The Scholastic Fallacy of C. Wright Mills

In a fascinating paper from 2008, Michael Burawoy wrote an Open Letter to C. Wright Mills. You can read it online here but I wanted to share this insightful passage which stood out to me:

But recognizing the link between social milieu and social structure does not mean crossing the line, turning personal troubles into public issues. Knowing that my unease or malaise is due to anomie in society, or knowing that I’m without a job because I live in a world of unregulated capitalism does not necessarily lead me to turn my personal trouble into a public issue. In fact, knowing the power of social structures is just as likely to paralyze as to mobilize. Indeed, sociological insight may even be universal but that would not guarantee bringing personal troubles into the public sphere. This is your first scholastic fallacy— that knowledge is liberating. Today, following Michel Foucault, we are more likely to follow the bleak hypothesis that sociological knowledge is disabling, incapacitating, a form of control. I know you saw that sociology could be used to serve power, as in your article “A Marx for managers”, but you thought that if sociologists were independent then their sociological imagination was liberating. Not necessarily so.
I’ve written about this as the ‘fallacy of amelioration’: the notion that all it takes to solve social problems is the improved circulation of expert knowledge concerning their resolution. It’s a surprisingly common assumption and I’m surprised to find myself agreeing with Burawoy that Mills ascribed to a version of it. This surprises me because this concept is one I came to from reading the latter’s work about professional socialisation. I see the fallacy of amelioration as one that goes hand-in-hand with the tendency to slip so readily into unintelligibility so pithily identified by Mills. It’s a professional conceit, emerging through years of training that don’t quite ensure a secure social status, allowing the sociologist to ignore the messy and ambivalent business of politics by arming them with the confidence that these problems would be solved if only people would listen to us.

Categories: C. Wright Mills, Committing Sociology

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6 replies »

  1. I shall read this article with great interest! Thanks.

  2. The author of the letter misunderstands the entire concept behind personal troubles and public issues as for the powerlessness due to structural forces, Mills wrote, “The powers of ordinary people are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern..” and “The more we understand what is happening in the world, the more frustrated we often become, for our knowledge leads to feelings of powerlessness. We feel that we are living in a world in which the citizen has become a mere spectator or a forced actor, and that our personal experience is politically useless and our political will a minor illusion. ”

    To translate personal troubles into “public” issues means being aware of social structure anbld the structural underpinnings of your troubles instead of self blame, to translate public issues into personal troubles means being aware of your biography as societally enacted. There is no fallacy on the part of c.w.mills, just ignorance on the part of his detractor.

    • I must say, I agree. At the early stage in the book where Mills makes these claims, he also claims that sociology realising its concept or ‘fulfilling its promise’ requires that it first sweep the decks of poor theory. But it is not true that Mills is claiming this would be sufficient – just that it would be necessary for social change. Arguably this claim is correct – certainly it appeared to be Marx’s and, among many others, my belief.

  3. Just read Burawoy’s letter. Must say that it is typical for leftist sociologists in their study of Mills’ work to skip Character and Social Structure, which no doubt stands as the theoretical primer for much of his post 1956 work, and without which the theoretical basis for those other works remains hidden (one would think that especially in a class on theory one would begin with the most theoretical work of his corpus but no!). Ideological analyses of the ideological project of “public sociology” aside, which Mills understood as the practice of “political philosophy” (old discipline which in vain tries to combine the role of sociologist as theoretician of certain cultural systems with the role of moral philosopher and the role of ideologue), it seems to me that any criticism of Mills’ work must meet on the ground of the critique of the theoretical scaffolding contained in the Character and Social Structure and worked out in other books, otherwise it’s just a newer generation of scientific ideologues talking to their past heroes of how to do political philosophy without the benefit of them answering back, but there is little theoretical and methodological advancement beyond their heroes…

    • Not true. Biography and Structure relationship which is what the Sociological Imagination is all about and is well known and discussed, is what Character and Social Structure is about. Because political philosophers like Nietzsche lacked an understanding of Social Structure, Mills found their work defective, something he also stated for Dewey. Character and Social Structure is primarily more about Mead, Marx and Weber and not Mills’ theoretical underpinnings which were vaster, as in the pieces he reproduced in “Images of Man.”

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