Pitirim Sorokin

Portrait of Pitirim Sorokin

Born: Vologda Governate (Komi Republic), Russia - 21 January 1889
Died: Winchester, Massachusetts - 11 February 1968

Pitirim Sorokin was born in the Vologda Governate, now the Komi Republic, in Northern Russia, the son of a journeyman goldsmith and jeweler who specialised in working with icons. His mother died when he was seven, and his father became increasingly alcoholic and abusive, and eventually Sorokin and his elder brother Vasiliy ran away. Although Sorokin was only ten years old, he and Vasiliy managed to support themselves plying their father's trade.

With help from a distant relative, Pitirim obtained a basic school education, and at the age of 17 he joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party. He was arrested in a matter of months for disseminating revolutionary ideas, but used his time in prison to read copiously, gaining a thorough knowledge of Russian literature and modern political philosophy. After his release from prison, he made his way to St. Petersburg, and through his tenaciousness and perspicacity, managed to prepare himself for university. He began his studies at the Bekhterev Psychoneurological Institute, the first higher-education institution is Russia to boast a department of sociology, but was unable to pay the tuition fees and was excluded after the first year. He was eventually able to complete his studies in the law faculty of St. Petersburg University, He remained there as a lecturer, preparing to qualify for a professorship.

After the February Revolution, he became active in the politics of the Provisional Government, editing the SR's main newspaper, Delo naroda ("Affairs of the people"), and getting elected to the Constituent Assembly. He was outspoken in his opposition to the Bolsheviks, and was repeatedly arrested after they took power in the October Revolution. He managed to found the sociology department of Petrograd University, and to write and publish four books, The Sociology of Revolution and The Influence of Hunger on Human Behaviour both clearly his responses to the horrendous and tumultuous events playing out around him. After his final arrest in 1922, he was exiled as part of the "Steamship of Philosophy" program, Lenin's alternative to executing troublesome intellectuals.

After brief stays in Berlin and Czechoslovakia, Sorokin settled in the USA, where he became Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota in 1924, and was then invited to Harvard University, where he founded the department of sociology in 1930, the year he became a US citizen. He stayed at Harvard until 1959, and in 1965 he was made President of the American Sociological Association. He was a prolific writer, whose controversial contributions to social cycle theory, stated in his magnum opus Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937, 1943), are still hotly debated to this day.