Birthday: January 21, 1889
Nationality: American, Russian
Died At Age: 79
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Also Known As: Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin
Born Country: Russia
Born in: Knyazhpogostsky District
Famous as: Sociologist
Spouse/Ex-: Elena Petrovna Sorokina (née Baratynskaya)
father: Aleksandr Sorokin
mother: Pelageya Sorokina
children: Peter P. Sorokin, Sergei Porokin
Died on: February 10, 1968
place of death: Winchester, Massachusetts
education: Saint Petersburg State University
Pitirim Sorokin was a Russian-American sociologist, professor, political activist, and a noted anti-communist advocate. Born into the Komi peasantry in Russia, Sorokin displayed an early affinity for political activism. He was involved with organized resistance initiatives against the czar at the age of 14. However, his relationship with both the monarchy and the Bolsheviks (led by Lenin) grew strained, and after several arrests, he was exiled. As a result, he moved to the United States with his family, working as a professor at several universities, producing an unusual volume of academic writing and developing his pioneering work on social cycles. He was eventually invited to lay the foundations of Harvard University’s sociology department (where he developed a famously fractious relationship with his colleague and noted American sociologist, Talcott Parsons) and elected the president of the ‘International Institute of Sociology’ and the ‘American Sociological Association.’ One his sons became a renowned physicist in his own right.
Childhood & Early Life
Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin was born to peasant parents in Turya (a village in Yarensk uyezd, Vologda Governate of the erstwhile Russian empire) on February 2, 1889. His father, Alexander, was a craftsman specializing in gold and silver work. He had two brothers– Vasily (older) and Prokopy (younger).
His mother died in 1894, leaving Alexander to travel from village to village looking for work as an artisan, with the infant Pitirim and his brother Vasily in tow. In the meantime, Prokopy lived with an aunt. Due to their father’s alcoholic tendencies and abusive behavior, the two brothers were forced to strike out on their own and fend for themselves when Pitirim was eleven.
He was able to support himself by working as a clerk and an artisan and eventually, a series of competitive scholarships allowed him to attend ‘Saint Petersburg Imperial University,’ where he earned a graduate degree in criminology and became a professor.
Sorokin was deeply influenced by Pavlov and his contemporaries during his time at the University of St. Petersburg and the Psycho-Neurological Institute. After exploring ethics, psychology, history, and law (among others), he eventually explored sociology through his work in criminology.
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While rising through the ranks of Russian academia, Sorokin got deeply involved in non-communist circles. During the landmark ‘Russian Revolution’ of 1917, he was part of the ‘Socialist Revolutionary Party’ and later supported the ‘White Movement’ (which aggregated all non-communist forces in Russia and fought the ‘Bolsheviks’ or the ‘Reds’ in the ‘Russian Civil War’). He also became personal secretary to Prime Minister (and leader of the Russian Constituent Assembly) Alexander Kerensky. Sorokin was appointed editor-in-chief of the government daily ‘The Will of the People’ during this period.
He continued to be a vocal critic of the communist agenda in Russia, getting arrested at least six times. He was sentenced to death during one of his prison confinements, but was released after six weeks–only by the personal intervention of Lenin himself who had high hopes of converting him to the communist cause.
He returned to the University of St. Petersburg, where he became one of the founding members of the sociology department. However, he was arrested again in 1922 and exiled by the Lenin government.
In 1924, before he became well-known in American academic circles, he published ‘Leaves of a Russian Diary’ (1924), a memoir that provided in-depth insights into the unraveling of the Russian monarchy and the subsequent rise of the ‘Bolsheviks.’ Years later, in 1950, he added an addendum to the book named ‘The Thirty Years After.’
After spending a stateless year in Europe, he was able to migrate to the USA where he was offered a job at the F. Stuart Chapin’s sociology department at the University of Minnesota, where he taught until 1930. Sorokin focused primarily on rural sociology, training some of America’s foremost experts in the field (including Conrad Taeuber and C.A. Anderson).
He produced some of his best-known works during this period in Minnesota – writing six books in six years – four of these went on to redefine sociology in America and beyond, especially ‘Social Mobility’ (1927).
Sorokin’s pioneering work attracted the attention of the then president of the Harvard University, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who personally invited him to establish a new department of sociology at the school to replace its department of social ethics. Noted sociology scholar Jessie Bernard later remarked that this appointment brought “academic respectability” to sociologists in the US.
He continued to work at Harvard for the next three decades, putting the university on the sociological map and developing a dynamic brand of sociology that continues to define the field today. His most significant work– the four-volume ‘Social and Cultural Dynamics’ (1937-41) was produced during this stint at Harvard and spanned 2500 years of human existence. Sorokin was particularly interested in interrogating the principles of social change as well as conflict.
Later, he grew interested in altruism and established the ‘Harvard Center for Creative Altruism’ in 1949. His work researching the lives of Christian saints and living US altruists often attracted ridicule and gave him a reputation as a “ludicrous eccentric.”
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Despite being ignored by fellow sociologists during the 1940s and the 1960s, he eventually gained mainstream support, especially with the Bedminister Press republication of ‘Social and Cultural Dynamics’ (1962) and the 1963 tributes by Philip J. Allen (‘Pitirim Sorokin In Review’) and Edward A. Tiryakian (‘Sociological Theory, Values and Sociocultural Change’).
In 1963, due to overwhelming public support, he was elected the ‘President of the American Sociological Association’ with the largest margin and the first successful write-in vote in the history of the organization. His biography ‘A Long Journey’ was published in the same year.
Sorokin’s most notable works include his early work at the University of Minnesota, including but not limited to 'Social Mobility’ (1927), ‘Contemporary Sociological Theories’ (1928), and ‘Principles of Rural-Urban Sociology’ (1929).
His four-volume ‘Social and Cultural Dynamics’ (1937–1941) is often considered his magnum opus.
‘The Ways and Power of Love’ (1954) expounds on his theory about five-dimensional love.
Awards & Achievements
He first became president of the ‘International Institute of Sociology’ in 1936, and later elected as the ‘President of the American Sociological Association’ in 1963, after a landmark vote.
Sorokin got married to Elena Baratynskaya in 1917, and she spent a year in Prague with her, before moving to the US. The couple had two children–Peter, a physicist and laser pioneer (born in 1931) and Sergei (born in 1933).
He became a naturalized American citizen in 1930.
He died in Winchester, Massachusetts, on February 10, 1968 at the age of 79.
He became co-editor of ‘New Ideas in Sociology’, a Russian journal, at the age of 24.
Having spent time in prisons run by both the monarchy and the communist government, he reportedly preferred the monarchy’s prisons due to their superior cleanliness, kindlier behavior and availability of books.
Sorokin once called communism “the pest of man”. His disdain was reciprocated–Lenin called him “typical of the most implacable part of the Russian intelligentsia”.
He wrote a total of 37 books (at least 7 of which were in Russian) and over 400 articles.