Sociology’s Promise and the Sociological Imagination

The concept of Sociological Imagination entered circulation in the 1959 book of the same name by the American Sociologist C. Wright Mills.  It moves from a prophetic opening (‘Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps’) through to a lacerating critique of the dominant trends within American sociology at the time (offering a scathing series of ‘translations’ of passages taken from the grand doyen of 20th century American sociology, Talcott Parson, which though surely offering amusement to endless cohorts of grad students, probably was not the author’s wisest career move) and an elaborated vision of what sociology could be.  This centres around the eponymous concept of the Sociological Imagination – the quality of mind which ‘enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society’ and so ‘understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals’ (Mills, 1959: 5).  In doing so, Mills laid out a vision for sociology, emphatically political and engaged, founded on drawing out the interconnections between the grand sweep of history and the unfolding of individual lives.  However, it was far from universally praised at the time of publication, as can be seen in the early review of the book by Edward Shils quoted in Gane and Back (2013):

“Imagine a burly cowpuncher on the long, slow ride from the Panhandle of Texas to Columbia University, carrying in his saddle-bag some books which he reads with absorption while his horse trots along. Imagine that among the books are some novels of Kafka, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and essays of Max Weber. Imagine the style and imagery that would result from the interaction of the cowboy- student and his studies. Imagine also that en route he passes through Madison, Wisconsin, that seat of a decaying populism and that, on arriving at his destination in New York, he encounters Madison Avenue, that street full of reeking phantasies of the manipulation of the human will and of what is painful to America’s well-wishers and enjoyable to its detractors. Imagine the first Madison disclosing to the learned cowpuncher his subsequent political mode, the second an object of his hatred…The end result of such an imaginary grand tour would be a work like The Sociological Imagination”

Nonetheless, the book has come to be seen as a sociological classic, not least of all because of the value which so many sociologists have recurrently found in its passionate challenge to the professionalisation of sociology and the ivory tower intellectualism which it can so often engender.  Crucially, the sociological imagination is not something over which professional sociologists can be said to have a monopoly.  Indeed the extent to which this sensibility finds itself manifested within the academy can be taken as an index of the relative vitality or otherwise of the discipline.  Mills was intensely critical of the professional sociology from which he found himself ever more estranged over time, lamenting the tendency of his contemporaries to ‘slip so readily into unintelligibility’.  He identified the roots of this problems as inhering in the widespread tendency within the professionalising sociology of his time to self-consciously seek legitimation as a scientific discipline.  As Gane and Back (2012) go on to write,

‘For sociology to be to be effective, especially beyond the academy, it must have literary ambitions. Mills’ assessment of the quality of the sociological writings of his time is damning. He argues that there is a “serious crisis in literacy” in which sociologists are “very much involved” (1959:239). Mills’ position here is an extension of his earlier attack on Parsons and Lazarsfeld, and is just as fierce in tone. He observes that “a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences” (Mills, 1959:239), and adds that this style of writing has nothing to do with the complexity of the subject matter. Mills explains the prevalence of this style, instead, in terms of a quest for status. He declares: “Desire for status is one reason why academic men slip so readily into unintelligibility. And that, in turn, is one reason why they do not have the status they desire” (Mills, 1959:240). This thirst for status is said to be driven by an underlying desire for the sociologist to achieve recognition as a “scientist”; something, he argues, that led to sociology written in clear and accessible prose (including, presumably, his own work) to be dismissed by many as mere journalism.’

Mills saw the promise of sociology as being undermined by this quest for status and the sclerotic forms of expression he saw associated with it, with sociologists prone to ‘stereotyped ways of writing which do away with the full experience by keeping them detached throughout their operations’ almost as if ‘they are deadly afraid to take chance of modifying themselves in the process of their work’ (Mills, 2001: 111).  He saw this failure of vision and expression in what could almost be construed as epochal terms, representing a failure of sociological imagination at precisely the moment when this distinctive sensibility was most needed.  Mills was, in many ways, estranged from the academic establishment and this was, in part, both cause and a consequence of his critique.  This estrangement gave him a degree of intellectual freedom from the cultural norms prevalent within the professional sociology of his day and this was in turn entrenched by the manner in which he employed that freedom to pull apart many of the orthodoxies which he saw as so inimical to his  understanding of sociology’s promise.

This post by Mark Carrigan and Milena Kremakova is an extract from a longer co-authored essay

Categories: C. Wright Mills, Committing Sociology


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