Celebrating the 50th anniversary of C. Wright Mills’ death, Sociological Imagination pays a respectful and moving tribute to the man who gave this forum its name through the legacy of his classic 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination, a veritable manifesto for the moral canon of radical sociology in America during the roaring 1960s and 1970s. Considering ‘the life, legacy and ideas of this unique man and what they mean for Sociology in an age of austerity’, my modest contribution to this homage to C.W.Mills is not merely a love-letter to an inspirational role model but an excuse to tease the contents of the book in order to shake up a few virtues and vices of the sociological discipline today as I witness them daily in the process of performing a biopsy on (public) sociology through the writing of my PhD. The inspiration that established the ferment for this article originates in Aditya Chakrabortty’s search for ‘fresh voices’ in political science and sociology and my personal suspicion that Mills’ Sociological Imagination stands as graceful interlocutor in a(ny) debate on what sociology is about, what it is for, what does it do and what it may mean, especially in times of austerity; a theme that was in fact addressed in the 2012 BSA conference hosted by the University Leeds last April. Instead of reviewing the outburst of controversy that Chakrabortty’s Guardian article sparked however, the focus here is on the discussion it opens up and the lessons that Mills’ grand oeuvre might have to offer, not didactically but experientially.
As a rhetorical preamble to my argument, I submit that A. Chakrabortty’s inflammatory remarks about sociology and political science are true or false, justified or unfair, timely or irrelevant depending on what we think sociology is for, about and what it might mean for us and others. I therefore take the liberty to offer some thoughts off the top of my head and from the bottom of my heart about how I think sociological imagination fits into the questions raised above, guided by a personal, perhaps idiosyncratic, possibly eccentric but certainly passionate reading of Mills’ book.
My personal exposure to The Sociological Imagination coincides with my sociological adolescence, skimming the book distractedly during a train journey, never expecting that I would stumble upon a powerful vision for sociology that had more to do with the alchemy of the vocation rather than the text-book science of sociology. To make matters worse, reading Mills presented me with an opportunity to treat sociology as a comment about the very process of doing sociology as well as inspiring an understanding of the discipline as a creative, imaginary pursuit, and not a dry, computational model of research. Sociology immediately appeared as an intellectual endeavour that could do things not through its science but through its imagination urging sociologists to be ‘intellectual craftsmen’, not ‘cheerful robots’ to pick two popular quotes from the book.
But what is sociology for?
Mills’ book provides no direct answer to this question, but it does inspire a way of answering it if one is to embrace the intellectual craftsmanship of playful experimentation with ideas rather than succumbing to the incipient robotism of absolute facts and iron certainties. Following that playful route, we may suggest that sociology is the intellectual enterprise which mobilises sociological imagination as the fuel for understanding what society is. Sociological imagination then becomes exactly what Mills’ dreamed it would be; a community medium of exchange, wedding ‘private troubles’ with ‘social issues’. For the purposes of this article then sociology and sociological imagination become Siamese twins, inseparable from each other like Aristophanes’ androgynous in Plato’s Symposium. If sociology then is sociological imagination’s better-half, what does their marriage look like? Paraphrasing Henri Bergson’s famous quotation in Pierre Hadot’s (2009) exposé on philosophy, sociology becomes not the construction of a system of knowledge but ‘the resolution made once to look naively at the world’. Sociology then, like philosophy becomes a tool for imaginative day-dreaming of ‘the possibility of living together differently, with less misery or no misery’ and ‘developing an art of living permanently with uncertainty’ as Bauman (2000) hopes for both ‘writing sociology’ and dealing with ‘the trouble of being human these days’. Sociology, dressed in its most imaginative clothes ceases to be a discipline, or a science but gradually also becomes what it imagines itself to be; a space, a culture, an attitude, a lifestyle, a stage, a ritual, an institution, a movement, a profession, a brand name, a community, a tool for articulation of human concerns.
But what is sociology about?
Sociology-as-sociological-imagination is about satisfying the curious impulse to ask questions similar to the one’s torrentially posed by Sam Selvon’s flâneurian narrator in the short story My Girl and the City; ‘What is all this, what is the meaning of all these things that happen to people, the movement from one place to another, lighting a cigarette, slipping a coin into a slot and pulling a drawer for chocolate, buying a return ticket, waiting for a bus, working the crossword puzzle in the Evening Standard’. What seems to be a literary departure from sociological matters however, couldn’t fit better Mills’ very own contention that ‘whatever sociology may be, it is the result of constantly asking the question, what is the meaning of this?’ Vague though this may sound, Mills insists that ‘Sociologists of my sort would like to study what people want and what people cherish’ and viewed this way sociology becomes the private detective and the architect of our social life; that very shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood inquiries, chance remarks and anything our imagination might compel us to add to this perfunctory list.
So what does sociology do?
Sociology does what we ask it to do with the sociologist faced with the dilemma that Mills poses between acting as ‘philosopher king’ or ‘advisor to the prince’. With sociological imagination as its code, its software and its politics, sociology not only defamiliarises the familiar, excites the routine, unsettles the prejudicial, shows what we live by, what we want, what the passage of time has showed we wanted, if we want now what we wanted then but also aspires to become what C.L.R. James (1963) called ‘the welfare state of the mind’; acting as society’s very ambassador, its spokesperson, its legislator and interpreter, to borrow from Zygmunt Bauman’s (1989) homonymous book. Sociologists such as Michael Burawoy (2005) have gone as far as to consider sociology the very defender of civil society so would it be too risky to toy with a view of sociology as the author of society’s imaginary constitution? Merging Mills’ ideas to Cornelius Castoriadis’ (1998) The Imaginary Institution of Society, would it go too far to suggest that if we are the society drafting its very constitution, dreaming up its institutions, deciding upon its future through our established rites, reflexes and norms, sociology might be our vehicle for doing so? Would it be too much to argue that sociology becomes society’s user manual, our guide to the labyrinth of human affairs?
And what does sociology mean?
Sociology means what we want it to mean, it can mean an imaginary craft or a research technique, it can inspire and contribute to the world through the flowering of its imagination, or it can raise funds, it can defend higher education from the salivating jaws of unbridled corporatism or it can facilitate it, it can teach experientially and interpret critically, or it can conform, it can look at holistic massage through a Foucauldian lens or it cannot overlook sociological imagination as a way of looking at things through one’s own lens, it can support austerity or it can promote prosperity not of any nation now, but the imagination.
Bauman, Z. (1989) Legislators and Interpreters. London: Polity.
Bauman, Z. (2000) “On Writing Sociology”. Theory, Culture and Society Vol.17 (1): 79-90
Burawoy, M. (2005). “For public sociology.” American Sociological Review 70(1): 4-28.
Castoriadis, C. (1998) The Imaginary Institution of Society. Massachussets: MIT Press
Hadot, P. (2009) The Present Alone is Our Happiness. Stanford: Stanford University Press
James, C.L.R (1963) Beyond A Boundary. London: Hutchinson
Mills, C.W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press
Selvon, S. My Girl and the City. Available at: http://www.srs-pr.com/caribbean-lit/selvon-my-girl.pdf [Accessed 23 May 2012]
Lambros Fatsis is a final year DPhil student at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. His doctoral thesis concentrates on discussions of public sociology, the role of the University and intellectuals, while other research interests include black music, urban culture and the history and sociology of the Jamaican soundsystem. He also performs as a reggae selector/radio presenter under the name Boulevard Soundsystem and is a contributor of Billboard magazine on reggae music.