C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination

“Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps.” The average person is unaware of the connection between mass social change, the individual and society. He or she does not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay.

The pace of change has increased and the typical person is now impacted by “world history.” Colonies are freed, revolutions occur and totalitarian societies rise. The “means of authority and of violence become total in scope and bureaucratic in form.”

Men sense “that older ways of feeling and thinking have collapsed and that newer beginnings are ambiguous.” People need “the sociological imagination” to summarize what is going on in the world and its connection to what is happening “within themselves.”

This 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.” The sociological imagination connects biography and history.

The individual can come to understanding only by “locating” themselves in a group of peers. People are made by circumstance and contribute “minutely.” We’ve learned that “the limits of human nature are frighteningly broad.”

Classic social analysts consistently orient themselves with three questions: “What is the structure of this particular society as a whole?,” “Where does this society stand in human history?” and “What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and this period?”

The sociological imagination can “shift from one perspective to another,” from the political to the psychological and from the most remote to the most intimate.

An “issue” as identified by the sociological imagination often involves “a crisis in institutional arrangements.” To understand the challenges in the private or personal you must frequently look beyond them. Awareness of the social structure and the ability to use this knowledge with great sensibility is the ideal.

A key contemporary question: how do major trends impact values? After all, a threat to values is experienced as a crisis. In the absence of values, experience is coloured by malaise, indifference, anxiety and apathy.

The 1930’s were an explicitly political period but nowadays “great public issues as well as many private troubles are described in terms of ‘the psychiatric’ -often, it seems, in a pathetic attempt to avoid the large issues and problems of modern society.”

The chief danger today “lies in the unruly forces of contemporary society itself, with its alienating methods of production, its enveloping methods of political domination, its international anarchy -in a word, its pervasive transformations of the very “nature” of man…”