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C. Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination Essay

The Sociological Imagination: Thinking Outside the Box

By Joachim Vogt Isaksen

“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” C. Wright Mills.

Are you aware of how your personal situation is linked to the forces of history and the society you live in? The sociological imagination is a concept used by the American sociologist C. Wright Mills to describe the ability to “think yourself away from the familiar routines of everyday life” and look at them from an entirely new perspective. In order to develop such skills, you must be able to free yourself from one context and look at things from an alternative point of view.

Imagine that you were born 500 years ago, in the year 1500. You would most likely be living in a completely different world, under totally different conditions. You would probably be living in a small community with strong collective bonds between the members of society, without the opportunities of modern technology, travelling, shopping etc. – in other words, a situation that would be radically different from the one you experience today.

You could also imagine that you were a child living in Indonesia today. There would be a great chance that you were forced to work as a child labourer at a fish factory. The tasks involved would include catching, sorting and boiling fish. During the twelve-hour workday you would have to haul gigantic nets in the boat under very poor working conditions.

Mills thought that sociology can show us that society – not our own foibles and failings – is responsible for many of our problems. He argued that one of the main tasks of sociology was to transform personal problems into public and political issues. Mills defined sociological imagination as “the vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society.”

Seemingly impersonal and remote historical forces may be linked to incidents taking place in an individual’s life. This implies that people may look at their own personal problems as social issues and connect their own individual experiences with the workings of society. The sociological imagination enables people to distinguish between personal troubles and public issues. For example, women who live under repression, or people who suffer from poverty, might link their personal conditions to the social forces that are relevant to the society they live in. Mills recommended that social scientists should work within the field as a whole, rather than specializing heavily on one area of social science, such as sociology, political science, economics or psychology. This idea is often ignored in social science.

 

How is personal choice shaped by context?

Mills’ main point is that many of the problems people are faced with in society have social roots and are shared by many others. These roots are often related to the structure of the society and the changes happening within it. Hence, it is important that sociologists, and other social scientists, demonstrate why these problems have sociological causes, enabling the individual to understand how his or her biography is linked to the structure and history of society. This may hopefully help empowering individuals to transform personal unease into public issues in order to facilitate social change.

So how can we use Mills’ insights more practically? The lack of the ability to find a job, pay the mortgage, pay the rent, etc., is by individuals often seen as the result of personal weakness, created by a person’s own errors. People therefore search for causes within themselves, internalizing the problem. However, it is highly unlikely that the various thoughts, feelings and ideas you may have had, and situations encountered in your life, are completely unique. At one time or another they have all probably been experienced by others.

Unemployment can be an extremely negative private experience, and feelings of personal failure are common when one loses a job. But when the employment rate reaches up to 30 percent, as it has in several European countries today, it cannot be seen as the result of a character flaw or weakness. When many people in society face the same problem, one must rather ask whether there is something within the structure of society that is contributing to this problem. In many countries today, unemployment may be explained by the public issue of economic downturn, caused by the subprime mortgage industry. In other words, it may rather be defined as a social problem than of one stemming from personal shortcomings.

It is important to point out that the idea of the sociological imagination should not be used as an excuse for an individual not to try harder to achieve success in life. Some people would misuse this idea as a way of running away from personal responsibility. However, in many situations a person may fail even if he tries to do everything right, like working hard, getting an education and trying to get a job.

When many people in society lack the ability to achieve success, it is important to identify the roots of the structure, such as inefficient political solutions, discrimination of certain groups and the exploitation of the labour force. Since problems like these cannot be solved by the individual alone, it is important that we use our sociological imagination and apply it in our daily lives, enabling us to change our personal situation and ultimately create a better society.

 

Further reading:

Mills, C. Wright, 2000. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press.

 

*Cover photo by Walter Smith, bubble photo by Hartwig HKD, photo of painting by Martin Beek

Tags:imagination, sociology, theory



The Sociological Imagination Essay

My personal condensed definition of “the sociological imagination” is that it is the idea one should be aware of the societal structures around themselves, and how those structures can influence a person and vice-versa. In addition, I think that having a “sociological imagination” also involves a deep appreciation for the importance of society and culture. Consequently, for a person that has completed a basic introduction to sociology college course and actually paid attention, I would hope that they have been exposed to some basic taste of the sociological imagination.
Over the past three and a half years as a student of Sociology at State University, I believe my own sociological imagination has grown exponentially, and I have been able to apply it to different elements of my daily life. With this paper, I will split it up into three main sections regarding my own sociological imagination. The first section takes some of the most popular sociological literature on the topic and applies it to creating a fully fleshed out definition of a “sociological imagination.” The second section covers my own personal journey to creating a strong sociological imagination and how it was internally developed. Finally, the final section showcases the different ways that I have tried to apply this newfound social perspective to the world around me and my life. Therefore, by the end of this paper, I hope to have demonstrated a strong grasp on how my own sociological immigration was developed and how it is currently being applied to how I interact with the world today.
While, the idea of a “sociological imagination” originally came from the influential American sociologist C. Wright Mills in his book “The Sociological Imagination,” there are interestingly many other terms and concepts from other sociologists that fit within the realm of Mills’ idea, the goal of being sociologically aware about how society and the individual are deeply intertwined. In regards to what Mills originally thought about this concept, he wrote that “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” (Mills 1959:5). In many ways, Mills’ own definition of this concept is focused on shifting a person’s viewpoint of the world from a singular and individualistic ideal to a viewpoint that looks more about the societal and historical view of the world, especially within the context of a person’s current placement in social history.
However, as I mentioned earlier, other sociologists have also formulated the same general concept that Mills touched upon in his “sociological imagination.” An example is the work of Peter Berger and his idea about having a “sociological perspective.” Specifically, one of...

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