Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On the Sociological Imagination

“The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. This is its task and its promise.” (C. W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination, p.6)

In 1959, the prominent public intellectual C. Wright Mills published a book called “The Sociological Imagination.” The sociological imagination is one of the most important concepts in sociology as it lays the foundation for understanding what differentiates sociology from other social sciences such as economics and political science. Those who have refined their sociological imaginations are able to differentiate between what Mills referred to as “personal troubles” and “public issues,” and they understand how their biography and personal background characteristics have been influenced by impersonal historical forces and the structural transformations of society.

The distinction between troubles and issues is important for understanding the nature of opportunity. Sociologists believe that the opportunities we have available to us and the choices we are able to make are dependent upon our social context.  Personal troubles occur when there is opportunity but personal flaws prevent attainment. Public issues occur when the structural conditions for opportunity and advancement collapse. For example, if an individual African-American male is late for a job interview because he overslept and doesn’t get the job as a result, that’s a personal trouble. However, if many African-American males are unemployed as a result of racism or discrimination, which prevents them from even getting an interview in the first place, that’s a public issue.

The structure of opportunities in a given society is highly dependent on the historical characteristics of major social institutions, such as the economy, the state, and civil society. For example, Jim Crowe segregation, which was sanctioned by law, severely limited opportunities for economic and political advancement for the vast majority of African-Americans in the South in the first half of the 20th century. During that period of American history, it was highly unusual for an African-American to hold political office. However, as history progressed and Jim Crowe was dismantled, opportunities for political advancement began to open up for African-Americans (though there are still vast racial inequalities in a number of other areas of American social life).

According to Mills there are three types of questions that can be addressed using the sociological imagination :

1.      What are the essential components of social structure (e.g., economic, political, civil, etc.)?
2.      How has society changed throughout human history to lead to this historical moment? How is society currently changing? How does this moment differ from other moments? What are the mechanics that are driving the process of historical change?
3.      What are the characteristics of the population at this moment and in this society? How are people socialized? What is the meaning of “human nature”?

As a sociology professor, I always strive to provide my students with the information they need to develop their sociological imaginations. As a sociologist who’s interested in matters of community and public policy I strive to provide a sociological perspective on public issues that policymakers can utilize to make more informed decisions. This is at the heart of what contemporary American sociologists refer to as “public sociology.”


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