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Text 6. The Sociological Imagination
Sociologists talk about the connection between learning to understand and then change society as being the sociological imagination. C. Wright Mills (1916–62), a colorful and controversial professor at New York’s Columbia University who is profiled below, coined this term. The sociological imagination is the ability to see the interrelationships between biography and history, or the connections between our individual lives and larger social forces at work shaping our lives (e.g., racism or political agendas). Mills urged us to understand that our own personal fortunes or troubles (e.g., gain/loss of a job, divorce) must be understood in terms of larger public issues (e.g., the health of the economy, societal changes in the institution of marriage). They cannot be fully understood outside of this social context.
Mills opens his well-known classic The Sociological Imagination by noting how intertwined social forces and personal lives are:
When a society is industrialized, a peasant becomes a worker; a feudal lord is liquidated or becomes a businessman. When classes rise or fall, a man is employed or unemployed; when the rate of investment goes up or down, a man takes a new heart or goes broke. When wars happen, an insurance salesman becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar man; a wife lives alone; a child grows up without a father. Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both. (1959, 3; italics mine)
Without a sociological perspective, we might tend to think of these personal experiences primarily in individual terms. We might locate both the source of a problem and the solution to that problem as lying within individuals. Unemployment, for example, is an individual problem for the unemployed person that may be due to his or her characteristics such as work ethic, job skills, or opportunities. If this person is one of few unemployed in a city, then employment might be secured if these factors change at the individual level: the person decides to get up when the alarm rings and work hard enough to keep a job, gain job training, or move to a different town where there is a demand for their existing skills. However, when the unemployment rate soars and large numbers of people are unemployed, something is clearly amiss in the structure of the society that results in inadequate employment opportunities. Although there will certainly still be lazy or unskilled people among the unemployed, millions of cases of unemployment cannot be explained at these individual levels, and individual solutions will not solve the problem. Working harder, getting more training, or seeking different work venues will not produce jobs when the economy is poor and there are no jobs to be had. As Mills puts it, “The very structure of opportunities has collapsed” (1959, 9). Finding solutions to these large-scale problems requires examining the structure of society (Mills 1959).
Mills felt that developing a sociological imagination will help us to avoid becoming “victims” of social forces and better control our own lives. By understanding how social mechanisms operate, we can better work to bring about change and influence history.