Mills & the Sociological Imagination
C. Wright Mills published “The Sociological Imagination” in 1959. The theme of this concise book was that people often lack the perspective to understand the things that happen in their everyday lives. People are familiar with the people and events that make up the "close up scenes" of their world. What they are not familiar with are the forces at play in the greater society, history, and the world. In order to understand these forces people need the broad historical perspective of the sociological imagination (Mills, 2000). This essay outlines Mills' concept of sociological imagination, shows what ideas influenced Mills, and how Mills' idea has influenced others.
Keywords: Life Chances; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Pragmatism; Sociological Imagination; Stratification; Value Neutrality
C. Wright Mills (1916–1962) was an American sociologist who is best known for his work, The Sociological Imagination. Mills' personal style and flair was uniquely American. A native Texan who energetically defended the scholar's right to academic freedom, Mills' image was iconic. His round strong Hemingway-like build, his black leather jacket, and his motorcycle rides to the Columbia University campus embodied American independence. Mills' work was uniquely influenced by Weber, Marx, and pragmatism. Despite the uniqueness of being an intellectual influenced by both Weber and Marx, Mills insisted that it was only natural since Weber, developed much of his work in dialogue with Marx (Mills, 2000). Mills' association with American pragmatism influenced his ideas on how the biographical relates to the historical, the role of the public intellectual, and the role of power and stratification in society. The Sociological Imagination was Mills' attempt to make evident the intersection between personal biography and history and in doing so, to define a role for sociology and intellectuals. Mills insisted that an individual's values and actions do not occur in a vacuum. Rather, these values and actions are situated in a particular society at a particular time in history (Kaufman, 1997). That an individual needs to understand how they are situated is within a larger universe is what he called the sociological imagination.
The Sociological Imagination was C. Wright Mills' attempt to present a humanist approach to sociology. Mills argued that the dilemma many individuals face is one of feeling that their private everyday lives are a series of traps that they are ill equipped to overcome. Wars, economic cycles, and social change have dramatic determining effects on the private lives of individuals. It is impossible to understand one's own life without understanding the society and history in which one is situated. Yet, people rarely define their troubles by historical change and institutional contradiction.
Today, the rapid changes in society and reshaping of history outpace people's ability to orient themselves in accordance with their values. Individuals find themselves unable to defend their private lives and maintain a morally sensible approach. What they need is a quality of mind that will help them use the information available to them in order to achieve an understanding of the world they live in how it affects their private lives (Mills, 2000). This quality of mind could be provided by intellectuals who, properly trained, could analyze the connections between the individual and the forces that shape their world. The sociological imagination was not only a frame of mind, but a sociological approach that held out a promise.
The promise of the sociological imagination is that it allows us to understand history and biography. It allows the sociologist to study the relationship between the two. It is the promise that people will be able to understand the forces of politics, business, and culture that intersect with their lives. It is when they begin to understand this that they can begin to take action and make changes. The promise is that people will be able to move from one perspective—biographical—to the other, historical. To be cognizant of these connections is to finally be able to understand and act.
The Influence of Weber
One of Mills' (along with Hans H. Gerth) lasting contributions to sociology in English speaking countries was the selection and translation of Max Weber's works. Despite this landmark contribution, Mills had an awkward love/hate relationship with the writings of Weber. While Mills embraced many of Weber's ideas, he also was deeply troubled by Weber's notion of intellectual value neutrality. Weber's value neutrality in the social sciences meant setting aside one's personal biases and beliefs when conducting scientific research. Mills believed (in the case of Weber) such an approach gave institutional support for Imperial Germany. Additionally, value neutrality denied the policy considerations created by social research (Horowitz, 1985). Another concern Mills had was that Weber's writings had become far too influential to American sociologists looking for an answer to Marx and the old Left. Yet despite these differences, Weber had a great influence on Mills.
Weber's greatest influence on Mills, and perhaps all of sociology, was his concept of stratification. Weber conceives of class as an economic interest group and a function of the market. Unlike Marx, Weber emphasized economic distribution, not production, and described people sharing the same class as having the same economic situation (Cox, 1950). On one hand, Weber makes a simple argument that class is about the property one has or doesn't have. On the other hand, he makes an argument that class has a relationship with the market. Weber believed that people of a similar class have similar "life chances" in a market; that is, there are certain things in the market that they would have a chance to compete for and other things that would simply be beyond their reach. Those who own more have greater life chances because they can afford the chance to compete for more things (Weber, 1978). Throughout his book The Sociological Imagination, Mills comes across issues of stratification and refers to Weber having providing a sufficient understanding of the issue for the purpose of the particular topic being addressed (Mills, 2000).
Weber also influenced Mills on his ideas bureaucracy and power. While many understood Weber's concept as a descriptive of the everyday bureaucratic world, Mills took from Weber the concept of bureaucracy as power and clearly power that is managed by the elite. Weber noted that individuals do not surrender authority to people in positions of authority, but rather to the impersonal order, or bureaucracy, which has delegated the authority to this person (Hilbert, 1987). This power was preserved by the institutional rationality that Mills called the "ethos of bureaucracy" (Mills, 2000)....
(The entire section is 3078 words.)