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 the history of society with the biography of individuals, as he believed it was the job of sociology to understand both (Mills 1959, p.3).

Firstly, Mills emphasised the importance of the relationship between sociology and history, as he thought history shaped people’s individual and collective lives (Mills 1959, p.3). He argued that there had been a shift in the influence of national history to how world history affected people’s lives, such as that of the World Wars (Mills 1959, p.4). Great historical change over the last two centuries had been very fast paced with many structural changes such as industrialisation, the rise of capitalism, democracy and totalitarian societies (Mills 1959, p.4). Mills therefore noted that the shaping of history ‘outpaces the ability of men to orient themselves in accordance with cherished values’, causing people to be unaware of how history shapes people’s lives (Mills 1959, p.4).

As men try to understand the world around them, the “sociological imagination” helps identify the public issues of social structure and the personal troubles of the milieu (Mills 1959, p.8). Mills (1959) states that personal or private troubles ‘lie within the individual as a biographical entity’ as the individuals feel their own cherished values threatened, and try to solve their troubles through their individual attributes (p.8). Public issues, however, ‘transcend local environments’, and are the organisation of many people’s troubles into the institutions and structures of social and historical life (Mills 1959, p.8). These public issues create a threat to the values cherished by the public collectively (Mills 1959, p.8).

To understand the “sociological imagination”, therefore, one needs to identify what is a public issue or personal trouble. As Mills (1959) states, this can be achieved by differentiating ‘what values are cherished yet threatened by characterising the trends of our period’, and he uses the issue of unemployment to highlight this...
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