Pitirim Sorokin as The Invisible Man

The road not taken

No other college would consider me. (After they accepted me, another college followed suit with a very token gesture but that was all.) I thought this non-response was because my A-levels were too poor. There may have been more to it than that. I believe there was. Anyway, this one place was gutsy enough to give me a chance, despite off-putting reference.

At first, everything went swimmingly. In the course of three years, they get to know you better. Ones personality defects become apparent, in my case, not having a personality. And the kindness and good will may become somewhat strained.

So, it is with some little sadness, that I realise what a disappointment I must've been to them, for all their good intentions.

The truth, as I see it, is that I was the worst possible student they could have chosen. Not so much because of my total lack of social skills.
I could have managed somehow as an unsocial sociologist.

Nor because sociology, as they finally said, was the wrong subject for me.
No, the real reason is that my purpose for the subject was at odds with theirs. It was an incompatible union. Something that should never have been, but was not without its uses.

As a new college student, already fed-up of set essays, I only reluctantly allowed the course to relieve me of my ignorance of voting method. Even so, my indifference lasted a good many years after that.
So I cannot really blame the public for their chronic gullibility and stupidity, as only chance eventually redeemed my own, on that issue.

It is so easy to be deceived. Little did I know how guilty of three years gullibility and stupidity I was, on that very course.

In my old age, I came across a book called Holding Up A Mirror, by Anne Glyn-Jones. The subtitle is: How Civilisations Decline. Her inspiration is the sociological theory of Pitirim Sorokin. As one of the near victims of the Russian revolution, he had a personal interest in this question, culminating in his four volume epic, Social And Cultural Dynamics.

Long ago and far away (by my standards) in the early days, I recall a student asked a lecturer about Sorokin.
This is my only memory of Sorokin ever being discussed for so much as a whole minute or two, in three years.
(That's not to say he wasnt, of course, but it is surely indication enuf!)

The lecturer replied that his was a cyclical theory – which already seemed to put a question mark over it – and a vast undertaking to be left for post-graduate work.

The young have to take much on trust because they know nothing of the real world. I had faith in my teachers, because they had faith in me. But the moral is not to take authority on trust.

Early days, I was under the delusion that I might have a future in sociology. Sixties Britain was a hopeful time in which linear progress seemed more believable than cyclical decline.
I thought, maybe I'll come to this ambitious work after graduating. That is how I squared my conscience and so dismissed Sorokin from further consideration.

That was the road not taken.

And then, there I was, feeling worn out, and on the point of retiring age – if I'd had any career to retire from – reading the preface of Holding Up A Mirror, where the author says that unlike Max Weber, Sorokin didn't believe in a value-neutral sociology.

When I read that, I knew that I had made a big mistake, a lifetime ago, in not traveling the Sorokin road.

For, it has to be understood, that this sociology course, that I had the great privilege to be on, was an exercise in purely factual scholarship, that excluded all values.
Max Weber was its idol, on whom we were invited to vent such enthusiasm as we had.

This academic detachment was accompanied by an irritating affectation of out-of-hours trendy leftism. One party-time story, possibly apocryphal, had two leading lecturers steal a crate of drinks from the Conservative club.

Whereas Sorokins theory is based on conflicting values, of religion versus materialism, whose limitations eventually bring down the unbalanced societies restricted to either of them.
Nevertheless, ruinous conflicts may be transcended by an integral values system for society.

While my mentors were allegedly pilfering off them, the Tory party stole the 1970 general election. So it was reported, in the Mail on Sunday, by Simon Walters, (19 january 2003) and Ive given it a skimped mention on my page: A nations decline with the aversion to democracy.

A bribing Tory bought Labours campaign plan, because he wanted Britain within the Common Market tariff wall to suit his business interests. A crippling entry deal resulted, after the Tories won the election.

We've never heard the end of Watergate. With monotonous regularity, new scandals have a -gate suffix to them. But of Britains election scandal, by bribery rather than burglary, we've scarcely heard a whimper. Tho, the deceit did indeed change history, if its dying perpetrator boasted true, and grievously for the worse.

A Labour contemporary pretended he was "a bit confused." A colleague denied this. The claim is not so easily dismissed. Or do we have to settle for the fact that the country of watergate is just more honest than Britain?
And that boasted treachery seems scarcely the beginning of the fleecings that people have so far put up with, with seemingly endless resignation.

So, there in the midst of all our naivety about progress, Britains conveniently unwritten constitution was being secretly under-mined (most probably).

The career academic vs the world changer.

The possible advantage of not knowing about Sorokins Herculean labours on the fall of civilisations may have been that I was not so overwhelmed as to be unable to think independently.

What do you do when you suddenly read a candidate for the Darwin of sociology? Ones petty conceit may self-congratulate on finding minor improvements, or contrive to dismiss it.

These alternatives correspond, in Darwins case, to the whippersnappers and the fundamentalists. H G Wells, in his Experiment In Autobiography, describes as whippersnappers those researchers who prided themselves in finding things that Darwin didn't know.

It's taken me a working lifetime to stumble upon the fact that Sorokin was doing just the kind of sociology that I'd hoped to study as a young man, using scientific method to learn how society can reform.

I'm not aggrieved by this missed opportunity. I'm not academic by nature. And I've never had the emotional development to make me a team player for any career (or, dare I say it, even for family life, personal limitations which I regret).

Sorokin did have the required personal maturity, I didnt, which induced colleagues world-wide to help him with his statistical compilations, for his masterpiece, Social and Cultural Dynamics, that charted the sacred or profane preoccupations and tendencies of societies, across the world, thru-out the ages, as reflected across the range of the arts, and in the presuppositions of the sciences, and indeed all the major institutions.

This kind of universalism is a world away from the objective of a career.

The following incident, when we were new students, was revealing of a lecturers mind-set. An academic, with learned and popular publications to his credit, and, we were reminded, had got his name amongst a few colleagues in a footnote of a standard textbook, honored our little concrete pile of a college with a visit.

When he set eyes on the back of the conference room, where I was lurking myopicly, in my mis-prescribed dark green glasses, he gave a loud sigh and heaved himself in his seat.

The next time my tutor set eyes on me, he couldn't restrain a sniff of dismay at this letter-down of the side.

No doubt it was all justified. I may perhaps mention that my optician seemed to mistake a sensitive eye, damaged by a ball, as a need for my wading about in bottle-green tinted glasses. This I did, for the three years of the sociology course, till I got back and remonstrated with him.

He still talked me into glasses with a slight blue tint, until I got him to replace those as well. Then he gave me some bottle-bottom thick lenses, which created light scrawls all over my sight, so that I had to insist he give me back my old lenses, which he graciously permitted, all at my own expense.

The moral of that anecdote is: youth is pliable.
This may be because the young have to be adaptable to any surroundings that they happen to be born into. But it has the disadvantage that youth may be sadly misled.
Dont I know it.

To get back to the subject, career science with its publication credits and prestige prizes suggests that scholars are still at school like over-grown children, happy with praise and presents. Few of them are going to challenge the system, as Noam Chomsky complained. Yet questioning assumptions is how problems are solved. And one cannot deny that the social system has problems.

Sorokin was different to the usual graduate from school to scholar, who knows nothing of "the real world" (to use our course teachers term). He had a harsh working life and high responsibility in political service. He had known personal hardship and danger.

Value-neutral vs values-primacy sociology.

Some years ago, I mentioned my student disagreements with value-free or value-neutral sociology, in a little essay on-line called: Max Weber work ethic and my student mistakes.

I didn't bring out my eventual one-man contribution to the sixties age of protest, by campaigning for H G Wells to be recognised as a sociologist.

Staff and students alike did not agree. (There were some incidental exceptions to this.) Afterwards, a course graduate at London University found a thesis on The Sociology Of H G Wells.

In his essay, The So-called Science Of Sociology, which I pointed out to my tutor (who had the grace to admit he'd not heard of it) Wells advocated sociology, as the synthesis of the good, true and beautiful, in the imaginative and critical construction of Utopias.

He followed Immanuel Kant in regarding the social sciences as "the moral sciences," to refute David Hume on a radical dualism between ethics and science.

Sorokin was in the same tradition, also emfasising an integration of the good, the true and the beautiful.

I had followed this debate in The Structure Of Social Action by Talcott Parsons, who charmingly had tea with Max Webers widow. This great scholarly work was emfaticly (emphaticly) the book that our tutor enthusiasticly recommended, when we were beginning our studies.

Hume famously woke Kant out of his "dogmatic slumbers." Unfortunately, Kant did not wake British academe out of its. Naturally enuf (enough), academics took the line of least resistance, first set down by the Royal Society, when they promised to keep out of politics.

Parsons classic came out about the same time as Sorokin magnum opus. Sorokin wrote many books. His late book, The Basic Trends Of Our Time, is an overview of his lifes work.
He also made a gallant case against the demonisation of his countrymen, and threat of devastating war, when it would have been understandable had he shaken the Russian dust off his feet.

Yet in all of three years, not once was I set any of his books for an essay or discussion topic. Nor was any lecture, that I know of, given on his work. And I was a diligent attender, if nothing else.

We were set Parsons follow-up work The Social System. Fellow students generally found it unreadable and there was what amounted to a passive but unyeilding mass rebellion against doing so.

C Wright Mills disparaged it, in The Sociological Imagination, meaning the lack thereof, in the profession.

The academic gossip was that Parsons tried to outlaw Mills from the profession.

F R Cowell, in Values In Human Society, complains that Mills was apparently following in Sorokins foot-steps without acknowledging it. Sorokin had already written a critique called: Fads And Foibles In Sociology.

No wonder our lecturers were not eager to discuss Sorokin. They were only following a more widespread studied inattention, that provoked Sorokin to his critique.

Not till i read it from Sorokin himself did I learn that Parsons was a member of Sorokins staff at Harvard. (It is quite possible, of course, that I heard and forgot this snippet on the course, not attaching any significance to it at the time.)

Now that I'm, at last, in on the secret, I think our sociology course was highly remiss in its value-neutral dogmatism. That can't be helped. I regret being so critical of academics who I owe much gratitude for a further education, I wouldnt otherwise have had.

My real complaint is against academic life in general for still pursuing this filosofical (philosophical) dualism of facts and values.

(I studied this question when I was thirty-five, and working as a shop assistant. See: The moral sciences as the ethic of scientific method.
At sixty-five, I'm just putting-up a further essay on the subject:
Science is ethics or "electics."
A new metafysics and model of reality.)

The course spent much time agonising about whether sociology could ever become a science.
So much did they do so, that I was astonished, at course end, by our lecturers dismissal of the issue as of very minor importance.
What then exactly was sociology for?

Sorokin could have told me, if he'd been given a course spokesman. He died in 1968, the first year of the course, I was on, but this did not prompt any colleag to commemorate his lifes work, beyond, no doubt, a passing mention.

Andreski, Huxley, Wells.

Subsequently, Stanislav Andreski brought out: Social Sciences As Sorcery. This was another critique of their sorry state. It also failed to tip me off about Sorokin.

Andreski found some easy targets, such as the cult of Ethnomethodology, which its founder, Garfinkel, once described, in a flash of lucidity, as to see what can be done to make trouble.

An “ethnomethodologists” sister rebuked: Please, no more experiments. We’re not rats.

I remember a lecture even on this unworthy fashion-monger. But not on Sorokin, the now most widely cited sociologist.

Andreski surveyed political states, in his book, Latin America: Parasitism and Subversion. As the title implies, stability was generally lacking. Chile was an exception, with a long-standing if limited parliamentary constitution. Were that to fall, it would be a disaster.
About two years later, a CIA-led coup replaced the elected Allende with the atrocious Pinochet regime.

Had I read Andreski books before, instead of after, leaving the course, I might have made a grade less humble an exam result. That just goes to say that I could engage with a writer about the moral realities, the world over, behind peoples hardships, which are not academic.

That belated reading was my own fault, because Andreski was on the course reading lists. (Sorokin must've been, there, too, tho I dont remember how prominently.)

The lecturers were not examination fiends. They even talked the education board into dropping end-of-second year exams. Nevertheless, having grown-up under relentless examination, I was left in a mental strait-jacket: I was forever writing copious notes, in a failed attempt to remember unmemorable set work, and so severely restricting the range and enterprise of my reading and learning.

Not that exams matter, except of course for a career. Despite my frantic attempts to indoctrinate myself by scribbling away at notes, little sociology sank in, to churn out in exams. And I really knew, at the time, that I deserved the result I got. But that didnt lessen a bitter feeling of injustice.

An other student observed, I only came to life, talking about H G Wells.
Certain Pacific islanders wilted away under the Western importation of a mechanistic world-view. This was told, in Ends And Means, by Aldous Huxley.
When I urged the book upon my tutor, he dismissed it, as trendy socialism, he'd read in his young days.

I was scandalised by the belittling of the works aims and scope.
(By the way, Huxleys studies of Eastern religions were comparable with Sorokins investigations, especially: The Ways and Power of Love. Types, factors and techniques of moral transformation.)

Sociology, my tutor informed me, had parted company with its socialist beginnings.
In other words, any moral or imperative was to be branded and banned from the subject.

Our sociology lecturers followed the Parsons line that sociology was mainly continental European. So, promoting H G Wells, an Englishman, (not to mention Huxley) as a sociologist, was a further challenging of premises being taught.

More could be said about Wells the social scientist as intelligent social reformer. And I've already said much in my essay, World Peace Thru Democracy: HG Wells neglected third phase.

But the irony of it! I never dreamt that there would be such a thinker within the recognised ranks of sociology, none less than the august Harvard departmental head, Pitirim Sorokin.

What an exposure of my limitations of enterprise to not find this out! Even tho I had no belief in academic radicalism, what a proof of my failure to do a proper search of the literature, without necessarily having to absorb the nine tenths of stuff, unreadable to the average person, that makes up every genre from mathematics to formula romance.

I remember a lecturer, not initially hostile to me, trying to help me, by explaining I had to be selective in my approach to reading.
But, as Sorokin would say, I did not have the grace of understanding, to profit by his good advice.

Near the end of the course, he invited me to leave for a literature course. I believe that is likened to the offer of a poison chalice. Other lecturers also followed this line, that I was literary rather than sociological - a demarcation dispute, used against Wells himself.

This lecturer once commented that the people, who wanted to change things never did any good (in so many words) as academics.
That just shows how Sorokin was out of the picture. And not to take lecturers on trust.

Another confidence, he made, was that the social services would keep poverty going in this country another twenty years.

I think we were expected to be incredulous.

Of course it is unfair to pick on casual words someone said, at any time, let alone nearly half a century ago.

We all say short-sighted things, not being able to see the future. I'm merely high-lighting a nineteen-sixties state of mind that seems almost utopian in its Victorian assumption of linear progress, that had survived two world wars and chilled-out in the cold war.

Another lecturer, early in the course said: When we've tackled the problem of poverty in the world, then we must see to curing mental illness.
This was a bit confusing, at first, because it gave the impression that sociology, as they taught it, had something to do with this. I suppose, it did, if you went into the social services option of the course, in the second year.

This lecturer was a tonic actually. His good spirits and humor were the soul of the course, if a career-academic blinkered one. Arent we all in harness to a living?
He made a laf of the superstitions against the mentally ill. And was not too complimentary about their healers.

I probably had this stigma hanging over me in my school reference. Recently, I found out that a doctor had labeled me, as a child, with the standard tag that was used to excuse institutionalisation. According to a tv documentary, in the same period, a woman, with this same tag, had been psychiatricly incarcerated and exerimented on, because her parents didnt like her boyfriend.

Sorokin was much wiser than we were. While Western sociology followers of Max Weber were complacently explaining, after the fact, the predominance of the West, Sorokin early saw the rise of the rest of the world, now so over-whelmingly obvious. He also saw the coming chaos and studied, in his thoro way, how it might be redeemed.

At course end, I was surprised to hear of lecturers scrambling for new posts, giving an insight into what academic careers are about.

I realised then what a transitory fase (phase) this three-year course really had been. To me, it was everything, but turned to nothing. To them, it was a staging post.
I felt left without a future.

Richard Lung.

april 2013.
revised & uploaded july 2014.

To top

To home page