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(Mills’ words are highlighted in red text)
Charles Wright Mills (August 28, 1916 – March 20, 1962)
Because of his radical ideas and the manner in which he thought outside of the box, C. Wright Mills was an outcast within the discipline of sociology; and died as such. Mills felt that sociology was in effect short-changing not only sociology students who were learning about the discipline, but sociologists who were practicing in the field (doing research). Today such a claim is still valid; as sociologists, we continue to teach a simplistic version of The Sociological Imagination by claiming that it all boils down to:
“the vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society.”
Although this IS the official definition of The Sociological Imagination, it is a much more robust construct in its power and application. In many introductory sociology textbooks the definition is eliminated completely, or reduced to something now labeled “The Sociological Perspective” which is nothing even close to Mills’ definition or meaning of The Sociological Imagination. If you Google the term The Sociological Imagination, you will see this common definition, but not much explanation about what it means besides that one sentence. Thus, today the basic tool of our discipline is virtually ignored or downgraded to a simplistic quip. So, in order to help remedy such a travesty, let’s take a short tour of Mill’s ideas in summary form.
In today’s mediated social “reality,” people have no clue what is actually occurring in their lives beyond their immediate experience. Most of the information about their existence, and any of its causes, is grasped through television or the Internet. No longer are persons able to experience directly everything that affects their lives. The “big picture” is a composite of staged realities with half-truths and politically-charged “realities.” For example, a person can watch either CNN, MSNBC, or FOX television and receive completely polarized information about the same social phenomenon and its inherent meaning; their resulting “personal reality.” Yet these so-called “echo chambers” are still provided piecemeal and in an incomplete fashion. In other words, people can relate rely on spoon-fed definitions of world and local events.
Take war for example. Most people can relate “to” war, yet few can relate “with” war. That is, people know what the definition of war is and can identify pictures of war. However, few people have actually experienced war; replete with the foul stench of rotting flesh, or the thick defeating humidity of a jungle patrol. Few have experienced the plethora of flies in a battle zone, or the acrid odor of gunpowder hanging in the air. Instead, from the comfort of their living room, they see stock footage of such battles on American Heroes Channel and believe they can can grasp what it is like to fight in a war. Thus, the resulting cry for war is couched in the simplistic form of the “good guys” versus the “bad guys.” Thus, people call out for war, and demand it at the slightest provocation. However, upon return from a war zone, our patriotic veterans end up suffering from PTSD and other war “injuries.” Yet even this plethora of PTSD cases is hidden from the mainstream media. Recently a Medal of Honor recipient Clint Romesha failed to show emotion during his Medal of Honor presentation during a White House ceremony. Romesha still suffers from haunting images of his dead war comrades; something that the officials at the ceremony would have rather he not have mentioned. My point; returning combat veterans understood his feelings. They had actually been in combat and experienced in firsthand.
Mills goes on to say that, “They (people) do not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of individuals and society, of biography and history, of self and world. They cannot cope with their personal troubles in such ways as to control the structural transformations that usually lie behind them.” How many soldiers deployed to Vietnam knew of something called World Systems Theory? Few, if any, knew that a wealthier “core” nation state (U.S.) was sending troops to a “peripheral” nation state (Vietnam) to maintain the United State’s privileged position as one of the few “core” nations embedded within the World System. Many soldiers were likely drafted, and the war they were to go fight was explained to them in ambiguous terms such as the a fight for “freedom” or to “stop communism”; without the soldiers really even understanding what communism was. Imagine how some blacks felt as they were drafted and deployed to Vietnam to defend a basic “freedom” they lacked back in Jackson Mississippi!
Mills was aware that history has a “pace” and that such a pace has sped up with the advent of faster communication. Thus, people no longer have time to slowly internalize the values needed to produce socially sympathetic/empathetic individuals. With the Internet and 500-plus cable channels, information is transforming faster than it did in the past. As a result of this increased speed, the roots of socialization are unable to “take” before new rules and behaviors emerge too take their place as “the norm.” Thus, Mills commented that, “The very shaping of history now outpaces the ability of people to orient themselves in accordance with cherished values.”
Today, this speed of change causes a rift between the generations who often quip, “Back in my day…” (You know the drill, a grandparent or parent saying that they walked barefoot uphill both ways to school which was ten miles away and then after school they had to work three jobs). Well pops, it’s not “back in your day” any longer. Pretty soon the precedent will be saying, “Last week in my day…” then will move on to, “Yesterday in my day” as time speeds up even faster.
Is it any wonder that ordinary people feel they cannot cope with the larger worlds with which they are so suddenly confronted? That they cannot understand the meaning of their epoch for their own lives? This inability to make sense of their lives lead many to drink and do drugs as they plod on living their lives in quiet desperation.
What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves. In other words, Mills means that people need a tool to make sense of what is going on around them. Plus, Mills didn’t mean a purely academic tool; some esoteric BS practiced only on campus by out-of-touch academics. Mills meant that ordinary laypersons should be able to grasp and use The Sociological Imagination on a daily basis.
The Sociological Imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions. By this Mills meant that people rarely take the time to stop and reflect on their lives and put the social puzzle together to enable them to view a more complete picture of their lives. Instead, people rely on the media to define world events for them. And furthermore, people look to the media for scripts on how to act and react to these definitions.
According to Mills, The Sociological Imagination asks 3 sorts of questions:
 What are the types of social structure? (Patterns of behavior)
 Where is this information anchored in history? (What era does it take place in?)
 What types of people prevail in this structure? (Who is dominant and who is subordinate?)
(1) What is the structure of this particular society? (how are people arranged? or the social geography)
– As a whole? (What is the “big picture”?)
– What are its essential components, and how are they related to one another? (Race, class & gender)
– How does it differ from other varieties of social order? (i.e. Socialism vs Capitalism vs Fascism)
(2) Where does this society stand in human history?
People have a tendency to judge the past using present day criteria. Thus, these aren’t always fair assessments. In the past, rape and pillaging, despite their ferociousness, was something people did in the name of nation states. Contemporary people can judge the past by today’s standards, yet this will only cause more misunderstanding. The past is the past and perhaps during the time, the culture wasn’t as advanced as it is today. Issues such as drug use , racism, or sexism were perceived differently than they are today. For example, I ask my students, “How many of you have taken care of a baby?” Inevitably a few hands go up. Next I ask, “How many of you have had to deal with a teething baby?” Most of the hands stay up. Then one-by-one I ask them how they took care of the baby. Each student provides the class with an example from their experience. After all, no one likes to see the look of pain on a baby’s face.
We hear about using toys, fingers, ice, frozen towels and even some who have resorted to using a “wee-bit” of whiskey.
Upon hearing the example of using whiskey, a collective gasp can be heard as people imagine some sort of drunk child in what surely must be a case of child abuse. After I let the class stew on that response I then inquire, “Did it work?” Knowing they are being judged, the student who provided the example reluctantly affirms it’s success. While the class is processing this discussion, I ask the student, “Did you consider using cocaine?” The majority of the students produce a noticeably louder collective gasp, and are glaring at me with some very un-approving looks as though I am some sort of monster!
Yet at the turn-of-the-century, this that is exactly what people resorted to. The people who cured a toothache with cocaine existed in another era and had no problem with this method.
Cocaine was even the main ingredient in Coca-Cola in its original formulation. Why do you think it was so popular? It was perhaps the original energy drink.
– What are the mechanics by which it is changing?
Does change occur through democracy (voting), or through war (violence)? Or perhaps they exact change through some other mechanism of change?
– What is its place within and its meaning for the development of humanity as a whole?
In this socio-historical period, is humanity being furthered or hindered? During the early 1940’s, the world was obviously in a state of world war.
– How does any particular feature affect the historical period in which it moves?
The Nazi regime had even made murder an efficient task replete with killing factories (the camps).
– And this period – what are its essential features?
– How does it differ from other periods?
– What are its characteristic ways of history-making?
(3) What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this period?
– And what varieties are coming to prevail and dominate?
– In what ways are they selected?
– What kinds of `human nature’ are revealed in this period?
– And what is the meaning for ‘human nature’ of each feature of the society we are examining?
MOST IMPORTANTLY The Sociological Imagination provides the capacity to shift from one perspective to another – from the political to the psychological; from examination of a single family to comparative assessment of the national budgets of the world; from the theological school to the military establishment; from considerations of an oil industry to studies of contemporary poetry. It is the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self – and to see the relations between the two.
That, in brief, is why it is by means of the sociological imagination that men and women now hope to grasp what is going on in the world, and to understand what is happening in themselves as well as within society.
The successful sociological imagination will allow its possessor to : acquire a new way of thinking.” In short, the sociologist will begin to “see” sociology EVERYWHERE!
pete padilla real world sociology