When Sociology Was Cool

I got my doctorate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the exact same place C. Wright Mills got his doctorate in sociology. I know this because we shared some of the same professors there and, even more importantly, because when I had to file a little index card in the Sociology Office with the title of my dissertation on it, I saw C. Wright Mills’ little index card with title of his dissertation on it, tucked away in the exact same metal box.

I couldn’t believe that it was there, that someone hadn’t taken it. Graduate students in sociology love C. Wright Mills. He, along with the 1930s Chicago School and Harold Garfinkel are the ones who lure us into sociology, who excite us with the idea that the modern world is this great mystery to be solved and that there is some measured, logical explanation as to why people treat one another the way they do.

C. Wright Mills was a genius at this. First, because he showed us how sociology could lay bare the secret workings of the world, and second, because he believed that everyone, no matter who they were or what their sociological imagination happened to be, had a place in this academic, scientific discipline. That their stories and ideas about the world and how it worked belonged there.

Few sociologists at the time believed this. In fact, in 1959, the year Mills’ third major work, The Sociological Imagination, was published, most sociologists were preoccupied with refining the methods, which would allow them to analyze and write about people’s lives with the least amount of error and greatest amount of certainty; a preoccupation, which left little time to worry about whether or not the things they wrote about were actually reflective of the ways people lived, let alone the ways people thought about the way they lived.

Mills staked his theories right in these complications and contradictions and with this effort challenged sociologists to not so much relax the methodological rules of their discipline, but to allow themselves a little poetic license. And as simple as this idea may seem, it was, for many sociologists, a revelation and a push to make sociology matter.

That, to my mind, is one of the few moments in the history of sociology when the discipline was made cool. That moment when C. Wright Mills told us that our analyses of the world should matter. That moment when someone took a picture of him driving his motorcycle to class.

End Note: Cool is a state of being, which describes the way a person represents themselves to the world. To be cool is 1) to be present in the day and to notice what’s happening around you 2) to search for and recognize beauty; 3) to express this beauty in words and images and especially sounds; 4) to be kind, open, generous and understanding to yourself, as well as the people you encounter, even those who may not be kind, open, generous and understanding towards you; 5) to not only exhibit grace under pressure in moments of extreme hardship or duress, but to figure out ways to survive and in some instances, even thrive in moments of extreme hardship or duress; and, finally, as in that late 1990s Keds Running Shoe Ad posted above, 6) a way to describe people, places and things that are “of the moment,” “hip,” and notably stylish. I would suggest C. Wright Mills worked to document 1-5 and was 6, especially in the famous photograph of him driving his motorcycle to class. Again, it’s right here.

Categories: C. Wright Mills

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8 replies »

  1. Did you really? No, I believe, I’m just fascinated. I wonder how, and whether, we could make sociology cool again. Anyway, this is my favourite post on SI!

  2. According to my undergrads, the coolness of Sociology is maintained by the freedom to be “the study of anything/everything.” Our respective subjects of investigation must span across every issue imaginable, but with that breadth many miss that the discipline itself is the lens to study the impact of the social world on the individual and vice versa- regardless of what special population or issue we focus that lens upon.

    So, I do not just study “old people” because I always loved my grandma and think it is ‘cool’ to interview old ladies all day, rather I study the impact of institutions and social processes on old ladies to better understand how they work on all of us, and how that influences how succesfully we are able to navigate the hazards of later life.

    Just as the dicipline once suffered from being wrapped up in methodology, I think we may come to suffer somewhat from the reputation that we are everything to everyone, too. The implications outside of academia are pretty clear- if the government, not for profit and corporate managers out there percieve Sociology to be this vague, nebulous thing, our graduates are going to find it tough to be employable. At this stage in our social evloution, we need Sociologists in every institution, so we should be making it easier for them to branch out from academia, not harder.

  3. Sociology is cool! It’s the best subject put there, my year 10 pupils are fascinated and love it! From gender to class they’re constantly asking questions about the world around them and trying to come up with solutions for what they see…. That and it gives them a licence to people watch/ be noses too 🙂

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