...a great scholar among men of state, on experienced statesman among scholars, a man of many parts, a man of all seasons, a sociologist and creative thinker for all time” ..(Joseph B. Ford).



Writings on Social Change

An outstanding trait or characteristic of importance in Sorokin's work is its concentration on social change after his arrival in America. Hedevoted most of his time to social change or "dynamics" as he calls it. He sought to find out what social change meant, why it has occurred, what it did to the person and the societies, and what were the eventual destinations of persons and societies in the new forms.

His first book in his "second life" - after remission of the death sentence (at least temporarily) and permanent banishment which he was able to secure by a ruse was Sociology of Revolution. His second was Social Mobility, or movements and changes of persons, classes, ideas, values and other social things. Contemporary Sociological Theories was essentially a pot-boiler and an adjunct to his own aims and purposes to make a success in his new life. Rural Sociology with Zimmerman was really rural-urban sociology, the study of mixed vertical and horizontal mobility between town and country and its meanings in terms of change. From that time on the major problems studied concerned only social and cultural dynamics and the ideas which arose out of writing these four volumes.

In this respect Sorokin had one "writing life" before banishment and another one after. His first concerned crime, law, peasant conditions (traditional sociology) plus professional chores such as Elements of Sociology (1919, Russian) and Systematic Sociology, (2 Vols., 1920-21, Russian). His second in the United States was mainly about social change and dynamics, plus a few professional chores.

In the process of life each of great philosophers had been deprived of a social status which was more valuable to them than any other possession except life itself. As Sorokin wrote it in Italics upon leaving Russia

"Life, even the hardest life, is the most beautiful, wonderful, and miraculous treasure in the world. Dante was banished for life and then sentenced to be burned at the stake if he returned to Florence. Before that he had been a prose writer on political reform and government. (We do not even know where he lived while banished.) His outstanding writing after banishment (in this new language for writing—Italian) was the Divine Comedy. (Why it is called either "divine" or a "comedy" is completely unclear because it is, par excellence, a political polemic of a profound social change nature.)"

It is highly possible that the analysis of social change, its importance and comprehensiveness, made by Sorokin may be a permanent contribution toward the science of sociology and our knowledge. It will take time to tell the answer to that. But even if Sorokin is forgotten his contributions to the development of objective sociology as contrasted with subjective sociology of many (i.e. by Max Weber) will long be a landmark in the development of a useful social science.

Sorokin as a Social Change Writer

If we take Sorokin as a member of a species of Philosophers of History, or Social Change writers, the following observations might be of interest in understanding him, or if in not understanding, placing him within a tangible milieu.

He is a man originating outside of the cultures about which he writes, and coming into them with some of the dispassion of the visiting scholar from afar. In a technical and a psychological sense Sorokin was not a mass or orthodox Russian by culture. His constant movements have ever been into new cultures, from the fringes of the Arctic to Harvard University in the U.S.A. In this respect he has always had the objectivity of an outsider, only magnified.

A second characteristic is Sorokin's early engagement in political agitation with a resultant broadening of experience and close physical contact with the tangible and intangible good and evil forces of a Machiavellian nature in the ordinary management process of society. It might be pointed out that most great social change writers, and these philosophers of history, had considerable "experiences" of this nature.

A third characteristic shared by most of these social change philosophers has been that of unorthodox educations arising largely out of the situations in which they found themselves. They did not ordinarily receive formal educations in standard subjects in which they later made their names.

Finally a fourth characteristic in common with many great philosophers of history is that of imprisonment, punishment, and death sentences for their activities and views, and the fortunate ability to recover and unwillingness to be crushed by this psychological passage out of life, and then return. In these cases, their great work of a creative nature might be said to have been made in their second lives or their "reincarnations". Most of these writers were in danger much of the time and escaped by narrow margins. They were always living on time which had been gained by accident.

Augustine would have been put to death when Africa was over run by the barbarians, had he lived three or four years longer. These invaders blinded all churchmen before killing them. He mentions the usual.

That is, of those things which had made geniuses great philosophers of history, Sorokin had a liberal dosage of all kinds.

Social Change and Sorokin's Philosophy of History

What is the most general relation of time to man's culture? In that respect a philosophy of history by a sociologist ought to be different from one by an historian. We should expect an historian to be more specific and a sociologist more general. We might think that the historian would speak of specific change in a dynasty but the sociologist would try to enunciate general principles concerning the creation and decay of dynasties.

It is clear that Sorokin is only dealing with modern integrated societies and cultures of the "civilization" types as Toynbee classifies them. These types have been characteristic in parts of the world for the past seven or eight thousand years. Sorokin finds the relation of these civilizations to time a very involved one.

It would be simplest to say there are small changes, large changes and super changes. It is in the nature of these civilizations to change. A vast number of smaller changes make for a large change; and a few larger changes make for a super change. In a "meaning sense" it is the super changes only, in Sorokin's suggestion of cycles or recurrences, which clearly reverse themselves. The smaller changes ordinarily are integrational and can appear more or less linear for a short period of time, at least.

The smaller changes may tend to have motives of different types from the larger ones. The eventual breaking of a grand system spews out a vast amount of material for new intermixed but disjointed congeries. But these congeries eventually tend to move towards similar colorations or new social systems which have logical-meaningful integration. In so doing they take on both the "goodness" of the logical meaningful system and its eventual weaknesses.

In a most general sense this is Sorokin's Philosophy of History, or broad idea of the relation of time-change to human events. It is a very complicated one but the complexity is inherent in the material of the study. If it is true, as Sorokin believes (his data show it to be), the problem of sociological analysis becomes very much more complicated than ordinarily pictured. Method in sociology will have to be improved greatly to deal with the necessary complex analysis. A given event at one time may be in the process of getting impetus from a number of cross currents. If we have to decide "what next" then we ought also to commence visualizing what could be next after "what next".

Systematization of Social Change

Sorokin tried to systematize the whole problem of social change. This is important. In J. T. Fraser's (ed.) Theories of Time 26 essays are given but none about time and its meaning in sociology. One reason for this lack is because there are many times (many forms of change) in sociology and one essay could hardly touch the problem. Sociology has more permutations and combinations than other fields and both and all are often operating at the same time. However, Sorokin gives a resume of the field.

The prime principles of sociocultural change are, for him, immanent dynamism and limits. He surveys at length the history of preceding theories using these principles in one form or another. His own sophisticated version he represented in his general statements (a) that "immanency of change is the unexceptional, ever-present, permanent, universal and necessary reason ('cause') of their (sociocultural systems) change"; and (b) that "an enormous number of sociocultural systems and processes have a limited range of possibilities in their variation, in the creation of new fundamental forms" (Dynamics, Vol. IV, p. 667 and p. 710).

In other words the Nature of Society and all its parts is to change. However since there are limits on each system, change eventually has to reverse its direction. The complexity and profundity of his analysis, however, can be only viewed dimly in such summary statements, Sorokin's views are counter poised, in his exposition of them, to all "externalistic" viewpoints, to all ideas of monocausal, unilinear, and hodge-podge "multi-causal" theories of social and cultural change.

In the light of his prime "Why's of sociocultural change," important corollaries are developed and many lesser principles and procedures for the study of social and cultural dynamics are elaborated and applied. Developing the two prime principles systematically, and applying them to the problems of "recurrence, rhythm, linearism, and eternal novelty," Sorokin comes to the conclusion that the most general pattern of sociocultural change is one of incessantly varying recurrent processes. Since a society tends to integrate itself into a system, the systems also tend to recur at least in a considerable degree. Perhaps we may best point this out by summarizing his own findings of his four volume study of Social and Cultural Dynamics (see also the one-volume edition chs. 38, 39, 40):

    Identically recurrent sociocultural processes are impossible."
    Eternally linear sociocultural processes are also impossible."
    But a linear trend limited in time (whose duration is different for different systems and processes) is to be expected and is factually found in almost all sociocultural processes. In some it lasts only a few moments or hours or days or months; in others many decades and even centuries, but in all, it is limited in time and is shorter than the time of the whole existence of the system."
    The sociocultural processes with an unlimited possibility of variation of their essential traits are also impossible—factually and logically." Hence, "history is ever old and repeats itself."
    As to the possibilities of variation of the accidental properties of the system, the range of the possibilities here is wide, in some cases, at least, theoretically, almost unbounded. Hence, an incessant change of the system in these traits as long as the system exists. Likewise, almost unlimited are the possibilities of variation of the ever-new systems through the method of substitution or replacement of the exhausted systems by new ones. Hence, history is ever new, unrevealed and inexhaustible in its creativeness."
    Since practically all the socio cultural systems have limited possibilities of variation of their essential forms, it follows that all the systems that continue to exist after all their possible forms are exhausted, are bound to have recurrent rhythms. Hence, the inevitability of recurrence in the life process of such systems."
    Other conditions being equal, the more limited the possibilities of variation of main forms, the more frequent, conspicuous, and grasping are the rhythms in the process of the system, and the simpler the rhythms from the standpoint of their phases. And vice versa, if in some of the processes we cannot grasp any recurrent rhythm, the reason is either that the process has comparatively large possibilities of variation that empirically prevent us from noticing the infrequent rhythm; or that it endures a shorter life span and dies earlier, before it has had a chance to run through all its forms (just as some organisms die at the prenatal stage or in childhood, before they have a chance to run through all the main phases of human life from birth to senility. Or the inability to grasp any recurrent rhythm may be due to a coexistence and mutual "interference" of several contemporaneous and different rhythms in the same system that change them into an unrhythmical "noise" for the listener or observer; or to the excessively long duration between the recurrences, which makes the rhythm also unobservable; or to the exceedingly complex and many-phased nature of the rhythm."
    Thus history ever repeats itself and never repeats itself; both seemingly contradictory statements are true and are not contradictory at all, when properly understood." "This means that the strictly cyclical (identically recurrent) conception of the sociocultural process; the linear, in the sense of unlimitedly linear; the unicist, in the sense of the nonexistence of any recurrent rhythms in the sociocultural processes, they being "brand-new" and unique in the totality of their traits and properties at any moment; the static conception that there is no change, and that the sociocultural world ever remains strictly identical with itself—all these conceptions are fallacious. The valid conception is that of an "incessant variation" of the main recurrent themes, which contains in itself, as a part, all these conceptions, and as such is much richer than any of them." (Dynamics, Vol. IV, pp. 731-2).

In these partial quotations of Sorokin's own summary, one sees both his stress on social change in contrast to most of his colleagues in the sociological fraternity, and sees also that he makes clear that "recurrence" is a complicated problem. History does not repeat itself; but much of any present may be understood more thoroughly if we look at the repetitive elements in the culture.

(from: Carle C. Zimmerman, Sorokin, the world’s greatest sociologist (University of Saskatchewan, Sorokin lectures, no. 1; Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan, 1968), p.v-vi.