SI Top 10 #3 – Charles Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination and why we fail to match it today

Charles Wright Mills’ body of work was substantial by any standards but for someone who died at the age of forty-five it was remarkable. The range and substance of Mills’ work is impressive but even more so is its originality, vitality and humanistic motivation: in short, its sociological imagination. In his still celebrated if now less influential work, The Sociological Imagination (1959), Mills addresses issues of sociological theory and method and particularly the practical application of the subject. However, in this piece I refer to a wide range of Mills’ work to illustrate that he was not only a great sociological mentor but also practised what he advocated.

Mills’ own sociological imagination was inspired by what he referred to as the classic sociological tradition the main feature of which is ‘the concern with historical social structures: and that its problems are of direct relevance to urgent public issues and insistent human troubles (S I: 28). Mills links personal troubles with public issues and threads biography into the historical structural dynamic. The achievement of the classic tradition lies in the creation of models of society that illuminate the impact of social change on people and on their potential for response. These models generate and inform theory but are developed at a more general level than specific theories. Thus Marx’s dialectical model of historical change and Weber’s concept of the role of ideas in history give orientation to theory and research. For Mills the issue is not about which model is ‘correct’ but their ability to illuminate large vistas of the social landscape. In addition to clarifying the relationships of the triad of social structure, historical change and biography, Mills argues that sociological imagination necessarily generates political perspective because of the understanding it gives of the human condition (S I chapter 10). Mills himself was emphatic in drawing practical conclusions from his sociological work. This brought him into sharp conflict with what he referred to as the ‘crack-pot realism’ of managerial liberals such as Daniel Bell whom he felt were reducing social issues to mere matters of ‘expert’ planning and administration. Similarly, he attacked ‘abstracted empiricism’ within sociology – the gathering of facts with little reference to their wider meaning or application. Mills’ Ph.D. was on American pragmatism and all his work carries the tone of someone who intended to make a difference.

Mills’ work amply demonstrates the principles underpinning his concept of the sociological imagination. In less than ten years he published three books that substantially analysed the social structure of the United States. The first, New Men of Power (1948) presented the leadership of the American trade union movement as integrated within rather than a challenging the American economic establishment. The second, White Collar (1951), analysed the rise of the new American middle class largely employed in the proliferating offices of the public and private sectors. This was followed by his magnum opus of structural analysis The Power Elite (1956) that remains a standard reference for understanding the workings and overlaps of the American economic, military, and political elites. This triad of publications had almost an anticipatory as well as contemporary relevance. It describes a declining and weakened industrial working class with an increasingly self-interested leadership; a white-collar class cemented within a still highly unequal occupational structure by media-led consumerism and its own desire for security; and a substantially autonomous elite only marginally disrupted in its pursuit of power, wealth and status by democratic processes. This was a very different vision of the United States and of Western societies than that adopted by those he saw as ‘conservative liberals’ such as Talcott Parsons and Daniel Bell who declared an ‘end of ideology’ long before Francis Fukuyama made the same mistaken judgement.

As Mills’ edited collection of classic sociological reading, Images of Man (1960) shows, he particularly admired European sociology. He was less impressed with his contemporary American colleagues. The one structural model that Mills found utterly wanting was Parsons’ social systems theory which he saw as prime example of ‘grand theory’. Mills’ ridiculing of Parsons’ abstract style had a serious point behind it – that such abstraction can take on a life of its own, divorced from the realities of everyday social life. More substantively, Mills argued that Parsons’ emphasis on consensus legitimised the social status quo and failed to address what for Mills is fundamental to the social dynamic – power conflict. In contrast to Parsons, he focused on who takes decisions and in whose interest and argued that elites invariably pursue their own self-interest (‘the idea of the responsibility of the powerful is foolish’ SI: 213). As he succinctly observed: ‘Men (sic) are free to make history, but some men are freer than others’ (S I: 201). 

Mills regarded ‘abstracted empiricism’ as the mirror opposite of ‘grand theory’ but as having a similar outcome – a failure critically to address the status quo and therefore a tacit endorsement of it. He associated abstracted empiricism with the proliferation of bureaucracy and what he saw as the reduction of social and moral matters to issues of management. Mills was as suspicious of ‘experts’ and ‘managers’ as of the elites they served arguing – again contra Daniel Bell – that fundamental matters of domestic and foreign policy should be widely debated. Like Habermas, and perhaps a little romantically, he occasionally harked back to a period when better-informed ‘publics’ debated key issues of policy. Mills certainly made his contribution to re-igniting such debates.

Mills’ model of society was an elites/mass rather than a class one. It is very much the first part of this dual model that Mills is remembered for – whether or not one agrees with it. A problem with the elites/mass model is that it tends to see the ‘mass’ as somewhat inert. In fact, Mills did share the view of many of his ‘conservative liberal’ antagonists as well as that other luminary of the left, Herbert Marcuse, that the masses were indeed rendered dully somnolent by the tedium of routine work and the soporific effect of the mass media. However, unlike his liberal critics, Mills embarked on an intellectual struggle to produce a new radical analysis of social change in the distinctly discouraging context of the conservative and reactionary nineteen fifties. His own analysis precluded him from privileging the traditional working class or, still less, the new white-collar class in the search for a key agency for change. However, Mills demonstrated a consistent concern for both the new poor of mature capitalist society and for those of the emerging world. As far as the former are concerned he had a prescient understanding of how what came to be referred to variously as ‘the dependent population’, ‘the underclass’ and ‘the marginal’ would become perceived as almost the residual ‘problem’ of modern society – resistant to endless plans to organise them. About the poor of the emerging world Mills was able in his later writings to be more optimistic. Although he railed against what he saw as the abuse of power in the bullying of Castro’s Cuba (Listen Yankee, 1960) and American militarism (The Causes of World War Three, 1958) he realised that in time the balance of power would shift – as, indeed, we are now seeing. 

In so far as Mills did tentatively observe an emerging agency for change in Western societies, it was among intellectuals, particularly young intellectuals. This was not mere wishful thinking on his part as he lived long enough to witness the stirrings of radicalism among young people in higher education both in the United States and Europe. As the following quotation from Mills’ Letter to the (British) New Left shows, he was sensitive to the need to re-explore the ethical and cultural values of radicalism: ‘As for the articulation of ideals, there I think your magazines have done there best work so far. That is your meaning – is it not – of the emphasis on cultural affairs.’ Mills had an enormous influence on the values and thinking of American student movement of the early nineteen sixties and had he lived might have been able to guide it away from the excesses of the late sixties. The Port Huron Statement (1962), the manifesto of the newly formed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) amply reflected Mills’ belief in participatory democracy and practical humanism.

It is not difficult to imagine that Mills might have found himself at odds with the dominant contemporary state and corporate directed regimes of research and of the constraints they put on young scholars. His comments in The Sociological Imagination on research and the problem of funding remain relevant. He of course recognises the need for funds but also warns against the conditions that can come with it. He suggests that sometimes it may be better to work small-scale but independently rather than chase expensively funded research whose findings and interpretation may be ‘managed’ by the funding agency. What he MIGHT have made of the current state dominated research regimes is anybody’s guess. In a piece of advice that may seem trite and simplistic in the light of the complexity of the contemporary context of research, Mills’ advocates that the researcher should think and observe. But it is precisely because Mills’ makes what he terms ‘the craft of sociology’ accessible that is his genius 

Mills’ book, The Sociological Imagination, has inspired generations of young and not so young social scientists. This is partly because he wrote a great book – once voted the second most important sociological book of the twentieth century after Weber’s Economy and Society, partly because he practised what he advocated, but also because he was an inspiring and, in the best sense of the word, idealistic human being. Mills the sociologist, campaigner and character fused to generate a charisma to which there is no recent or present comparison in social science.  He retained a grounded utopianism that he defined as a commitment to an attainable but radically fairer and more equal future. His message is no less relevant now.


Mills, C.W. (1948) New Men of PowerAmerica’s Labor Leaders. Oxford University Press.

Mills, C.W. (1951) White Collar: The American Middle Classes. Oxford University Press.

Mills, C.W. (1956). The Power Elite. Oxford University Press.

Mills, C.W. (1958) The Causes of World War Three. Simon and Schuster.

Mills, C.W. (1970 (1959)). The Sociological Imagination. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Mills, C.W. (1960) Listen Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba. Ballantine Books.

Mills, C. W. (1967 (1962)) Letter to the New Left. In Horowitz

I. (ed.), Power, Politics and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills. Oxford University Press, pp. 247-259.

Mike O’Donnell is Emeritus Prof of Sociology at Westminster University

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