It was developed by Mills in a time of great social upheaval – industrialisation, globalisation and capitalism meant that the social phenomena were different to those previously experienced. The meta-narrative of science and ‘scientism’, previously used to develop theories of society, began to be presenting more moral questions and problems than it solved, and the problems were predominantly social ones (Mills: 1959: 15-16). This concept was, therefore, borne out of the need for a new bigger picture that would explain individual experience.
When focussing only on the private sphere of the individual, people feel “uneasiness” (Mills, 1959: 12), “possessed by the sense of a trap” (Mills, 1959: 5). Their situation feels as if it was caused by a personal action, whereas in fact, the problem may be rooted in societal conditions. It is no wonder they feel trapped then – an individual action cannot override societal pressure, and so there is no solution to be found on an individual level; after all, it would only be successful if the problem were caused by the individual in the first place. Therefore, to ascertain the cause of problems, in order to be able to realise their solutions one must be able to look outside the personal sphere of consciousness, and examine the influence of society. This is the concept of sociological imagina...
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This highlights an important point: the sociological imagination focuses not only on society’s influence on peoples’ external circumstances (unemployment, poverty, healthcare), but is also crucial for studying “the framework [by which] the psychologies of a variety of men and women are formulated” and “how individuals become... falsely conscious of their social positions”.
In conclusion, the sociological imagination is the capacity to explain individual experiences in relation to their societal causes. Mills, who developed this concept, saw it as the only way to fully develop an understanding of individual circumstances and position in society, both of their external situation, and their psychologies. From this basis of knowledge, problems caused by societal influences could be addressed at their source, and people could be freed of their feeling of entrapment.
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