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The Sociological Imagination Study Guide

The Sociological Imagination is C. Wright Mills’s 1959 statement about what social
science should be and the good it can produce. In this way, it is a polemical book. It has a vision
for sociology, and it criticizes those with a different vision. For Mills, the stakes are high. He
thinks contemporary society is characterized by institutional crisis and the confinement of men.
A sociological imagination, he argues, can help lead the way out of these problems.
Mills was writing at a time in which sociology was still a fairly new discipline in the United
States. Not every university had a sociology department, and it wasn’t until after World War II
that sociology was considered a central part of the academic system. As a consequence,
sociologists at the time actively debated how to do sociology and what it meant to study society.
It was necessary both to assert the importance of sociology and to come to an understanding of
what sociology entailed.

Mills’s book is an important pivot point in this history. On the one hand, the book summarizes
trends in sociology during his time. It therefore provides a survey of the past, and it engages with
key sociological thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century. On the other hand, the book
provides a program for sociology's future. Its legacy can be judged in part by the influence it has
had on sociologists of the second half of the twentieth century. In 1998, the International
Sociological Association voted The Sociological Imagination as the second most
important book of sociology from the past hundred years.
Mills did not enjoy this kind of popularity in his own life. The Sociological
Imagination was widely read when it was released, but it was rarely loved. Most sociologists
thought it was more a work of journalism than a work of sociology. Others simply disliked the
book because of Mills’s radical politics or, more frequently, his “smart-ass personality.” Some of
that personality is expressed in The Sociological Imagination itself, with writing that is at
times sarcastic toward other thinkers. Unfortunately, Mills did not live long to defend or spread
his ideas. He died of a heart attack at the age of 45, just a few years after the publication of his
book. But it is a testament to the strength of his ideas that the book has had such a long afterlife
in the imaginations of both sociologists and laypersons through the present.

The Sociological Imagination Summary

Written in the 1950s, The Sociological Imagination is C. Wright Mills’s polemical
treatise on why and how to do social science. Composed of 10 chapters, the book is divided into
roughly three sections. The first section, and the bulk of the book, is a critique of contemporary
sociology. The second section calls for a return to “classical social science” and lays out the
major tenets of what that would entail. The final section explains the politics of this science and
why it is urgent at the present moment.
In Mills’s understanding, the sociological imagination is a way of thinking that connects the
private troubles of men with the public issues of social structure. Properly done, social science
uses this imagination to ask historically specific questions about how the feelings and actions of
men are connected to the institutions and social structure in which they live.
Unfortunately, according to Mills, contemporary sociology has often failed to carry out this work
properly. He identifies and criticizes two main schools. The first, which he calls “grand theory”
and associates primarily with the vastly influential Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons,
thinks in too abstract and universal of terms. It makes big theories about human nature or the
shape of all societies, and in turn cannot explain the diversity of humans or the variety of
societies. It is too theoretical to explain what real people do in real life.
The second school, which Mills calls “abstracted empiricism,” has the opposite problem. This
school is basically the school of polling, and is obsessed with surveying people and aggregating
“public opinion.” But this polling rarely produces any theory, by which Mills means
explanations of why people think the way they do. Polling can tell you someone’s opinion, but it
can’t tell you what, socially, is motivating it.

Moreover, Mills thinks this method is overly bureaucratic. By that, Mills means it tries to
systematize research, aiming for efficiency and training people in a skill—polling—rather than
aiming for truth and training people in deep critical thinking. As a consequence, abstracted
empiricism at best turns sociology into just another bureaucracy in the United States and, at
worst, it helps other bureaucracies better exploit their employees or citizens. Instead of
disrupting power, sociology tells power how to be more powerful.

It doesn’t have to be this way, according to Mills. Sociology started off as a liberal reform
movement. It did so by casting personal problems like poverty as public issues like widespread
unemployment. It is a return to this “classical social science” of the 19th century that Mills

Classical social science combines attention to biography, social structure, and history. Biography
refers to the personal problems of men in their immediate social environment or what Mills calls
“milieu.” Social structure refers to institutions like the family, the workplace, and political
parties and to how these institutions are related. History refers to how societies are different from
each other based on when, where, and how they formed. Good social science asks questions that
incorporate biography, social structure, and history simultaneously. It links the small with the
larger, the personal with the public, the local with the global.

If done correctly, social science helps men understand their place in their world, and in turn, how
to change the world. If abstracted empiricism serves bureaucracy, classical social science serves
democracy. It liberates men to think about their world, to gain a perspective on it that allows
them to transform their conditions. In doing so, sociology, in Mills’s understanding, not only
studies history, but makes history.

The Sociological Imagination Summary and Analysis

of Chapter 1
Mills begins The Sociological Imagination by describing the situation of man in the
1950s. He characterizes this situation as one of both confinement and powerlessness. On the one
hand, men are confined by the routine of their lives: you go to your job and are a worker, and
then you come home and are a family-man. There are limited roles that men play, and a day in
the life of a man is a cycle through them. On the other hand, men are also powerless in the face
of larger and global political conditions they cannot control. In the 1950s, shadowed by anxieties
over nuclear warfare and tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold
War, there is increasingly a feeling that the big problems facing men today are not ones the
average man can affect. You go to work and you go home, but at no time do you seem to have a
role to play in global politics.
In order to understand this situation, Mills says, we should adopt a “sociological imagination.”
By imagination, Mills means a way of thinking and asking questions. To have a sociological
imagination means looking at the world sociologically, asking sociological questions and
providing sociological answers. It will be the task of the rest of his book to describe in detail
what specifically these questions and answers look like. For now, Mills outlines three types of
questions sociologists tend to ask. First, what is the structure of society? This question wants to
know how different groups in a society are related. Second, what is the place of society in
history? This question wants to figure out how societies change across time and how our society
today is related to societies of the past. Third, what kinds of people does society produce? This
question seeks to describe how people’s personalities and moods—their beliefs and values—are
also shaped by the social world in which they live.

Mills details the “promise” of this imagination: why he thinks it’s important to ask these
questions and what he thinks they help us understand. For starters, a sociological imagination is
able to shuttle between the personal and historical. In the case of the contemporary man who
feels trapped and powerless, sociological study explains how these feelings are produced by
something larger than an individual’s life. Such study can show him how his personal life is also
shaped by the society in which he lives and the historical period to which he belongs. Sociology
connects the personal and the historical by recasting personal problems as historical ones and
historical problems as personal ones. Personally, an individual feels trapped; sociology asks,
what is going on in history that produces this feeling? Or, historically, the world is in a Cold
War; sociology asks, how does this global situation get played out in how people feel and think
in their private lives?

To clarify the kind of work sociology does in connecting the personal and the historical, Mills
makes a distinction between personal “troubles” and public “issues.” Personal troubles are what
an individual experiences in his “milieu,” Mills’s word for the immediate situation in which man
moves, such as his family. "Troubles" are a private matter. In contrast, “issues” belong to a larger
social structure. An issue is a crisis in an institution, instead of a crisis in an individual. They are
therefore a public matter. Mills asks us to consider divorce. A man and a woman may have
“troubles” in their marital milieu. That is on the one hand a private matter. But when half of all
marriages end in divorce in a society, that is also a public issue having to do with the institution
of marriage as a whole. You can’t describe so many divorces just by looking at every
individual’s troubles. You have to provide a larger social account instead.

According to Mills, the same can be said of a number of other things that at first look like
personal troubles but end up being public issues as well. Unemployment, for instance: if one
person in a society is unemployed, that is a private problem. But if a society has a high rate of
unemployment, then we need to be asking social questions about how and why that is. Moreover,
when we discover we are talking about a structural issue, we realize we can’t provide personal
solutions alone. You can’t solve a high divorce rate by getting one husband and wife back
together, just like you can’t solve widespread unemployment by giving one person a job. You
have to give social solutions to social problems.

To continue his discussion of the relation between personal milieu and social structures, Mills
then considers different ways in which the two can be related. He turns in particular to the
relation between personal values and public issues, and how a society does or does not support
an individual’s values. People with values supported by society experience well-being; those
with values unsupported experience crisis; and those whose values are neither supported nor
unsupported experience indifference. But some people may not have any deeply held values to
begin with. These people, according to Mills, experience uneasiness. Mills thinks that his
contemporary period is characterized by both indifference and uneasiness: social structures are
not neatly characterized by any one issue; and people don’t really formulate their values
explicitly. It is this that the sociological imagination must now explain.

To summarize so far: the sociological imagination is important today because it can relate
personal troubles and public issues, connecting biography and history, in order to give a
complete sense of the specific anxieties and crises in our society. But before sociology can
accomplish this great task, Mills says, we first have to consider some of the ways in which
sociology has failed to do so. Sociology has a great “promise,” but sometimes this promise has
been distorted. That, Mills explains, will be the focus of chapters 2-6 of The Sociological
Imagination, after which he will return to the “promise,” in chapters 7-10.
For now, Mills lists three “tendencies” in sociology. Exaggerating one of these tendencies leads
to the distortions he will proceed to describe. The first is a historical tendency, characteristic of
studies that describe stages of the development of man, from primitive to civilized. The second is
a human nature tendency, which does away with history in order to describe man in universal
terms: his desires or weaknesses across time. The third is an empirical tendency, which measures
more and more facts, for instance by counting populations. Mills worries that people in the
second tendency tend to over-generalize, producing “grand theories,” as he will explain in
Chapter 2, that do not explain any actual social behavior. In contrast, people in the third
tendency, which he discusses in Chapter 3, tend to over-specialize, collecting a lot of data about
one thing without really describing the larger society as a whole. In the following chapters, Mills
will aim to diagnose and correct these problems in order to give a better program to realize the
promise of the sociological imagination.

By beginning with discussion of “the sociological promise,” Mills is also making a promise to
his readers. He promises both to explain their world and to explain how society ought to be
studied. What warrants this kind of ambition? What makes readers trust that Mills will derive on
his promises? One answer is in Mills’s writing style. He writes clear sentences with provocative
language. Consider the first sentence: “Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a
series of traps.” This language of “traps”—hardly a jargon term—invites Mills’s readers to
identify with his description and to trust that he will explain things in everyday language.
The everyday language suggests some of how Mills relates to his intended audience. On the one
hand, Mills is clearly writing this book to social scientists with a degree of specialization. His
audience includes university professors, and he is trying to tell them how to do their job better.
But Mills also thinks these professors need to be talking to the larger public, explaining social
issues to them in order to educate them on ways of making society better. Mills models this
outreach to the public in his own writing, making his thinking accessible to those who are not
necessarily sociology specialists. Mills’s writing is targeted to this public audience so much that
it even becomes humorous or sarcastic at times. He makes fun of other sociologists who write
two densely. By poking fun at them, he is both shaming them into writing clearer prose and
making his own writing more humorous and enjoyable to read.

Notice this emphasis on “men,” however. Throughout this chapter—and throughout The
Sociological Imagination—Mills frequently refers to “ordinary men,” “everyday men,”
and so on. It’s clear from this first chapter that Mills doesn’t just mean the word in the sense of
"mankind" but also men in the sense of males, specifically. That’s why he talks about
businessmen or fathers. There is a gender bias at play here, and it will color some of Mills’s
descriptions of society later on. Mills is clearly writing as a man and to men. The experiences of
women are secondary to his account.
Although feminism will not be a focus of this book, Mills does already suggest some of his other
political affiliations in this introductory chapter. Consider the examples he tends to provide,
discussing war and unemployment in particular. He suggests that these are social problems that
social scientists ought to be working to redress. In turn, he resists a conservative tendency to cast
social problems as personal problems: unemployment as the failure of individuals, for instance.
Although he won’t discuss politics at length until the end of the book, he already suggests some
of his liberal allegiances and his desire for social science to not only describe society but also
transform it.

Another main ambition hinted at in this chapter is Mills’s desire to establish sociology as a
discipline. He is trying to carve out a specific and necessary function for the social sciences in
the intellectual landscape of 1950s America. Around this time, C. P. Snow, a chemist and
novelist, famously wrote about the “two cultures”; his thesis was that intellectual life had
fragmented into the sciences and the humanities, which no longer speak to each other. Mills
wants to introduce social science as distinct from these physical sciences Snow talked about, like
physics or biology. Social science is, like the humanities, interested in human life. At the same
time, it goes beyond the humanities. Art can express the human condition, but only social science
can put these expressions into patterns and understand the larger structures that impact them.
Mills wants to assert social science as a crucial area of study that is neither pure science nor pure
humanities, but a way of bringing them back together.