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Pitirim Sorokin’s Personality Theory

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Pitirim Sorokin is best known as a sociologist. However he also developed a fairly detailed and interesting theory of human personality. Unfortunately, no psychologists seem to be aware of this theory, even though it dovetails nicely with modern subpersonality theory (Lester, 1995, 2007; Rowan, 1990; Schwarz, 1995).

Sorokin first systematically presented his personality theory in 1947, in Society, Culture and Personality (Chs. 19 & 48). He revisited the theory in 1954 in The Ways and Power of Love (Chs. 5 & 6). It is the later version that we will consider here.

Sorokin didn’t like Freud’s personality model, and, in part, developed his own to remedy the deficiencies of Freud’s. It will be helpful, then, to begin discussion with a review of Freud’s model.

Freud’s Personality Model

Freud’s well-known personality model postulates three principle entities (Figure 1). First is the   id, which contains our instinctive, biological drives (food, aggression, sex, etc.). Because we are social organisms, such that to act on every instinctive drive would conflict with other human beings (who similarly wish to gratify their instinctive urges), society conditions us to certain norms, restrictions, and inhibitions. These taken collectively Freud calls the super-ego.

Freud's personality model

The id and the super-ego are in perpetual conflict. For instance, should one give in to an angry impulse to yell at an unruly teenager, or should restrain oneself and set a good example? To resolve such conflicts is the task of the third entity, the ego. In Freud’s model, the ego is the level at which we consciously operate most of the time, at least if we’re functioning healthily.

This simple model has become so engrained in our cultural consciousness that it’s easy to overlook some very serious problems with it. One is fairly subtle: Freud is almost sneaky in labeling the normative component of the scheme the super-ego. The adjective super suggests that it is somehow above the ego, but in reality it isn’t. It’s basically on the same level as biological instincts or id: merely an accident of the material world (in this case, the social world, which, in Freud’s materialistic theory, is simply a product of evolution and chance). The norms of Freud’s super-ego have no spiritual or ultimate moral basis; they are relative, and differ in each society. In some societies, for example, the super-ego may insist that it is right to aggress. The super-ego, in other words, is nothing like the traditional concept of a moral conscience; but by naming it as he does, Freud, whether intentionally or not, creates the illusion that it is more like moral conscience than it really is.

So the first criticism is that Freud’s model has no place for a genuinely transcendent dimension of the human psyche. Second, Freud is certainly mistaken in assuming that our normative social constraints are mere arbitrary conventions. Rather, many of our social inhibitions derive from genetically determined instincts. For example, parents nurture and protect their children not simply because society teaches these behaviors!. These are also familial instincts, found in other animals besides humans. Similarly, if we look carefully, we’ll see that many social inhibitions similarly derive from instincts: to act in a dignified way in public, to share in necessary work and not be lazy, to win the approval of others, etc.

A third criticism is that Freud’s model makes it look like we have only a single ego. This fails to account for the fact, fairly plainly evident, that we actually have many different egos. These egos come and go as circumstances change. We have a work ego, a play ego, a family ego, a citizen ego, a church ego, and so on. Importantly, these egos, or sub-egos as we may call them, may themselves conflict with one another. Indeed conflict among sub-egos is one of the most difficult aspects of our mental life, yet Freud’s theory doesn’t directly address them.

Sorokin’s Model

Figure 2 shows Sorokin’s personality model. Like Freud, Sorokin allows that we have biological drives and instincts. Unlike Freud, Sorokin argues that individual biological instincts may have their own ‘dedicated’ egos. For example, the aggression instinct may give rise to an aggression ego. Alternatively, we can call this a sub-ego, to acknowledge the fact that our ‘ego’ in general (the large circle) consists of many different sub-egos which may take charge of our actions at any given time. Biological instincts and biological sub-egos together comprise the realm of the bioconscious.

Sorokin's personality model

In a similar way, we have many different social instinct and drives. Some are innate (parenting instincts), and some are associated with cultural roles. These create unconscious pressures on us to behave in certain ways, and we develop social egos or sub-egos in order to do so. Our unconscious social drives/instincts, together with our socially-oriented sub-egos comprise what Sorokin called the socioconscious.

But in allowing that we have not one, but many (in fact, potentially a very large number) of alternative sub-egos, any of which may be ‘in charge’ at a given time, we are faced with a huge problem: how to decide which sub-ego should be in control. Freud largely ignores this problem, which is the very essence of the human condition and the problem of free will.

What in us chooses the operative sub-ego in the current situation? And by what criteria? Is this a skill which can be consciously developed, and if so, how? It would seem that this speaks directly to the art of living well, yet it’s absent in Freud’s mechanistic model of personality.

Using examples drawn from his impressive mastery of many fields, including philosophy, religion, history, and art, Sorokin argues that there is a level above the bioconscious and the socioconscious, which he calls the supraconscious. We could, if we wish, simply regard this as a “black box”: an unknown entity whose existence is inferred from considerable empirical evidence (such as the reality of artistic genius), but the exact nature of which we are ignorant. Alternatively, we could allow that this is the traditional conscience or higher Reason which traditional religions claim human beings possess. Mostly either view is compatible with Sorokin’s theory. The important point is that there is something within us, a deep moral sense, which guides our actions. Thus, unlike as with Freud’s model, there is something outside and truly above ego which guides ego’s choices. (A major practical problem with Freud’s model is that, by failing to teach people that they have a moral conscience, they fail to direct their attention to it, and might as well not have it!)

We should mention that for Sorokin the supraconscious is oriented to love, understood as a universal principle and a transcendent fact of the universe. Sorokin ‘mysticism’ in this regard is very rational, and well connected with established philosophical and religious traditions of humankind. Nevertheless he showed a great deal of courage and integrity in insisting the love be taken seriously by scientists — and this uncompromising position certainly contributed to his lack of popularity in his own time and since.

Sorokin’s Model Revised

Sorokin’s interests in personality theory were clearly subordinate to his greater interests in sociology and culture. Partly for that reason, many details of his personality theory are not completely elaborated, some important features remain only implicit. Here I’d like to sketch a slightly more complex version that articulates some of these implicit principles. Figure 3 shows the revised model.

Sorokin's personality model extended

The concept of ego pluralism, and the bioconscious and socioconscious levels remain as with Sorokin’s explicit formulation. The first innovation is to divide the supraconscious realm into a non- or unconscious (abbreviated ucs.) component, and various conscious egos which act on intuitions and inspirations supplied by this higher unconscious. For simplicity we call these the religious (sub-)egos, but understand them to include a variety of sub-egos associated with moral growth, spiritual development, artistic creativity, and the like. That is, we use the word religious here in a very broad way to mean all that by which we re-connect (religio) ourselves with ourselves — i.e., with attainment of inner harmony, integrity, individuation, etc. Regardless of what we call them, just as we have multiple biological sub-egos and multiple social sub-egos, it’s fairly clear that we have multiple religious/moral/creative sub-egos as well. (For example, I have a yoga sub-ego, a Christian sub-ego, and a Roman Catholic sub-ego, and so on.)

In addition, Figure 3 postulates the existence of a unique, central sub-ego, whose responsibility it is to decide which sub-ego — be it religious, biological, or social — is in charge at any given time. Initially we can call this the governing ego, although the Greek term hegemonikon suggests itself as an appropriate term. One main implication of this model is precisely that for optimal personality integration a person must develop a hegemonikon sub-ego in the first place (this might not happen by default, but may require conscious effort and special education), and, secondly, the hegemonikon must become skilled at what it does.

I would propose that one form of effective hegemonikon is what we could call the philosopher sub-ego. That is, at some point in personality development, at least if all goes well, a person realizes that they need an inner philosopher to guide them through life. This is a momentous event, and in a sense marks the boundary between psychological childhood and adulthood. Without going to far into it here, I would propose that what Plato is seeking to do in his writings is precisely this: to awaken within readers the realization that they need such a guiding sub-ego, and that the best form this can take is that of a “lover of Wisdom” — a philosopher sub-ego in the truest sense. This sub-ego becomes a new fixture of the personality and then helps guide psychic integration and growth.

That all for now. I’m not invested in this model, but it does seem scientifically plausible and consistent with certain empirical and literary evidence. Whether I’ll allude to it again remains to be seen. In any case, now it is available for reference. It may prove useful in further explorations of psychological symbolism in the Bible.

But at the very least we’ve given Sorokin credit for his valuable innovations as a personality theorist.

References

Lester, David. Theories of Personality: A Systems Approach. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 1995.

Lester, David. A Subself Theory of Personality. Current Psychology, 26, March 2007, pp. 1–15.

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. Routledge, 1990 (repr. 2013).

Schwartz, Richard C. Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford, 1995 (repr. 2013).

Sorokin, Pitirim A. Society, Culture, and Personality: Their Structure and Dynamics. New York, 1947 (repr. 1962).

Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Ways and Power of Love. 1954 (repr.: Templeton Foundation Press, 2002).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Transformation of Society by the Power of Love

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love-power

Each year on Martin Luther King Day I try to write something related to the principles Dr. King stood for.  This year the topic concerns the work of the sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin.  Sorokin devoted much of the latter part of his career to what he called amitology, that is, a science of love — work which he pursued at the Harvard Center for Creative Altruism. This work was dismissed by the social science establishment as eccentric and unimportant.  But perhaps the time has come to re-examine Sorokin’s contributions and to consider whether he may have been ahead of his time.

The best literary production of this phase of Sorokin’s career is a book titled, The Ways and Power of Love.  The book has many important features, several of which I’d like to mention here.

The first is Sorokin’s theory that love can be understood and studied as a real force or energy.  This notion may seem like a silly or simple-minded idea – one  more fit for a pop song than for scientific discussion. But in Sorokin’s hands the concept is substantial and credible.  As to whether love is a cosmic, metaphysical force, perhaps we cannot know or determine with certainty scientifically.  But we can at least say with some confidence that  in many important and objective ways love functions in the same way that forces and energies act.  Love motivates activity.  Love can be transmitted.  Love is cumulative.  All of these concepts can be operationally defined and demonstrated in objective, observable ways.  We can remain fully scientific and still assert that love is, at the very least, something like a force or energy.

Transformation From a Hate Culture To a Love Culture

A second noteworthy principle of Sorokin’s amitology follows from the first: if love is something like an energy, then we can meaningfully consider the ways in which this energy may be (1) produced, (2) accumulated, and (3) distributed.  These considerations have very practical implications for the kind of cultural transformation needed  in the world today.  We clearly must do something (or at least try) to change the present cultural orientation away from hatred, anger, fear, and conflict as organizing principles.  Much as we might want this transformation to occur, merely wishing for it is not enough.  Something tangible must happen to produce the change.  There must be actual sources of the opposite energy — that is, love — creating and placing this positive energy into the social and cultural milieu.

Clearly the most  obvious way for this to happen is for individuals to become emitters of love energy in their immediate surroundings.  Such an idea is scarcely new.  This was talked about in the 60’s, but without much lasting success. However, if, following Sorokin’s lead, we allow ourselves to see this as a scientific issue, new possibilities emerge.  One example is to see the problem in terms of mathematical chaos theory. We could quite plausibly suppose that the rate of positive cultural change in relation to the number of love emitters is something like exponential.  Imagine certain individuals who see it as their task to go out into their communities spreading love – through their own actions, by setting positive examples, and by teaching others about love.  One or two people alone can accomplish only so much.  But at some point, as the number of love emitters increases, a critical mass is reached, and suddenly the entirely social fabric of the community changes direction — no longer being conflict-, competition-, and fear-based, but love based.

Because such a transformation process is non-linear, the benefits of each additional love-emitter are that much more important.  That is, if you choose to become a love emitter, your added contribution might make the crucial difference; there might already be nine love emitters in your community, but if you become the tenth, the total number may achieve critical mass at which a transformative revolution takes off.

Love and Social Media

It also occurs to me how this principle could be applied to such social media as Facebook.  Unfortunately, the networking potential offered new social media has, thus far, all-to-often been directed negatively. People of every political stripe use Facebook and email for hate campaigns.  Someone will post a derogatory picture and comment about President Obama or Sarah Palin.  Then others will forward it to a dozen of their contacts.  Within a day thousands of copies are circulating — the negative energies of hate, anger, resentment spreading exponentially across the web and around the country.  This scenario is being played out perhaps hundreds of times every day.

But now consider an opposite scenario.  What if people began spreading love and positive energies in precisely the same way?  What if it became our ‘custom’ not to send a hate email to five or ten contacts, but some article concerning love, compassion, generosity, and optimism?

A third noteworthy aspect of Sorokin’s science of love is the importance, and perhaps the central role, of groups and organizations. As a sociologist, Sorokin had a keen awareness of the interplay between society and the personality of the individual.  In place of Freud’s primitive tripartite model of human personality (id, ego, superego), Sorokin understood human personality as a dynamic interplay between a large number of alternative egos or sub-egos within the same person.  Among these egos, Sorokin gave prominent place to those associated with our social roles.  Each group we belong to, and each stratum or role we occupy within that group, has associated with it in our psyche a separate ego.  Thus, for example, as members of a religion, say the Catholic Church, one may have a “Catholic ego.”  And as American citizens, we have a “US citizen ego”, and so on.  To the extent that our social institutions themselves conflict (as when Catholic moral principles teach that war is wrong, but national pride or competitiveness urges a war), then this conflict necessarily manifests itself within our own personalities.  Until such time as our social institutions are themselves harmonized with each other, we will be individually conflicted; and because of these conflicts, we will continually be a cross-purposes within ourselves, never being able to rally all our mental, emotional, and physical resources to accomplish anything productive.

There is much more to this part of Sorokin’s theories, but the main point is that if we wish to increase the number of love emitters in our society, we should give some thought as to how we might develop new social institutions, or adapt old ones, to organize this effort.

Fourth and finally, Sorokin explained how love and altruism should be understood as creative activities — in just the same way that we understand art, literature, and (to some extent at least) scientific activity to be creative.  True creativity comes from a source other than our individual egos and rationalistic minds.  It comes, rather, Sorokin insisted, from a higher source — what he called the supraconscious.  Whether we understand the supraconscious in a religious sense of a grace or inspiring energy from God, or as coming from some kind of collective unconscious, or something else entirely is unimportant.  The mere fact that we have such works as those of Shakespeare, Plato, Beethoven, Mozart, and Michelangelo proves without doubt there is such a thing as creative genius.  And just as there are creative geniuses in art and literature, there are creative geniuses in morality and ethics — people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa.

Moreover, each one of us can creatively assist in the growth and spread of love. Our best ethical contributions, however, come not from our egoistic strivings and rationalistic schemes.  No.  If we are to be agents of a ‘love revolution’, then it is essential that we surrender our egoistic plans to a higher source of inspiration.  Great accomplishments require great humility.

Such then, are several if the key points of Sorokin’s science of love and social transformation.  Does it sound unrealistic?  If so, maybe that’s due to heavy conditioning by our cynical and materialistic culture.  Nobody can be happy in a hate- and conflict-dominated culture.  A change is necessary.  And how else could a cultural transformation occur except by the means outlined by Sorokin?

Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin

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Introduction

Pitirim Sorokin, a leading 20th century sociologist, is someone you should know about. Consider this quote of his:

The organism of the Western society and culture seems to be undergoing one of the deepest and most significant crises of its life. The crisis is far greater than the ordinary; its depth is unfathomable, its end not yet in sight, and the whole of the Western society is involved in it. It is the crisis of a Sensate culture, now in its overripe stage, the culture that has dominated the Western World during the last five centuries….

Shall we wonder, therefore, that if many do not apprehend clearly what is happening, they have at least a vague feeling that the issue is not merely that of “prosperity,” or “democracy,” or “capitalism,” or the like, but involves the whole contemporary culture, society, and man? …

Shall we wonder, also, at the endless multitude of incessant major and minor crises that have been rolling over us, like ocean waves, during recent decades? Today in one form, tomorrow in another. Now here, now there. Crises political, agricultural, commercial, and industrial! Crises of production and distribution. Crises moral, juridical, religious, scientific, and artistic. Crises of property, of the State, of the family, of industrial enterprise… Each of the crises has battered our nerves and minds, each has shaken the very foundations of our culture and society, and each has left behind a legion of derelicts and victims. And alas! The end is not in view. Each of these crises has been, as it were, a movement in a great terrifying symphony, and each has been remarkable for its magnitude and intensity. (P. Sorokin, SCD, pp. 622-623)

Background

Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin (1889–1968) was born in Russia to a Russian father and an indigenous (Komi, an ethnic group related to Finns) mother. Like other intellectuals of his age, he was swept up in the revolt against the tsarist government. He held a cabinet post in the short-lived Russian Provisional Government (1917), and had the distinction of being imprisoned successively by both tsarist and Bolshevist factions. Eventually sentenced to death, he was pardoned by Lenin, emigrated, and came to the US. There he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career, much of it at Harvard University, where he served as head of the sociology department.

His experience and acute observations of Russian politics left him uniquely suited for understanding the transformational forces of the 20th century. By 1937 he published the first three volumes of his masterpiece, Social and Cultural Dynamics, but he continued to refine his theories for nearly three more decades.

Based on a careful study of world history – including detailed statistical analysis of phases in art, architecture, literature, economics, philosophy, science, and warfare – he identified three strikingly consistent phenomena:

  1. There are two opposed elementary cultural patterns, the materialistic (Sensate) and spiritual (Ideational), along with certain intermediate or mixed patterns.  One mixed pattern, called Idealistic, which integrates the Sensate and Ideational orientations, is extremely important.
  2. Every society tends to alternate between materialistic and spiritual periods, sometimes with transitional, mixed periods, in a regular and predictable way.
  3. Times of transition from one orientation to another are characterized by a markedly increased prevalence of wars and other crises.

Main characteristics of the Sensate, Ideational, and Idealistic cultural patterns are listed below. (A more detailed explanation of alternative cultural orientations, excerpted from Sorokin’s writings, can be found here.)

Sensate (Materialistic) Culture

The first pattern, which Sorokin called Sensate culture, has these features:

  • The defining cultural principle is that true reality is sensory – only the material world is real. There is no other reality or source of values.
  • This becomes the organizing principle of society. It permeates every aspect of culture and defines the basic mentality. People are unable to think in any other terms.
  • Sensate culture pursues science and technology, but dedicates little creative thought to spirituality or religion.
  • Dominant values are wealth, health, bodily comfort, sensual pleasures, power and fame.
  • Ethics, politics, and economics are utilitarian and hedonistic. All ethical and legal precepts are considered mere man-made conventions, relative and changeable.
  • Art and entertainment emphasize sensory stimulation. In the decadent stages of Sensate culture there is a frenzied emphasis on the new and the shocking (literally, sensationalism).
  • Religious institutions are mere relics of previous epochs, stripped of their original substance, and tending to fundamentalism and exaggerated fideism (the view that faith is not compatible with reason).

Ideational (Spiritual) Culture

The second pattern, which Sorokin called Ideational culture, has these characteristics:

  • The defining principle is that true reality is supersensory, transcendent, spiritual.
  • The material world is variously: an illusion (maya), temporary, passing away (“stranger in a strange land”), sinful, or a mere shadow of an eternal transcendent reality.
  • Religion often tends to asceticism and moralism.
  • Mysticism and revelation are considered valid sources of truth and morality.
  • Science and technology are comparatively de-emphasized.
  • Economics is conditioned by religious and moral commandments (e.g., laws against usury).
  • Innovation in theology, metaphysics, and supersensory philosophies.
  • Flourishing of religious and spiritual art (e.g., Gothic cathedrals).

Integral (Idealistic) Culture

Most cultures correspond to one of the two basic patterns above. Sometimes, however, a mixed cultural pattern occurs. The most important mixed culture Sorokin termed an Integral culture (also sometimes called an idealistic culture – not to be confused with an Ideational culture.) An Integral culture harmoniously balances sensate and ideational tendencies. Characteristics of an Integral culture include the following:

  • Its ultimate principle is that the true reality is richly manifold, a tapestry in which sensory, rational, and supersensory threads are interwoven.
  • All compartments of society and the person express this principle.
  • Science, philosophy, and theology blossom together.
  • Fine arts treat both supersensory reality and the noblest aspects of sensory reality.

Update:  A more recent article that concisely describes the features of Materialism, Ideationalism, and Idealism is ‘What is Materialism? What is Idealism?‘ (Uebersax, 2013b)

Western Cultural History

Sorokin examined a wide range of world societies. In each he believed he found evidence of the regular alternation between Sensate and Ideational orientations, sometimes with an Integral culture intervening. According to Sorokin, Western culture is now in the third Sensate epoch of its recorded history. Table 1 summarizes his view of this history.

Table 1
Cultural Periods of Western Civilization According to Sorokin

Period Cultural Type Begin End
Greek Dark Age Sensate 1200 BC 900 BC
Archaic Greece Ideational 900 BC 550 BC
Classical Greece Integral 550 BC 320 BC
Hellenistic – Roman Sensate 320 BC 400
Transitional Mixed 400 600
Middle Ages Ideational 600 1200
High Middle Ages, Renaissance Integral 1200 1500
Rationalism, Age of Science Sensate 1500 present

 
Based on a detailed analysis of art, literature, economics, and other cultural indicators, Sorokin concluded that ancient Greece changed from a Sensate to an Ideational culture around the 9th century BC; during this Ideational phase, religious themes dominated society (Hesiod, Homer, etc.).

Following this, in the Greek Classical period (roughly 600 BC to 300 BC), an Integral culture reigned: the Parthenon was built; art (the sculptures of Phidias, the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles) flourished, as did philosophy (Plato, Aristotle). This was followed by a new Sensate age, associated first with Hellenistic  (the empire founded by Alexander the Great) culture, and then the Roman Empire.

As Rome’s Sensate culture decayed, it was eventually replaced by the Christian Ideational culture of the Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages and Renaissance brought a new Integral culture, again associated with many artistic and cultural innovations. After this Western society entered its present Sensate era, now in its twilight. We are due, according to Sorokin, to soon make a transition to a new Ideational, or, preferably, an Integral cultural era.

Cultural Dynamics

Sorokin was especially interested in the process by which societies change cultural orientations. He opposed the view, held by communists, that social change must be imposed externally, such as by a revolution. His principle of immanent change states that external forces are not necessary: societies change because it is in their nature to change. Although sensate or ideational tendencies may dominate at any given time, every culture contains both mentalities in a tension of opposites. When one mentality becomes stretched too far, it sets in motion compensatory transformative forces.

Helping drive transformation is the fact that human beings are themselves partly sensate, partly rational, and partly intuitive. Whenever a culture becomes too exaggerated in one of these directions, forces within the human psyche will, individually and collectively – work correctively.

Crises of Transition

As a Sensate or Ideational culture reaches a certain point of decline, social and economic crises mark the beginning of transition to a new mentality. These crises occur partly because, as the dominant paradigm reaches its late decadent stages, its institutions try unsuccessfully to adapt, taking ever more drastic measures. However, responses to crises tend to make things worse, leading to new crises. Expansion of government control is an inevitable by-product:

The main uniform effect of calamities upon the political and social structure of society is an expansion of governmental regulation, regimentation, and control of social relationships and a decrease in the regulation and management of social relationships by individuals and private groups. The expansion of governmental control and regulation assumes a variety of forms, embracing socialistic or communistic totalitarianism, fascist totalitarianism, monarchial autocracy, and theocracy. Now it is effected by a revolutionary regime, now by a counterrevolutionary regime; now by a military dictatorship, now by a dictatorship, now by a dictatorial bureaucracy. From both the quantitative and the qualitative point of view, such an expansion of governmental control means a decrease of freedom, a curtailment of the autonomy of individuals and private groups in the regulation and management of their individual behavior and their social relationships, the decline of constitutional and democratic institutions.” (MSC p. 122)

But, as we shall consider below, at the same time as these crises occur, other constructive forces are at work.

Trends of our Times

Sorokin identified what he considered three pivotal trends of modern times. The first trend is the disintegration of the current Sensate order:

In the twentieth century the magnificent sensate house of Western man began to deteriorate rapidly and then to crumble. There was, among other things, a disintegration of its moral, legal, and other values which, from within, control and guide the behavior of individuals and groups. When human beings cease to be controlled by deeply interiorized religious, ethical, aesthetic and other values, individuals and groups become the victims of crude power and fraud as the supreme controlling forces of their behavior, relationship, and destiny. In such circumstances, man turns into a human animal driven mainly by his biological urges, passions, and lust. Individual and collective unrestricted egotism flares up; a struggle for existence intensifies; might becomes right; and wars, bloody revolutions, crime, and other forms of interhuman strife and bestiality explode on an unprecedented scale. So it was in all great transitory periods. (BT, 1964, p. 24)

The second trend concerns the positive transformational processes which are already at work:

Fortunately for all the societies which do not perish in this sort of transition from one basic order to another, the disintegration process often generates the emergence of mobilization of forces opposed to it. Weak and insignificant at the beginning, these forces slowly grow and then start not only to fight the disintegration but also to plan and then to build a new sociocultural order which can meet more adequately the gigantic challenge of the critical transition and of the post-transitory future. This process of emergence and growth of the forces planning and building the new order has also appeared and is slowly developing now….

The epochal struggle between the increasingly sterile and destructive forces of the dying sensate order and the creative forces of the emerging, integral, sociocultural order marks all areas of today’s culture and social life, and deeply affects the way of life of every one of us. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

The third trend is the growing importance of developing nations:

“The stars of the next acts of the great historical drama are going to be – besides Europe, the Americas, and Russia – the renascent great cultures of India, China, Japan, Indonesia, and the Islamic world. This epochal shift has already started…. Its effects upon the future history of mankind are going to be incomparably greater than those of the alliances and disalliances of the Western governments and ruling groups. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

Social Transformation and Love


While the preceding might suggest that Sorokin was a cheerless prophet of doom, that is not so, and his later work decidedly emphasized the positive. He founded the Harvard Research Center for Creative Altruism, which sought to understand the role of love and altruism in producing a better society. Much of the Center’s research was summarized in Sorokin’s second masterpiece, The Ways and the Power of Love.

This book offered a comprehensive view on the role of love in positively transforming society. It surveyed the ideals and tactics of the great spiritual reformers of the past – Jesus Christ, the Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, etc. – looking for common themes and principles.

We need, according to Sorokin, not only great figures like these, but also ‘ordinary’ individuals who seek to exemplify the same principles within their personal spheres of influence.  Personal change must precede collective change, and nothing transforms a culture more effectively than positive examples. What is essential today, according to Sorokin, is that individuals reorient their thinking and values to a universal perspective – to seek to benefit all human beings, not just oneself or ones own country.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the subject of yoga (remarkable for a book written in 1954), which Sorokin saw as an effective means of integrating the intellectual and sensate dimensions of the human being. At the same time he affirmed the value of traditional Western religions and religious practices.

The Road Ahead

Sorokin’s theories supply hope, motivation, and vision. They bolster hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that it may not be too far distant. The knowledge that change is coming, along with an understanding of his theories generally, enables us to try to steer change in a positive direction. Sorokin left no doubt but that we are at the end of a Sensate epoch. Whether we are headed for an Ideational or an Integral culture remains to be seen. It is clearly consistent with his theories that an Integral culture – a new Renaissance – is attainable and something to actively seek.

One reason that change may happen quickly is because people already know that the present culture is oppressive. Expressed public opinion, which tends to conformity, lags behind private opinion. Once it is sufficiently clear that the tide is changing, people will quickly join the revolution. The process is non-linear.

The West and Islam

Viewed in terms of Sorokin’s theories, the current tensions between the West and Islam suggest a conflict between an overripe ultra-materialistic Western culture, detached from its religious heritage and without appreciation of transcendent values, against a medieval Ideational culture that has lost much of its earlier spiritual creativity. As Nieli (2006) put it:

“With regard to the current clash between Islam and the West, Sorokin would no doubt point out that both cultures currently find themselves at end stages of their respective ideational and sensate developments and are long overdue for a shift in direction. The Wahabist-Taliban style of Islamic fundamentalism strays as far from the goal of integral balance in Sorokin’s sense as the one-sidedly sensate, post-Christian societies of Northern and Western Europe. Both are ripe for a correction, according to Sorokin’s theory of cultural change, the Islamic societies in the direction of sensate development (particularly in the areas of science, technology, economic productivity, and democratic governance), the Western sensate cultures in the direction of ideational change (including the development of more stable families, greater temperance and self-control, and the reorientation of their cultural values in a more God-centered direction). Were he alive today, Sorokin would no doubt hold out hope for a political and cultural rapprochement between Islam and the West.” (Nieli, p. 373)

The current state of affairs between the West and Islam, then, is better characterized as that of mutual opportunity rather than unavoidable conflict. The West can share its technological advances, and Islam may again – as it did around the 12th century – help reinvigorate the spirit of theological and metaphysical investigation in the West.

Individual and Institutional Changes

Institutions must adapt to the coming changes or be left behind. Today’s universities are leading transmitters of a sensate mentality. It is neither a secret nor a coincidence that Sorokin’s ideas found little favor in academia. A new model of higher education, perhaps based on the model of small liberal arts colleges, is required.

Politics, national and international, must move from having conflict as an organizing principle, replacing it with principles of unity and the recognition of a joint destiny of humankind.

A renewal in religious institutions is called for. Christianity, for example, despite its protestations otherwise, still tends decidedly towards an ascetic dualism – the view that the body is little more than a hindrance to the spirit, and that the created world is merely a “vale of tears.” Increased understanding and appreciation of the spiritual traditions of indigenous cultures, which have not severed the connection between man and Nature, may assist in this change.

Sorokin emphasized, however, that the primary agent of social transformation is the individual. Many simple steps are available to the ordinary person. Examples include the following:

  • Commit yourself to ethical and intellectual improvement. In the ethical sphere, focus first on self-mastery. Be eager to discover and correct your faults, and to acquire virtue. Think first of others. See yourself as a citizen of the world. Urgently needed are individuals who can see and seek the objective, transcendent basis of ethical values.
  • Read Plato and study Platonism, the wellsprings of integral idealism in the West.  For a warm-up, read works of Emerson — Platonism come to America.
  • Cultivate your Intellect and encourage others to do likewise: read history, literature, and poetry; listen to classical music; visit an art museum.
  • Practice yoga.
  • Be in harmony with Nature: plant a garden; go camping; protect the environment.
  • Reduce the importance of money and materialism generally in your life.
  • Turn off the television and spend more time in personal interaction with others.

A little reflection will doubtless suggest many other similar steps. Recognize that in changing, you are not only helping yourself, but also setting a powerfully transformative positive example for others.

The Supraconscious

Sorokin’s later work emphasized the role of the supraconscious — a Higher Self or consciousness that inspires and guides our rational mind. Religions and philosophical systems universally recognize such a higher human consciousness, naming it variously: Conscience, Atman, Self, Nous, etc. Yet this concept is completely ignored or even denied by modern science. Clearly this is something that must change. As Sorokin put it:

By becoming conscious of the paramount importance of the supraconscious and by earnest striving for its grace, we can activate its creative potential and its control over our conscious and unconscious forces. By all these means we can break the thick prison walls erected by prevalent pseudo-science around the supraconscious. (WPL, p. 487)

The reality of the supraconscious is a cause for hope and humility: hope, because we are confident that the transpersonal source of human supraconsciousness is providential, guiding culture through history with a definite plan; and humility, because it reminds us that our role in the grand plan is achieved by striving to rid ourselves of preconceived ideas and selfishly motivated schemes, and by increasing our capacity to receive and follow inspiration. It is through inspiration and humility that we achieve a “realization of man’s unique creative mission on this planet.” (CA, p. 326).

References and Reading

  • Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. Social and Cultural Dynamics. 4 vols. 1937 (vols. 1-3), 1941 (vol. 4); rev. 1957 (reprinted: Transaction Publishers, 1985). [SCD]
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age. E. P. Dutton, 1941 (reprinted 1957). [CA]

updated 11 March 2015