Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin (January 21, 1889 – February 11, 1968) was an important figure in twentieth-century American sociology and a founding professor of the department of sociology at Harvard University. He was a fearless pioneer in his field, researching human conflict from an integrated perspective. Sorokin was not content with discovering the problems of human society; he wanted to improve the human condition. He believed that people could achieve a peaceful society and live in harmony without conflict, if they learned how to love and to live for the sake of others.
Son of an icon maker, Pitirim Sorokin grew up in a rather poor family in the village of Turya, in northern Russia. After the death of his wife, Sorokin’s father became an alcoholic, often turning to rage and violence against his own children. Such experiences deeply affected Sorokin, who later became famous for his fierceness in the academic world.
Sorokin received formal education in criminal law and sociology. During his young adulthood, he became an activist against the Tsarist government and was subsequently jailed several times. After the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of communism, Sorokin started to teach and write, publishing his first book in criminology. He established the first Department of Sociology at Petrograd University in 1919–1920. However, he soon came under attack by the Soviet police after fiercely criticizing the government as ineffective and corrupt. Sorokin and his wife, Elena, whom he married in 1917, left Russia in September 1923 and moved to Prague. Soon after, they settled in America, where Sorokin continued his research.
Sorokin soon became a famous and well-respected scholar. In 1924 he was invited by the head of the sociology department to teach at the University of Minnesota, where he stayed for six years and wrote six books. Sorokin was then invited to be one of the founders of the Department of Sociology at Harvard, where he continued to teach from 1930 to 1955. In 1965, he became the 55th president of the American Sociological Association.
In his later life, however, Sorokin became somewhat isolated and neglected by his contemporaries. That didn’t bother him though. He continued to work on his own projects, directing his Research Center in Creative Altruism, until his retirement at the end of 1959 at age 70. He died on February 11, 1968, in the presence of his wife and two sons, all of whom were successful scientists.
Sorokin’s reputation grew at the University of Minnesota. Of the six books he wrote there, four of them were considered controversial for their 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 the fame of those books that led to Sorokin being invited in 1930 to become the first chair of the newly formed Department of Sociology at Harvard.
Influenced by the ideas of Ivan Pavlov and his work on operant conditioning, Sorokin approached sociology in a practical manner. With that, he set himself in direct opposition to the more philosophical schools—the Chicago School and Social Darwinists—that dominated American sociology in the first half of the twentieth century. Sorokin’s sharp language and iron determinism brought him under severe criticism by several influential scientists, particularly Talcott Parsons and his followers. The clash between the two views lasted for decades and is still a matter of debate among sociologists today.
Sorokin stayed on at Harvard for 30 years. During that time he turned from scientific sociology to philosophy and history. In his Social and Cultural Dynamics, he tried to find out the basic principles of social change. He analyzed and compared the history of art, ethics, philosophy, science, religion, and psychology, to discover general principles of human history. Based on these principles, in his Social and Cultural Dynamics, Sorokin predicted that modern civilization was moving toward a bloody period of transition. That period would be characterized by wars, revolutions, and general conflict.
Sorokin spent almost 20 years studying not only human conflict, but also the means to reduce conflict, namely integralism and altruism. Sorokin believed that through understanding the past and present human condition, we can understand how to prevent social violence. Sorokin’s approach was rather broad: he wanted to include all spheres of knowledge to find the ultimate answer. He believed that science alone cannot give the answer, but that knowledge must be integrated, based on empirical, rational, and supersensory input. Thus, truth is multidimensional, consisting of sensory, mental, and spiritual parts. With this combination of Eastern and Western philosophical traditions, Sorokin challenged the purely empirical scientific method, which ultimately drew severe criticism from the scholarly community and subsequently led to his isolation.
Sorokin also maintained that sociologists needed to study how to improve the human condition, not only to observe it. He believed that could be achieved through teaching people to be more loving and compassionate. Sorokin spent more than ten years researching human altruism and eventually established the Harvard Center for Creative Altruism. He published numerous books on altruism.
The legacy of Pitirim Sorokin is multifaceted. He influenced many important scholars of twentieth-century sociology—Robert Merton, Wilbert Moore, Kingsley Davis, Robert Bierstedt, Robin M. Williams, Charles Tilly, and Edward Tiryakian. His studies on social mobility, social conflict, and social change secured him worldwide recognition.
Sorokin’s studies on altruism and how to improve the human condition can be seen as an overture to modern humanistic psychology.
In his work, Sorokin always tried to take an integrative approach, broadening the concept of the scientific method by including not only empirical and sensory knowledge but also arguing for the acceptance of the supersensory, or spiritual, dimension. Although criticized for those ideas, Sorokin remained faithful to them throughout his life.
In 1965, when he became the president of the American Sociological Association, based on a victorious write-in nomination organized by several of his past students, Sorokin finally became acknowledged as one of the greatest figures in twentieth-century American sociology.
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