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

Updated on March 3, 2014

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 (p.11). For instance, unemployment for one person, out of one hundred thousand people, is a personal trouble and may be resolved by their personal attributes (Mills 1959, p. 10). However, mass unemployment, such as in Britain in the 1980s, becomes a public issue where a ‘structure of opportunities collapse’ and a range of solutions from political and economic institutions are required (Mills 1959, p. 10). Furthermore, Mills (1959) argues that public issues often explain what someone might consider to be a personal trouble, therefore, stating that people need the “sociological imagination” to realise that their personal troubles are embedded in public issues (p.10).

Mills stated that the epoch in which we now live makes people feel entrapped because public issues can also determine personal troubles (Shils 1961, p.600). This entrapment makes people feel indifferent or uneasy as their cherished values may be under threat, but they are unaware of why (Mills 1959, p. 11). Issues of the economic crisis today provide a perfect example of this, as most people feel uneasy about the state of the economy, however, many people are unaware of why such events have happened. Therefore, if the “sociological imagination” is applied to this problem, the state of the economy could be traced back historically in order to show how this public issue has come to affect many people’s personal lives, whilst proving that the explanation to people’s personal troubles lies within a larger social and historical setting. In this way, the “sociological imagination” would provide cultural and intellectual aid to both sociologists and the public, as Mills intended (Mills 1959, p.18).

Mills charts this dominance of public issues over individual’s collective lives through the decline of local autonomy after World War Two, and the rise of national institutions creating common ideologies and values; highlighting the fact that social structures have increasingly influenced individual’s actions (Hudson 1984, p. 383). Sociologists have always considered questions such as to what extent do individuals have free will, or to what extent are they shaped by social structures? As Scimecca states (1976), Mills’ ‘comprehensive model of man, society and their interrelationship in history’ provides the basis for the structural perspective of radical sociology (p.180). This structural perspective believes in a balance between structure and agency and is strongly opposed to the structural-functionalist approach, used by sociologists such as Parsons, which explains individuals’ actions through structures that maintains societies function of social order, and dismissing the idea of human agency (Gouldner 1971, p.138).

Mills’ balance between structure and agency is explained when stating that, whilst individuals live within a historical sequence shaped by society and it’s structures, individuals also contribute to the shaping of society, however minutely (Mills 1959, p. 6). Here, the influence of Marx can be seen on Mills’ work, as Marx also regarded there to be a balance between structure and agency; believing in both economic determinism, and that class consciousness could lead to revolutionary change (Scimecca 1976, p.182). However, Mills interpretation of this balance differs to Marx’s as Mills was able to construct a view of man ‘perhaps not struggling against himself…but one where man struggles against an oppressive social structure’, which can be identified through the “sociological imagination” (Scimecca 1976, p.184).

This oppressive structure, for Mills, was the constraint that social structures and history have on individuals, making people feel alienated, because they lose control over their own destiny, and instead are controlled by the power vested in social structures and institutions. To explain social structures, Mills adopted Weber’s notion of the social relationship, which suggested that how we perceive ourselves, and our roles in society are orientated to the expectations of others (Scimecca 1976, p.186). Mills believed that social structures are continually reinforced by people’s social relationships, which cause them to adjust their behaviour to conform to society (Scimecca 1976, p.186). Mills thought that possessing the “sociological imagination” allowed people to ‘study the structural limits of human decision in an attempt to find points of effective intervention’ as he believed structural problems to be the key to people’s malaise (Mills 1959, p.174).

In Mills’ work The Power Elite (1956), he looks at structural limits within the uneven graduation of power through societies institutes (p.18). Power, he believes, is built into the political, military and corporate institutions, and therefore, only the people that have access to these institutions have power (Bottomore 1964, p.33). Mills thought that the imbalanced distribution of power was the cause of many public issues. For example, many people do not have enough power to access political institutions and this entrapment may make them feel indifferent, therefore, they become politically apathetic and politically powerless (Mills 1959, p.41). Through the “sociological imagination”, people can trace the distribution of power as an evolutionary, historical process, therefore, showing within a biographical context how uneven power distribution, can be used as an explanation for their personal troubles (Hudson 1984, p.379).

The importance of the “sociological imagination” is also highlighted in The Power Elites, when Mills describes how people within this power elite share common experiences that help them develop a degree of self consciousness (Hudson 1984, p.387). Again, echoes of Marx’s work can be seen here through the idea of class consciousness. However, Mills is keen not to use the term class consciousness, instead opting for self consciousness, as he did not believe, unlike Marx, that all human action is economically determined. In people recognising their status in relation to others within society, they obtain the “sociological imagination”. Therefore, they are self conscious not just of their current position, but also of how the history of society has shaped their position. This enables individuals to gauge the limits of their potential through making the connection between biography and history and, in addition to this, in identifying their limits, they can realise what limits they need to break; giving individuals the potential of free will (Gouldner 1971, p.12, Scimecca 1976 p.189).

In creating a theory which attributed greater autonomy to individuals, Mill’s “sociological imagination” appealed to many people who did not agree with the structural-functionalist approach, which had prevailed before Mills. Furthermore, it enabled ‘its users to analyze just how much the individual is constrained by his social structure’ (Scimecca 1976, p.195). However, Mills’ “sociological imagination” has also received a lot of criticism.

Denzin (1990), whose criticisms are characteristic of the postmodernist movement, questioned whether ‘our texts capture biography, lived history and lived experience?’, and can we ever understand personal troubles? (p.1). Denzin’s (1990) believes the answer to this is no, and goes further to criticise Mills “sociological imagination” as he states that it is not possible to be an ‘objective observer of world history’, as all history is socially constructed through the narration of people’s experiences (p.2). Denzin (1990) challenges the notion of the “sociological imagination” stating that rather than speaking for people’s personal troubles, Mills should give individuals a voice, and from this interpret meanings and structures of beliefs (p.5). Ideas of language, discourse, meanings and interpretations within sociology have become very important in the last few decades, and arguably, Mills’ work could have benefited from incorporating this into his study when looking at personal troubles. However, Mills’ theory still provides a unique sociological perspective, which is especially useful in showing the aim and use of sociology as a discipline (Kaufman 1997, p.309).

The notion of the “sociological imagination”, therefore, can still be considered as a valuable social theory as it ‘enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene’ which influences the make up of structures and individual lives (Mills 1959, p.5). Understanding the link between history, society and it’s individuals raises significant sociological questions, for instance, ‘what is the structure of this particular society?’, ‘where does this society stand in human history?’ and ‘what varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and this period?’ (Mills 1959, pp.6-7).

Mills (1959) thought the “sociological imagination” was a quality of mind that promised an ‘understanding of the intimate realities of ourselves in connection with larger social realities’, and that it could ‘make a difference in the quality of human life in our time’ (p.226). Mills certainly has placed the individual within a larger social and historical setting, and although he may have been a bit too ambitious in his attempt to make a difference to people’s lives through his work, surely this is what all sociologist should be concerned with.

Sociological Imagination [Paperback]


Book references:

Bottomore, T.B. (1964) Elites and Society, Great Britain, C.A. Watts

Gouldner, A.W. (1971) The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, London, Heinemann Education Books Ltd

Mills, C.W (1956) The Power Elite, New York, Oxford University Press Inc.

Mills, C.W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination, United States of America, Oxford University Press Inc.

Restivo, S. (1991) The Sociological Worldview, Massachusetts and Cambridge, Basil Blackwell Ltd

Journal articles references:

Denzin, N.K. (1990) ‘Presidential Address on “The Sociological Imagination” Revisited’, The Sociological Quarterly, Vol.31, No.1, pp.1-22

Hudson, J.R. (1984) ‘Mills and Hawley on Power’, Sociological Perspectives, Vol.27, No.4, pp. 371-393

Kaufman, P. (1997) ‘Michael Jordan Meets C Wright Mills: Illustrating the Sociological Imagination with Objects from Everyday Life’, Teaching Sociology, Vol.25, No.4, pp.309-314

Scimecca, J.A. (1976) ‘Paying Homage to the Father: C Wright Mills and Radical Sociology’, The Sociological Quarterly, Vol.17, No.2, pp.180-196

Shils, E. (1961) ‘Review: Proffessor Mills on the Calling of Sociology’, World Politics, Vol.13, No.4, pp.600-621


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