Social Imagination and the Experience of Immigrants

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Table of Contents

  • What Is Sociological Imagination?
  • The Relationship Between Personal Experience and the Wider Society
  • High Levels of Hostility
  • Conclusion

What Is Sociological Imagination?

Emphasizing the importance of recognizing the connections between social structure and individual experience, C. Wright Mills illustrates time and time again that personal troubles are in fact actually public issues because they result from social problems that affect many. "The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and its promise" (C.Wright Mills 1959, 6).

The sociological imagination at its core is the ability to see things socially in terms of how they interact and influence each other. Fundamental to developing a sociological perspective on the world, a person must be able to step outside of a given situation and think from an alternative point of view. By using sociological imagination in this way, one is able to view society as an outsider and attain an understanding that an individual's biography is linked to the structure and history of society.

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The Relationship Between Personal Experience and the Wider Society

Throughout history, immigration has become an incredibly controversial yet active topic in American politics and thus society, impacting the individual and mass experiences of immigrants, both undocumented and not. The ability to see things interactively and obtain knowledge that is outside of the daily routine of life is central to a concrete understanding of the world around you and its root sin society. Having enough money to pay regular bills can oftentimes be considered solely a personal issue, on a mass scale it suggests systemic economic inequality and structural poverty. Sociologist C. Wright Mills describes this consciousness as 'the vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society" (5). We as people constantly blame ourselves for problems that rise in our lives rather than try to think outside the box and acknowledge that a great majority of problems individuals face on a daily basis are structural issues that have risen from above us; the institutions.

When a problem becomes common amongst a community, its stops being a matter of personal issues but rather a matter of public issues derived from faulty institutions and backwards structures. Growing up in the Bay Area, many develop a false illusion of guaranteed safety from violence like racial discrimination and hate crimes. Because the Bay Area is considered such a diverse and open minded community, many natives find themselves unconsciously trapped in its bubble, blind to the realities outside of it. However, the reality of it is many undocumented folk such as myself, particularly in the Latinx community due to the racialization of immigration, experience countless racially oriented micro and macro aggressions that are blindly swept under the rug by the ignorance and lack of awareness that surrounds our communities.

High Levels of Hostility

In How does it Feel to be a Problem? by Moustafa Bayoumi, different studies have shown that the, "more positively one feels about the United States, the more likely one is to harbor anti-Arab feelings. Hostility remains high" (4). Similarily, by becoming too comfortable within our bubble and labeling the Bay Area as a discrimination free zone compared to other countries, the experiences of undocumented folk, regardless of magnitude, have been rendered invalid or of minimal importance compared to other more "crucial" issues and presented as a matter of personal issues instead of the very much public issue it remains. Not until recently has action been taken to provide undocumented youth some sense of temporary security and yet DACA and other forms of protective status such as TPS are now being fought against by the current presidential administration. Moving from home to home, from city to city, my parents struggled to maintain jobs and support our family due to the strong stigma and stereotypes associated with being undocumented that remain prominent to this day. "They're here to steal our jobs," and, "they're just common thieves," are popular beliefs held against undocumented people of color particularly Latinos in today's mass media influenced for the most part by the widely promoted and supported hate agenda of the current presidential administration. Because employers know the fear of deportation and the desperate need for work that surrounds undocumented folk, they purposefully discriminate against people like my parents and I which inevitably leads to incredibly low pay, long hours, inadequate working conditions and thus ultimate exploitation at the hands of the American dream, an increasing public issue that is just now gaining momentum and attention as the highlight of the new presidential administration. Like myself, many other undocumented folk in the Bay Area and across the US have in some form or another experienced racial discrimination and violence that has been long disregarded or deemed minimal until now. As Moustafa Bayoumi states it in How does it Feel to be a Problem?,"Mass arrests following the attacks increased generalized suspicion against Arabs and Muslims in this country"(3).

Similarly, with the election of Donald Trump and his racially charged agenda, the number of ICE administrative arrests have suddenly increased, impacting the undocumented community as a whole as it tears apart innocent families and communities of mixed status. From New York to Los Angeles, a series of immigration arrests this week have unleashed waves of fear and uncertainty across immigrant communities. Across the United States, undocumented immigrants are struck with a sense of insecurity and fear of deportation at the hands of the current presidential administration which has left many to isolate themselves from the public eye and hide in the shadows. The countless arrests originate from the numerous court battles over Trump's proposed ban on immigrants from seven majority-Muslim nations. By giving immigrant communities a bad name, President Donald Trump has created a tense and often times violent environment between undocumented fold and their counterparts, feeding into the increase in racial violence. Vowing to deport some 3 million undocumented immigrants with criminal records and to build a wall across the US-Mexico border, many of the largest cities in the country have labeled themselves sanctuary cities and promised not to cooperate with federal law enforcement on immigration matters. However, recent arrests and deportations have affected people who were not considered a priority for deportation under the Obama administration like innocent families and simply people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. While not being considered under any circumstance threats to national security or public safety, ICE continues to target innocent immigrant communities like holders of DACA and TPS among others.


Despite personally experiencing racial discrimination on several occasions along with my immediate family, I myself am guilty of becoming too comfortable in this bubble of ignorance, lacking the knowledge and awareness to act on my experiences and view my situation as something that was not just personal and unique but widely common amongst even the most "woke" immigrant activists. In cultivating the sociological imagination, I have discovered that not one single problem we as a community face regularly is unique or causeless. I find that I am now able to recognize certain instances and approach them utilizing a different perspective so as to analyze their roots in society and obtain a better understanding of the role US history has played in the lives of immigrants.

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