The Harvard Years

It was during his Harvard years that Sorokin made some of his most sig-nificant and creative contributions to American sociology. When he firstarrived at Harvard, a Department of Sociology did not yet exist, and Sorokin'schair was organizationally placed in the Department of Economics. But at theend of the first semester of the 1930-31 academic year, the administrationfinally approved a separate Department of Sociology and Sorokin became itschairman the next year. The man who had established the first Department ofSociology at Petrograd University in 1919-20 was given the opportunity toorganize and guide Harvard's first such department a dozen years later.

Although relatively small, the department soon acquired considerablerenown. Sorokin induced his Minnesota friend Carle Zimmerman to come as anassociate professor and Talcott Parsons, who was teaching in the Department ofEconomics, became a sociology instructor. Special lectures or courses wereoffered by such eminent Harvard men as A. D. Nock in the sociology of re-ligion, Dean Roscoe Pound in the sociology of law, Sheldon Glueck in crimi-nology, and Gordon Allport in social psychology. Sorokin also brought a dis-tinguished array of outside lecturers, including W. I. Thomas, HowardP. Becker of Wisconsin and Leopold von Wiese of Cologne

Talcott Parsons, who was then working on his Theory of Social Action,had, next to Sorokin himself, the most powerful influence on the brilliant co-hort of graduate students who flocked to the department soon after its inception.Many of the men who were to assume a leading position in sociology after theirgraduation from Harvard--for example, Robert K. Merton and Wilbert Moore,Kingsley Davis and Robin Williams--were influenced by both Sorokin andParsons, though the Parsonian influence proved to be more enduring. Others,such as N. Denood, E. A. Tiryakian, and R. Dufors, followed more closelyin Sorokin's footsteps.

Sorokin was an unconventional teacher with a distinctive mode of presenta-tion and style of delivery. He never lost his pronounced Russian accent, andwhen he ascended the platform and began speaking some of his auditors feltthat they were listening to a rousing church homily rather than a classroomlecture. His best-known course for undergraduates, Principles of Sociology(officially listed as Sociology A), was commonly called Sorokin A by the Harvard Crimson Confidential Guide.

One of Sorokin's students, Robert Bierstedt, has vividly described his wayof teaching. He writes, "As a lecturer, Sorokin had no histrionic peer. A man ofastonishing physical vigor he would mount huge attacks against the black-board, often breaking his chalk in the process. One of his classrooms had black-boards on three sides. At the end of the hour all three were normally coveredwith hieroglyphics, and clouds of chalk dust hovered in the air. If he wasdramatic, he was also often melodramatic. For no American sociologist did hehave a word of praise--always, in fact, the contrary. . . . His response toGeorge Lundberg was typical. He arrived in class one morning waved one ofLundberg's recently published papers before us, and declaimed . . . 'Here isa paper by my friend Lundberg on a subject about which, unfortunately, heknows nothing! It is a disease with him! He was not born for this kind ofwork.' On another occasion [he said to me] 'John Dewey, John Dewey, JohnDewey! I read a book by John Dewey. I read another book by John Dewey.I read a third book by John Dewey. Nothing in them.' "

Soon after coming to Harvard, Sorokin set to work on the four-volumetreatise entitled Social and Cultural Dynamics, eventually published between1937 and 1941. To accomplish this immense task, Sorokin enlisted a number ofRussian emigre scholars, as well as some of his students, such as Robert K. Mer-ton and John H. Boldyreff, as collaborators. They did much of the spade workin gathering data, computing statistics, and consulting reference works. Har-vard assisted the work by a four-year grant amounting to roughly $10,000.

Sorokin was now at the pinnacle of his career but even his Harvard yearswere accompanied by considerable stress. Departmental chairmen at Harvardas elsewhere in America were by no means as powerful as were their counter-parts in Europe, and Sorokin probably still hankered after the European model.Though firmly ensconced in his position he did not succeed in dominating theDepartment. Highly respected, even admired, by many of his students, he wasnot singular in the influence he had over them. That role he was forced toshare with Talcott Parsons, despite the fact that Parsons was initially a younginstructor when Sorokin held the only full professorial chair. Parsons and Soro-kin shared a number of ideas, more particularly in regard to the central roleof cultural symbols in the determination of social action, yet they never man-aged to reconcile their views. Their relations throughout the period could bestbe characterized as frigid competitive coexistence. It is fair to say that Sorokinindeed put Harvard's Department of Sociology on its feet, but he did not suc-ceed in giving it his own distinctive imprint.

Sorokin's cast of mind in those years was conservative, and it is conceivablethat this factor was instrumental in his being appointed to the Harvard facultyduring a period of deep social crisis and the consequent ascendancy of a varietyof Marxian or non-Marxian radical ideas. Yet the man from the Komi peoplewas a conservative of a peculiar kind. As a conservative libertarian, a Christiananarchist, he never lost his peasant distrust of the centralizing state, a distrustthat was reinforcecl by his experiences during the Russian Revolution. Thus,Sorokin had little in common with his American counterparts. Arthur Davis,one of his students, tells a revealing anecdote. Davis had been arrested by theBoston police for handing out leaflets for a CIO union during an organizingdrive. The magistrate let him off, but one of his professors warned him thatthe arrest might have jeopardized his scholarship. When the matter came toSorokin's attention in his capacity as departmental chairman, he brushed itaside with the comment that he himself had been arrested six times, three timesby the Czar and three times by the Bolsheviks . . . .

Sorokin never relished his administrative duties. He has reported that hisrequests to be relieved of them were twice turned down by the administration.Finally in 1942, having served for ten years, Sorokin's resignation as chairmanwas accepted. Soon after, the department was reorganized under Parsons'leadership and became the Department of Social Relations. From that pointon, Sorokin played only a marginal role in the development of Harvard sociol-ogy. I remember coming to the Department's building in Emerson Hall in theearly fifties, and, not finding Sorokin's office where I expected it (namely onthe floor where most of the activities went on), was told that Sorokin (andZimmerman) had their offices on an upper (desolate looking, as I recall) floor.Nor is it pleasant to note, on the other hand, that after the publication ofParsons' The Social System, Sorokin put under the door of the Department'soffices a mimeographed statement in which he attempted to prove that themajor ideas of this book had been anticipated in his own work.

Sorokin's alienation from the Department was at least partly compensatedfor by his establishment in the late forties of the Harvard Research Center inCreatitve Altruism. Sorokin had originally planned to carry on research in thisfield without financial assistance or a research staff. Quite unexpectedly he re-ceived a letter from Ely Lilly, head of a large drug company and a well-knownphilanthropist, expressing an interest in aiding Sorokin in this venture. Therefollowed a grant of $20,000. After Sorokin had begun to publish some of theresults of his investigations, Mr. Lilly said he would like to meet him. WhenSorokin informed him that he had so far spent exactly $248 out of the $20,000grant, Mr Lilly, with typical American impatience, queried, "Can't you putmore steam into the business?" Sorokin agreed, and he received an additionalgrant of $l00,000 for five years, which underwrote the Center's expenses. I hesi-tate to say much about the value of the inquiries of the Center. Even thoughnot all its results were as startling as the find that "altruistic persons live longerthan egoistic individuals," I do feel that little of enduring merit resulted fromits labors.

Sorokin's influence at Harvard had originally been strong. But what theBritish literary critic John Gross once said about his fellow critic F. R. Leavisseems also to have applied to Sorokin: "Good students welcomed him as anemancipator, and then found that they had to spend years to escape from hisliberating influence." This was especially true, perhaps, after the publicationof Social and Cultural Dynamics, when Sorokin's thought became increasinglyrigid and dogmatic and when he largely veered in the direction of social proph-ecy and away from detached scholarly inquiry. Two of his works in the forties,Sociocu1tural Causality, Space, Time (1943)and Society, Cu1ture and Per-sonality (I947) still continued in the tradition of his earlier contributions, butthe titles of other books published during and after the forties indicate his nowprepotent inclination to serve as a prophet of doom and disaster: Crisis of OurAge (1941), Man and Society in Calamity (1942), Reconstruction of Humanity(1948), A1truistic Love (1950), Social Philosophies of an Age of Crisis (1950),Explorations in Altruistic Love and Behavior (1950), S.O.S. The Meaning ofOur Crisis (1951), The Ways and Power of Love (1954), The American SexRevolution (1957), and Power and Morality (I959). Whatever their value astracts for the times or as prophetic indictments of the sins and errors of hiscontemporaries, they do not warrant analysis in a work devoted to sociologicaltheory.

Only twice in those late years did Sorokin return to more strictly socio-logical concerns. His Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology and RelatedSciences(1956) was a fierce indictment of practically all of contemporarysociology in general and of most empirical and statistical inquiries in particular.Though it made many telling critical observations on misuses and abuses ofempirical research methods, it was couched in so all-encompassing and globalterms that it missed its mark. The book also laid itself open to the fairly obviousobservation that it hardly behooved an author who had used statistical tech-niques throughout his work (and who had often used them in ways whichseemed questionable to most statisticians) now to indict practically all contem-porary sociology as having succumbed to "quantophrellia," the madness ofnumbers. As a whole, the book proved an embarrassment even to Sorokin'smost devoted former students.

A sequel to his renowned Contemporary Sociological Theories, entitledSociological Theories of Today received a more favorable reception. Thoughreplete with many poisoned barbs directed at most of his contemporaries andpredecessors, it nevertheless showed Sorokin's capacity even in his old age, todeal in a serious manner with sociological ideas and theories that he personallyrejected wholeheartedly.

Sorokin was never a man to underestimate his own merit. In fact, he oc-casionally was heard comparing his contributions to those of Aristotle. It isunderstandable, therefore, that he clearly suffered in his later years from thecomparative neglect of his contemporaries. But he never lost confidence. Thepeasant lad from the Komi people had initially been rejected by the urbansophisticates of St. Petersburg and yet had come to surpass almost all of them;why should he now worry about being shunned by representatives of a decaying"Sensate" culture? Sorokin plodded on, literally cultivating his own garden. Hewas probably as proud of the awards he received from horticultural societiesfor his magnificent flower garden in suburban Winchester as he was of all thehonors, including the presidency of the American Sociological Association,which his colleagues bestowed on him. His two sons, both scientists like theirmother, and his extended range of friends and admirers throughout the world,saw to it that Sorokin in his declining years was surrounded by the love which,so he had reiterated again and again, makes the world go around. When theold fighter died on February 11, 1968, even those he had attacked with his sharpstrikes and his pointed arrows agreed that he was one of a kind--a kind thatdoesn't seem to appear any more.

I shall never forget the gaunt old man standing erect on a platform in anultra modern lecture hall at Brandeis University, exhorting his audience to turnaway from the lures and snares of a "Sensate" culture, to recognize the errors oftheir way, and to return to the path of ideational righteousness. It was as closeas I would ever come to understand what it might have been like to be ad-dressed by an itinerant preacher who had come out from the wild forest toinstruct the erring flock of peasant sinners in the true ways of the Lord.

From Coser, 1977:488-492.


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