The belief that the individual controls his destiny and succeeds or fails based on talent, hard work, and perseverance is a central theme in the American way of life. This strong belief in individualism often dictates how Americans explain, and resolve social problems. This view that individuals are solely responsible for their success or failure in life, mostly unaffected by surrounding social forces, runs counter to the sociological imagination.
C. Wright Mills considered the sociological imagination the impact of larger social forces on our personal lives. Mills contended that, “no matter how personal we think our experiences are, many of them can be seen as products of society-wide forces” (Newman 2011: 7). Fundamental to Mills’ theory of sociological imagination is the concept of personal troubles and public issues (Smith 2009).
Public policy issues, such as high unemployment or rising obesity rates, contribute to private troubles. However, Americans usually explain these troubles in individual terms. If a person has trouble getting hired or promoted, or has recently been fired from a job, these issues are usually explained by some individual inadequacy or problem. For example, if a person cannot get hired, they think it is because the do not have enough experience or education; if they get fired, it is because they have failed to produce adequately at work or get along with upper management. Only after all individual explanations are evaluated do we consider the greater social forces such as high unemployment and corporate layoffs.
If someone is obese, the initial blame is always on the individual. Though the person certainly deserves some of the blame, we often fail to consider social forces such as the proliferation of fast food restaurants, the ease of obtaining inexpensive, packaged food products, and a lifestyle that values convenience over health.
Individualism frames an issue in terms of...