Sociology

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C. Wright Mills, "The Sociological Imagination", 1959
Grace Kpohazounde
(February 2010)
C. Wright Mills, a world acclaimed public intellectual of the twentieth-century America, and a pioneering social scientist, left a legacy of interdisciplinary and powerful works including three books which provided individuals with powerful intellectual tools to address their personal ordeals and influence the power structure of the world in general and the American society in particular : White Collar (1951), The Power Elite (1956) and the Sociological Imagination ((1959). In the latter, Mills who consistently challenged the status-quo with regard to the power structure in the world in general and the United States in particular, shared his thoughts on an essential intellectual quality, the understanding and acquisition of which form the basis of a revolutionary social change. According to Mills, “the sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions. Within that welter, the framework of modern society is sought, and within that framework the psychologies of a variety of men and women are formulated. By such means the personal uneasiness of individuals is focused upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is transformed into involvement with public issues. The first fruit of this imagination - and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it - is the idea that the individual can understand her own experience and gauge her own fate only by locating herself within her period.” (P.12) Written in the 1960’s, the notion of sociological imagination as described by Mills emerged during a period of rapid social change in the United States, characterized by a disillusionment with the existing power, the social structure and a sense of loss by the young generation. In his book, Mills argued that in order for distant individuals to have a comprehensive understanding of their personal troubles there was a need to situate themselves within their period, according to their history, and make the link between their private ordeals and the public policies of the society in which they live. Mills thus differentiates between “the personal troubles of milieu” and “the public issues of social structure.” (Mills, p.13) He considered that this distinction was “an essential tool of the sociological imagination and a feature of all classic work in social science” and explains that “troubles occur within the character of the individual and within the range of his or her immediate relations with others; they have to do with one's self and with those limited areas of social life of which one is directly and personally aware. […] A trouble is a private matter.” On the other hand, “issues have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the range of her inner life. They have to do with the organization of many such milieux into the institutions of an historical society as a whole, with the ways in which various milieux overlap and interpenetrate to form the larger structure of social and historical life. An issue is a public matter.” (Mills, p.8) Another understanding of this is the link between biography and history. By understanding the intersection between the two elements, individuals are able to “grasp what is going on in the world and understand what is happening in themselves.” (Mills, p.12)

Mills argued that without the sociological imagination, most individuals are unable to “cope with their personal troubles in such ways as to control the structural transformations that usually lie behind them.” (Mills, p.12) The acquisition of this intellectual quality brings along the promise of a higher...
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