The Criminological Imagination

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The origins of the criminological imagination lay with C. Wright Mills and his book ‘The Sociological Imagination’. The book was first published back in 1959 and it continues to be published today. Tom Hayden describes Mills as the “sociologist’s sociologist” (Young 2001) and is a key figure and role model in the field of sociological sciences. Todd Gitlin described Mills as the “most inspiring sociologist of the second half of the twentieth century” (Gitlin 2000). The sociological imagination entails “a quality of mind that that seems most dramatically to promise an understanding of the intimate realties of ourselves in connection with larger social realities … and allows the possessor to continually work out and revise views of the problems of history, the problems of biography, and the problems of social structure in which biography and history intersect” (Mills 1959 pg 15 and 225). The sociological imagination signified a brand new way of looking at and interpreting the world around us (Barton, Corteen, Scott, and Whyte 2007). It looks at the problems in society, the problems that they cause and how we can find a way to resolve them. This new idea provided by Mills, examines and gives an understanding of a person’s biography within history. For Mills this was the key nature of the sociological imagination (Young 2011). However, no individual’s biography couldn’t be taken out of the historical contexts it was in. This demanded the present need to be understood in order to connect with the ways in which the phenomena under scrutiny had been produced and reproduced. Taking Mills idea of the sociological imagination, the biography of individual’s remains important but you must also understand that an individual’s behaviour cannot be detached from their historical and material contexts (Barton, Corteen, Scott, and Whyte 2007).

Mills critically challenged the dominant functionalist orthodoxy within criminology that existed in post-war criminology (Scraton 2007). Mills critique of this orthodox criminology dispelled the assumption that society at that time was functioning perfectly. However, at the time The Sociological Imagination was published for the first time in 1959, the black community in America was fighting for their civil rights. The USA stood at a crossroads at how to respond to the violence the revolution of black Americans had caused (Currie 1998). The USA sought to get rid of the social exclusion that was present in the early sixties. The country needed to reduce poverty, create opportunities to work, support under privileged families and the marginalized youth. The other option was to emphasise incarceration (Scraton 2007). Right wing supporters characterised the US government as being punitive and that the explanation of social conditions could not be used to explain the rise in violence in 1960’s America.

Mills examined the relationship between ‘private troubles’ and ‘public issues’ (Mills 1959). ‘A private trouble’ is something that the individual must deal with themselves; these troubles only affect that individual’s experiences and relationships within society (Barton, Corteen, Scott and Whyte 2007). On the other hand, a ‘public issue’ is something that all society must look at and understand together. Both however cannot exist without the other. Many ‘private troubles’ cannot be solved personally and therefore they become ‘public issues’. This is because a private trouble that is shared automatically becomes public issue as it affects more than one individuals view on society.

To fully understand the problem of crime and effects on society, criminologists must use what is referred to as a ‘criminological imagination’ (Barton, Corteen, Scott and Whyte 2007). This method can not only identify an individual as criminal but according to Barton, it provides a clear connection between the criminal, the event and the location of the incident (Barton, Corteen, Scott and Whyte 2007). The...
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