The Sociological Imagination

In his influential book, The Sociological Imagination C. Wright Mills (1959) warned that the tendency to misrepresent social disorders as merely individual psychological disorders led to a depolitization of intellectual discourse and the undermining of social criticism. He challenged notions of the false dichotomy between private and public and self and society. He warned against an overdependence on superficial psychological explanations which ignore complex social accounts. These can only be dealt with through an in-depth sociology based on the nurturing of a sociological imagination that balances the tendency to depend too much on a psychological imagination. By treating public social problems as individual and personal psychosis, the sociopolitical status quo is maintained (Flynn-Burhoe 1999).

“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 (Mills 1959:8).”

“No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography . . . has completed its intellectual journey (Mills 1959:8).”

“C. Wright Mills (1959 [1961:8]) once characterized the sociological imagination as entailing the transformation of private troubles into public issues. In this formulation, Mills intended to assert the superiority of the sociological over the psychological imagination, the latter being represented as serving the interests of the sociopolitical status quo by depoliticizing intellectual discourse and undermining social criticism by misrepresenting societal deficiencies as individual ones. But despite the validity of this insight into a widespread ideological abuse of psychology, it ultimately rests upon a false dichotomy and an insufficiently dialectical view of the relationship between the private and the public, the self and society. For even when we forego the sociologistic reduction of the psychological to the political, or the subjective to the objective, in favor of a penetrating self-reflexive inquiry into the depths of subjectivity, we inevitably discover that the most intimate truths have an almost universal reference. It is only superficial psychologizing that blinds us to our common plight, just as it is only superficial sociologizing that is oblivious to the inner depths of the man behind the social mask. If we require a social psychology, we are even more in need of a depth sociology (Carveth 1984 [1999]) . “

In the chapter on ‘The Bureaucratic Ethos’ (Mills, Wright 1959:100-) Mills portrays a scathing image of the social sciences within academia in the United State in the late 1950s. He was concerned about a ‘decisive shift’ in the role of the social sciences that was unfolding between 1935 – 1959 in which the older liberal practice of examining ‘social problems’ was overshadowed by a joining of the more bureaucratic, illiberable, managerial practicality with an abstracted empiricism. Mills described this mutant as bureaucratic social science. He was concerned that this type of costly, efficient, highly standardized and rationalized methodologies resembled those of accounting and advertising firms of corporations. As such, even in university settings, the ‘New Social Science’ applied social sciences, served bureaucratic clients like the army, the state and corporations. By addressing the particular needs of specific clients rather than the public, Wills contended that the objectivity of the social science practice was jeopardized. Chronologically Mills traced the embodiment of bureaucratic social science through the marketting agencies of the 1920s, corporations and polling in the 1930s, academic life in the 1940s and the American federal government in WWII and through other institutions throughout the 1950s. Wills sketches an image of academia in the 1950s in which the high cost of abstracted empirical work which is dependent on costly research units, forces these units to fall under corporate control. The university’s division of labour became transformed from the model of professional peers with apprentices, to research bureacracies composed of intellectual techicians, research promoters and intellectual administrators skillful in setting up and funding research projects (Mills 1959:104).

1995:83) A strong post war economy coupled wiMills revealed how the dogmatic, uni-perspectival social science operated under questionable assumptions. The ambiguous term “human engineering” as employed in the 1950s became tied to concepts of ‘mastery of nature’ and ‘mastery of society’. The model they emulated was that of the hard sciences, particularly physicists, who had proven their ability to control the atom by using Scientific Method. As Mills pointed out, this spirit of empty optimism reflected an ignorance of the nature of, and relationships between, power, knowledge, moral action and history. It became problematic when technocratic slogans replaced reasoned moral choice. (Mills 1959:117)The popular slogan, “The purpose of social science is the prediction and control of human behaviour”, came to mean that once social scientists learned how to accurately predict and control human behaviour, mankind would somehow be ensured of peace and prosperity. (Mills 1959:113) This resulted in an ‘epistemic optimism within sociology in the 1950s. (Wagner 1995:1) which was shared by the general public. The Gulbenkian report refers to this as a period when both ordinary people and scholars were state centric. Both ordinary people and the scholars thought and acted at state level. (Gulbenkian 1995:83) A strong post war economy coupled with a growth spurt in population and production in North America led to the rapid expansion of the university system and an increase in the number of social scientists. (Gulbenkian 1995:33-34)

These social scientists were involved in projects dependent on foundation funds that tend towards the large, politically safe, and noncontroversial research carried out by an army of research technicians of abstracted empiricism (Mills 1959:104).

Max Weber’s statement about endemic bureaucracy creating an “iron cage of the future” proved to be prophetic. Current debates in social sciences reflect the contradiction inherent in the late 20th century in which increasing bureaucratic process in all forms of governance collides with theoretical enquiries demanding constant reappraisals of these same processes. In the university setting, sociology as a discipline is situated at the centre of these debates. In practice sociologists as civil servants can become trapped into working on narrow, exclusive and specialized enquiries that allow them to operate only with hard facts such as statistics that resemble scientific methods. At worst this transforms them into bureaucrats operating in a safe and acceptable environment while investigating short-term answers to questions they did not formulate, questions that were not informed by a contemporary theoretical framework. It indeed becomes Weber’s cage. This is the view of sociology of the late 1950s presented by <a href=”abstracts.htm#mills”>C. Wright Mills.


C. Wright Mills’ intellectual geneaology might include:

One of the more influential social scientists of the late 20th century Zygmunt Bauman, became a lecturer in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Warsaw from 1954 until(?) he came to Britain in 1971 where he took up a position as a lecturer eventually becoming Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds in Yorkshire. He was (2001-?) Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the Universities of Leeds and Warsaw. In 2001 he reflected (Bauman & Tester 2001: 27) upon a visit to his University department by the [now] famous US sociologist C. Wright Mills in the 1950s. As far as Bauman was concerned Mills’s sociology was ‘..the story of our own concerns and duties. There was a lot I learned from Mills’s books and what I learned was not primarily about America.’ (Bauman & Tester 2001: 27).’ Bauman is alluding here to that sociological classic of Mills: The Sociological Imagination.

Intellectual influences on Bauman might include Karl Marx, Max Weber, Theodor Adorno, Cornelius Castoriadis and Emmanuel Levinas.

Bauman’s ‘big triad’ of influences includes: Antonio Gramsci, Georg Simmel and Bauman’s wife, Janina (Beilharz 2001: 335). In a conversation with Peter Beilharz, Bauman expands as follows: ‘Gramsci told me what, Simmel how, and Janina what for..’ (ibid). Bauman perceived Gramsci’s work as an antidote to the determinism (Stalinism?) of so much Marxisant thought. Simmel provides Bauman with the method(s) (the reference to the ‘big triad’ by Bauman above is a deliberate allusion to one of Simmel’s central concepts!), whilst Janina taught him that, ‘..sociologizing makes sense only in as far as it helps humanity…’ (Beilharz 2001: 335).

Janet Wolff (1999) acknowledged that since she came to Rochester from Britain in 1989 she felt it her mission to to encourage a “sociological imagination” among students,

“. . . I suppose I have felt since coming to Rochester that my “mission” was to encourage a “sociological imagination”2 among students in the graduate program in Rochester, a program, after all, initially founded by the collaboration of colleagues in art history, film studies, and comparative literature, only more recently including the participation of colleagues from anthropology and history. (There is no longer a department of sociology at the University.) I have wanted to direct them to the texts and methods of sociology and social history, and to urge them to supplement their interpretative and critical readings of visual texts with attention to the institutional and social processes of cultural production and consumption. It was a very pleasant moment for me recently when a graduate student, who came to discuss his search for a useful concept of “style,” told me that he had been reading Max Weber, and said (without any prompting) before he left my office “I suppose I should look at Simmel’s work.” Earlier, I was delighted when a graduate student (now a faculty member at the University of Virginia) completely switched his dissertation topic and ended up writing a social and institutional (and, of course, critical) history of art education in the United States–a dissertation, by the way, that will be published next year by the University of California Press.3 Actually this last case was particularly interesting because a year earlier (my first year in Rochester) this student had taken a class with me on the sociology of culture in which I had devoted quite a bit of time to the work of American sociologists. Despite my strong reservations about this work, I wanted students to recognize the importance of paying attention to institutional processes and structures in the study of culture. Some members of the class (including him) complained that this work was boring (which, actually, much of it is). Moreover, given my own criticisms of the work, which I explained, they wondered why we were spending time on it. I did not have a very good answer, except to say that nobody else was doing this kind of work well, and that I had hoped that we could read it critically in order to consider how we might indeed investigate what sociologists call “the production of culture.” As it turned out, that is indeed what that graduate student did, incorporating what he found most useful in that tradition into a fine study whose intellectual influences were at the same time more wide-ranging and sophisticated.”

She also (1999) called for a stronger connection between sociology and cultural studies,

“In this essay, I want to suggest that cultural studies can benefit from a stronger connection with sociology. A good deal of what I have to say consists of a critical review of recent developments in sociology, a discipline which for the most part has still not come to terms with the fact that, as Avery Gordon has put it, “the real itself and its ethnographic or sociological representations are . . . fictions, albeit powerful ones that we do not experience as fictions but as true.” (Gordon 1997:11) I review this work not so that I can simply dismiss it, but because, first, it retains a very high profile in the study of culture within the discipline of sociology and, second, because, as I shall show, it makes claims either to supersede or to displace cultural studies.”

“My critique of trends in sociology is entirely motivated by my hope for a productive encounter between cultural studies and sociology. The benefit to both fields will be the mutual recognition that–again to quote Avery Gordon “the increasingly sophisticated understandings of representation and of how the social world is textually or discursively constructed still require an engagement with the social structuring practices that have long been the province of sociological inquiry.”(Gordon 1997:11) What sociologists can contribute to the project of cultural analysis is a focus on institutions and social relations, as well as on the broader perspective of structured axes of social differentiation and their historical transformations–axes of class, status, gender, nationality, and ethnicity.” (cited in Wolff, Janet 1999)

text here . . .

Webliography and Bibliography

Beilharz 2001: 335

Carveth, Donald L. 1984 [1999]. “Psychoanalysis and Social Theory: The Hobbesian Problem Revisited.” Psychoanalysis & Contemporary Thought. 7, 1 (1984), 43-98.

Carveth, Donald L. 1999. “Psychoanalysis and Social Theory: The Hobbesian Problem Revisited.” Revised on-line version.

(Gulbenkian 1995:33-34)

Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York. Oxford University Press.

Wagner 1995:1

Weber, Max.

Wolff, Janet. 1999. “Cultural Studies and the Sociology of Culture.” Invisible Culture: an Electronic Journal for Visual Studies.

2 Responses

  1. I came here from aol. After reading Rather good ideas om your Blog. I bookmark it.

  2. After reading Very good ideas om your Blog. I appreciate. thank you for presenting such good content

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: