Popular culture and the unconstrained sociological imagination

Over the last few years there has been one passage of academic social science text that has stayed with me more than any other. The issue it raises concers the way in which the sociological imagination is located and deployed within cultural spheres that we might not necessarily see, at first sight at least, as being at all serious or sociological. This passage, by Osborne et al, goes as follows:

‘Certainly, in the present and the future, inventiveness in empirical social thought will certainly not be the exclusive province of people who call themselves sociologists. Whilst some professional sociologists may claim a monopoly on the right to speak truthfully in the name of society, they are not the only people who investigate, analyse, theorise and give voice to worldly phenomena from a ‘social’ point of view. In fact, today more people speak this social language of society than we might imagine if we took the thesis of the death of the social too literally. Not just statisticians, economists of certain persuasions, educationalists, communications analysts, cultural theorists and others working in the academy who tend to use broadly ‘sociological’ methods but also journalists, TV documentary–makers, humanitarian activists, policy makers and others who have imbibed a social point of view. In many cases it may be that these agents of the social world actually produce better sociology than the sociologists themselves.’ (Osborne et al, 2008: 531-532)

The sentiment of Osborne and his colleagues resonates of course with C. Wright Mills original vision of the sociological imagination and its frequent location outside of academic sociology. This excerpt takes this argument further though by beginning to suggest that the sociological imagination is not just something we might stumble upon on occasion but that it has moved out into the cultural mainstream. The reason it had such a strong impact upon me was because it seemed to speak directly to something that was already bothering me. As a result this passage led me to explore in some detail the kinds of sociological imagination that are to be found within popular culture. In this brief article I’d like to summarise this work by suggesting that very generally what I began to locate within contemporary popular culture was a much more unconstrained form of the sociological imagination that was brimming with ideas and opportunities if treated with sensitivity and a critical eye.

The style and integrity of the sociological imagination in popular culture is of course highly variable. I’ve noted elsewhere how some forms of TV drama provide us with a highly sophisticated form of the sociological imagination whereas other TV shows, such as reality TV formats of various types, might offer us quite loose and possibly even objectionable attempts to understand the individuals in their social and cultural contexts (Atkinson & Beer, 2010). In general we can note that there is a wide-scale presence of variegated types of the sociological imagination in popular culture that are typified by an interest in consuming aspects of the mundane routines of everyday life, in the attempt to capture and observe social norms and their disruption, in experimentation with social divisions and social ordering, in the asking of questions about moral frameworks and even in some instances in the attempts made to play with and tease out broader social assemblages and lines of causality. These can be found in various forms in social media content and new participatory web cultures, in celebrity culture and gossip, in TV documentaries and reality TV, in film, comedy and drama, in music lyrics and videos amongst others (for an overview and description see Beer & Burrows, 2010). I am not saying that these forms of sociological imagination are better than those found in academic sociology, but what I am saying is that they are different. They may vary in quality and sophistication but there is a broad sociological sensibility in contemporary popular culture that cannot be ignored and which should be used to inform our critical responses to contemporary culture and which might also, in some instances, be used as a resource for seeing the world in different ways or for developing the conceptual, methodological and communicative repertoire of the academic social sciences.

Let us take the problem of the new forms of digital data as one instance that might help us here to see the advantage of taking the sociological imagination as popular culture seriously. New forms of digital data are proving something of a headache for the social sciences, we have not really got to grips with the potential of this data for social analysis or even with what types of data are being accumulated as a result of the capture and harvesting of data made possible by the digital mediascape. However, if we search around we are able to find innumerable examples of those involved in popular web cultures using new forms of digital social data in creative and innovative ways, creating insights and often visual forms of analysis that provide new perspectives and suggest new ways of seeing or ‘telling about society’ (Becker, 2007). For some examples the reader need only take a cursory look at sites like flowingdata.com that archive some of the data play that is occurring. It would be unwise of us to overlook such developments. What is needed is a critical engagement with the product of this data play, and, I would suggest, we also need to see if we can draw upon some of the analytical approaches to be found within these lay sociological resources. There are vast possibilities residing there that may enable us to expand our repertoire and re-imagine the social sciences. The difficulty will be finding ways of using such work, shaped by agendas very different to our own, in order to form a critical version of the resources from which we might borrow.

The unconstrained nature of the sociological imagination we might find in popular culture can be understood as both its strength and weakness. Working without recourse to the types of conventions and established practices that we have defined as important in academic sociology means that the possibilities for a sociological engagement in popular culture are far greater in scope, the result is that slick and flashy forms of sociological engagement can emerge that are rapid, responsive and involving. Similarly, we can imagine that removing such conventions may lead to a form of sociology that is not at all appropriate or suited to our tastes, particularly in its possible lack of a critical or reflective edge which in turn may not then allow it to fit with our sentiments, values or critical positionings. My argument is that we should not let our conventions prevent us from extracting and developing new ideas. We need to both respond to these developments in popular culture so as to understand how they shape perceptions of what a sociological approach might be, to think through what the purpose and territory of academic sociology can be where there is this broader cultural presence of a sociological imagination, and we need also then to think about how the social sciences might be improved if we were to treat popular culture seriously and draw upon it for inspiration. The unconstrained sociological imagination found within popular culture may be breaking new ground and developing new approaches that we could incorporate and shape into more considered and critical forms of social insight that are nonetheless exciting, engaging and regenerative.


Atkinson, R. & Beer, D. (2010) ‘The ivorine tower in the city: engaging urban studies after The Wire’, CITY 14(5): 529-544.

Becker, H. (2007) Telling about society. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Beer, D. & Burrows, R. (2010) ‘The sociological imagination as popular culture’, in Burnett, J. Jeffers, S. & Thomas, G. (eds) New Social Connections: Sociology’s Subjects and Objects. Basingstoke: Palgrave. pp. 233-252.

Osborne, T., Rose, N. & Savage, M. (2008) ‘Reinscribing British sociology: some critical reflections’, Sociological Review 56(4): 519-534.


Categories: C. Wright Mills

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