Exploring the Social Imagination

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Cycles 'Turnings' in the Social Imagination and What we Can Expect ~ Part I

Recently read a book titled, "The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy" by William Strauss and Neil Howe. In this book, one can read of generational cycles and turnings in American history. It reminded of the work of Pitirim Sorokin. Since this blog post will be in two parts, it is necessary to only briefly describe 'The Fourth Turning" as already mentioned, a read about generational cycles and turnings in American history; and, turn to ...describing firstly the work of Sorokin. Before doing that, it is also necessary to provide a brief background on Sorokin.

He grew up in a rather poor family in the village of Turya, in northern Russia. Sorokin did manage to complete higher education in criminal law and sociology. He established the first Department of Sociology at Petrograd University in 1919–1920. However, he soon came under attack by the Soviet police after fiercely criticizing the government as ineffective and corrupt. Sorokin and his wife, Elena left Russia in September 1923 and moved to the capital of the Czech Republic, the city of Prague. Not long after there move to Prague, they opted to settle in the United States where Sorokin continued his research.

Pitirim Sorokin soon became a famous and well-respected scholar. In 1924 he was invited by the head of the sociology department to teach at the University of Minnesota, where he stayed for six years and wrote six books. Sorokin was then invited to be one of the founders of the Department of Sociology at Harvard where he continued to teach from 1930 to 1955. In 1965, he became the 55th president of the American Sociological Association.

In his Social and Cultural Dynamics, his magnum opus, Sorokin classified societies according to their 'cultural mentality', which can be "ideational" (reality is spiritual), "sensate" (reality is material), or "idealistic" (a synthesis of the two). He suggested that major civilizations evolve from an ideational to an idealistic, and eventually to a sensate mentality. Each of these phases of cultural development not only seeks to describe the nature of reality, but also stipulates the nature of human needs and goals to be satisfied, the extent to which they should be satisfied, and the methods of satisfaction. Sorokin has interpreted the contemporary Western civilization as a sensate civilization, dedicated to technological progress and prophesied its fall into decadence and the emergence of a new ideational or idealistic era.
  1. There are two opposed elementary cultural patterns, the materialistic (Sensate) and spiritual (Ideational), along with certain intermediate or mixed patterns.  One mixed pattern, called Idealistic, which integrates the Sensate and Ideational orientations, is extremely important.
  2. Every society tends to alternate between materialistic and spiritual periods, sometimes with transitional, mixed periods, in a regular and predictable way.
  3. Times of transition from one orientation to another are characterized by a markedly increased prevalence of wars and other crises.
Here, we begin to get a picture of what Strauss and Howe were writing about - cycles and turnings. And, looking at such cycles and turnings helps us to understand where we are at in the social imagination and where we are going.  Looking at Sorokin's patterns, America has been in my sociological observations a blend of the Sensate and Ideational = Idealistic.

However, going back into American history/culture, we can certainly find when the spiritual was more dominate in the social imagination of America when certain groups came seeking religious freedom and if we read slowly the language and context of early American life we find a kind of spiritual attitude in the daily life and in the very words of American doctrines: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Wars have seemed to encourage the sways in that integrated pattern in America, one has only to follow the trail from the revolution to the civil war and to the first world war and second and the Vietnam war followed by the cold war.  The last mentioned end brought about a huge materialistic rise in American culture. The lewdness of that has now stirred in the social imagination a return to the spiritual.

Perhaps now, after a long time in a more materialistic dominated Idealistic pattern, a return to a spiritual high. Not that there have not been spiritual revivals, there have been but certainly now is a nationwide growth in spirituality and its not just in the pronounced religions. One can see it in many forms and in many practices- yoga for one example and or in Free Masonry and in its civil religion. It seems that Strauss and Howe were influenced by Sorokin's work. There is a high, followed by crisis, then unraveling and then rebuilding due to awakening.  Though looking at the above illustration this all seems to run counterclockwise. I say, if you are high there is nowhere else to go but down...

Strauss and Howe looked at generations rather than patterns of cultural mentality. But there is not much difference... just semantic. But, their book is worth the read and thus enlightening as it appears to be a clean innovation on Sorokin's work if it was intended to be.

Before looking at their generational labels lets look at their names for 'turnings'. The first is a high (feel good time) turning, followed by an awakening (spiritual upheaval)  and then an unraveling (downcast era) and then a crisis (decisive era) . Strauss and Howe label generations which line up with the turnings: prophets are born during high, nomads born in the awakening and heroes born in unraveling with artists born in crisis.

According to Strauss and Howe, my parents were born in the crisis turning and they became the benefactors of the high turning. I was born in the awakening and was disappointed being caught up in the unraveling. Children born in the unraveling become heroes who have to deal with the next crisis.

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