C. Wright Mills wrote a book in 1959 called ‘The Sociological Imagination”. Mills coined the term Sociological Imagination and it has since been used as a very influential and relevant term in terms of helping to define what sociology actually is. It is also seen as a method in which sociologists use to interpret information. He writes “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” (C. W. Mills. 2005).
Mills begins the relevant chapter by giving a summary of what he believes is a rapid fast changing world. “Men” being left behind in their old ways, becoming overwhelmed at the abrupt and tremendous revolutions that occurred - changing society forever. The following statement is his description of this, “In what period have so many men been so totally exposed at so fast a pace to such earthquake of change?” (C.W.Mills pg. 12. 2005). It is this that led Mills to define the sociological imagination as being able to see the relationship between the ordinary lives of people and the wider social factors and influences that affect them.
Mills accentuates the fact that an individual is unable to really understand the self and is unable to understand their place in society without first grasping the concept of the connection between biography and history. Essential to the sociological imagination concept was the terms ‘private troubles’ and ‘public issues’. An individual’s troubles are only relevant to the individual and their immediate surroundings. They are often caused or as a result of the very nature of their own self. “The statement and resolution of troubles properly lie within the individual as a biographical entity and with the scope of his immediate milieu’ (C.W. Mills pg. 15).
Public issues are concerns or issues directly related to the structure of society as a whole, both historically and currently. They affect people hugely but often the individual will assign the problem as their own personal downfall rather than as a societal problem. Mills uses the example of unemployment to demonstrate the difference and how easily they can be misinterpreted and overlapped.
An individual may become unemployed and automatically accept it as his own personal trouble. However what he may fail to see is that there could also be thousands of others unemployed, which correlates directly to a particular social factor. It is here that Mills believes there must be a definite switch to look at this as a “public issue”. He also uses war, marriage and the city (metropolis) as other examples of other public issues. The sociological imagination allows an individual to recognise and embrace the fact that there are greater influences at work within society and how these influences can affect their lives.
Prior to C.W Mills, Durkheim’s study of suicide in the late 19th century aimed to dispel the myth that suicide was essentially a psychological act. The text ‘Sociology in today’s world’ (Furze et al) Chapter One, The Sociological Compass begins by talking about the sociological perspective, using Emile Durkheim study of suicide as an example. He discovered that social solidarity i.e. – how attached a person was to their ‘society’, had a great impact on the rates of suicide. Social solidarity can be explained by the Figure 1.1 (page 4, Furze et al). The findings showed that if there was in fact too much or too little social integration then this correlated with a high suicide rate. Durkheim’s work on suicide demonstrated an example of sociological perspective using the tool of the sociological imagination. The Sociological imagination is ”the quality of mind that enable some to see the connection between personal troubles and social structure” (Furze et al pg. 7).
Durkheim had a Functionalist perspective; he believed that societal factors played a significant role in suicide “…social facts define the constraints and opportunities within which people must act” (Furze, B. et al pg. 3).
To understand more about society and its structure, the chapter continues to then talk about the social structures in society. Social structures are stable patterns of social relations (Furze et al page 5). It is using these structures that sociologists can analyse the relationship between personal troubles and the social structure in which they exist. Microstructures look at the immediate social situations in which people interact with each other. It is the personal relationships that are formed within our immediate circle of family, friends and acquaintances. Macrostructures are what lies beyond our intimate circle. It is the model in which society adheres too or follows. Examples of this are class, patriarchy and bureaucracies.
Global structures are the societal patterns that exist on a worldwide scale. The significance of global structures continue to grow as the world becomes more and more interconnected through travel, social media and global awareness.
The chapter then examines the sociological imagination, which became a very relevant tool to interpret to the coinciding modern revolutions that have occurred.
The scientific revolution was ground breaking in the fact that it started to insist that speculation was not enough and instead reliable evidence i.e. – “science” was required about the workings of society. The democratic revolution was significant in the fact that it allowed people to see that they in fact were responsible for society and could therefore solve social problem (Furze et al page 8). This allowed sociology to make a firm imprint as a practicing science. It helped people to triumph over social adversity.
The industrial revolution was an important time in history for sociological thinking. It brought with it huge changes across societies throughout the world. Never seen before social problems began to emerge due to the growth of industry. The sociological imagination was further developed to correspond with the need to manage these social problems and events.
In conclusion the sociological imagination, conceived by C.W Mills, is a phrase used to describe how sociologists think. Durkheim’s study of suicide was a demonstration of a sociological perspective, which is a specific theoretical approach to examining social issues.
Furze, B. Savy, P. Brym, R.J. Lie, J. (2012). Sociology in today’s world (4th ed.). Cengage, Melbourne. 2-23.
Mills, C.W. (2005) ‘The Sociological Imagination’, in R Matso (ed.) The spirit of Sociology: A Reader, Boston: Pearson: 11-20.