C. Wright Mills' The Sociological Imagination

C. Wright Mills' The Sociological Imagination

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In 1959, C. Wright Mills released a book entitled ‘The sociological

It was in this book that he laid out a set of guidelines of how to
carry out social analysis.

But for a layman, what does the term ‘sociological imagination’
actually mean?

In his own words, Mills claimed “it is the capacity to shift from one
perspective to another…the capacity to range from the most impersonal
and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human
self – and to see the relations between the two of them.”

. Mills believed that being able to see the relationship between the
ordinary lives of people and the wider social forces was the key to
the sociological imagination.

Fundamental to Mills’ theory is the idea of ‘public issues’ and
‘private troubles’.

An individual’s troubles are personal when they occur because of the
person’s character.

Public issues, however, are a direct result of the problems within
society, they affect people hugely but often the individual will
assign the problem as their own personal downfall rather than as a
societal problem.

An ordinary man may get depressed about being unemployed and
automatically accept it as his own personal trouble. He will be
condemned as being ‘lazy’ or ‘work-shy’ and labelled simply as a
‘scrounger’. However, if there are thousands of other individuals also
unemployed, Mills argues it should then be treated as a ‘public

Another good example of this is divorce. If only a few divorces occur
within a society than it can be seen as person troubles of the people
involved. If, however, masses of people are getting divorced every
year than it can be seen as a public issue where institutions like
marriage, law and media need to be looked at.

Mills suggested was that these sorts of problems are interwoven with
the large-scale problems of society where government policy may be
involved and therefore are a ‘public issue’.

It is clear from this that what sociology focuses on is the influence

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of social forces on behaviour and how individuals and groups respond
to these forces.

In order to analyse the effects it is important to see the world with
a sociological state of mind and “..to see it whole.” (Mills. 1959.

It is using this ability to see the bigger picture that sociological
explanations can be developed.

Some explanations are that of Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist who
came up with a theory for suicide.

Durkheim suggested that social forces are responsible for suicides,
underlying 4 main causes of suicide to do with social integration and
moral regulation.


The first is Egoistic suicide in which the individual experiences low
levels of social integration and becomes detached from social groups.
Durkheim’s example of this was of unmarried people, especially males,
who had little social support or guidance.

The second is Altruistic suicide, which is a result of too much social
integration. This involved the individual becoming so immersed in
their social group that they lost sight of their individuality,
resulting in sacrifice of their own lives. Durkheim’s example of this
was members of the military. A modern example would be suicide bombers
who surround terrorism today.

The third is Anomic suicide associated with moral regulation. Durkheim
suggested this type was due to a sudden breakdown of social order or a
disruption in norms, for example the French revolution and the
emergence of a new industrial society.

The final type of suicide put forward by Durkheim is fatalistic
suicide. This would occur when the individual was forced to live in
unbearable circumstances or lived a very unrewarding life such as a


Durkheim’s work on suicide demonstrates sociological imagination.

In the first chapter of his book, Mills writes that “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” (Mills. 1959. 12)

Many people would argue with Durkheim that suicide is purely a
psychological act, but if that is the case then why, as Durkheim
questioned, does the rate of suicide vary between societies? Why do
the rates of suicide vary significantly between different groups in
societies? And why do the rates within groups and societies remain
fairly constant over time?

Durkheim sought to show that social behaviour and social development
was a result of social processes and therefore exercised a
sociological imagination.


Sociology is regularly “dismissed as ‘an endless quest for knowledge
about trivia’ and is often criticised as being nothing more than
‘common sense’.”(Marsh. 2000. p.9)

Common sense is described simply as common knowledge which most people
assume to be true but has not actually been proven or disproved.

‘Zigmunt Bauman suggests that in order to think sociologically, we
must move beyond our common sense’. (www.coursework.info)

Sociologists base their ideas on evidence rather than on simple
assumption, and to do this their theories must be analysed and tested.
Therefore, although common sense may be at the root of sociology, it
is not in fact the same thing.

In direct contrast to sociological theories are two main explanations,
the ‘naturalistic’ and the ‘individualistic’.

These oppose theories put forward by famous sociologists such as
Durkheim and Karl Marx, and contradict Mills’ ideas surrounding the
sociological imagination.

These alternative explanations see social behaviour as a result of
inherent and psychological rather than a product of interaction.

The naturalistic explanation identifies natural reasons for human
behaviour such as biological inherent traits and genes. It proposes
that we are like animals, in that we are biologically programmed by
nature and governed by instinct (Jones.

The naturalistic explanation, for example, would assign war to man’s
natural aggressiveness. It explains marriage by saying that it is
natural for a man and woman to fall in love, settle down, get married
and have children.

For the man to go out to work, the woman to stay home and care for the
children, and for the children to want to live at home until roughly
the age of 18. (Jones)

The naturalistic explanation claims it is unnatural for any individual
not to have these instincts.

The fact that people within a society learn to accept these norms,
values and roles (Mills. 29) without ever questioning it is called in
sociological terms ‘socialization’.

“Deeply immersed in our daily routines, though, we hardly ever pause
to think about the meaning of what we have gone through: even less
often have we the opportunity to compare our private experiences with
the fate of others, to see the social in the individual, the general
in the particular, this is precisely what sociologists can do for us.
We would them to show us how our individual biographies intertwine
with the history we share with human beings.” (Bauman 1990, quoted in
Giddens 1997a: 14)

Theorists in the naturalistic explanation such as Edward O. Wilson,
Desmond Morris, Konrad Lorenz and Richard Dawkins have used it to
devise what is called ‘sociobiology’.

This explains human social behaviour in terms of biology and evolution
and has explained rape as simple an underlying bio-logic within males.

This method of approach directly opposes the concept of sociological
imagination, the ability “..to grasp history and biography and the
relations between the two within society.” (Mills. 1959. 12)

The other ‘non-social’ approach, the individualistic explanation,
relies on the idea that behaviour is a product of individual
characters or abilities suggesting that for instance educational
achievement is the result of higher intelligence.

Sociologists would ask why then do children from working class homes
do so badly compared with children from middle class homes? (jones)

They argue that it is unrealistic to suggest that having a particular
occupation rather than another will determine the intelligence of your
child and that educational achievement must therefore be influenced by
a child’s background and social environment.

The individualistic approach explains crime in a similar way, that
criminals are ‘mad or bad’, born rather than made.

Sociologists point out that the rate of crime convicts is highest
among young working class males, especially blacks.

They question as to whether it is really believable that criminal
personalities are likely to be concentrated within this social

Sociologists use their sociological imagination to question widely
accepted facts such as these and therefore perceive ‘public issues’
and ‘private troubles’ as two aspects of a single issue.

It is clear that Mills believed that society shaped individuals, but
he also believed that individuals help to shape society.

“By the fact of this living, he contributes, however minutely, to the
shaping of this society and to the course of its history, even as he
is made by society and by its historical push and shove.” (Mills.
1959. 12).

From this study it has been learned that sociology involves
questioning the norm.

Questioning the norm involves realising that behaviour is primarily
social rather than biological, and that every day routines are
learned, familiar processes which brainwash people in contributing to
the everyday hamster wheel of life.

Functionalism, which was born in the 19th century as a response to a
‘crisis of order’, promotes this idea that a functioning and orderly
society relies on central value system from which individuals derive
their common values. ()

No matter what theory it may be, whether it is a academically
recognised study or a moment of realisation by one insignificant
individual, it is generally accepted that a sociological imagination
is required in order to do this, as written in his book Mills states
that “in order to think sociologically, we need to develop the
sociological imagination”, that is, to look beyond the norm and see
the world as an outside observer.

An excellent description of sociology is this written by Zygmunt
Bauman in 1990.

“When repeated often enough, things tend to become familiar, and
familiar things tend are self explanatory, they present no problems
and arouse no curiosity… In an encounter with that familiar world
ruled by habits and reciprocally reasserting beliefs, sociology acts
as a meddlesome and often irritating stranger. It disturbs the
comfortably quiet way of life by asking questions noone among the
‘locals’ remember being asked, let alone answered. Such questions make
evident things into puzzles: they defamiliarize the familiar. Suddenly
the daily way of life must come under scrutiny. It now appears to be
just one of the possible ways of life, not the only, not the ‘natural’
way of life.” (Bauman 1990, quoted in Giddens 1997).

As a personal addition and final thought to this study of the
sociological imagination, this quote (above) taken from Bauman will be
compared to the modern day, well known film ‘the matrix’.

The film surrounds the idea that the life we lead as individuals is
just an illusion created to blind people from what is real. Noone ever
questions this pretend reality because it is so familiar, normal and
therefore accepted.

The true reality of these humans is that they are in actual fact just
‘human batteries’, all contributing unknowingly to the so called
‘machine world’ of the future, which feeds off their human energy to
sustain their existence.

This of course in an extremely dramatic, science fiction based, made
up concept quite different from the ideas put forward by sociologists
like Durkheim and Marx.

But by reading the above quote, and watching the film, there can be
seen an underlying common theme.

That the life we are given and expected to accept is not the only of

That it is appropriate to question ‘why are we here?’ and ‘what is our

It is the latter part of Bauman’s quote which illustrates this the

“Suddenly the daily way of life must come under scrutiny…”

It is this idea that this hamster wheel way of life is not the only
way, and not the natural way.

The main character of the film ‘Neo’ questions the meaning of his
entire existence quoting “I don’t like the idea that I’m not in
control of my life’ and eventually becomes literally detached from the
illusion which is the so called ‘world’ in which they live.

Although this may be seen as a far fetched connection, it would be
interesting to see if the producers of this film meant it as a
reference to the sociological idea of norms and deviance.

It can be concluded that the sociological imagination is essentially a
sociological state of mind. It is a method which sociologists use to
deal with the analysis of information.

“The quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and
society, of biography and history, of self and worth” (Mills. 1959)
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