Social and Cultural Dynamics

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* Book: Social and Cultural Dynamics, 4 vols. By Pitirim Sorokin


Abridged version


  1. v. 1. Fluctuation of forms of art.--
  2. v. 2. Fluctuation of systems of truth, ethics, and law.--
  3. v. 3. FLuctuation of social relationships, war, and revolution.--
  4. v. 4. Basic problems, principles, and methods


1. Richard Simpson:

"At Harvard he set to work on a monumental inquiry into the history and nature of world civilization up to the present. He spent several years on this enterprise, and in 1937 he published the first three volumes of Social and Cultural Dynamics. A fourth volume appeared in 1941. The Dynamics is the most ambitious sociological attempt in recent years, being comparable in scope to the works of Toynbee and Spengler.

Sorokin was fully aware of the magnitude of his task:

Starting with an investigation of a sociocultural system and its properties, we have studied systematically the structure and composition of the total culture; the main "how's" of its change, of its space and time uniformities, of the rhythms, periodicities, tempi, and other basic aspects of sociocultural Becoming. Having clarified the main "how's" we passed to a study of the "why's" involved. Why the change? Why the rhythms, periodicities, and tempi? Why the fluctuations, trends, and cycles? And finally why the super-rhythm of Ideational, Idealistic, and Sensate phases? These problems answered, our study nears its close'.


The history of all societies has been a fluctuation of these three great supersystems of integration. On the basis of an exhaustive study of art forms, systems of truth, ethics, and law, social relationships, war, and revolution during the past 2,500 years in the Western world, and of less thorough excursions into Oriental civilizations, Sorokin finds that all elements of a culture except a few minor ones (congeries) are usually integrated under whichever supersystem is in sway at a given time.

The culture of the early Middle Ages was Ideational; that of the thirteenth century was Idealistic; our own is Sensate. Elaborate charts and graphs trace the rise and fall of cultural supersystems and their components during the recorded history of the West.

Why do culture mentalities change? Sorokin does not believe that change can be interpreted adequately by reference to "this or that external factor." Instead he finds "immanent self-regulation and direction." No one part of a cultural system can be held to cause the others to change, any more than one could maintain that a boy's growth in stature during puberty makes his whiskers grow.

Besides explaining the movement of history and the nature of society, Sorokin provides us with a new system of truth, superior to all others because it encompasses all others. Sensory observation, while essential, has been overemphasized in recent years. Reason, he feels, has accounted for a greater portion of the world's enlightenment than most modern thinkers give it credit for. Finally, Sorokin makes a case for intuition and faith, which have been neglected for some time, as valid sources of knowledge. None of these, he says, can lay claim to being the sole way to knowledge; each has its proper and necessary sphere. The senses tell us about mundane sensory phenomena; intuition gives us fruitful hunches and is our only source of deep communion with the absolute; reason orders and evaluates data gathered by sense and intuition. The combination of these three gives us the "integralist" system of truth. Sorokin himself uses integralism in his investigations."


2. Barry V.Johnston

"Sorokin's early Harvard years witness another shift in his intellectual development and sociology. His first major work there was Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937-41). Though it contained a massive amount of comparative statistical data, it was not a work in scientific sociology.

The four volumes were an exercise in the combination of a largely original model of social change with a philosophy of history, one in which Sorokin began to formalize his Integral philosophy and advance a theory of ultimate reality and meaning.

Sorokin's theory of ultimate reality began with an analysis of social order. In the first three volumes of Dynamics, he articulated the patterns of social change in art, science, philosophy, religion, and ethics over a period of 2,500 years. Masses of data were used to capture the major historical fluctuations in these and other phenomena. Like Comte, his search for a theory of change began with a study of order.

Sorokin's analysis of history isolated three major types of culture.

The pure forms are Ideational and Sensate. The third, a mixture of the two, is Idealistic. The most important characteristic of the cultural types are the principles of ultimate truth and reality that shape their institutions and fuse their character, meaning, and personality. In Ideational cultures, ultimate reality flows from nonmaterial everlasting Being. The prime needs and ends of individuals and society are spiritual and realized through our supersensory capacity. Sensate cultures believe ultimate reality to be revealed by our senses. The supersensory does not exist and agnosticism pervades the culture. Human needs are physical and satisfied by exploiting the environment. Sensate is the opposite of Ideational and lacks strong values. It follows any instrumental route to satisfaction. Sorokin held Sensate cultures in less esteem than Ideational ones. Between the Sensate and Ideological was the true Idealistic culture, in which reality was many sided and human needs were both spiritual and material with the former dominating. The vitality of this cultural form sprang from its multidimensional orientation to reality. The known world is that which results from the interplay of rational, spiritual, and empirical truths.

Sorokin searched the histories of Greco-Roman and Western civilizations, and to a much lesser extent, those of the Middle East, India, China, and Japan for actual examples of these cultural types, and described the changes in their truth systems, art, scientific discoveries, and other social institutions. From this search, he concluded that cultures move through Ideational, Idealistic, and Sensate periods separated by transitional times of crises. For the last 2,500 years, Western culture has followed this rhythm, passing through the process twice and now living in the third Sensate epoch.

Sorokin next asked why these changes happened as they did. The answer advanced his Integral philosophy and theory of ultimate reality. The character of a culture is determined by the principle that underlies its system of truth and reality. Historical analysis revealed that Ideational systems rested on intuitive truth, Sensate systems on the authority of the senses, and Idealistic cultures on the truths of reason. None of these principles alone, however, gives us absolute truth. Each, however, contains necessary elements for the adaptation of humanity to the physical, social, and cosmic milieu. Truth systems change because each type of knowledge has strengths and weaknesses. When one dominates, it forces out others and prohibits holistic understanding of the world. The longer a mentality dominates, the more anomalies accrue. That is, people become increasingly aware that their system is too narrow to explain important aspects of life, and the authority and usefulness of the dominant mentality is called more into question. Soon other means are needed to address those aspects of culture and cosmos not satisfactorily handled 8 Sorokin and Civilization by the dominant mentality. Unhappily, the superrhythms of Ideational, Idealistic, and Sensate mentalities could go on forever without humans realizing ultimate truth.

Sorokin's solution to this endless cycle was the pursuit of Integral truth. This form of knowing "is not identical with any of the three forms of truth, but embraces all of them" (Sorokin 1941, 762-63). It contains the empirical truths of the senses, the rational truths of reason, and the superrational truths of faith. Integral truth gives us a more complete and valid grasp of reality. It also broadens our understanding and deepens our knowledge of the other forms of knowing.

In Integral philosophy, Sorokin brings together the religious, scientific, and rational aspects of his own experience. Cultures change out of a need for a more adequate knowledge for dealing with life's major questions. Sensate knowledge gives us science, technology, and physical comfort, but tells us little of the spirit. The truths of faith address those issues, but leave us relatively helpless in the face of nature. As each type of culture tries to provide what is missing, they change.

Integralism, however, binds the truth of science, reason, and intuition into a comprehensive whole. It is our means of obtaining a satisfying framework to comprehend life, cosmos, and the role of humanity in each (Sorokin 1941,746-61). Sorokin felt that Integral philosophy, in a Sensate age, would be difficult for many to accept. People acknowledged mathematics and logic as fruits of reason, and natural science as the product of the senses. However, the truths of intuition, inspiration, and revelation were more questionable. Sorokin addressed this barrier by pointing out the role of intuition in other forms of knowledge. Drawing on histories of science, mathematics, technology, art, and religion, he documented the role of intuition in the great discoveries of mathematicians, scientists, major creative artists, and religious leaders. For each discipline he clearly demonstrated the role of intuition in the discoveries of their great thinkers.

Sorokin concluded Dynamics with a plea for an Integral model of understanding and a dismal prediction about the future of Western society:

- Every important aspect of life, (in) Western society is in an extraordinary crisis. We are seemingly between two epochs; the dying Sensate of our magnificent yesterday, and the coming Ideational or Idealistic culture of the creative tomorrow. We are living, thinking, and acting at the end of a brilliant six-hundred-year-long Sensate day. But the light is fading, and the night of the transitory period begins to loom before us, with its nightmares, frightening shadows, and heartrending horrors. (Sorokin 1937b, 535)"

(Source: Sorokin's Life and Work. Barry V.Johnston. Chapter 1 of "Sorokin and Civilization")


Sensate, Idealistic and Ideational Cultural-Historical Typology of Pitirim Sorokin

Richard Simpson:

"Sorokin's principal tool in analyzing cultures and explaining their changes is his classification of cultures and all their manifestations into three main types: Sensate, Idealistic, and Ideational coupled with his concept of "logico-meaningful" integration of cultural elements.

Events, relationships, and objects which are logico-meaningfully integrated are those which stem from the same value premises or criteria of truth, which seem somehow to fit together into a common Weltanschauung or cluster of attitudes. Thus a Gothic cathedral, a treatise in scholastic philosophy, and the allocation of greater prestige to clergymen than to tradesmen are logico-meaningfully integrated because they all stem from the religiously oriented culture mentality which prevailed in medieval Europe. Similarly integrated are the picture of a sparsely clad woman on the jacket of a novel, a pragmatic philosophical work, and an emphasis on material wealth as a prime goal, because these reflect a mentality oriented toward earthly and sensual pleasures. Cultural items which are not consistent with any pattern-which do not seem to "belong" with other items-are called "congeries."

The three principal types of culture integrations -Ideational, Idealistic, and Sensate-never exist in pure form; they are ideal types. In recognition of this Sorokin adds a Mixed category. Actually there are only two polar types of culture mentalities, the Ideational and the Sensate. The Idealistic is a mixed type combining the virtues of the polar types without their vices.

The extreme Sensate mentality views reality as that which is perceivable by the sense organs, and no more. It is atheistic or agnostic. It does not concern itself with the absolute or immutable, believing that all things are in flux. Its underlying goal is the mastery of the observable world for the sake of physical gratification. Its epistemology is empirical.

To the Ideational mentality, reality is immaterial, everlasting Being. Its objectives are spiritual and its ways of achieving them involve man's adjustment to the existing world rather than his manipulation of the world to bring it into line with his wishes. Faith and revelation are its roads to truth.

The Idealistic mentality is a synthesis of Ideational and Sensate elements with Ideational predominating. It combines the best of the other two mentalities with the addition of reason as a way to knowledge. In the Idealistic view, reason is a sort of apex in an epistemological triangle with faith and sensory observation at the lower points. Sorokin's own outlook is Idealistic."



Piritim Sorokin on Contractual, Altruistic and Familistic Relationships

Richard Simpson:

"Sorokin feels that it is necessary to get at the root of things, to attack the "basic premise" of modern culture, not merely its products. The basic premise is the Sensate scheme of values, which must give way to an Idealistic or Ideational world-view if we are to avert catastrophe. Since the superstructure of such a sociocultural system is built upon its major premise, a rational change of the entire system in a desirable direction must concentrate first Upon this major premise.

We must transfer man's attention from the sensual, conscious, and subconscious levels to the superconscious and the Infinite Manifold: that true reality which can be comprehended only through the interplay of sense, reason, and intuition.

Our situation calls for increases of altruism and of familistic as opposed to contractual or compulsory social relationships. Altruistic actions are those that are performed not from any expectation of pleasure or utility, but because the actions are deemed worthy in themselves. Familistic relationships are those permeated by mutual love, devotion, and sacrifice. They are exemplified by the relationships between the members of a devoted family. In familistic relationships one finds the highest development of altruism. Sorokin suggests steps that might be taken toward increasing the prevalence of altruism in our society. He favors legislation "limiting the freedom of marriage and divorce; discrediting panderers in all their high-brow and low-brow forms; and depriving irresponsible parents of certain privileges, including the right to neglect and demoralize their children."8 He believes that the schools "must establish a carefully elaborated system for developing altruism in their pupils."


Related Publications

Reworkings and modifications of his integral sociology:

Abridged Version

  • Social and Cultural Dynamics: A Study of Change in Major Systems of Art, Truth, Ethics, Law, and Social Relationships. By Pitirim Sorokin and Michel P. Richard.

September 2017

"This classic work is a revised and abridged version, in a single volume, of the work which more than any other catapulted Pitirim Sorokin into being one of the most famed figures of twentieth-century sociology. Its original publication occurred before World War II. This revised version, written some twenty years later, reflects a postwar environment. Earlier than most, Sorokin took the consequences of the breakdown of colonialism into account in discussing the renaissance of the great cultures of African and Asian civilization. Other than perhaps F.S.C. Northrop, no individual better incorporated the new role of the Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic peoples in this postwar world. Sorokin came to view social and cultural dynamics in terms of three major processes: a major shift of mankind's creative center from Europe to the Pacific; a progressive disintegration of the sensate culture; and finally the first blush of the emergence and growth of a new idealistic sociocultural order. This volume is perhaps most famous for revealing Sorokin's remarkable efforts to understand the relationship of war and peace to the process of social and political change. Contrary to received wisdom, he shows that the magnitude and depth of war grows in periods of social, cultural, and territorial expansion by the nation. In short, war is just as often a function of development as it is of social decay. This long-unavailable volume remains one of the major touchstones by which we can judge efforts to create an international social science. There are few areas of social or cultural life that are not covered-from painting, art, and music, to the ethos of universalism and particularism. These are terms which Sorokin introduced into the literature long before the rise of functional doctrines. For all those interested in cultural and historical processes, this volume provides the essence of Sorokin's remarkably prescient effort to achieve sociological transcendence."


The Crisis of Our Age: the social and cultural outlook


"Represents in a modified form my public lectures on The twilight of sensate culture given at the Lowell institute in February, 1941. It is based upon four volumes of my Social and cultural dynamics."

Sociocultural Causality, Space, Time

Richard Simpson:

"Sociocultural Causality, Space, Time (1943) is another restatement of some of the principles of the Dynamics. It is aimed primarily at a scientific audience, being written in a less popular vein than The Crisis of Our Age. It is less concerned with tracing the fluctuations of sociocultural phenomena and with a call for social action than with expounding the principles and modes of analysis that underlie Sorokin's integralist sociology."


More information

Other Books by P. Sorokin

* Book: The Sociology of Revolution. Pitirim Sorokin.



"The Sociology of Revolution (1925) is strongly colored by Sorokin's revolutionary experiences.

He explains revolution, not in terms of historical or socio-economic movements as commonly conceived by writers on revolution, but as a destruction of the precarious balance between reason and disorganized antisocial instincts, with uncontrolled impulses coming to the fore. Since revolution results from the victory of man's upset biological drives over civilized reason, violent revolution is a disaster.

Sorokin does not attempt to explain why unreason overcomes reason at certain times but not at others; his analysis is essentially psychological rather than sociological or historical. This book bears the imprint of Freud, Pavlov, Pareto, and others who stress the nonrational aspects of behavior. A behavioristic influence is manifested continually; Sorokin speaks of reflexes of property, the stimulus to obedience, the reactions to authority. His main purpose is to chart the course of internal events in typical revolutions. Every revolution, he says, follows a cycle of license, reaction, repression, and new equilibrium. The belief seems implicit that no revolution really alters the state of affairs materially; the French Revolution, for example, is treated not as a triumph of democracy or of the bourgeoisie but simply as a temporary outburst of animalism like every other revolution."