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The term sociological imagination was coined by the American sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1959 to describe the type of insight offered by the discipline of sociology. The term is used in introductory textbooks in sociology to explain the nature of sociology and its relevance in daily life.
Sociologists differ in their understanding of the concept, but the range suggests several important commonalities. Together, they conclude that:
C. Wright Mills defined sociological imagination as "the vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society."
Sociological imagination is not a theory but an outlook of society which tries to steer us into thinking away from one's usual day-to-day life and look at one's life afresh. Specifically, the sociological imagination involves an individual developing a deep understanding of how his biography is a result of historical process and occurs within a larger social context.
- Sociological imagination: The application of imaginative thought to the asking and answering of sociological questions. Someone using the sociological imagination "thinks himself away" from the familiar routines of daily life.
Another way of describing sociological imagination is the understanding that social outcomes are based on what we do. To expand on that definition, it is understanding that some things in society may lead to a certain outcome. The factors mentioned in the definition are things like norms and motives, the social context may be the country and time period, and social action is the things we do that affect other people. The things we do are shaped by: the situation we are in, the values we have, and the way people around us act. These things are examined for how they all relate to some sort of outcome. Sociological imagination can be considered as a quality of mind that understands the interplay of the individual and society.
Things that shape these outcomes include (but are not limited to): social norms, what people want to gain from their actions (their motives), and the social context in which they live (ex. country, time period, people with whom they associate).
Sociological imagination is the capacity to shift from one perspective to another. To have a sociological imagination, a person must be able to pull away from the situation and think from an alternative point of view. It requires us to "think ourselves away from our daily routines and look at them anew". To acquire knowledge, it is important to break free from the immediacy of personal circumstances and put things into a wider context, rather than following a routine.
Mills believed in the power of the sociological imagination to connect "personal troubles to public issues."
There is an urge to know the historical and sociological meaning of the singular individual in society, particularly within their time period. To do this one may use the sociological imagination to better understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner self and external career of a variety of individuals.
Another perspective is that Mills chose sociology because he felt it was a discipline that "...could offer the concepts and skills to expose and respond to social injustice." He eventually became disappointed with his profession of sociology because he felt it was abandoning its responsibilities, which he criticized in his book The Sociological Imagination. In some introductory sociology classes the sociological imagination is brought up, along with Mills and how he characterized the sociological imagination as a critical quality of mind that would help men and women "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."
Real life application
Sociological imagination can be applied in everyday life. Simply looking at any event, issue, or activity using a different perspective from that which one would usually use is use of sociological imagination. One prime example would be drinking coffee. Drinking coffee can be seen as a form of self-care, as it does speed up one's metabolism. The consumption of coffee could also be considered as a custom or ritual as some people consume coffee everyday at the same time. Scientifically, however, coffee contains a significant amount of caffeine which may cause addiction in the consumer and therefore is another way to perceive the consumption as it is now an addiction rather than the simple act of self care. People also "meet for coffee" which in turn makes it a social ambiance where the idea is to focus on a meeting with another individual. This focuses more on the intersection between a group or one or two people rather than the actual action of drinking the cup of coffee.
Sociological imagination is to place oneself outside of everyday routines and to be able to view one's actions or life from third party perspective. It allows one to make more self-aware decisions rather than be swayed by social norms or factors that may otherwise dictate actions. Lack of sociological imagination can render people very apathetic. Apathy is a "spiritual condition" which may be the cause of many of their problems. These problems being lack of indignation in scenarios dealing with moral horror, accepting atrocities performed by their leaders (political or familiar), and lacking the ability to react morally to the actions and decisions of their leaders. When sociological imagination is not used, loss of character is a possibility. The Holocaust is a classical example of what happens when a society renders itself to the power of a leader and doesn't use sociological imagination. The Holocaust was based on the principal of absolute power in a dictatorship where society fell victim to apathy and willingly looked away from the horrors they committed. They willfully accepted the decisions taken by Adolf Hitler and carried out the orders because they had lost self-awareness and moral code, then adopting the new social moral code. In doing this they lost the ability to morally react to Hitler's command and in turn slaughtered more than 6,000,000 Jews, other minorities, and disabled persons.
Peter L. Berger coined the related term "sociological perspective". He stated that the sociological perspective was seeing "the general in the particular," and that it helped sociologists realize general patterns in the behavior of specific individuals. One can think of the sociological perspective as one's own personal choice and how society plays a role in shaping individuals' lives.
Uses in films
The advantages of using popular films to enhance students' comprehension of sociological topics is widely recognized. Those who teach courses in social problems report using films to teach about war, to aid students in adopting a global perspective, and to confront issues of race relations. There are benefits of using film as part of a multimedia approach to teaching courses in popular culture. It provides students of medical sociology with case studies for hands-on observational experiences. It acknowledges the value of films as historical documentation of changes in cultural ideas, materials, and institutions.
Feature films are used in introductory sociology courses to demonstrate the current relevance of sociological thinking and to show how the sociological imagination helps people make sense of their social world. The underlying assumption is that the sociological imagination is best developed and exercised in the introductory class by linking new materials in the context of conflict theory and functionalism.
Mills created tips to help conduct valid and reliable sociological study using sociological imagination:
- Be a good craftsman: Avoid any rigid set of procedures. Above all, seek to develop and to use the sociological imagination. Avoid the fetishism of method and technique. Urge the rehabilitation of the unpretentious intellectual craftsman, and try to become such a craftsman yourself. Let every man be his own methodologist; let every man be his own theorist; let theory and method again become part of the practice of a craft. Stand for the primacy of the individual scholar; stand opposed to the ascendancy of research teams of technicians. Be one mind that is on its own confronting the problems of man and society.
- Avoid the Byzantine oddity of associated and disassociated Concepts, the mannerism of verbiage. Urge upon yourself and upon others the simplicity of clear statement. Use more elaborated terms only when you believe firmly that their use enlarges the scope of your sensibilities, the precision of your references, the depth of your reasoning. Avoid using unintelligibility as a means of evading the making of judgments upon society—and as a means of escaping your readers' judgments upon your own work.
- Make any trans-historical constructions you think your work requires; also delve into sub-historical minutiae. Make up quite formal theory and build models as well as you can. Examine in detail little facts and their relations, and big unique events as well. But do not be fanatic: relate all such work, continuously and closely, to the level of historical reality. Do not assume that somebody else will do this for you, sometime, somewhere. Take as your task the defining of this reality; formulate your problems in its terms; on its level try to solve these problems and thus resolve the issues and the troubles they incorporate. And never write more than three pages without at least having in mind a solid example.
- Do not study merely one small milieu after another; study the social structures in which milieux are organized. In terms of these studies of larger structures, select the milieux you need to study in detail, and study them in such a way as to understand the interplay of milieux with structure. Proceed in a similar way in so far as the span of time is concerned. Do not be merely a journalist, however precise a one. Know that journalism can be a great intellectual endeavor, but know also that yours is greater! So do not merely report minute researches into static knife-edge moments, or very short-term runs of time. Take as your time—span the course of human history, and locate within it the weeks, years, epochs you examine.
- Realize that your aim is a fully comparative understanding of the social structures that have appeared and that do now exist in world history. Realize that to carry it out you must avoid the arbitrary specialization of prevailing academic departments. Specialize your work variously, according to topic, and above all according to significant problem. In formulating and in trying to solve these problems, do not hesitate, indeed seek, continually and imaginatively, to draw upon the perspectives and materials, the ideas and methods, of any and all sensible studies of man and society. They are your studies; they are part of what you are a part of; do not let them be taken from you by those who would close them off by weird jargon and pretensions of expertise.
- Always keep your eyes open to the image of man—the generic notion of his human nature—which by your work you are assuming and implying; and also to the image of history—your notion of how history is being made. In a word, continually work out and revise your views of the problems of history, the problems of biography, and the problems of social structure in which biography and history intersect. Keep your eyes open to the varieties of individuality, and to the modes of epochal change. Use what you see and what you imagine, as the clues to your study of the human variety.
- Know that you inherit and are carrying on the tradition of classic social analysis; so try to understand man not as an isolated fragment, not as an intelligible field or system in and of itself. Try to understand men and women as historical and social actors, and the ways in which the variety of men and women are intricately selected and intricately formed by the variety of human societies. Before you are through with any piece of work, no matter how indirectly on occasion, orient it to the central and continuing task of understanding the structure and the drift, the shaping and the meanings, of your own period, the terrible and magnificent world of human society in the second half of the twentieth century.
- Do not allow public issues as they are officially formulated, or troubles as they are privately felt, to determine the problems that you take up for study. Above all, do not give up your moral and political autonomy by accepting in somebody else's terms the illiberal practicality of the bureaucratic ethos or the liberal practicality of the moral scatter. 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.
Herbert Blumer, in his work "Symbolic interactionism": Perspective and method, develops the idea of a non-standard look at the world around us; helping social scientists to understand and analyze the study area.
"One can see the empirical world only through some scheme or image of it. The entire act of scientific study is oriented and shaped by the underlying picture of the empirical world that is used. This picture sets the selection and formulation of problems, the determination of what are data, the means to be used in getting the data, the kinds of relations sought between data, and the forms in which propositions are cast. In view of this fundamental and pervasive effect wielded on the entire act of scientific inquiry by the initiating picture of the empirical world, it is ridiculous to ignore this picture. The underlying picture of the world is always capable of identification in the form of a set of premises. These premises are constituted by the nature given either explicitly or implicitly to the key objects that comprise the picture. The unavoidable task of genuine methodological treatment is to identify and assess these premises".
Howard S. Becker, being a disciple of Blumer, continued to develop his idea of a particular look at the objects under study, and in 1998 wrote a book "Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research While You're Doing It" where he gives a list of recommendations that may be useful in conducting sociological research. His main idea is to create a comprehensive picture of the object being studied, phenomenon or social group. To this end, he proposes to pay particular attention on statistical and historical knowledge before the conducting research, use critical thinking, trying to create a universal picture of the world, to make the result of the research understandable and acceptable for everyone.
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- Blumer, Herbert (1969). Symbolic Interaction: Perspective and Method. University of California Pres. pp. 24–25.
- Becker, Howard (1998). Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research While You're Doing It. University of Chicago Press. pp. 21–96.
- Sociological-Imagination.ORG. Retrieved 23 February 2012. Archived 5 September 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
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- The Sociological Perspective: University of Missouri
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- Using the Feature Film to Facilitate Sociological Thinking
- Jon Frauley. 2010. Criminology, Deviance and the Silver Screen: The Fictional Reality and the Criminological Imagination. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Jon Frauley (ed). 2015. C. Wright Mills and the Criminological Imagination. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing.
- Excerpt from C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination
- A Mills Revival? by S .Aronowitz
- Contemporary Analysis of C. Wright Mills
- On Intellectual Craftsmanship from Sociological Imagination (pdf mirror)
- Sociological Imagination in life events
- The Sociological Imagination
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