The Sociological Imagination

The Sociological Imagination

infobox Book |
name = The Sociological Imagination
orig title =
translator =

author = C. Wright Mills
cover_artist =
country =
language =
series =
genre =
publisher = Oxford University Press
release_date = 1959
media_type =
pages = 256
isbn = 0195133730
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"The Sociological Imagination" (ISBN 0195133730) was a book written by C. Wright Mills in 1959. 1997 survey of members of the International Sociological Association which asked them to identify the ten books published in the 20th century which they considered to be the most influential for sociologists, they ranked The Sociological Imagination second, preceded only by Max Weber's Economy and Society.This highly acclaimed classic work states Mills's views for how social science should be pursued. A somewhat abrasive critique, "The Sociological Imagination" took issue with American sociology, particularly that which flourished in prestigious sociology departments. Mills longed for a more human sociology that linked the social, personal, and historical dimensions of everyday life. The sociological imagination Mills had in mind was a new way of seeing the world that recognized links between widespread societal issues and the private problems of the individual. In his work the Sociological imagination C. Wright Mills believed he was trying to solve the problems of the current sociological discourse.

He saw the problem of sociology as that of reconciling the milieu with the wider social and historical discourse. In this he can be seen by sociologists as challenging the structuralist functionalist discourse. He also noted the danger of malaise which came with the creation of modern societies and the questioning of individuals in terms of their existence. (Mills, 1959, 7-12)

So in writing the “Sociological imagination” was trying to reconcile two varying natures of social reality and was seen as trying to challenge the discipline.

He outlined this in criticisms of current sociology namely his critiques of what he refers to as grand theory and abstracted empiricism.

Grand Theory

In chapter two of his work he can be seen to be criticizing Parsonian sociology. In this he can be seen to address directly the “Social System” written by Talcott Parsons.

In his work the "Social System" Parsons describes the nature of the structure of society and the creation and maintenance of a culture through the socialization of individuals. Mills criticizes this tendency in sociology on several grounds. He argues for a more heterogeneous form of society in that he challenges the nature to which a single uniformity of society is indeed possible. (Mills, 1959, 26-30)

ocial order

In his work he can be seen to criticize social order and its Parsonian formulation. That social order can indeed be seen as a whole comes under criticism by Mills.

He writes that every individual cannot simply be fully integrated into society and internalize all its cultural forms fully in terms of society. Furthermore, such domination may be seen as a further extension of power and social stratification.

Brewer (2004) sees such a work as the Sociological imagination as an extension of Mills other works into power and social stratification i.e. "The Power Elite" and "White Collar".That according to Mills what grand theorists call "Value orientation" could in actuality be a form of domination and thereby may simply be a form of legitimation. (Mills, 1959, 33-36)

Role of social theory

He further criticizes Parsonian sociology on its ability to theorize as a form of pure abstraction that society can be understood irrespective of its historical and contextual nature without observation.

That he argues that society and it cultural symbols cannot be seen as self-determining and cannot be derived without reference to individuals and their consciousness. All power according to Parsons is based on a system of beliefs enforced by society, writes Mills. In this he criticizes Parsons for his view in terms of historical and social change and diversity. (Mills, 1959, 40-46)

He thereby criticizes the means by which a social order can be derived without observation. (Mills, 1959, 46-48)

Abstracted Empiricism

In his third chapter Mills can be seen to criticize the empirical methods of social research which he saw as evident at the time in the conception of data and the handling of methodological tools.

This can be seen as a reaction to the plethora of social research being developed from about the time of the Second World War. This can thereby be seen as much a criticism by Brewer that Mills may have been critical of the research being conducted and sponsored by the American government.(Brewer,2004)

As such Mills criticizes the methodological inhibition which he saw as characteristic of what he called "abstract empiricism".In this he can be seen criticizing the work of Paul F. Lazarfield who conceives of sociology not as a discipline but as a methodological tool. (Mills, 1959, 55-59)

He argues that the problem of such social research I there may be a tendency towards “psychologism”. A tendency he sees can lead to the individualization of human behaviour away from social subject matter.

In this way this he argues may lead to the separation of research from theory.He then writes of the construction of milieu in relation to social research and how both theory and research are related. (Mills, 1959, 65-68)

The Human variety

In chapter seven of his work Mills sets out what is thought to be his vision of sociology. He writes of the need to integrate the social, biographical, and historical versions of reality in which individuals construct their social milieus with reference to the wider society. (Mills, 1959, 132-134)

He argues that he sees the nature of society as continuous with historical reality. In doing so he writes of the importance of the empirical adequacy of theoretical frameworks. He also writes of the notion of a unified social sciences. This he believes is not a conscious effort but is a result of the historical problem based discourses out of which the disciplines developed, in which the divisions between the disciplines become increasingly fluid. (Mills, 1959, 136-140)

Thus it is believed Mills set out what he believed to be a problem based approach to his conception of social sciences. (Mills,1959, 140-142)

Reaction to the sociological Imagination

Mills work is now one of the most widely read in the sociological discipline now featuring on a number of syllabuses for undergraduate courses. His work was not well received at the time this can be seen as a result of Mills reputation both professionally and personally at the time. (Brewer, 2004, 317)

This is somewhat appropriate given that the nature of Mills work patterned around the biography of individuals, their historical actions and the relation to the wider society in terms of structure, in as much as this Mills own life has been seen by others as illustrative of his conception of sociology. He hoped to reconcile the issues of individuals with the problems facing society thereby framing individuals problems in social, political, and historical reality. (Brewer, 2004, 320)

Thus he can be seen as a trying to create a three dimensional view of society and according to Brewer attempted to break down the divide between the public and the private realms of society something characteristic of sociology at the time. In this he was viewing society as simultaneously macroscopic and microscopic in nature whilst trying to merge both historical and contemporary social reality. (Brewer, 2004, 320-321)

His work was widely criticized due to what were perceived critical attacks on the discipline this can be seen in his writings whereby he criticizes both the “methodological inhibition” of what he refers to as abstract empiricism i.e. the work of Paul F. Lazarsfield and to what he refers to as the “fetishisation of concepts” in the works of those such as Talcott Parsons in which Mills criticized "grand theory" and the positivism of structural functionalism. (Brewer, 2004, 322-324)

The political nature of Mills work

This exacerbated what were seen as professional disagreements which were then ongoing with other professionals in the discipline. In particular his criticism of abstracted empiricism was seen in conjunction to his criticisms of both state sponsored research and the political policies of the Cold War American government. (Brewer, 2004, 326-328)

As such his work was not well received, both in Britain and in America he came under criticism. In Britain his work was criticized for the nature to which he was seen to attack empirical sociology which was then common in Britain at the time. Whereas in America his criticism of "structural functionalism" and of its accompanying critiques of power and stratification made him somewhat subject to severe criticism in America. (Brewer, 2004, 328-330).

The Personality of C Wright Mills

The reception of C. Wright Mills can now be seen as somewhat illustrative of Mills personality. In his work we can the “space of selfhood” which Mills argued individuals connects individuals with society. Thus of personalized experiences being used to link public discourses. He can thereby be seen to mark a biographical turn in post-structuralist sociology. (Brewer, 2005, 661-663)

His work can also be seen as reaction to cold war America and the radicalism and disengagement with establishment sociology. It can also however be seen as return by those such as Brewer to a tradition of “social reformism” as well as a response to the professionalization of the discipline. (Brewer, 2005, 663-665)

His conception of the spatialization of the discipline can be seen in the works of Georg Simmel in his idea of social space and social configurations of space. Thus Brewer seems to see him returning the discipline to the configuration of biography and self in the configuration of social space. This can also be seen in the social constructionism and the importance of space and time in the work of Anthony Giddens. This is most reminiscent of “the templates of the self” as seen as the understanding of the self in relation to social space as written by Erving Goffman and his conception of “frontstage” and “backstage”. Thus the work of Mills can be seen as an illustrative example in terms of his biography of the conception of social space and the importance of narrative. (Brewer, 2005, 665-667)

His life is therefore seen as having an impact on his construction of self. This can be seen as a reflection therefore of his background and the importance he placed on independence, self-reliance and individualism in the creation of autonomy and what others would refer to as the “Occupational role of the loner” This “outsider mentality” as referred to by Brewer can be seen as form of personal survival whereby Mills could thereby distance himself from personal and professional criticism. Thus the Sociological Imagination is seen by many as a connection between Mills’ life and work. (Brewer, 2005, 668-671)

Legacy to Mills

The work of C Wright Mills can be seen as extended in the work of Michael Burawoy and his conception of “Public sociology”. In his speech to the American Sociological Association he speaks of the importance of public discourse and the importance of sociology as an agent of historical change. ( Burawoy, 2005, 259-261)

This can also be seen in his work "Ethnography Unbound" in which he refers to his Extended case method of ethnography and relates C. Wright Mills work in his idea of theory construction as the relation of “the personal troubles of the milieu” to “the public issues of the social structure” (C. Wright Mills, in Burawoy, 1991, 6)


* [ C.Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination Excerpts]
* [ C.Wright Mills, On Intellectual Craftsmanship Appendix to The Sociological Imagination]


C Wright Mills, (1959), "The Sociological Imagination", reprinted (2000),Oxford University Press, chapters 1-3 and 7, pages 3-75 and 132-143.

John D Brewer, (2004), “Imagining The Sociological Imagination; the Biographical Context of A Sociological Classic”, "The British Journal of Sociology", University of Aberdeen, Blackwell Publications, volume 55, issue 3, pages 319-333.

John D Brewer, ( 2005), “The Public and The Private In C. Wright Mills Life and Work”, "Sociology", University Of Aberdeen, Sage Publications, volume 39, issue 4, pages 661-677.

Michael Burawoy, (1991), "Ethnography Unbound", University Of California Press,Chapter 1-2 and 13, pages 1-29 and 271-291.

Michael Burawoy, (2005), “2004 American Sociological Presidential Address: For Public Sociology”, "The British Journal of Sociology", University of California, Blackwell Publishing, Volume 56, Issue 2, pages 260-294.

ee also

*sociological imagination
*C. Wright Mills
*The Power Elite
*Power Elite
* [ C.Wright Mills, On Intellectual Craftsmanship from The Sociological Imagination]

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