What Did C. Wright Mills Mean by the “Sociological Imagination”?

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What did C. Wright Mills mean by the “sociological imagination”?

C. Wright Mills has been defined by some as the pioneer of the new radical sociology that emerged in the 1950s, in which his book, The Sociological Imagination (1959), has played a crucial role (Restivo 1991, p.61). This essay will attempt to explain what the “sociological imagination” is, and why it has been important in the development of sociology over the last fifty to sixty years. In order to do this, it will firstly be essential to consider Mills’ work, however, in addition to this we will look at the influence on Mills that helped him form the idea of a “sociological imagination”. Furthermore, sociologists’ reactions to his work will be considered in order to assess whether his theory has been of significance to sociology.

Mills is known for his rejection of the ‘American positivist, functional social theory’ found in work such as Parsons. Instead, he became associated with the New Left’s radicalising and liberating movement of the 1950s and 1960, which was undoubtedly affected by the events of the time such as the Vietnam War and opposition to the uneven power distributions within major institutions (Gouldner, 1970). Mills believed in the potential of social change through the student revolts that were occurring across the western world during the 1960s, and opposition to war and individual freedom are very noticeable in his work (Mills 1959, p.3). His new, radical approach to sociology was more critical, less rigid in terms of methodology and conceptions, and was concerned with engaging the public and not just intellectuals (Denzin 1999, p.1).

The “sociological imagination”, therefore, was supposed to be used by sociologists, intellectuals and the public alike. It is a theory conceiving both individuals in society and society as a whole, and looking at the historical context in which society and individuals are placed (Mills 1959). Put very simply, therefore, Mills wanted to merge...
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