I am reading Pitirim A. Sorokin’s groundbreaking work The Sociology of Revolution (1925) now. I am surprised how well it holds up after a century or so; it is quite good.
In addition, I had occasion to come across the following article (POSTED HERE ABOVE), which is based upon an analysis by a musicologist of the chapter on music* in the first volume of Sorokin’s Social and Cultural Dynamics:
“Sorokin’s Theory of Fluctuation of Forms of Music”
by Glen Haydon
Papers Read by Members of the American Musicological Society at the Annual Meeting (December 29th and 30th, 1938), pp. 74-83
Glen Haydon was an American musicologist instrumental in the founding of the Department of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It has occurred to me that Sorokin’s strengths are also his weaknesses. The scope of his works is broad, his ambition and purpose in writing magisterial tomes that aim so high and attempt to go beyond dry sociology, beyond mere fact finding and data collection are impressive.
Yet, the scope often seems too broad; conclusions are often found to be erroneous when subjected to close analysis.
The “problem,” it seems to me, is that, while writing works of great originality and interest, of potentially great significance for humanity, Sorokin often wrote too hastily and not with the strict attention to accuracy of historical or sociological/cultural facts and data required of a scholar.
So that, as he tells us, in The Sociology of Revolution, he examines: “The Russian Revolutions of 1905, 1917-1924; and that of the seventeenth century ; the French Revolutions of 1789, 1848, 1870-71; the German Revolution of 1848; the English Revolution of the seventeenth century; some mediæval and antique revolutionary periods [such as the Bohemian Revolution of the fifteenth century]; the Egyptian, Persian, and other great revolutions.” Actually, most of his findings are based upon his deep knowledge, as a participant as well as a professor of sociology, of the Russian Revolution. And, there is a reasonable amount of coverage of the French Revolution, while other historical periods and revolutions are merely touched upon.
If one examines Sorokin’s copious footnotes in this work, one will readily see that he is writing not as a historian but as a sociologist engaged in the study of comparative societies and civilizations; and that, with the exception of the Russian Revolution, he did not have an in-depth knowledge of any of the other revolutions he studied (I would say haphazardly) and used to derive conclusions from. His sources are secondary sources (most of them read in Russian translation). What did Sorokin know about the Egyptian Revolution or “the great Greek and Roman Revolutions”? The answer: very little.
From a reading of Glen Haydon’s paper, one comes to essentially the same conclusion. Sorokin’s categorizations of ideational, idealistic, and sensate forms and periods of music rely on findings and conclusions about musical styles and works/composers that are often inaccurate. (And the imposition by Sorokin of his scholarly schema — an artifact, so to speak — upon the history of Western music. This from a professor, Sorokin. who had a deep appreciation and love, as an aesthete, of classical music.)
But, says Haydon:
In spite of my quarrels with many of the details of Sorokin’s treatment of music, I feel that I should be very remiss in my duty if I did not acknowledge some of the many and important values of the work. First of all, I want to pay tribute to the man who has had a sufficiently comprehensive insight into the intricacies of cultural history to enable him to evolve a theory applicable to all its ramifications; and who has had the courage to attempt to put it to the acid test of application within the several fields of art, science, philosophy, religion, and general sociology. In the midst of the ever-present necessity for specialization we need relief from the deadening effects of over-specialization; we need to gain a sympathetic insight into the nature and problems of other fields, and some notion of the long-range and immediate forces at work in the cultural processes of today. Certainly, Sorokin’s work constitutes a significant contribution to the overcoming of this difficulty. It is most stimulating to see him apply his methodology to very complex subject material. Nearly every page suggests a half dozen topics for further study and investigation. It seems to me this is one of the greatest values a book can have.
When I think of the profundity and impact of works of Sorokin such as The Sociology of Revolution, Hunger as a Factor in Human Affairs, The Crisis of Our Age, and Social and Cultural Mobility which are not aimed solely at sociologists, I find myself agreeing — extrapolating Haydon’s comments and placing them in a wider context — with the thrust of what Haydon was saying. Who can deny that Sorokin reached valid, significant conclusions of great import; that he was clear eyed and prophetic in his insight and vision?
So that, despite weak scholarly underpinnings, The Sociology of Revolution stands up under the test of time. Its conclusions are valid: “A society which has never known how to live, which has been incapable of carrying through adequate reforms, but has thrown itself in the arms of revolution, has to pay the penalty for its sins by the death of a considerable proportion of its members.” Revolutions are foreordained to failure and incomprehensible horrors.
A final thought about Sorokin’s writings, which was expressed cogently by Sorokin’s fellow sociologist Lewis A. Coser:
It is at least plausible that his almost monomaniacal drive for learning was largely motivated by his desire to show the insiders that he, the outsider, could surpass them in command of vast bodies of literature. The man from Komi, who had never attended gymnasium, would demonstrate that he could master the ways of their culture more deeply and extensively than could they. His ambivalent desire for both acceptance and autonomy is reflected in the habit that was never to leave him: he would pile footnote upon footnote to indicate that he was at home in the whole storehouse of Western culture, while at the same time critically and often violently attacking almost all contemporary thinkers. He would show his colleagues that, though conversant with all the contributions of past and present thinkers, he remained his own man.
— Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought, pg. 505
This remark about Sorokin the arrogant and caustic scholar (Coser knew Sorokin personally) can be applied and extrapolated to my thoughts about Sorokin above, to how he went about writing his tomes. The scope of Sorokin’s reading and research was impressive, if not incredible, as can be seen in the two works discussed here. But merely perusing such a broad range of books in relevant areas and on pertinent topics that most sociologists would have overlooked does not amount to the kind of careful, painstaking scholarship that, say, a literary scholar, art historian, or musicologist might, in writing a single book, devote years to.
* “Fluctuations of Ideational, Sensate, and Mixed Forms of Music”; Chapter Twelve of Social and Cultural Dynamics, Volume 1: Fluctuations of Forms of Art, by Pitirim A. Sorokin (New York: American Book Company, 1937)
— Roger W. Smith