true kingdom. Having deliberately become a stranger to the glittering vacuities, and short lived successes of Sensate decay, having alienated [himself] from its hollow values, sham-truths, and grandiose pretenses, Sorokin saw himself as another Moses who, even though he could not enter the promised land, was still able, owing to his cultural estrangement, to forecast its main features in his Integralist philosophy. Let him who has never dreamt of a redemptive Utopia of the future cast the first stone.
dr. Albert Benschop
Social & Behavioral Studies
University of Amsterdam
|Last modified||21st January, 2017|