Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin (1889-1968)

Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin

January 21, 1889 — February 10, 1968

Pitirim A. Sorokin served as the 55th President of the American Sociological Association. The following is some excerpts from an article by Barry V. Johnston entitled “Sorokin Lives! Centennial Observations”, 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.

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.

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.

Sorokin's Official ASA Presidential Photo

Photo from Cover of Sorokin's Autobiography


  • 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.


The century from 1560-1660 was a watershed period in military history. Pitirim Sorokin estimates that war casualties in the seventeenth century increased by more than one hundred percent over what they appear to have been in the previous one hundred years. Germany's population alone was reduced anywhere from (the most conservative estimates) two-thirds its original size of sixteen million to (the most liberal estimates) a quarter of the original number during the Thirty Years' War. By the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), German farmland had been ravaged, its schools closed for lack of teachers, more than half of its houses destroyed, and its capacity for economic development delayed perhaps a generation.

from James A. Aho, Religious Mythology and the Art of War (London: Aldwych Press, 1981), p. 194.

Aho continues by arguing that the rise in militarism is not accidentally concomitant with the rise of Protestantism, not that Protestantism was the cause of European militarism, but that "the Kriegethik of a society and its dominant religion [are] ... dialectically related, as representing the two aspects of a single military-religious meaning structure." (195)

On the same page, Aho describes Sorokin's Index of War Intensity:

Sorokin's index is a weighted composite measure of five factors related to the "intensity" of war: its duration, the sizes of the forces involved, the numbers killed and wounded, the number of participating countries, and the proportion of combatants to the total poplulation of the society. The larger the index score, the more "intense" the wars fought during the specified century.... Over all, Sorokin would say, seventeenth-century wars were about seven times more intense than those of the previous century. And the rate of increase of war intensity from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries was two to three times greater than any previous period.

Sorokin's results were extended by Quincy Wright in his A Study of War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965). Wright estimates that during the twentieth century, the intensity of war increased thirty times what it was by the end of the seventeenth century.


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