c. wRIGHT mILLS (1959B) described sociological reasoning sociological imagination
the ability to see the relationship between individuals and the larger society
this enables us to link personal experiences and the social contexts in what they happen
it helps us see the difference in personal troubles and social or public issues
personal problems: are private of individuals and the networks of people with whom they
this means they must be solved by individuals in their immediate social settings
ex: one person being unemployed
public issues: matters beyond an individuals control that are caused by problems at a
ex: widespread unemployment as a result of economic changes
The sociological imagination helps us place seemingly personal issues like losing ones
job into the larger social context where we can distinguish whether and how personal
troubles may be related to public issues.
Wright argues that the development of the ability or intellectual capacity that he calls the
sociological imagination is essential for all citizens of modern complex societies.
Socioloigcal imagination is a intellectual capacity and an ability or quality of mind- a
thinking that is essential if we want to begin ourseleves, our behavior and the behavior of
others around us, near and far.
r developments that take place in society and history have a direct impact on all of us as
individuals. For example, with the outbreak of war, a person’s entire life can change even
if that individual has nothing to do with the causes of the war and is opposed to war.
When an economic depression sets in, an entire family’s way of life can change, due
entirely to forces and factors beyond the members’immediate control.Anew tax law has
an impact on the country’s whole economy, leading to lost jobs or new jobs and dramatic
changes in the lives of many citizens. If a student receives failing grades at school, the
tendency might be simply to think of the failure as a personal problem—the student
didn’t work hard enough or isn’t intelligent enough. But perhaps the grades are really the
product of having to work at two part-time jobs to pay for the university course or help
out the folks back home. This factor would place the school performance
in a new light. Similarly, a woman who experiences sexual harassment must be able to
understand that the root cause of her problem is not to be found in her behaviour,
demeanour, or dress but rather in the social dynamics of a patriarchal and sexist society.
Simple as they are, these examples illustrate Mills’s point, namely, that our individual
lives are not lived in a vacuum; rather, they unfold within a complex system of social
structures, processes, and events. The situating of our lives in this larger context is an
essential prerequisite for understanding ourselves, and this situating process is the task of
the sociological imagination. The first step in the development of the sociological imagination is therefore to grasp the intimate connection between your own life and the
historically developing society around you.
Mills thinks it’s nessecary to ask three important questions.
1. what are the structures of my society like? How is my society organized and how does it
operate? How is it similar and different from other societys?
2. Where does my society fit into the broader picture of human history? How does the
history of my society influence its current organization? What are the most important
aspects of the current historical epoch?
3. How do the structures of my society and the historical period of which I am a part of
influence me and those around me? What social and historical forces have shaped and
moulded my character and personality?
Understanding Human Behaviour 21
The Sociological Imagination
Chapter One: The Promise
C. Wright Mills (1959)
Nowadays people often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that
within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling,
they are often quite correct. What ordinary people are directly aware of and what they try
to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers
are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieux, they
move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however
vaguely, of ambitions and of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more
trapped they seem to feel.
Seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the
course of world history, ordinary people do not usually know what this connection means
for the kinds of people they are becoming and for the kinds of history-making in which
they might take part. They do not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the
interplay of individuals and society, of biography and history, of self and world.
They cannot cope with their personal troubles in such ways as to control the structural
transformations that usually lie behind them. Surely it is no wonder. In what period have
so many people been so totally exposed at so fast a pace to such earthquakes of
change? That Americans have not known such catastrophic changes as have the men
and women of other societies is due to historical facts that are now quickly becoming
'merely history.' The history that now affects every individual is world history. Within this
scene and this period, in the course of a single generation, one sixth of humankind is
transformed from all that is feudal and backward into all that is modern, advanced, and
fearful. become morally insensible, trying to remain altogether private individuals? Is it any
wonder that they come to be possessed by a sense of the trap? It is not only information
that they need - in this Age of Fact, information often dominates their attention and
overwhelms their capacities to assimilate it. It is not only the skills of reason that they
need - although their struggles to acquire these often exhaust their limited moral energy.
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. It is this quality, I
am going to contend, that journalists and scholars, artists and publics, scientists and
editors are coming to expect of what may be called the sociological imagination.
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. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily
experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions. Within that welter,
the framework of modern society is sought, and within that framework the psychologies
of a variety of men and women are formulated. By such means the personal uneasiness
of individuals is focused upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is
transformed into involvement with public issues.
The first fruit of this imagination - and the first lesson of the social science that embodies
it - is the idea that the individual can understand her own experience and gauge her own
fate only by locating herself within her period, that she can know her own chances in life
only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in her circumstances. In many ways it
is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one. We do not know the limits of
humans capacities for supreme effort or willing degradation, for agony or glee, for
pleasurable brutality or the sweetness of reason. But in our time we have come to know
that the limits of 'human nature' are frighteningly broad. We have come to know that
every individual lives, from one generation to the next, in some society; that he lives out
a biography, and lives it out within some historical sequence. 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.
The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations
between the two within society.
Whatever the specific problems of the classic social analysts, however limited or
however broad the features of social reality they have examined, those who have been
imaginatively aware of the promise of their work have consistently asked three sorts of
(1) What is the structure of this particular society as a whole? What are its essential
components, and how are they related to one another? How does it differ from other
varieties of social order? Within it, what is the meaning of any particular feature for its
continuance and for its change?
(2) Where does this society stand in human history? What are the mechanics by which it
is changing? What is its place within and its meaning for the development of humanity as
a whole? How does any particular feature we are examining affect, and how is it affected by, the historical period in which it moves? And this period - what are its essential
features? How does it differ from other periods? What are its characteristic ways of
(3) What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this period? And
what varieties are coming to prevail? In what ways are they selected and formed,
liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted? What kinds of `human nature' are
revealed in the conduct and character we observe in this society in this period? And
what is the meaning for 'human nature' of each and every feature of the society we are
Whether the point of interest is a great power state or a minor literary mood, a family, a
prison, a creed - these are the kinds of questions the best social analysts have asked.
They are the intellectual pivots of classic studies of individuals in society - and they are
the questions inevitably raised by any mind possessing the sociological imagination. For
that imagination is the capacity to shift from one pers