What isn't a part of the sociological imagination?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In order to understand what is not part of the sociological imagination, we first have to understand what the sociological imagination is.  One textbook, Sociology in Modules, Second Edition, by Richard T. Schaefer, defines the sociological imagination as “an awareness of the relationship between an individual and the wider society, both today and in the past.”   It goes on to add that the sociological imagination includes “the ability to view one’s own society as an outsider would” and to say that the sociological imagination “allows us to go beyond personal experiences and observations to understand broader public issues.”  (All quotes on p. 5 of the book.)  In other words, the sociological imagination is a way of thinking that allows us to understand that our own lives (or those of other individuals) and our societies are interconnected.  We cannot understand what happens to individuals without understanding how they are connected to their overall society.

This means that many things that seem individual and personal are connected to society and social conditions.  A person’s divorce may be personal, but it can also be connected to changes in the economy and changes in societal attitudes towards marriage and divorce.  Emile Durkheim famously connected people’s decisions to commit suicide to the type of society in which they lived.  These things and many more like them are part of the sociological imagination.

So what is not part of the sociological imagination?  For one thing, questions from other social science disciplines are not part of the sociological imagination, even if they could be important for sociologists.  If an economist asks how much employment rates will change after the minimum wage goes up, that is not part of the sociological imagination.  If a psychologist looks at the psychological makeup of a given poor person, it is not part of the sociological imagination.  In both cases, information gained could be used by someone using the sociological imagination, but these questions themselves are not part of that imagination. Within sociology, there are smaller questions that are not themselves part of the sociological imagination.  For example, if a sociologist simply looks at data to see whether poor children do worse in school than rich children, he or she is not using the sociological imagination.  The sociological imagination may have helped the researcher think of doing this research (they might ask how a child’s educational outcomes are affected by economic status), but the actual work of looking up the statistics is not part of the sociological imagination. 

Two types of things that are not part of the sociological imagination, then, are questions from other social science disciplines and parts of sociologists’ work that  do not actively look at the actual connections between society and individuals’ outcomes.

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