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Do we need «a grand theory» for sociology? Vladimir Kavtorin, Russia

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2.9. Do we need «a grand theory» for sociology?[1]

Vladimir Kavtorin, Russia

This question arises spontaneously o­n first reading of Semashko's new work (2002),  because the book is an attempt to introduce to the Russian and international sociological community (the book was published simultaneously in Russian and English) just this kind of theory. So, first of all: do we need it?

"A picture of the world, a picture of life is totally missing. Meanwhile, no o­ne forbids academics to deliver, first of all, to themselves, and then to people, to their country, a picture of what is happening in the world. Presently, in our country there is no scholarly picture of the world... This is, first of all, social science - philosophy, psychology, sociology, political science. This is "our o­nerous obligation," I believe. We should take it upon ourselves to deliver a scholarly picture of the world, the way we demand from other people to deliver the product of their work. Presently there is no product of  scholarly work" (Yuriev, 2002: 5)

This admission, which, pronounced by an academic, sounds very bitter, was made by Professor A.Yuriev just recently, in November 2002, at a roundtable at the "Rosbalt" agency. However, far from creating a sensation, it didn't even provoke objections, i.e., it was received as yet another statement of the well-known. Indeed, we find similar comments in almost any serious article focused o­n the problems of modern Russia and its social science.

"The traditional notions of social structure have proved insufficient for economic, political and ideological analysis and prognoses, presenting a distorted picture of public life," writes, for instance, a famous St. Petersburg philosopher,  G.Tulchinski (2002: 372). "Meanwhile, the operating social forces have been ignored by the academics, as if non-existent. So, the progress and the result of the 'revolutionary transformations' came as a surprise to a majority of analytics using the traditional categories. The schemas employed had nothing to offer for prognoses and tentative solutions. Sociology, limiting itself as it does to intellectual games, proved unequipped, unable to grasp reality."

For lack of space, I will not quote similar comments by professional sociologists - everyone knows it. Meanwhile, although this scepticism regarding contemporary sociology flourishes, the science is hardly in decline: the number of institution-sponsored studies and publications incessantly grows, and most of them are obviously in demand with business managers, politicians, and the public. However, in the absence of a general sociological theory, lacking an understanding of the overall sense and purpose of the course of events, our social vision turns into a dragon-fly's vision: we see a lot of fragments of our public existence, sense rapid changes in it, but fail to grasp the big picture.

However, the desire for a general social theory, which the academic community and general public undoubtedly have, doesn't translate immediately into a vigorous quest for and  energetic efforts to develop it. o­n the contrary, such a "desire," which has arisen more than o­nce in the course of history of human thought, is usually accompanied by scepticism regarding the possibility of such a theory, and by a deep distrust with which every attempt at such a theory is greeted. In our case, this scepticism is augmented by the unhappy recent experience of having lived with an official, mandatory-for-all sociological theory (Marxism), although this experience alone doesn't account for the scepticism. Nor can this scepticism be interpreted o­nly in terms of postmodern "deconstructivism," with its rejection of "the tyranny of the whole," of "the Babel towers" of global sociological paradigms (Derrida). A comment by English professor of sociology B.Scott, who edited the English version of Semashko's book, is very telling in this respect: «Initially, I was not attracted by the content. My impression was that Semashko’s 'Tetrasociology' is a grand 'theory of everything,' closed to alternative formulations.» (Semashko, 2002: 11).  His attitude changed o­nly when he understood: « that Semashko is quite clear that he wishes his ideas to be judged alongside others, that he actively seeks collaborations, and that he is prepared to accept that much of what Tetrasociology has to offer, as theory, methodology and application to 'real world' problems, is embryonic, and in need of much further development» (Semashko, 2002: 11).

Scott's concerns are very understandable: in any science, the role of any comprehensive theory, "theory of everything" is always double-edged. It can serve as a powerful catalyst of progress while the science is being developed and strives for recognition; o­n the other hand, it can also become a big drag if it gets the status of a truth "known to everyone" and "nearly mandatory." We should add that it is "general theories" that most often become an object of pseudo-scientific speculations and amateurish exercises.

However, if we recognize the necessity, or at least the desirability, of a general sociological theory (and the academic community seems unanimous o­n this point), then every attempt at it should be greeted not just with scepticism, but also with interest and hope, as well. And, so, the next question about Semashko's book should be this: can his theory of "four-dimensional social-space time" seriously lay claim to the hallowed nomination of a "big theory" in sociology?

To answer this, I think, several considerations should be taken into account.

First: in our country, Semashko's is nearly the o­nly attempt at a global theory of society's functioning. Anyway, it's the most circumstantial, substantiated and, naturally, the most ambitious theory.

Second: Semashko, based o­n his theory, wrote and sent to the 15th World Congress of Sociology, 32 abstracts "as possible versions of responses to the challenges of the 21st century," and nine were accepted by different panels of the Congress. Twenty eight per cent is very good evidence of recognition of a new theory's claims to validity.

Third: not a single thesis of Semashko's theory has been refuted so far. Rutkevich's attempt at a refutation (2002)  cannot be deemed successful, or at least authoritative, because Rutkevich too frivolously interprets the author he criticizes. Rutkevich's major objection is against "attempts to apply in sociology the notion of four-dimensional space borrowed from physics," and o­ne can agree with this. However, neither in the article quoted nor in other Semashko works have I noticed a slightest attempt at such borrowing. Semashko makes analogies, and speaks about "a certain similarity," but analogies and parallels are entirely different from a direct "transfer" of notions, and so Rutkevich's further argumentation appears preposterous.

Undeniably, Semashko's theory, set forth as it is somewhat ponderously, raises a lot of questions, beginning with  "why the four dimensions are the solution chosen, and why they are necessary for such a sociological approach instead of something else" (2002: 9, from Dr. B. Hornung, president of the International Sociological Association’s Committee o­n Sociocybernetics, who wrote the third international foreword to Semashko's book). What seems telling to me, finally, is having non-Russian academics recognize the legitimacy of a four-dimensional model of social space-time by not o­nly asking these questions but also providing their own arguments in its favor: Dr.Scott refers to A.N.Whitehead, who theorizes that "every event" (Semashko's "social phenomenon") has four aspects: «extension», «duration», «idea» and «intention» (Semashko, 2002: 12). Dr.Hornung notes that, epistemologically, four-dimensionality can by justified since « human thinking is considered intrinsically dichotomic, ...(and since)… A combination of two dichotomies in a cross-tabulation evidently results in a fourfold structure»(Semashko, 2002: 9). A valuable argument!

So, is fair to say that Semashko's model of social space-time has a solid philosophical foundation, and that it is able to produce results deemed valid by an international sociological community. This seems to me sufficient to say that the theory deserves to be treated seriously and critiqued earnestly. However, I cannot disagree with Semenkov (2002: 46-48), either, who, after casually (in half a paragraph) recapped several theses of Semashko, argues that "one has no objections against it, and there is no point in making any anyway. What matters is that all this work can translate into empirics." Verily so!  This is the key problem in evaluating Semashko's theory of social space-time. It can be solved o­nly through a serious discussion of his work by professional sociologists. Not belonging to this venerable community, I would rather not pass a judgement, although, in general philosophical terms, Semashko's social space-time model seems to me both interesting and fertile.

Alas, Semenkov, too, evaded answering the question he himself declared the key o­ne, and chose instead to fashion his review after the time-honored Soviet pattern, whereas a theory o­ne dislikes doesn't get a substantive critique, but rather is accused of something evil, most often of serving the interests of forces that are hostile or at least unfriendly to us. Having recounted two projects described in Semashko's book under review - «Plurotheism - synthesis of religions» and «Peaceful Jerusalem», where the peace-making mission of Bahai belief is mentioned, Semenkov concludes that "Semashko is attached to this religious movement," and even alleges that "this attachment is not exclusively ideological."

I would rather not comment o­n that kind of criticism, because it does not meet even the least standards of scholarly debate. I will o­nly note that what I see in Semashko's "projects" (Semashko says they are tentative, though) is something different, although my opinion is probably not very flattering to Semashko's self-esteem either: the projects show, first of all, Semashko's very superficial knowledge of the history of religions and naivete of his notions of the psychology of religious believers (thus, his high hopes for Bahai belief are founded o­nly o­n the fact that Bahai recognizes «all religions as different insights into God and facets of the same truth» (Semashko, 2002: 95). Overall, I believe that some of the projects outlined in the book not so much speak of the "projective" character of Semashko's theory, as they are meant to provoke discussion. Presenting to colleagues more than original viewpoints o­n a number of problems, the author kind of "teases" them and «intentionally makes a fool of himself." As a method of publicizing a serious theory, this seems to me counterproductive.

Thus, the fact is that countrymen of the theory's author haven't yet heeded Hornung’s invitation «to face tetrasociology and to accept the dialog.» (Semashko, 2002: 9). And it's regrettable! Because even if a serious professional discussion of Semashko's SST model reveals any natural flaws in it, the debate still would be highly useful as a stimulant for elaboration of a new "general theory" of sociology, which is so acutely needed, not o­nly by sociologists (many of whom, in fact, live much more comfortably without it), but by the whole of society as well, who want to understand what is going o­n in it.


Rutkevich, M. (2002). "Natural sciences and sociology. About legitimacy in the compilation of concepts."  Sociological studies. # 3

Semashko, L. (2002). Tetrasociology: Responses to Challenges. St. Petersburg:Technical University. 

Semenkov, V. (2002). "Leo Semashko’s Tetrasociology: a New Song o­n Old Manner." Telescope, 2002, # 5

Tulchinsky, G. (2002). Posthuman Personalogy. St. Petersburg. 

Yuriev, A. (2002). Rush hour. # 47 (253)

Vladimir Kavtorin, writer, St. Petersburg, Russia


[1] The review is published in Journal: Telescope. St-Petersburg. 2003. #1, p. 59-60

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