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Pitirim Sorokin Studies in Russia in the Context of the New Section on Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity in the American Sociological Association 

Pavel Krotov
Pitirim A. Sorokin Foundation, Boston,  USA

Creative altruism and amitology were the highest points in Pitirim Sorokin’s career-long search for an integral sociology. Studies of the Harvard Research Center in Creative Altruism, which he established, became the most fundamental and insightful sociological investigation on this subject at that time. His books “Sociological Theories of Today”, “The Reconstruction of Humanity,” “The Ways and Power of Love,” “Forms and Techniques of Altruistic and Spiritual Growth,” “Altruistic Love, and Explorations in Altruistic Love and Behavior,” and  "Power and Morality," (with Walter A. Lunden) became classics for those who study altruism, morality, and solidarity.


The formation of the Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity section in the American Sociological Association opens a new page in studying Pitirim Sorokin’s intellectual inheritance and his contribution to this field. At the same, this event also lays a new ground for Sorokin studies in Russia.  How these two processes are connected, and why organizational change in the American Sociological Association might have an impact on the development of sociology in Russia, are addressed in this article.  Pitirim Sorokin studies are overviewed in the context of changes in Russian sociology since the 1990s. 

Two main points of this article are (1) The current position of Pitirim Sorokin, and his rich intellectual inheritance in Russia, can both be explained by the transitional character of virtually every aspect of  Russian life, including the intellectual. The main attribute of this “transitionality” is the search for a new identity; and (2) in this search for a new identity the trends and developments in sociology in the United States  are essential factors in shaping the future research agenda of  Russian sociology.  

The Foundation of Change

The formal break with Communism and Marxism in Russia created a vacuum for new ideas and concepts for the society, as well as for its intellectual subcultures. In the early 1990s this vacuum was instantly filled with the US-rooted neo-liberal views on market society, with spin-offs of this view in all the social sciences. This neo-liberal approach assumed a “visionary” projecting of the behavioral model of the “egoistic, profit-seeking individual” on the building of new economic and social institutions.  However, the actual change, which the Russian society was undergoing after the collapse of the system of state socialism, was hardly known. Yet, a neo-liberal model of  market society was firmly imposed on many studies of the post-Communist transition in Russia. A preference for a singular dominant ideological concept, as opposed to ideological diversity, was still strong in the society.  An alternative  approach in studies aimed at understanding the character of transition was that of western Marxists. They undertook the first thorough studies of actual economic and social changes in the new Russian society, focusing on the industrial sector of the economy. 

Transitional Problems

These two approaches, the neo-liberal and the western Marxist, overshadowed the ideas of Pitirim Sorokin, although he  exemplified the most obvious figure for a new intellectual Russian doctrine. He embraced both Russian and Western cultures, and was a world-recognized authority on studying social change. Yet he was seen mainly as a historic figure associated with the Russian Revolution and the foundation of Russian sociology at the beginning of the twentieth century. There was very little recognition of his contribution to social science as one of history’s foremost analysts of culture, social structure, and social change.  

Several reasons help to explain the minimal attention given to his sociological heritage. One was a virtual absence of Sorokin’s writings that were translated into the Russian language, or even  available in Russia. As Sorokin's writings were banned during Communism, very few of his books had reached the Soviet Union, and none of them was translated, despite the fact that Sorokin was (and probably still remains) the most translated sociologist in the world.  

A second reason can be attributed to the organizational change that occurred in research and the teaching of the social sciences, including sociology, in Russia.  During the 1990s once well-established sociological centers of the Soviet Union, such as the “Moscow school” (Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences) and the “Leningrad school” (Leningrad State University), as well as other regional centers, such as Tallinn, Ekaterinburg, Ufa, with their own traditions and specializations in sociology, experienced enormous fragmentation in their search for resources to survive through the financial crises of the 1990s.  

During the Soviet regime theoretical and research centers at the Academy of Sciences   provided  the curriculum  for teaching sociology in colleges. With its collapse, the system of communication between research and teaching also collapsed. It thus became the task of individual professors and lecturers to draft programs. The result was curriculum that centered around either slightly revised Soviet Marxists dogmas,  or fashionable modernistic theories. Another substantial loss for the social sciences in Russia resulted from an outflow of the most advanced researchers, and especially young graduate students, to the fields of marketing research,  public relations,  and various business-oriented research facilities, all of which were new to Russian society. Among other consequences, this outflow of a promising intellectual cohort in sociology impeded the generation of a new national social paradigm based on a comprehensive understanding of  Russian society and good knowledge of Western social thought and research. Instead, a murky time of transition allowed a certain type of individual to fill this niche,  simply by virtue of  knowing English. They often misrepresented Western social sciences in Russia and, in turn, misrepresented Russian social sciences in the West. Although it was an inevitable and temporary process, it strongly affected the growth of a new generation of researchers in the field.  

The third factor that influenced a lack of Sorokin studies, and especially his research on altruism and amitology, was a monopoly controlling research agendas during the 1990s. At that time, the research agenda in most of the atomized centers of social research in Russia was designed around collaboration with Western universities and their research projects. The sponsoring agency had ultimate power over priorities in research agenda and the conceptual framework. Despite a variety of research subjects, ranging from a restructuring of post-Soviet enterprise to class-consciousness, an underlying theoretical approach was modernization and the idea of progress. The Communist system was identified as a major obstacle toward progressive and democratic development of  Russian society. It was believed that Russia was finally liberated from the evil of Communism and soon, with its intellectual and other resources, would join most of the developed societies. Most of the studies were designed to see how these new institutions were to be established in the post-Communist society. Such a dogmatic approach to social change in Russia narrowed down the topical and  methodological field and left little chance for alternative views, including Pitirim Sorokin’s. 

Problematic Assumptions

Since the hard-core neoliberal approach dominated both the political and intellectual environments, the focus was on applied research that would facilitate the government “getting the basics right.” This meant that if the key market institutions such as private property, market as opposed to state regulation in the economy, financial liberalization, and political freedom measured in number of political parties, are set, then the rest societal institution would follow to form a modern democracy in Russian with an American analogue in standard of living. There was very little consideration that 1) these assumptions can be false; 2) human behavior is much more complex than a simple deterministic model of a “rational man”; and 3) most importantly, that there is a question of values and a “Greater Good” that goes far beyond satisfying materialistic needs. Even if such doubts were emerging among intellectuals, they had very little chance to develop within the context of the dominance of the new monopolistic neo-liberal doctrine.          

The lack of knowledge about the full range of Pitirim Sorokin’s contribution to the social sciences affected the few studies on altruism, morality, and solidarity undertaken in Russia. Most of these were undertaken by psychologists or philosophers. Topics included paying attentions to differences in the formation of altruism among children, and discussions on the nature of altruism and altruistic behavior. Some had interesting empirical research for applied purposes. For example, Larisa Antilogova conducted  research aimed at defining the role of altruism for social workers in Russia by measuring the altruism level among undergraduate students  (HYPERLINK "http://hpsy.ru/public/x2623.htm"http://hpsy.ru/public/x2623.htm). However, none of these endeavors even mention Sorokin’s vast body of literature on altruism and the studies he had led at the Research Center for Creative Altruism.

New Opportunities           

After a decade of living without Communism,  the euphoria surrounding  the neo-liberal way to build a new society has disappeared among the people. Likewise, pressure to create a sociology based on a monopoly of modernistic paradigms has strongly subsided. Now the social sciences in Russia are facing the problem of searching for their identity once again.  This creates a new chance to build a proper niche for Sorokin’s studies and his vast intellectual inheritance.  

For the benefit of Sorokin’s true intellectual legacy, the chase for a lucrative and fashionable research agenda during the 1990s did not stop meticulous and devoted efforts to return Sorokin back to Russia. Although Sorokin Studies were not institutionalized, there were a number of individual scientists who continued the transmission of  Pitirim Sorokin’s  creative work during the neo-liberal US period in post-Communist Russia. Sociologist Vadim Sapov, from the Institute of Sociology in Moscow,  restored Sorokin’s book “Hunger as a Factor.” Copies of this book had been  destroyed by the Communists. He also translated the one-volume edition of “Social and Cultural Dynamics.”  Professor of the High School of Economics, Nikita Pokrovski, wrote several articles related to Pitirm Sorokin's theoretical inheritance. Historians Yuri Doikov, from Archanglesk, and Leonid Panov did excellent research on the intellectual environment of Sorokin, and on his creative work and activities as a public sociologist in Prague and Berlin before he moved to the United States. Nikolai Zuzev, a philosopher from Komi, wrote a PhD dissertation on Pitirim Sorokin’s philosophy of love. Pavel Krotov translated Sorokin's autobiography, "A Long Journey," into Russian, and analyzed it from a creative altruism perspective. An important development for Sorokin’s altruism, morality, and solidarity studies is the  “A Yearbook of Sociology” initiated by Dmitry Efremenko at the Institute of Information for Social Sciences. Beginning with the 2010 issue a special section will be devoted to Pitirim Sorokin’s intellectual inheritance. Apart from it, he started regular publications on Sorokin, altruism, morality, and social solidarity in the INION Reference Journal, which is the leading journal of reviews on the social sciences in Russia. Finally, the delegation of Russian sociologists with Dr. Alexander Gofman attended the first meetings of the Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity section at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.      


One of the distinct features of Sorokin’s studies in Russia is that the family of Pitirim Sorokin provides great support for researchers in their father’s former homeland. Dr. Sergei Sorokin, a younger son of Pitirim Sorokin, gave a presentation at the International Symposium in Russia in 1999. Since then he supported several projects aimed at providing new generation of sociologists in Russia with knowledge about research and historic heritage of Pitirim Sorokin in international community. The family gave access to archives for the first publication of Pitirim Sorokin’s correspondence, accompanied by invaluable comments and reviews. The book “Pitirim Sorokin: Selected Correspondence” illustrated the diversity of Pitirim Sorokin’s talent, his engagement with major political events, social theories, and famous people, such as Albert Einstein, Hebert Hoover, Florian Znanecki, Abraham Maslow, and others.

Sergei Sorokin and Richard Hoyt prepared several manuscripts for the book “Unknown Sorokin: Facets of Life and Creativity” edited by Yuri Yakovetz.  

Finally, The Pitirm A. Sorokin Foundation was established in 2011 with of the tasks to publicize and to promote Sorokin’s research experiences in Russia. 

As a sign of recognition for the family’s efforts to support Sorokin’s studies, an initiative group from the Russian Association of Professional Sociologists invited the Foundation to join them and members of the new section of the American Sociological Association in writing and publishing a “Handbook on Sociology of Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity” in Russia.    

Current Tasks    

 I see the current tasks of Sorokin’s studies in Russia as organized around  three venues. The first venue is to publicize Pitirim Sorokin’s true contribution to the social sciences in order to overcome a stereotype that his “System of Sociology” is the most significant achievement in his intellectual life. This viewpoint, in which Sorokin is presented mainly as one of the founders of Russian sociology, remains one of the problems in teaching the social sciences. In fact, many sociology instructors design the course on Principles of Sociology based on his 1920’s two-volume edition  “System of Sociology”. The “blessing” that this book was written and published in Russian became Pitirim Sorokin’s “curse” because this has overshadowed his later much more mature and significant research and writings.  Most of his half a century’s studies are known only due to the Russian translations of the autobiography “A Long Journey.”  The excellent research on Sorokin's life and ideas by Barry Johnston in his book “Pitirim A. Sorokin: An Intellectual Biography” has not been translated into Russian,  and is known only by a few specialists.  

To present the full range of Sorokin’s intellectual inheritance, it  is also important to prevent the current tendencies of radical nationalists to make him a person of “one season,” focusing on his early writings and his political career in Russia.  The logical step after translating "Social and Cultural Dynamics"  into Russian will be to translate his works on creative altruism, which have experienced a new rise of interest in the world, but are the least known in Russia and hardly taught at colleges. Besides translations, publications, and book exchanges,  a digitizing of Pitirim Sorokin’s books to make them available on-line will be another practical step to bring the reader to the source.          

A second venue is to organize intellectual exchanges and debates in the social science community about Sorokin and about his ideas. Particularly important is the consideration of   their great applicability to the ongoing change in  Russian society. For example, discussions about "Public Sociology" suddenly revealed and re-activated Pitirim Sorokin’s vision of  sociology and his pioneering efforts in this area. Similarly, the entire social change theoretical luggage is waiting for its chance to show its research potential for the Russian post-Communist society. Organizational arrangement for the study of Sorokin’s ideas in Russia will certainly facilitate such debates.  

      Third, the most challenging task is to design research projects engaging Pitirim Sorokin’s ideas and concepts. For example, a year ago I designed a research project aimed at testing how Sorokin’s concept of moral polarization contributes to an understanding of the strategies adopted by Russian workers families to cope with hardships during the period of economic crisis. Interestingly, even at the planning stage, I discovered that, among over thirty families being studied, clear evidence indicates that solidarity, as opposed to “rational economic behavior,” appeared to work best. When families have values that go beyond opportunistic actions seeking personal benefits, they are better able to perform necessary tasks and to survive. .

This is just one example, in fact, the applicability of Sorokin’s studies on altruism, morality, and solidarity goes both ways. On the one hand, the mechanisms of reproduction of morality, social solidarity and altruism have practical application to cope with the severe ongoing crises in Russia. On the other hand, this marginal state of Russian society provides ample study material on those subjects. As Sorokin noted, crises produce moral and religious polarization, with outbursts of altruistic behavior, as well as negative deviations.      

Thus, after over a decade of neglect, Pitirim Sorokin's multi-faceted talent and his comprehensive system of sociology are gradually being made available to the Russian intellectual community. The more this public discovers about Sorokin and his ideas, the more their applicability to current processes in Russian society is evident.  Ironically, the success of reviving Sorokin’s intellectual inheritance depends also on activities within the American Sociological Association. Establishing a section on Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity, which were Pitirim Sorokin’s scientific passions, extends a helping hand to those in Russia who are trying to reveal the true value of his ideas for the advance of sociology as a science and for the betterment of society.  


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