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Vision and Mission of Sociology: Learning from the Russian Historical Experience


The present study demonstrates that the path of the “organic public sociology” (proposed by Michael Burowoy in his famous call of the 2004) as the dominating mode of sociological practice in the national context can be menacing with the serious pitfalls manifested in broad historical perspective. We reveal the four pitfalls basing on the analysis of the Russian experience through the last 150 years. First, the over-politicization and ideological biasness of sociological activities; second, the “personal sacrifice” of sociologist as a romanticized practice, potentially harmful for the discipline; third, the difficulties of the professional sociology institutionalization; fourth, the deprivation of the policy sociology development. Analyzing the history of Russian sociology in the context of the current international discussions, we give particular reference to the idea of the “Scientized Environment Supporting Actorhood” elaborated by John Meyer. We suggest the mode of communication between sociology and society, which, in our view, could be helpful for improving their interactions in various local, national and global contexts in the XXIst century. This mode escapes the political emphasis and ideological claims but rather concentrates on the more fundamental ethical issues. It also tries to overcome the limitations of the contemporary professional mainstream (instead of idealizing it). Finally, it presents itself to the publics in the understandable way, while remaining properly scientifically validated (however, avoiding the exaggerated accent on the statistical procedures and fitishization of the natural science’ principles (“numerology” and “quantofrenia”)). The public activities of the prominent sociologist Pitirim Sorokin in the American period of his career are a good example of this approach to the interactions with society.

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  1. For example, the meeting of the 2004 was so far the largest in the history of American Sociological Association and the relating article by Burawoy was cited more than 360 times in Scopus-listed sources by 16 April 2015. Interestingly, in the years 2010–2013 the number of cites has been steadily growing (from 27 in the 2010 up to 58 in the 2013).

  2. Alexander Radishev (1749–1802) – originated from the noble family and along with a group of young aristocrats was sent to the University of Leipzig, Germany, where he got acquainted with progressive European social thought. After returning to homeland he published the famous “A journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow”, in which he criticized the unjust social order and pointed to the severe hardships of peasants suffering from serfdom (see more Lossky (1951).

  3. Denis Fonvisin (1745–1792) – Russian writer, educated in Moscow university, suggested the introduction of the”fundamental laws” limiting the power of monarchs and reforming the serfdom (see more Spector 2005).

  4. Pavel Fedotov (1815–1853) – the famous Russian artist, the founder of the “critical realism” in the Russian painting tradition. In his works, he demonstrated the dramatic social unjustness in the life of ordinary Russian people (Sarabianov 1990). The critical emphasis of his paintings reflected the concerns of the Russian society in the 1840s. He wrote, “My fame, which I made by the exhibition of my works, was not a thunder but a buzzing of a mosquito, because at this time the strongest thunder was really the thunder on the West… Everybody rich by origination hided their bags, like hairs would pin back their ears, with fear of the dissemination of the ideas of communism (Sarabianov 1990: 5).

  5. Nikolai Stankevich (1813–1840) founded his circle in the 1830, inspired by the ideas of German philosophy. This circle united the young intellectuals, like Belinsky, Aksakov and others who later became the leaders of the Russian liberation movement (Kamensky 1980).

  6. The circle of Mikhail Petrashevsky shaped in 1840s. It engaged Russian intellectuals seeking freedom for the peasants and democratic political transformations (Dolinin 1987). The famous Russian writer and philosopher Feodor Dostoevsky (see Mochulsky 1971) in his younger years actively engaged in the Petrashevsky circle, which resulted in exile to Siberia where he spent four years.

  7. Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) – the internationally acknowledged Russian writer, celebrated for his deep psychological analysis and broad philosophical considerations of the individual feelings and ethical concerns under various social circumstances (his most famous novels are: “The crime and the punishment”, “Idiot”, “Demons”, “Karamasov brothers”). Mochulsky (1971). Dostoevsky: His life and work. Princeton University Press.

  8. Nicolay Chernyshevsky (1828–1889) – the famous Russian writer, the author of the novel “What should be done” promoting materialistic visions of the human life with humanistic and optimistic interpretation of the revolutionary ideas (Paperno 1988).

  9. “Perestroika” (directly translated as “restructuring”, “rearrangement” or “rebuilding”) was the general title for the policy of fundamental economic and governmental reforms initiated by the head of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, in the mid-1980s and lasting until early 1990s (Simon 2010). The word “perestroika” remains largely used in Russian everyday culture indicating the painful transition from soviet regime to multiparty political system and market economy.

  10. The Russian prominent and internationally acknowledged writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) brightly illustrates the prevalence of the socialistic ideas in the Russian society of the second half of the XIXth century in his famous novel “Demons”, which takes place in the Russian provincial town of the 1870s. When Stepan Trophimovich, an educated intellectual (one of the key characters of the novel) tells his friend, that he is scared of being persecuted by the officials for having the prohibited socialistic literature at home, the latter replies that it is ridiculous because everybody in the town has this literature (Dostoevsky 1994, Part 2, Chapter 9).

  11. Pyotr Kropotkin and Michail Bakunin were ideologists of the Russian anarchism. Bakunin (1814–1876) openly called for destruction of the state, and argued that capitalism is incompatible with the individual freedom. He actively participated in civil revolts all over Europe in the 1840-60s. Kropotkin (1842–1924) rejected the private property rights, the state legitimacy, and the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat (popular among revolutioners). He called for building the society on the solidarity principles. Both (Bakunin and Kropotkin) were imprisoned but managed to escape and emigrate to the West (in the 1861 and 1876 respectively).

  12. Nikolai Mikhailovsky is the prominent Russian sociologist, the founder (along with Pyotr Lavrov) of the “Subjective” method in sociology (Sorokin 2015). He called for the liberal reforms and criticized Marxism. (Vilenskaya 1979)

  13. Maxim Kovalevsky – the internationally acknowledged Russian sociologist and expert in law. (Kovalevsky 1938)

  14. Alexander Chayanov (1888–1939) – the internationally acknowledged scholar in the field of peasant studies (Harrison 1979). He analyzed the basic differences between capitalistic rural production and traditional social organization of Russian peasantry. Chayanov pointed to the necessity of greater space for the individual initiative and competition in the rural cooperation (Durrenberger 1984).

  15. Nikolai Kondratiev (1892–1938) – the author of the theory of “Big Economic Cycles” (Louçã 1999) which links the macroeconomic long-term cyclic development with the social transformations (this theory still gets credit in the international sociology (see, for example, Wallerstein (2000))). In his youth, Kondratiev served as personal secretary to the famous Russian sociologist Maxim Kovalevsky. In the 1920s, he was actively engaged in the policymaking in the field of rural economic and social development.

  16. Nikolai Danilevsky (1822–1885) – focused on the analysis of Russia as a certain “culturally-historical type”, he believed Europe to the major treat for Russia and criticized the ideas of Russian society’s modernization basing on western standards (Danilevsky 1962).

  17. Nikolai Berdyaev (1974–1948) and Sergey Bulgakov (1871–1944) prominent Russian social thinkers and philosophers who grounded their ideas in the idealistic approach and religious considerations (Berdyaev 1944).

  18. Eugeniy De Roberty (1843–1915) – the Russian sociologist of positivistic views, who was largely criticized by the proponents of “subjective method”, Lavrov and Michailovsky. His writings were materialistic and anti-religious (Golosenko 1978).


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Correspondence to Pavel Sorokin.

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Sorokin, P. Vision and Mission of Sociology: Learning from the Russian Historical Experience. Am Soc 48, 135–171 (2017).

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  • Russian sociology
  • Methodology
  • Public sociology
  • Professional sociology
  • Sociology and society
  • Scientized environment supporting actorhood
  • Pitirim Sorokin
  • John Meyer