Providing meaning: give a little bit of the Sociological Imagination….

I was once asked by Mark Carrigan, editor of The Sociological Imagination, what I have learnt from studying Sociology, this was my brief response:

“In a nutshell, Sociology has given me specific tools that have become invaluable to me personally and professionally. I think it is a discipline which teaches the techniques and politics behind thinking critically and reflexively in a complex and multi-faceted world. It allows a space in which to develop ideas, theories and discursive understanding of people, practices, processes and institutions in a way in which conflict, bias, exploitation, discrimination (and other forms of prejudice, injustice, discrimination, subordination and control) can be critically analysed and questioned.”

I still agree with these comments I made months ago.

The Sociological Imagination, as Charles Wright Mills terms it, has never been so relevant in making sense of the world as we know it. So, briefly, what did Mills say about the Sociological Imagination? The following quote could be one place to begin:

“Nowadays people often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct. What ordinary people are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieux, they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel.” (Mills 1959: 3)

There are some parallels in what Mills states above and the reactive action taken in the protests, riots and/or movements witnessed in Greece, North Africa and (arguably) the UK recently. Although causes for the unrest and mobilisation occurred for very different reasons, collectively the result is that ordinary people (that is, those outside the gates of power) have opted in diverse ways to get their voices heard. The parameters and constraints of society have been progressively chipped away through collective mobilisation and people are no longer strictly “bounded by the private orbits in which they live”. A ‘politics of recognition’ as Charles Taylor (1992) terms it, whereby groups in this instance, organise themselves by forming self-empowering collectives which through action receives recognition is relevant. Although Taylor originally uses the concept of recognition in reference to nationalist groups and multiculturalism, it can apply here – rightfully or wrongfully depending on perspective, (especially in the case of the 2011 Summer riots in the UK), globally people are continuing to demand recognition against all odds and costs. The process of demanding recognition, inclusion, political emancipation and equality is nothing new, but has been strengthened in its power through the use of new technology and social media.

With the dominance of Web 2.0 and the rise of Facebook, Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger, interactive blogs etc. protesters have been able to spread word of their action far and wide in real time to mobilise support to excellent effect. A prime example of this was reported in the London riots this summer. In general, protests happening across the globe appear closer and immediate through timeless time (Castells 1996), time space distanciation (Giddens 1991) and compression (Harvey 1989) caused by using new technologies.
Sociology has been long been concerned with the use of technologies and the impact it has had on collective action and mobilisation (for instance, Castells 2001, 2009, Seidman 1998), but this area of investigation has come into its own in recent years. Through the use of new technologies, personal troubles can instantly become public and global issues within the faceless flows of communication. In making sense of our surroundings, adopting a Sociological Imagination can therefore be useful:

“Know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues- and in terms of the problems of history-making. Know that the human meaning of public issues must be revealed by relating them to personal troubles – and to the problems of the individual life. Know that the problems of social science, when adequately formulated, must include both troubles and issues, both biography and history, and the range of their intricate relations. Within that range the life of the individual and the making of societies occur; and within that range the sociological imagination has its chance to make a difference in the quality of human life in our time.” (Mills 1959: 226)

In brief, the Sociological Imagination in personal reflection provides a critical and reflexive approach to personal and public issues. Adopting a Sociological Imagination can allow ample space to mindfully evaluate and critically explore important processes and practices happening around us: it can create meaning and continuously revise meaning.

Just how exactly this meaning translates into real world solutions in pushing for change is still yet concretely to be seen, but there is movement in the right direction. David Cameron’s call for a Sociological analysis of the 2011 Summer riots has prompted Sociologists across the UK to put forward explanations into the riots thus bringing sociology and the Sociological Imagination into the public glare.

Some sociologists have been criticised for their assumed position in explaining the 2011 Summer riots. In a series of articles by Sociologists published in the Guardian, some readers have responded with negativity, claiming such articles empathises or indeed, excuses the behaviour of some of the rioters. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that the Prime Minister called for a Sociological analysis of the riots which by definition should include some theoretical, causal and empirical considerations as to why the riots occurred. This in itself is not and should not be seen as a vehicle for excusing what was witnessed in Manchester, Birmingham, Salford, Brixton, Clapham, Hackney, Lewisham, Wood Green and Walworth this summer.

Whatever the core reasons for the riots – a response to Mark Duggan’s death in Tottenham by ‘reclaiming power’, an answer to widespread inequality, material deprivation, lack of opportunities, widespread anomie (Durkheim 1897), greed, opportunism etc. – one thing that is clear is the impact it has had on businesses, public sentiment and perception, racial politics – and – as a result, the Government.

In particular, the role that the riots have played on racial politics is still being felt one month on from the 2011 Summer riots. Historian, David Starkey’s claim on BBC’s Newsnight that “whites have become black”, thus blaming the influence of black people and black culture in causing the riots was unfortunately, a predictable response from sections of society. The use of riots as a racialised political football side-steps the diverse collective involved in the protests and implies that black ‘communities’ are homogeneous, uniform and inherently prone to violence, crime and all the negative things associated with such activities. Starkey’s arguments serve to offer a newsworthy soundbite which conflates the multifaceted reasons for the riots into a neat racialist argument furthering the interests of right-wing extremists groups.

In spite of the causes and reasons behind the UK riots and the public unrest globally – in a structural sense, hegemonic forces have no choice but to listen, digest, reflect and respond. Asking for a bit of a Sociological Imagination in the process, could indeed be something is beneficial in the long-run and should be encouraged to develop, not quashed.

Castells, Manuel (2001) The Internet Galaxy, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Castells, Manuel (2009) Communication Power, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Durkheim, Emile (1897) Suicide, The Free Press, New York
Giddens, Anthony (1991) The Consequences of Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge
Harvey, David (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford
Mills, Wright, Charles (1959) The Sociological Imagination, Oxford University Press: New York
Seidman, Steven (1998) Contested Knowledge, Second Edition, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford
Taylor, Charles (1992) ‘The Politics of Recognition’, in Taylor. Charles & Gutmann, Amy (eds.) Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition”, Princeton University Press, New Jersey

Categories: C. Wright Mills

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