Mills' - The Sociological Imagination
This essay analyses the sociological imagination by C. Wright Mills. It shows that Mills believed that a person needs to have an understanding of the history of their society to understand the society, and themselves in it, and through this determine what their moral values are. With such understanding the individual could then engage in the public issues of the society, rather than living an isolated life. By such engagement he could then address the troubles of his life, which are caused by the society. This essay will argue that such a theory is inherently a political one, as it sees political involvement by the individual in society as a necessary outcome. An example of the functioning of the sociological imagination is seen in the anti-war protests over Iraq, where the question of the morality of the war helps create a sociological imagination of many who may otherwise not had one.
The sociological imagination is required to understand the society in an individual live, and the historical forces which created it. Without this understanding, the individual cannot understand either themselves as individuals, nor their role and place within society. The sociological imagination provides this insight, allowing the individual to recognise and understand the larger forces at work within the society, and how these forces interact with, and effect the lives of the individual. Mills explained that:
"What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use
information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in
the world and of what may be happening within themselves." (Mills, 1959, p.5)
Mills' argued that without this imagination the individual is isolated from their society, and to an extent their true selves. This creates confusion and anxiety, and leads to a feeling of alienation from society. The sociological imagination liberates the
individual from this isolation by giving him the knowledge to place his life in perspective. This perspective includes both the contemporary situation of the individual, and the history of how this contemporary situation evolved, and the interaction of the two (Mills, 1959, p.5). This is shown clearly by Elwell:
The sociological imagination is simply a "quality of mind" that allows one to grasp "history and
biography and the relations between the two within society. The sociological imagination enables
one to switch from one perspective to another, thereby forming a comprehensive view of the
sociocultural system. (Elwell, sourced from website)
With this knowledge the individual can then become a more fully functioning and involved participant in society.
Mills', emphasises moral values in his sociological imagination. Moral values are the foundation to both the individual and the society, where the moral values of one are shared by, and shape the moral values of the other. Yet the forces of society, and the constant changes within it, cause people to have to reorient themselves and their values to such changes. This creates a general questioning of the moral values of society. Those without a sociological imagination can become so disoriented that they become what Mills' calls "morally insensible." (Mills, 1969, p.5) Mills shows this clearly when he writes:
The very shaping of history now outpaces the ability of men and women to orient themselves in
accordance with cherished values. (Mills, 1969, p.4)
The "personal troubles of milieu", are the troubles and problems experienced by the individual. Without a sociological imagination the individual is unable to see that most of these troubles are caused by the structure of society and or the failure of one or more of society's institutions. This lack of insight effectively stops the individual from seeing that the only solution
to his problem is not at the individual level, but on the social level, and is unable to ever solve his problems. The individual is trapped both by the effect of his troubles on his life, and his inability to free himself of them (Mills, 1969, p.5). As van Kreiken, et al shows:
These are those situations not caused by individual factors but by social forces which are
beyond the power of any single individual to change. (van Krieken, et. al, 2000, pg 5)
The way to address this dilemma is through what Mills' calls "the public issues of social structure" (Mills, 1959, p.8). With the knowledge of the sociological imagination, the individual recognizes the true cause of his problems is the effect of a malfunctioning society. With this insight the individual sees that others also share these troubles, and that the solution is not to struggle individually, but to join forces with those who also share his experiences (Mills, 1959, p.8).
By doing so the individual enters a much larger world. His involvement in the public issues of the society gives him the opportunity to try and alleviate, if not eliminate, the structural troubles which affect him, as well as helping to shape and reshape the institutional framework of his society. He also becomes involved in the question of moral values of his society. This involvement forces him to decide exactly what his moral values are, thereby strengthening the foundations of his personal life. In the process he helps shape the moral values of his society. Along with this, his involvement in the public issues of his society, increase his knowledge of society, and at the same time deepen and broaden his level of involvement in it (Mills, 1959, p.5).
From this it is clear that Mills sees the involvement of the individual in public issues as a necessary and positive development of his sociological imagination. He is saying that people should be, and need to be, involved in the political processes of their society. This call to political involvement is inherent throughout his argument, in that the logical outcome of having a sociological imagination leads ultimately to such an increased political involvement. In fact, it
could even be said that the basic purpose underlying the sociological imagination is to create a wider level of public involvement in the political questions of society. When seen from this perspective the sociological imagination is as much a political argument, as it is a sociological one.
Mills' the sociological imagination can be used to understand contemporary society. The sociological imagination is about providing people with the skills and knowledge to be able to engage in political issues. As argued above, this is the natural outcome of Mills' theory.
An example of this is the anti-war movement, currently protesting over the war in Iraq. Inherent in the sociological imagination is the aim for as many people in society as possible to gain such an imagination. One way of this occurring is for there to be a major public issue which has very strong moral questions about it. This the war in Iraq has provided, by forcing many to question the moral basis of the war. This questioning has led many to conclude that the war is not moral, and must therefore be opposed. In fact, this moral questioning has provided many with the ability to gain a sociological imagination, and through it, the insight to see that they must become involved in opposing the war. In this way, a sociological imagination can be gained not only through the troubles affecting the individual, but through what can be seen as a trouble affecting the moral values of the society itself. For some people, the suddenness and urgency of the issue has caused them to become involved in political protest for the first time in their lives. Through such protests the individual can gain further knowledge of the history of the issue, and the working of their society, thus gaining further insight into the sociological imagination.
In conclusion, Mills' the sociological imagination is inherently an argument for more involvement in society by the wider population. It is only through such involvement that the society's problems can be addressed. As such, Mills' theory is a political argument as much as a sociological one. This is clearly seen when compared to the anti-war protests over Iraq. The Iraqi issue has, by causing people to question the moral basis of the war, created the conditions for the development of the sociological imagination by many people, thus leading them into opposing the war. For Mills, this development is the first step to changing the world for the better.
C Wright Mills, (1959), The Sociological Imagination, 'The Promise', Chapter 1.
2.Mills, C. Wright, "C. Wright Mills' Homepage," edited by Frank W. Elwell, 2001, Retrieved April 27, 2001. http://www/faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Mills/#Imagination
Robert van Krieken, Philip Smith, Daphne Habibis, Kevin McDonald, Michael Haralambos and Martin Holborn, Copyright 2000, Sociology Themes and Perspectives, 2nd Edition, Longman, Melbourne, Chapter 1.
Waters, M. and Crook, S. (1993), Sociology One, 3rd Edition, Longman, Cheshire, Melbourne, Chapter 1.
Tony Bilton, Kevin Bonnett, Pip Jones, David Skinner, Michelle Stanworth and Andrew Webster, (1996), Introductory Sociology, 3rd Edition, Macmillan, London, Chapter 1.
Hugh Mackay, (1993), Reinventing Australia: The mind and mood of Australia in the 90s, Angus and Robertson, Australia.
More on C. Wright Mills, and his Sociological Imagination can be found via the links below.