Wright Mills' 1959 Sociology Paper "The Sociological Imagination" - an Overview


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Sociology is more than the study of the nature and functioning of human society; it is a unique way of seeing society in terms of its history and people’s behavior. As C. Wright Mills (1959) best put it in The Sociological Imagination, “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” sociology is an encompassing subject that requires the analysis of both historical and contemporary matters to truly dissect and understand.

A concept familiar to most sociologists and students of the field is the sociological perspective—a paradigm that is founded upon the central concepts of the study. The perspective entails a viewpoint on human behavior and its relationship to social groups. This viewpoint distinguishes itself by focusing on realizing the connections between the actions of humans and the framework of the society that they inhabit. Simplified, this statement means to see one’s environment in a cause-effect manner in which every aspect of society affects one’s individual life.

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The aforementioned sociological view can be categorized into three major perspectives: symbolic interactionism, functionalism, and conflict theory. The first, symbolic interactionism, deals with small-scale patterns of interaction, symbols, and language. George Herbert Mead, the renowned sociologist who championed this theory, explained that symbols of society play a significant role in the way people interact with one another. Functionalism is the view that society functions as a whole—aspects of a working society depend on one another to maintain stability. This large-scale perspective of society is essentially an extended version of the biological homeostasis where parts of a whole collaborate to create internal harmony. The conflict theory is a negative viewpoint of society that operates at a large-scale. Explained chiefly by Karl Marx and C. Wright Mills, this theory states that conflict is found in most aspects of society whether it be economical (upper/lower class), social (age, sexual orientation), or political (congress/states).

The listed views of society not only expand one’s horizon on the society as a whole, but also seek to broaden one’s knowledge about his/her personal life. Sociologists who post written works on matters such as Donna Gaines, C. Wright Mills, and Allan G. Johnson serve to buttress the statement that adopting a sociological perspective can aide one in further understanding his/her social / personal life.

In The Forest for the Trees: Putting the “Social” Back into Social Problems, Allan G. Johnson speaks about the conflicting distribution of wealth amongst the U.S.’s upper and lower class. He speaks out about, “perhaps the most far-reaching, long-standing, and devastating social problem,” (Johnson 1991: 9). In his work about capitalism and poverty, he reinforces his work through statistical evidence such as 15 percent of the population living below the poverty level and argues that poverty exists solely because of the structure of the society rather than the misfortunes and actions of the individual. He underscores the inefficiency of industrial capitalism as an elite few run the economic system while those underneath must toil for a living. He says, “if we want to understand why one-fifth must survive on only 4 percent of the income, the answer that they are the slowest runners is inadequate, for this ignores the terms of the race itself that require some fifth of the population to live in poverty.” (Johnson 1991:11). He assumes a proactive and sociological view towards poverty as he suggests that for society to reform, it must analyze its social system rather than looking at the lives of the individual misfortunate because the issue is clearly imbedded in the social system. (Johnson 1991).

On a smaller scale, Donna Gaines, a renowned sociologist and journalist, explores the gruesome phenomenon of teenage group suicides in her work Teenage Wasteland Suburbia’s Dead-End Kids. In order submerge into the unsettling reality for labeled and outcast teens, Gaines identified herself as one and talked to those affected by personal life matters, economic struggles, drugs/alcohol, and lack of a place to go outside of home. Gaines also reports of peers and acquaintances calling the teenagers, “burnouts,” and “losers,” to label teenagers troubling with any of the aforementioned aspects. (Gaines 1990) This cutthroat environment led Gaines to question how teens of similar backgrounds resisted the golden temptation of ending life. Gaines concludes her research with the statement that “Teenage suicide won’t go away until kids’ bad lives do. “ (Gaines 1990: 19)

Apart from understanding the social environment, a social perspective can also aid in understanding one’s personal life. In the renowned book The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills, the author writes of his personal sociological perspective, the social imagination. Mills explains in his work that the life of an individual and history of society are ultimately tied and cannot be understood without knowing both. He goes on to stress the importance of having a quality perspective in order to perceive the connections between worldly events and its affects on peoples’ lives. This complex, yet impressive theory is his famous sociological imagination. This intertwining of history, biography, and personal matters truly helps one understand his/her personal matters in relation to society.

These sociological perspectives, by guiding one to understand matters more thoroughly in terms of its history and biography, push one to better understand his/her social environment and personal life. The paradigm shifts essentially build more thoughtful and knowledgeable people that will contribute to a more knowledgeable society.

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