Pitirim A. Sorokin

The Work

Pitirim Sorokin's sociological theory is based on the well-known distinc-tion between social statics (structural sociology in his terminology) and socialdynamics. But because his discussion of statics did not have a profound impacton subsequent sociological analyses, it will be treated here in cursory fashion.By contrast, his thoughts on social and cultural dynamics, which have provedto be more fruitful and original, will be dealt with at some length.

The Overall Doctrine

To Sorokin, the process of human interaction involves three essential ele-ments: human actors as subjects of interaction; meanings, values, and normsthat guide human conduct; and material phenomena that are vehicles and con-ductors for meanings and values to be objectified and incorporated into asequence of actions. Not unlike Max Weber, Sorokin (except during his earlyyears as an apprentice sociologist) rejected any attempt to study human affairswithout reference to norms, meanings, and values. "Stripped of their meaning-ful aspects," he writes, "all the phenomena of human interaction become merelybiophysical phenomena and, as such, properly form the subject of the bio-physical sciences.''

Hence, in Sorokin's sociological thought the emphasis is on the importanceof cultural factors, that is, of superorganic elements, as determinants of socialconduct. To understand personalities as subjects of interaction, and society asthe totality of interacting personalities, one must bear in mind that they rest ona foundation of culture--a culture that consists of the totality of meanings,norms, and values possessed by interacting persons and carried by materialvehicles, such as ritual objects or works of art, which objectify and conveythese meanings.

In analyzing components of social interaction, Sorokin distinguishes be-tween unorganized, organized, and disorganized forms. He discusses varioustypes of legal and moral controls and speaks of solidary, antagonistic, andmixed systems of social interaction, as well as of familistic, compulsory, andmixed (contractual) types of social bonds. Having elaborated these differenttypes of social interaction, Sorokin then proceeds to classify organized groups interms of their functional and meaningful ties. Here he considers different de-grees of intensity of group interaction and the related closeness or slackness ofties between group members. Furthermore, he states that groups may be uni-bonded, that is, they may be based on one main value, (as is the case, for ex-ample, with religious, occupational, or kinship groups), or they may be heldtogether by multiple bonds (as in the case of a nation or a social class). In ad-dition, he states that both unibonded and multibonded groups may be eitheropen or closed.

It is not necessary to elaborate on these classifactory schemes because, byand large, they have remained fairly sterile both for Sorokin's own substantivework and for that of others. In pointed contrast, his theory of social change, aswell as his theory of social mobility and social stratification, deserve carefulattention.

From Coser, 1977:465-466.


Forward to "A Panoramic View of Society and Culture"
Back to "The Harvard Years"
Back to the Index