The Sociological Imagination

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The Sociological Imagination
Author C. Wright Mills
Publisher Oxford University Press
Publication date
Pages 256
ISBN 0-19-513373-0
OCLC 41476714
301 21
LC Class H61 .M5 2000

The Sociological Imagination is a 1959 book by American sociologist C. Wright Mills published by Oxford University Press.

Mills felt that the central task for sociology and sociologists was to find (and articulate) the connections between the particular social environments of individuals (also known as "milieu") and the wider social and historical forces in which they are enmeshed. This approach challenges a structural functionalist approach to sociology, as it opens new positions for the individual to inhabit with regard to the larger social structure. Individual function that reproduces larger social structure is only one of many possible roles, and is not necessarily the most important. Mills also wrote of the danger of malaise [clarification needed], which he saw as inextricably embedded in the creation and maintenance of modern societies. This led him to question whether individuals exist in modern societies in the sense that "individual" is commonly understood (Mills, 1959, 7-12).

In writing The Sociological Imagination, Mills tried to reconcile two varying, abstract conceptions of social reality—the "individual" and "society"—and thereby challenged the dominant sociological discourse to define some of its most basic terms and be forthright about the premises behind its definitions. He began the project of reconciliation and challenge with critiques of "grand theory" and "abstracted empiricism," outlining and criticizing their use in the current sociology of the day.

In 1998 the International Sociological Association listed this work as the second most important sociological book of the 20th century.[1]

Grand theory[edit]

In chapter two, Mills seems to be criticizing Parsonian Sociology. In this he directly addresses The Social System, written by Talcott Parsons.

In 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 extent to which a single uniformity of society is indeed possible (Mills, 1959, 26-30).

Social order[edit]

Mills criticizes the Parsonian formulation of social order, particularly the idea that social order can indeed be seen as a whole. He writes that every individual cannot simply be fully integrated into society and internalize all its cultural forms. Furthermore, such domination may be seen as a further extension of power and social stratification.

Brewer (2004) sees The Sociological Imagination as an extension of Mills's other works on power and social stratification, i.e. The Power Elite and White Collar. 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[edit]

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.

He argues that society and its 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[edit]

In the third chapter Mills criticizes 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 World War II. 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.

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. Lazarsfeld 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 is that there may be a tendency towards “psychologism”, which explains human behavior on the individual level without reference to the social context. 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[edit]

In chapter seven 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 the nature of society is continuous with historical reality. In doing so, Mills 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 Mills sets out what he believed to be a problem-based approach to his conception of social sciences (140-142).

Reaction to The Sociological Imagination[edit]

Mills's work was widely read in its time, and The Sociological Imagination is still one of the most widely read tracts of sociology and a staple of undergraduate sociology courses. His work was not well received at the time, which can be seen as a result of Mills's professional and personal reputation (Brewer, 2004, 317).

This is somewhat appropriate given that the nature of Mills's 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 Mills's 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 trying to create a three-dimensional view of society and, according to Brewer (2004), 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 realities (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 where he criticizes both the “methodological inhibition” of what he refers to as abstract empiricism (i.e. the work of Paul F. Lazarsfield) and what he refers to as the “fetishisation of concepts” in the works of those such as Talcott Parsons. Mills criticized the "grand theory" and the positivism of structural functionalism in Parsons' work (Brewer, 2004, 322-324).

The political nature of Mills's work[edit]

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 extent to which he was seen to attack empirical Sociology which was then common in Britain at the time. In America, his criticism of structural functionalism and of its accompanying critiques of power and stratification made him somewhat subject to severe criticism (Brewer, 2004, 328-330).

The Personality of C. Wright Mills[edit]

The reception of C. Wright Mills can now be seen as somewhat illustrative of Mills's personality. In his work, we can see the “space of selfhood” which Mills argued individuals connect individuals with society as a whole. 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 specialization 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 (2005) 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 “[o]ccupational role of the loner.” This “outsider mentality,” as referred to by Brewer (2005), 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 of Mills[edit]

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).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "ISA - International Sociological Association: Books of the Century". International Sociological Association. 1998. Retrieved 2012-07-25. 


  • C Wright Mills, (1959), The Sociological Imagination, reprinted (2000), Oxford University, 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”, British Journal of Sociology, 55:3, pp. 319–333.
  • John D Brewer, (2005), “The Public and The Private In C. Wright Mills Life and Work”, Sociology 39:4, pp. 661–677.
  • Michael Burawoy, (1991), Ethnography Unbound, University of California, chapters 1-2 and 13, pages 1–29 and 271-291.
  • Michael Burawoy, (2005), “2004 American Sociological Presidential Address: For Public Sociology”, British Journal of Sociology 56:2, pp. 260–294.

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