A Panoramic View of Society and Culture

Sorokin's monumental Social and Cultural Dynamics, in which he at-tempted to develop a full explanatory scheme for social and cultural change(with supporting evidence based on detailed statistical investigations), must betaken as the major exhibit for assessing his view of social change. The workas a whole, as Louis Schneider has suggested, has a somewhat romantic cast:it presents a profusion of ideas and daring hypotheses, but lacks the poise,soberness, and careful marshalling of arguments that characterize the classicalstyle. Such work is best approached by attention to its overall message andmajor contentions rather than by way of detailed criticism of particulars.

In this work, Sorokin attempts no less than a panoramic survey of thecourse of all human societies and cultures, supported by a series of generalpropositions to illuminate the historical variation in socio-cultural arrangements.He opposes any unilinear explanation of human evolution just as he opposesany approach that, as in the case of Spengler for example, conceives of the lifecycle of cultures by way of quasi-biological analogies. Instead, he views socio-cultural phenomena as based on relatively coherent and integrated aggregates ofcultural outlooks--which he calls mentalities--that impress their meanings onspecific periods in the global history of humankind. What he is looking for, inhis own words, is "the central principle [the reason] which permeates all thecomponents" of a culture, "gives sense and significance to them, and in thisway makes cosmos of a chaos of unintegrated fragments." He does not claimthat any culture is ever fully integrated, and he is aware that it will alwayscontain fragments that are not fully reconcilable. Still, he stresses that socio-cultural phenomena are not randomly distributed: rather, once analyzed fromhis specific angle of vision, they will reveal the operation of a few major pre-mises that mark their overall character.

There are, according to Sorokin, only three fundamental premises for con-ceiving and apprehending the nature of reality. Either reality is felt to be di-rectly accessible through the senses (Sensate Culture): or it is felt to be dis-closed only through a view that transcends the world of the senses and achievesa transcendent vision of the eternal, as in Platonic idealism (Ideational Cul-ture); or, finally, it takes an intermediate form (Idealistic Culture), whichattempts to fuse and synthesize the other two in a dialectical balance betweenopposite principles.

Correspondingly, there are three irreducible forms of truth: sensory, spiri-tual, and rational. At various periods of history, one of the three basic premisesachieves preeminence over the others and stamps its character on the main waysof thinking, feeling, or experiencing that distinguish an epoch. That is whythe principal institutions of society (law, art, philosophy, science, and religion)exhibit at any particular time a consistent mental outlook that is the reflectionof the predominance of one or the other of the three major cultural premises.During a Sensate period, for example science will be rigidly empirical in itsmethods and procedures, art will strive for realism rather than for the impart-ing of transcendent visions, and religion will tend to be more concerned withthe quest for concrete moral experience than for the truth of faith or reason.

Having been persuaded by his survey of world history that all the varietiesof cultural constellations that have appeared on the human scene can be effec-tively encompassed as subvarieties of the three major cultural mentalities,Sorokin proceeds to explain why all major social change must be recurrent. Theceaseless flux of history, so he contends, has characteristic rhythms that are farfrom being random or subject to the whims of the Gods. Any culture, deter-mined as it is by its major premises, follows a kind of inner necessity: it is sub-ject to its own peculiar destiny. But the predominance of one fundamentalcultural mentality carries within itself its own demise through the exhaustion ofits own premises. This is what Sorokin, rejecting any explanation of socialchange through external factors, has called the principle of immanent change .As cultural systems reach the zenith of their full flowering, they "become lessand less capable of serving as an instrument of adaptation, as an experience forreal satisfaction of the needs of its bearers, and as foundation for their socialand cultural life." At this point, a cultural system, by driving to the limits thepremises that gave it birth, exceeds the mark, distorts the portion of truth itonce embodied through one-sided exaggeration, and prepares its own demise,thereby giving birth to a new cultural system. This dialectic, which bearsstrong resemblances to the Hegelian, is at the heart of Sorokin's principle oflimits and purports to explain the rhythmic periodicity of all socio-culturalphenomena. For Sorokin, just as for Hegel, change implies the rise of a newlife at the same time as it imparts dissolution.

The three major types of cultural mentalities, Sorokin contends, followeach other in reliable sequence. Sensate forms will be followed by Ideational ,and they in turn by Idealistic forms of cultural integration. After this cycle hasbeen completed, the recurrence of a new Sensate culture will initiate a newcycle. Since the days of the early Greeks and their Sensate culture, Westernculture has completed two cycles of this sequence. We are now living at the endof a Sensate phase which has lasted for several hundred years. This stage isnow overripe, it has reached its limits, and we live in the shadow of twilightamong the debris of a disintegrating culture that is no longer able to givemeaning and significance to our lives. Ideas once dominant and organizing nolonger serve as guideposts, having fallen apart. We can already discern the firstharbingers of a new Ideational integration sprouting like seeds beneath thesnow. Ours is a world in which the center no longer holds and where even thebest lack all conviction. But those who have the vision can have intimations ofglad tidings of future redemption from the tyranny of the senses.

This is not the place to discuss the enormous statistical labors that wentinto establishing trends in the fluctuation of art forms, of philosophical, ethical,and legal norms and values, or of social relationships in ordinary times as wellas during wars and revolutions--all of which are to be found in the first threevolumes of Sorokin's magnum opus. They have been scrutinized by experts inthese areas and have frequently been found to be wanting. One especially tellingoverall criticism was made long ago by Hans Speier, who has said that Soro-kin's study of history "is imbued with the spirit of the doctrine that he desiresto refute," since the methods he uses to establish the impermanence of Sensateand empirical culture are in themselves extremely empirical. Sorokin wouldprobably have answered that it is given to no man to step out of his time, thateven an attempt to refute the preeminence of Sensate empiricism must stillavail itself of the tools that his age and time put at his disposal. Nevertheless,Sorokin's "romantic" contribution will have to be judged in the future not byany isolated concrete result of his investigation, but by the fruitfulness of thetheoretical leads he has imparted to succeeding scholars. Viewed in this light,at least some of these leads may well survive, even if a number of his generalcontentions will have been swept aside. Furthermore, even though he may havebeen wrong on many counts, some of Sorokin's anticipations, written in the1930's indeed have a prophetic character. What he wrote then about the pos-sible destruction of humankind by the pushing of buttons or about the comingcelebration of hard-core pornography shows an almost uncanny sense of thingsto come in the world of the 1970's.

At a time when sociologists, under the impact of the debate about modern-ization and underdevelopment, have again begun to discuss the principlesunderlying the dynamics of socio-cultural change, Sorokin's stress on immanentchange, as distinct from externally induced change may have renewed signifi-cance. When scholars have increasingly wondered why the external impact ofWestern culture has had so widely differing results in many Third World na-tions, it might be well to assume Sorokin's angle of vision and to ask whethercultures in their Idealistic or Ideational phases might be more resistant to theimportation of the Sensate cultures of the West than cultures, such as theJapanese or the Korean, that are already largely conditioned by Sensate sets ofideas. Why, for example, are modern methods of birth control readily acceptablein those countries while they have failed in India or Egypt? Could it be thatthey are "out of phase" in the latter, but not in the former, countries?

Turning to Sorokin's principle of limits, one again has the impression thatif it were shorn of the somewhat dogmatic and grandiose manner in which itwas first formulated, it could have interesting possibilities as a hypothesis. Infact, it has been one of the mainstays of Claude Levi-Strauss's method ofanalysis. Whether or not Levi-Strauss is familiar with Sorokin's work, the re-semblances are striking. For example, Levi-Strauss writes: ". . . In social un-dertakings mankind keeps manoeuvering within narrow limits. Social types arenot isolated creations, wholly independent of each other, and each one anoriginal entity, but rather the result of endless combinations, forever seeking tosolve the same problems by manipulating the same fundamental elements."

As should already be apparent, Sorokin's overall view is closely tied to hissociology of knowledge, a field to which, it is generally agreed, he made signifi-cant contributions.

From Coser, 1977:466-469.


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