Richard E. DuWors, “On Pitirim Sorokin – A Strictly Subjective View”



Richard E. DuWors, On Pitirim Sorokin – A Strictly Subjective View

The University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada



When I gave the Sorokin Lecture in 1977 I omitted saying anything about Sorokin, the man. I was pleased, therefore, when told that personal notes on Pitirim Sorokin were acceptable for a foreword to a new publication on the Sorokin collection – work going on quietly – or should I say persistently by Mr. Ian Nelson, Mr. Stan Hansen and others of the Library staff. And I would say at once in appreciation of what they have done, that anyone who thinks people of the library are not people of the world of scholarship knows little about studying a man who has published all over the world and in radically different languages. Unless this collection, or any similar collection, is organized, tabulated, indexed and annotated, a scholar could waste months, if not years, trying to locate the data he needs to explore a given problem. Because three or four months is probably the most usual unit of time away from his home university, the lack of organization in a collection could run up the mere cost of repeated trips to the site of the collection that research based on it would become impossible for the scholar from a distance.

The utility of an organization of this collection has already been shown to me. A problem in the scholarship of Sorokin occurred to me as it has to Professor Coser who simply glides by the problem in his valuable discussion of Sorokin’s work. The problem lay aging in the wood, so to speak, until I saw the bibliography of the Sorokin collection prepared by Mr. Ian Wilson. A look through that bibliography and thirty minutes reading let me pin that problem down in terms of very specific years and publications. The problem concerns the most fundamental change in Sorokin’s basic sociological analysis. Reading in the collected works shows it cannot be paused by as Coser has, nor could it have been so precisely formulated without the aid of the collection and the Nelson bibliography.

But this essay is to be neither on exploration of problems in Sorokin scholarship nor an apologia pro sua vita. Nor is it an exercise in filial piety. Sorokin made mistakes even in the logic of his assertions in sociology. He railed against gigantism and produced some of the weightiest tomes – avoirdupois or metric – in recent sociology. He was often personally insulting to his intellectual opponents. Because he carved on the Mount Rushmore of sociology, he was apt to look on men of lesser range as carvers of cherry stones – he felt too much worth was assigned to their work. He admired Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel, Spencer – and only W. I. Thomas in American sociology. Although he could admire the person of a man like Charles H. Cooley, he did not think much of his sociology. He thought William James a genius, his highest praise, but did not admire John Dewey, and seemed oblivious in lectures and discussions to George Herbert Mead. I never heard him mention Albert North Whitehead, his contemporary at Harvard, but he did read Whitehead as an annotated book of his I have in my possession shows.

Sorokin was a man. He wore trousers. He made mistakes. But he remains the man who tackled the widest range of philosophical, methodological, and substantive problems from widest range of experiential and intellectual backgrounds of any sociologist of the twentieth century. He saw difficulties and solutions in the discipline of sociology, and amidst uproar and gong ringing he proclaimed them abroad. He awoke those sociologists who would awaken, to steal a phrase from Immanuel Kant, from their dogmatic slumbers.

It is unpleasant to be jarred awake through either just intellectual criticism or ad hominem argument; so it will take a generation of scholars who are indifferent to Sorokin’s ideological preferences and who can enjoy his polemical attacks because not directed at them, to place Sorokin in his rightful public place.

All that is for the big Sorokin. It is the Sorokin who looked seven feet tall on the lecture platform and was five foot seven in his kitchen at home.

But big Sorokin or small, one of the things one must note is his post-revolutionary commitment to that world of scholarship I mentioned in the first paragraph of this essay. The commitment was no easy choice of “career path” following “career models.” It was made after deep physical and emotional stress during and following the Kerensky and the Bolshevik uprisings in Russia. A jailed revolutionary a successful candidate for elected office, a parliamentary secretary for the Prime Minister, he renounced all politics as, in the Russia of his day, futile, vicious, and without hope of fundamentally helping either worker or peasant. One should not forget that career of political polemic and vituperation, of confrontation, anger, and rejection. One cannot be sure of these things, but I think that it was the manners and mores of such conflict that Sorokin carried over into sociology and was cordially disliked for it. To quote an English colleague at Calgary: “North Americans do not discuss ideas in a tradition of acrimony.” The appeal, ad hominem, publically as opposed to the knifing over the coffee cups, is considered not only an error in logic, but an embarrassing break in academic protocol. We save our viciousness, our imputation of motive where motive is irrelevant to the argument, and our sneers of incompetence to place them in the anonymous reviews requested by “refereed” Journals.

An anonymous or Dale Carnegie how-to-make-friends Sorokin is as inconceivable as a thunderstorm without thunder, or without lightning. As a professor of sociology Sorokin’s renunciation of politics did not mean a renunciation of the stuff of which political policy is made. He published a study of the Soviet famines of the early 1920’s. He reported his belief that the famines were the function of the Soviet system of government. The Soviets decided this son of the proletariat was not proletariat enough and banished him, a punishment still persisting from the Pre-Christian Slavonic tribal codes (- that Sorokin thought superior to the Teutonic tribal codes).

This public career in Russia – as politician, as revolutionist, as anti-revolutionist (even counter-revolutionist) in some of his thinking as a professor carrying out studies of violent conflict, death, and destruction – is the beginning of the big Sorokin. It is the Sorokin of polemics, of New York Times front page book reviews, of the Harvard professorship, of the presidency of the American Sociological Association (and its Journal’s refusal to publish his presidential address). It is the Sorokin who attacks not an individual American newspaper but the whole American press, and has a news magazine makes him the “klunk” of the year.

This is the Sorokin who wrote to a former student at the time of the Korean War: “History is following my schedule.” It is the Sorokin whose very style of writing invited comparison to Saint Augustine and Spengler and Toynbee – and he enjoyed the comparison – although I am not sure that he did not think the comparison flattered Spengler and Toynbee.

This is the Sorokin whose ways and writing seem more like a natural force, on explosive force rather than the emanations of that mythical academic who dwells in a Camelot tower.

There was a physical basis for that “natural force.” In 1967 some eight months before he died, I was visiting Sorokin. He had told me that he had emphysema and cancer of the lungs and had about six months to live – a diagnosis that in itself would drive most men to bed and wheelchair. Instead, after we said good-bye, he turned and ran up the forty or so steps between the sidewalk and his home in Winchester. He was seventy-eight years old at the time.

Nor was he borne up by a faith in better things to come when he died. He had said he did not want to die.

There is another Sorokin than the man of big affairs, big issues, and big controversy. Or, if one takes a theory held by Sorokin and others in sociology, there are other Sorokins. I have never accepted this theory held by Sorokin and other sociologists that holds that there are as many selves as there are social situations in which the person finds himself.

In the theory of social entities on which I am working – which is as much Mead-Blumer as Sorokin – I see the person the “smallest” social entity Just as Sorokin saw the person as the smallest cultural/ ecological unit, nevertheless, wider observations expressed in the folk phrase of the Boston Irish that some men are street angels and house-devils, have given rise to theories of the separateness of selves and of “situational ethics.” I feel that street angel and house-devil know each other through a central concept or self identity and the site of that knowing process is the single self. Whatever the theory, Pitirim Sorokin the big public professional, the devastating critic, could be a quiet, sympathetic listener to the student and to the colleague he trusted.

Even the public Sorokin could be insightful and skilled in his relations with people in what can be a situation of intense conflict, the graduate seminar. After years of trying various ways of meeting a seminar, and usually failing at it, I think the skill of sitting in with a student seminar and stimulating maximum participation on the student’s part is the rarest of teaching abilities. Sorokin was excellent at it. And that difference between Sorokin the lecturer and Sorokin, not presiding at but sitting in a seminar, impressed me in ray first year of graduate work at Harvard. In the world of large egos and narrow specialties that is Harvard, or any research rewarding university, Sorokin’s ability in a seminar was rare. A seminar with some professors was simply a three hour monologue – with tea.

Sorokin’s skill in a seminar finally made sense to me only when I read in his autobiography that when he was a student at St. Petersburg he avoided going to lectures but did go to seminars. Even before seeing that the public Sorokin, the big Sorokin could change in demeanor from lecture to seminar, I had seen the small Sorokin at first hand.

In September 1939 after graduating from Bates College, I was supposed to go to the then “Mother Church” of American Sociology, the University of Chicago. But as Farlo, the chairman wrote to me, Chicago had only six scholarships and/or fellowships in sociology and were I Plato I could not get one in face of claims of other candidates some of whom already had their Ph.Ds. I was still willing to tackle Chicago and its University without any visible means of support. But my mother was dying of cancer in Boston and I did not wish to leave at such a time. I went over to see Professor Carle C. Zimmerman whose book on the community had so impressed three of us studying Eastport and Lubec, Maine, that summer. Professor Zimmerman was very generous and helpful and even read my senior honours’ thesis on the fisheries of Maine. He thought well of it and suggested I see Professor Sorokin at his home in Winchester – right next door to the Zimmermans.

I met Professor Sorokin working in probably the world’s biggest rock garden solely developed by an amateur gardener. Standing in that garden I told him my story. He listened. He listened so intently that he showed he was clearly upset that there was no contingency fund or other undesignated departmental money that he could allocate to me. In fact, he was so upset that I, the student seeking help, leaned over and patted his arm saying “That is all right Professor Sorokin. I’ll make it.”

I did not know about the big Sorokin that day, and when I did learn about this eater-up of unwary sociologists, whenever a discussion about what manner of man or ogre is this who is abroad in the land, I remembered that concern he showed that was so strong that a student who had never seen him before had to comfort him.

Recently, library staff working on the correspondence of Sorokin with his publishers began to get the image of the ‘big Sorokin”. I was so bothered by learning of their reaction that I asked his sons to release to the collection of letters other than those on were professional matters. He had sent the collection chiefly those dealing with publishers. I felt if the world could eventually see the more personal materials they would see – not a Sorokin without warts that would be sentimental nonsense – but a man whose roughness in the hurly-burly he often created in debate, did not exhaust the possibilities of the personality of the man.

Sorokin could be rough in public places. In one publication Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology he discusses the efforts of three sociologists to restate certain sociological ideas in terms similar to those of Newtonian physics. He asks why and goes on to say “If the reason is mere transcription, then the principles of these great physicists should be transcribed exactly as they are formulated by Newton, D’Alembert, Lagrange, Bernoulli, and Carnot (though I doubt Parsons, Bales, and Shils know these principles).”

Wart indeed. The added remark is purely gratuitous, purely irrelevant, and the men concerned would find it hard to defend themselves from a remark delightful to hard-pressed graduate students but not worth the paper it is printed on.

The three men, in terms of American academic mores, were at least entitled to the basic courtesy of respected men holding professorships at respected universities. That is their formal due. Again, at least publically, in the North American custom, one does not attack ad hominem in academic debate. The idea is fair game as the object of satire and attack, but the person of its upholder is not.

Sorokin was a man whom life wrote large, and, in turn, wrote large in life. He wrote in public. Not for him was the unsigned review. And if the public courtesy of American debate is to the credit of our academics, the warnings editors give to anonymous reviewers to avoid personal insult in their reviews is not to our credit. Nor is the assumption that in fear of retaliation the American academic dare not write open and signed adverse criticism. Or, if a friend is involved, they will not give honest professional opinions. But, friend or foe, as the saying in boxing puts it, Sorokin always came out of his corner fighting. Coser, in an excellent review of most aspects of Sorokin’s work – he did not like Sorokin the moralist – repeats a story told by a former student about George Lundbergh ‘Here is a paper by my friend Lundberg on a subject about which unfortunately he knows nothing!….’

The phrase glided over here is “my friend.” Years later after Lundberg died some former colleagues at the University of Washington were amazed to find Sorokin did write friendly letters to Lundberg.

In later life Sorokin tried to establish the idea that he attacked the work not the man, but clearly that was not always true. In any event so closely does a hard working academic join work and self, for on it salary, reputation, and research funds depend, it probably makes little difference emotionally whether work or worker is attacked.

Sorokin, then, as a public personality was a rough,’ tough critic. That is one reason he seemed bigger, taller on the lecture platform than he was in fact. On that platform he not only killed an intellectual opponent dead, he kicked the corpse up and down that platform.

In contrast his friend and colleague, – to whom he would listen – Nicholas Timasheff, was a very quiet man who carefully phrased criticism and comment. Timasheff, for example, gave “the Chicago school” full credit for its work in sociology. Sorokin could hardly consider Robert Park, its leader, as a competent sociologist. It is no wonder, then, that graduates of Chicago with their fierce loyalty to that University and its city gave Sorokin’s books rough reviews. Only W. I. Thomas rated in Sorokin’s evaluation of American sociologist as of “genius” quality – as he also rated William James, but not, another pragmatist, John Dewey. But Sorokin could also joke about the world and himself even from that high platform of lecturer at Harvard in old Emerson Hall. He was carrying on one day about the paucity of great sociologists in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Referring to those then practicing the art, he observed: “In Russia when there are no fish in the pool we say even the crayfish becomes a fish.”

The now doctor, Albert N.M.I. Pierce, interrupted from the class to ask: “Professor Sorokin, how can you say there are no great sociologists alive today when one sociologist at Harvard has three offices?” “Who has three offices?” roared Sorokin in mock amazement. “Tomorrow I shall have four.” It is interesting that Sorokin and Pierce became friends and Sorokin lists him in his autobiography on his short list of students.

Another such incident of the big Sorokin listening when one might not expect him to occurred right after World War II. I went to visit him and found him in a temper about the way the American press reported news about Russia and Central Europe. He was by this time the big Sorokin in the United States as well as Europe and had been invited to give a speech to the highly prestigious New York Herald Tribune Forum on Foreign Affairs.

When he discussed his speech with me, I asked him if he wanted to blow off steam or to reach the American people. Very quietly he said he wished to reach the American people; so we ate in his kitchen and revised the speech – chiefly as I remember it, the polemical language rather than any of the basic ideas. And I had neither degree nor publication that a big Sorokin might have expected in a person before offering counsel on a prestigious speech.

The Sorokin of that kitchen on that afternoon – who told me after discussing his position on religion and society not to be too transcendental – was the man who tried to be fair to students in those “examinations in defense of the thesis” – times of horror for some students. He once told a story on himself that might account for his sympathy with students at such a time. He was at his baccalaureate public meeting – we have no equivalent here – and he was asked a simple question in geometry.

“I froze,” he said. “I could not remember the simplest thing about geometry.”

In my own Ph.D. defense two or three people who were interested in psychiatric literature were badgering me about my failure to use psychiatric interviews in my field studies of two communities in Eastern Maine. As I started to answer that I had never been impressed by psychiatric literature as an aid to sociological thinking especially in community studies (twenty years later Edward C. Bansfield was to prove me wrong), Sorokin interrupted me. He asked, “Mr. DuWors how many people lived in those two communities?”

“About six or seven thousand” I replied. He turned to the people pursuing the lines of thought “you want him to use psychiatric interviews in these studies?” They nodded. He replied “There are not enough couches.” Perhaps it is clear by now that when I sought his books and papers for Saskatchewan I appealed to him as I did. The University officials felt they simply did not have the money to compete with Minnesota where he had his first tenured appointment in the United States nor with the University of Wyoming that had purchased some letters earlier for more than Saskatchewan could offer for all his books and letters remaining. When I asked for advice from a brother of mine who was a finance officer for a large Boston printing firm he observed, “If you can’t give money, you’ll have to give honor.”

That advice, I felt, was for the big Sorokin, so the Memorial Lecture was suggested. But my intuition was that it was not sufficient. In the letter from Saskatoon, then, I also pointed out the shortage of books for students in a provincial university in which the Sociology Department was only ten years old. He accepted the relatively small amount of money offered, the establishment of the Lecture, and sent the books for use by faculty and students of the University of Saskatchewan.



I should like to have ended the essay with the previous paragraph. It would make better writing sense. But I feel I should add a note if only to get It on the record for later scholars to think about.

On my last visit to see Mr. and Mrs. Sorokin, I asked Pitirim how he conceived himself and work in his public career. He instantly replied, “I consider myself a moral leader of America.” Mrs. Sorokin completely agreed. I was astounded. I had thought he would say sociologist or social philosopher. But it occurred to me: Pitirim after all is a man of the primary group – a fact characteristic of the Russian culture and I would say all moral leaders. They would make a world of the family, of brothers, of the ‘good neighbors’ of the parable of the Samaritan. The anger of Sorokin at what he perceived as intellectual sloth or intellectual pretension was the righteous anger of the moralist. His kindness to students, to colleagues whom he trusted like Nicholas Timasheff was the kindness of the man who would see a brother of ethic in the world. The “big Sorokin” and “the small” met in his moralistic conception of himself. It is not necessarily the choice between Professor Coser’s Old Testament prophet and itinerant preacher out of the dark Russian forest. It is a man committed. That is the essence. The style is accidental. Or to use a phrase from another moralist tradition than that of the Greeks: “Given the commitment, all the rest is commentary.”

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. He hosts separate websites devoted to the authors Theodore Dreiser and Pitirim A. Sorokin and to classical music as well as family history/genealogy.
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