Sorokin's Three Sociocultural Supersystems

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Excerpted from the Sorokin Library:

"The central problem of Sorokin's philosophy of history is a detailed investigation of the structure and fluctuation of the cultural supersystems.

"A Quest for an Integral System of Sociology," Mexico, D.F. 1961. This is a reprint from the Memoire du XIX Congres International de Sociologie, Vol. HI, Mexico, D.F., 1961.

According to Sorokin the superorganic or sociocultural phenomena are basically and componentially different from the organic and the inorganic forms of being. In contradistinction to the inorganic phenomena that have only one physio-chemical component, and to the organic phenomena that have two components-physical and vital (life), the sociocultural or superorganic phenomena have the "immaterial" component of conscious, rational and supra-conscious meaning (or meaningful value or norm) superimposed upon the physical and vital components. Without it there are no sociocultural phenomena; its presence radically changes the very nature of the inorganic or organic phenomena upon which it is superimposed.

"Without its meanings, a book --say Plato's Republic-- simply becomes a physical (paper) object possessed of a certain geometrical form, with certain physical and chemical properties which are noticeable even to mice and which they may nibble now and then. On the other hand, the meaning of Plato's Republic can be objectified and "materialized" not only in the paper book, but through quite different physical media, such as phonograph records, or air-waves when it is just read aloud or sung, or other physical "vehicles". Physically and biologically there are no human organisms that are "kings", "patriarchs", "popes", "generals", "scientists", "laborers", "peasants", "merchants", "prisoners", "criminals", "heroes", "saints", and so on. All these and thousands of other 'meanings' are superimposed upon the biological organisms by the sociocultural world or by persons and groups functioning not only as physical objects and biological organisms but mainly as 'mindful human personalities,' as bearers, creators, and agents of 'immaterial' meanings, values and norms. Thus any phenomenon that is an 'incarnation' or 'objectification' of mind and meanings superimposed upon its physical and biological properties is by definition a sociocultural phenomenon."

Such phenomena are found only in the world of mindful human beings, functioning as meaningful personalities, who meaningfully interact with one another and create, operate, accumulate, and objectify their meanings (or meaningful values and norms) in and through an endless number of "material vehicles"-all physical and biological objects and energies-used for a "materialization" of the "immaterial" meanings, values, and norms of the human minds.

"The totality of the 'immaterial' meanings-values-norms, not objectified as yet through the material vehicles but known to humanity; the totality of already objectified meanings-values-norms with all their vehicles; finally, the totality of interacting mindful individuals and groups-past and present; these inseparable totalities make up the total man-made sociocultural world, superimposed on physical and biological realms of the total universe."

Any meaning that is superimposed on the physical or biological phenomenon radically changes its sociocultural nature. Similarly, when an assort¬ment of physical and biological objects, "causally" unrelated to one another, becomes a vehicle for the same system of meanings-values-norms, a causal or empirically tangible interdependence appears between the physical and biological members of this assortment. And vice versa: causally connected physical and biological phenomena sometimes become causally unrelated when a meaningful component is superimposed on them."

"To sum up: all empirically rooted socio¬cultural phenomena are made up of three components:

1) meanings-values-norms;

2) physical and biological vehicles objectifying them;

3) mindful-conscious and supraconscious - human beings (and groups) that create, operate and use them in the process of their interaction.


(1) The totality of meanings, values, norms possessed by individuals or groups makes up their ideological culture;

(2) the totality of their meaningful actions, through which the pure meanings-values-norms are manifested and realized, makes up their behavioral culture;

(3) the totality of all the other vehicles, the material, bio-physical things and energies through which their ideological culture is externalized, solidified, socialized and functions make up their 'material culture'.

Thus, the total behavior and empirical culture of a person or group is made up of these three cultural levels-the ideological, the behavioral, and the material".

There are, according to Sorokin, "millions of singular sociocultural phenomena that make the superorganic world of reality appear to us in the form of the integrated systems and unintegrated congeries. If two or more singular superorganic phenomena are related to one another only by chance (by mere spatial or time adjacency) they are congeries having no real unity and interdependence between them. If two or more singular sociocultural facts are tied together meaningfully and causally in such a way that they articulate consistently the same set of meanings (values, norms) and empirically-in their vehicles and human members-show tangible (causal) interdependence of its important parts, such combination of any number of singular sociocultural phenomena makes an integrated cultural system or organized social system (Ganzbuten). Though overlooked by the majority of sociologists, the distinction between the systems and congeries is basic and important in many respects and especially for the purposes of adequate study of the sociocultural phenomena."

Main Cultural Systems and Supersystems

Sorokin continues "In the total culture of any population, or of the whole mankind, there exists a multitude of cultural congeries and of causal meaningful systems. These range from the smallest (like 'A is B') to ever vaster ones. The 'two by two is four' is a little system; the multiplication table is a larger system; arithmetic is a still larger system; all mathematics (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, etc.) is a yet vaster system; the entire field of science is a still more embracing system. Similarly, we find a wide range of systems, beginning with the smallest and ending with the vastest, in other fields of cultural phenomena."

Among the basic vast cultural systems according to Sorokin "are language, science, philosophy, religion, the fine arts, ethics, law, and the vast derivative systems of applied technology, economics, and politics". The bulk of the meanings-values-norms of science or of great philosophical, religious, ethical or artistic systems are united into one consistent ideological whole. When grounded empirically, this ideological system is, to a tangible degree, realized in all the material vehicles or the material culture, and in the behavior of the bearers, agents, or members of each of these systems. Scientific ideology (of any and all sciences) is objectified in millions of books, manuscripts, instruments, laboratories, libraries, universities, schools, and in practically all gadgets and machinery, from an axe or shovel up to the most complex atomic-radio-electrical-steam machinery, and all objects made possible by science. Taken a s a whole, the total scientific system in its ideological, material, and behavioral forms-occupies an enormous portion of the total cultural phenomena of mankind. "Religious ideology likewise is objectified in millions of material objects, beginning with temple and cathedral buildings and ending with millions of religious objects; and then in numberless overt actions by its members - its hierarchy and its ordinary followers-from a simple prayer to millions of ritual actions, moral commandments and charity prescribed by the members of a given religion. Again, taken in all three of its forms - ideological, material and behavioral-the religious system occupies a very large place in the human population's total culture."

"With respective modifications, the same may be said of the systems of language, fine arts, law and ethics, politics and economics. In their totality these systems cover the greater part of the total culture of almost any population, the rest consisting partly of a multitude of other derivative systems, but mainly of a multitude of cultural congeries. In their totality these vast systems make up the central and the highest portion of any population's culture. Being essentially consistent, they are also a gigantic manifestation of human rational (and partly even superrational) creativity."

Sorokin holds that in addition to these vast cultural systems there are still vaster cultural unities which may be called cultural supersystems.

"As in other cultural systems, the ideology of each supersystem is based upon certain major premises or certain ultimate principles whose development, differentiation, and articulation makes the total ideology of a supersystem." Since the ideologies of the supersystems are the vastest, their major premises or ultimate principles deal with the ultimate and most general truth, proposition, or value. An ultimate or most general truth concerns the nature of the ultimate true reality or of the ultimate true value. Three main consistent answers have been given by humanity to the question 'What is the nature of the true, ultimate reality-value?'

"One is: 'The ultimate, true reality-value is sensory. Beyond it there is neither other reality nor any other non-sensory value'. Such a major premise and the gigantic supersystem built upon it is called Sensate."

"Another solution to this problem is: 'The ultimate, true reality-value is a supersensory and superrational God (Brahma, and other equivalents of God). Sensory and any other reality or value are either a mirage or represent an infinitely more inferior and shadow pseudo-reality and pseudo-value.' Such a major premise and the corresponding cultural system is called Ideational."

"The third answer to the ultimate question is: 'The ultimate, true reality-value is the Manifold Infinity which contains all differentiations and which is infinite qualitatively and quantitatively. The finite human mind cannot grasp it or define it or describe it adequately. This Manifold Infinity is ineffable and unutterable. Only by a very remote approximation can we discern three main aspects in it: the rational or logical, the sensory, and the superrational-supersensory. All three of these aspects harmoniously united in it are real; real also are its superrational-supersensory, rational, and sensory values.' It has many names: God, Tao, Nirvana, the Divine Nothing of mystics, the Supra-Essence of Dionysius and Northrop's ‘undifferentiated aesthetic continuum'. This typically mystic conception of the ultimate, true reality and value and the supersystem built upon are described as Integral."

Sorokin holds that each of these three super-systems embraces in itself the corresponding type of the vast systems already described. Thus, the Sensate supersystem is made up of: sensate science, sensate philosophy, sensate religion of a sort, sensate fine arts, sensate ethics, law, economics and politics, along with predominantly sensate types of persons and groups, ways of life and social institutions. Likewise, the Ideational and Integral supersystems consist respectively of Ideational and Integral types of all these systems. In each of these supersystems the ideological, behavioral, and material elements articulate, in all its parts-in its science and philosophy, fine arts and religion, ethics and law, way of life and social institutions-its major or ultimate premise concerning the nature of the ultimate, true reality-value.

"Thus, for instance, in the total Medieval European culture, from the sixth to the end of the twelfth century, we find that the Ideational supersystem was dominant and embraced the main portion of the total medieval culture."

"The total European culture after the sixteenth and on up to the twentieth century presents an entirely different picture. At that period the Sensate rather than the crumbled Ideational supersystem dominated European culture. During the last four centuries the major parts of all the compartments of European culture articulated the ultimate premise that 'the ultimate reality and value are Sensate.' All the compartments of this culture became correspondingly secularized. The predominant type of persons, their way of life, and their institutions also became dominantly Sensate. In brief, the major part of modern Western culture has indeed been dominated by the Sensate supersystem."

"If, finally, we study Greek culture of the fifth century B.C. or European culture of the thirteenth century, we find that it was dominated by the Integral cultural supersystem. This culture, in all its main compartments, articulated the major Integral premise that the true, ultimate reality and value are the Infinite Manifold, partly sensory, partly rational, partly superrational and supersensory. These outlined supersystems are the vastest cultural systems that are known so far."

Social Systems and Social Congeries (or Organized and Unorganized Groups)

The whole sociocultural universe of mankind appears from this standpoint as a cosmos of infinitely numerous and diverse meanings (values, norms), combined into innumerable congeries and systems of meanings, beginning with the smallest and ending with the vastest Sensate, Ideational, and Integral supersystems. The latter have appeared only in a few great total cultures that achieved the highest form of integration. The majority of the total cultures of various peoples and periods achieve only the looser forms of integration into several big systems less vast than the Sensate, Ideational and Integral supersystems.

"If now we view the sociocultural universe from the standpoint of the component of its human creators, agents, users and operators, we observe that the human components of sociocultural phenomena appear also in the forms of: social system (or organized groups), social congeries (unorganized and largely nominal plurals of individuals) and intermediary semi-organized groups of individuals of various degrees of organization. If an interacting group of individuals has as its raison d'etre a consistent set of meanings-values-norms which satisfy their need(s) and for whose use, enjoyment, maintenance and growth the individuals are freely or coercively bound together into one collectivity with a definite and consistent set of law-norms prescribing their conduct and interrelationships, such a social group is a social system or organized group. If its central meanings-values are religious or scientific, or political, or artistic, or 'encyclopedic,' the group respectively will be a religious, scientific, political, artistic, or 'encyclopedic' social system. The nature of the meanings-values of the group determines the specific nature of the group itself."

"In any real group-be it a social system or a social congeries or an intermediary type-its 'social' form of being is always inseparable from the 'cultural' meanings-values-norms. Besides the dimension of personality of its members, any real human (super-organic) group is always a two-dimensional sociocultural reality. The categories of: 'the cultural' and 'the social' are thus inseparable in the empirical sociocultural universe of man."

Interrelationship of Social and Cultural Systems

Though every social group contains a set of cultural systems of meanings-values-norms and every living cultural system has a group of interacting individuals as its creators, operators, or agents, nevertheless, the map of cultural systems in mankind or in a given population does not coincide with the map of its social systems, according to Sorokin. The boundaries of these two kinds of systems are neither identical nor co-terminal in the same sense in which the patterns of the same bits of colored glass in the same kaleidoscope are not identical at different turns of the kaleidoscope or two sides of our hand are quite different from one another in their character and looks. The reasons for this non-coterminability and non-coincidentality of the maps of the boundaries of the cultural and social systems are several. First, because many cultural systems, especially the vast cultural systems like mathematics, biology, medicine, or science generally, enter the total culture of practically all social systems; the family, the business concern, the religious group, the state, the political party, the labor union, all organized groups must and do use arithmetic or medicine or the rudiments of biological science. The same is true of the language system. There are thousands of diverse social groups that speak English. It is likewise true of religious cultural systems. Many social systems have as their religious system either Buddhism or Roman Catholicism or Protestantism or Confucianism. And so on. In all cases the vast cultural systems are like a vast body of water surrounding a diverse multitude of islands (social groups).

"Social and cultural systems also differ from one another in that the total culture of any organized group, even of a single person, consists not of one central system but of a multitude of peripheral vast and small cultural systems that are partly in harmony, partly out of harmony, with one another and in addition to many congeries of various kinds. Even the total culture of practically any individual is not completely integrated into one cultural system but represents a multitude of co-existing cultural systems and congeries. These systems and congeries are partly consistent with, partly neutral toward, and partly contradictory to, one another."

"A detailed investigation of the problem as to whether the Creto-Mycenaean-Greek-Roman and the Western total culture has been integrated into Sensate, Integral, and Ideational supersystems and how this integration has manifested itself in paintings, sculpture, architecture, music, literature, in science and philosophy, ethics and law, forms of social, political, and economic organizations, in the movement of wars and revolution, and how and in what centuries from the twelfth century B.C. up to the twentieth century A.D. Sensate, Integral, and Ideational supersystems dominated-these are the central problems studied in the Dynamics."

Autonomy in Social Systems

Any logically, or even just functionally, integrated system has a certain degree of autonomy and inherent self-regulation. Thus the more integrated it is, the more autonomy it has. This increases the measure of choice it has in selecting or modifying its encounters with external agents and objects. A highly integrated culture has a much greater autonomy from external conditions (outside influences or causal agents) than a poorly integrated one.

Nevertheless, as Toynbee points out, Sorokin does not consider a culture as a completely integrated organism because such do not exist. He quotes Sorokin: "In each compartment of culture there is a limited autonomy of functions and changes from those in the other compartments; ..." [Hence in each compartment many secondary changes may occur without affecting the others materially. For instance the economic connection is looser than that between science and religion. {Dynamics, 4 Vol. Ed., Vol. 2, p. 467 et passim.)]

As Toynbee points out, Sorokin finds somewhat similar rhythms in the histories of several other cultures (Hindu, Chinese, Islamic) but also notes the explicit statement by Sorokin that this rhythm is not regarded as universal and applicable to all cultures and all times {Dynamics, Vol. Ill, p. 131 and IV, pp. 770-773).

Culture and Personality

Sorokin holds that a given supersystem of culture has a definite relation to the dominant personality types of the time. The various aspects of the super-system tend to organize the dominant personality types into a single "meaningful Gestalt."

"For this reason, a study of these major culture types, their distribution in time and space, their alternation and change, is at the same time a genuine social psychology of human personality in its structural as well as its dynamic, aspects" {Dynamics, I, p. 68).

This idea is a rather complicated one, something like the theory of relativity. If everything moves fast, nothing seems moving rapidly because there is no standard of comparison and vice versa. However, the scientist, by some control of his speeds of movement, can see that objects move at different paces at different times. In a similar way the social scientist by abstracting his personality from the now can see that different basic "Gestalts" of personality dominate different epochs.

Of all of Sorokin's ideas which Toynbee summarizes and discusses, this is the one challenged most critically, as to its fundamental meaning, and types of proof, by the English historian. The main controversial argument suggested by Toynbee is that the interplay between culture and personality "is really reciprocal." "We have already noticed," Toynbee continues, "Sorokin's insistence that cultural change, when it comes, is the result of deliberate choice, and in human affairs there are no choosers except men, women and children."

Sorokin in his reply to Toynbee fully agrees with the reciprocity of interdependence of cultural, personal, and social aspects of the three-dimensional sociocultural reality.

The Inherent Immanency of Cultural Recurrences

Sorokin explains cultural recurrences insofar as they occur, by three major premises. First, society changes always. But its major forms have exceedingly limited possibilities of variation. The extreme dominance of one form makes that particular form unpalatable, such as, freedom can become anarchy and control can become tyranny. When this unpalatibility grows greatly the significance of its logical-meaningful integration weakens. With its creative fund exhausted it ceases to serve the respective society as a gainful force. Waning of the significance of that form sets in. As this weakness, other forms, at once old, and also new, begin to grow, and the culture takes on new life and a new meaning.

- "when such a system of truth and reality ascends, grows and becomes more and more monopolistically dominant, its false part tends to grow, while its valid part tends to decrease. ... In this way the dominant system prepares its own downfall and paves the way for the ascendance and domination of one of its rival systems. . . . The new dominant system undergoes again the same tragedy" (Dynamics, Vol 4, p. 743).

Social Change (Zimmerman' Concluding Remarks on Sorokin's Philosophy of History)

What is the most general relation of time to man's culture? In that respect a philosophy of history by a sociologist ought to be different from one by an historian. We should expect an historian to be more specific and a sociologist more general. We might think that the historian would speak of specific change in a dynasty but the sociologist would try to enunciate general principles concerning the creation and decay of dynasties.

It is clear that Sorokin is only dealing with modern integrated societies and cultures of the "civilization" types as Toynbee classifies them. These types have been characteristic in parts of the world for the past seven or eight thousand years. Sorokin finds the relation of these civilizations to time a very involved one. It would be simplest to say there are small changes, large changes and super changes. It is in the nature of these civilizations to change. A vast number of smaller changes make for a large change; and a few larger changes make for a super change. In a "meaning sense" it is the super changes only, in Sorokin's suggestion of cycles or recurrences, which clearly reverse themselves. The smaller changes ordinarily are integrational and can appear more or less linear for a short period of time, at least.

The smaller changes may tend to have motives of different types from the larger ones. The eventual breaking of a grand system spews out a vast amount of material for new intermixed but disjointed congeries. But these congeries eventually tend to move towards similar colorations or new social systems which have logical-meaningful integration. In so doing they take on both the "goodness" of the logical-meaningful system and its eventual weaknesses.

In a most general sense this is Sorokin's Philosophy of History, or broad idea of the relation of time change to human events. It is a very complicated one but the complexity is inherent in the material of the study. If it is true, as Sorokin believes (his data show it to be), the problem of sociological analysis becomes very much more complicated than ordinarily pictured. Method in sociology will have to be improved greatly to deal with the necessary complex analysis. A given event at one time may be in the process of getting impetus from a number of cross currents. If we have to decide "what next" then we ought also to commence visualizing what could be next after "what next".

Even if Sorokin's ideas on social change as marked in time are much in error, his analysis should give many social thinkers a lesson in procedure. Most past thought concerning the transition from the present to the future has been very prone to error. Even a small correction in social analysis could be of value."