Let me confess a sin. The opening chapter from C Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination was the very first piece of required reading handed to me as an undergraduate. It also holds the distinction of beginning a chain of photocopied chapters and essays that were filed away in my waste paper bin. Like many first years, scholarly activity initially came second to binge drinking and intimate trysts with the toilet bowl. And so this classic statement of introductory sociology got the body swerve treatment, and Imagination remained one of the many canonical works I hadn’t got round to reading. Two decades on and I’m beginning university afresh, albeit now as a lecturer. So, belatedly, I was quite pleased that Monday morning’s introduction to social theory tutorial required I read the self-same chapter I unceremoniously dumped all those years ago.
What then is this thing, the ‘sociological imagination’? Using the state of 50s America as his jumping off point, Mills argued that the popular sense, the popular mood was suffused with a strange sense of unease. It was a condition in which people were told by their papers, their screens, their politicians and ideologues that they lived in a state of freedom. An American could be whoever they wanted to be and follow their own inclinations and desires. But the scope of this freedom was very much limited to every American’s private life. Hence the popular feeling, the hard-to-place sensation that all wasn’t safe and well was an outcome of the friction between the boxed-in character of private/familial social relations inside the home, and the uncertain, potentially terrifying buffeting of large, invisible, unknowable and impersonal social forces outside it.
For Mills, to make sense of this, people required
… a quality of mind that will help them 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. It is this quality … that journalists and scholars, artists and publics, scientists and editors are coming to expect of what may be called the sociological imagination. (1959, p.5)
What the sociological imagination does is provide a way of thinking through and understanding social life, of how the inner lives of each of us as individuals are conditioned by social forces, and – borrowing terminology from Pierre Bourdieu – to understand our trajectories through social space. For Mills, the imagination is also a ‘terrible’ realisation as it shows that our fate is largely something that is done to us, regardless of our choices.
The sociological imagination asks certain sets of questions. These are taken up and formulated in particular ways by the main theoretical perspectives that have come to dominate sociology. The three sets are:
1. How is society structured? What are its components? How are they interrelated and mutually conditioning? How do they contribute to social persistence and social change? How does one society differ from another?
2. Where does a society stand in relation to the historical development of human societies? How are present societies stamped with the marks of the past? What are the essential features of modern times?
3. What social groups hold sway? What groups are rising and declining? What are the kinds of human natures that have contemporary currency? And what are their meanings in relation to discrete features of society?
The sociological imagination may well ask these sorts of questions, but how do you begin the business of unravelling the complex tapestry of social relations to make sense of them? Mills begins with distinguishing between ‘personal troubles’ and ‘public issues’. The former denotes the so-called private sphere, and concerns personal, intimate, milieu-specific settings. The latter refers to a higher social scale, or a greater degree of abstraction. i.e. Questions around the integration of milieux into social structures, of how social collectivities mesh, relate with, and constitute one another. Hence problems occurring at this level of societies; dysfunctions, conflicts – pick a category from the social theory of your choice – cannot be anything other than public issues. Therefore how these structure and intertwine with individual experiences, this is the province of the sociologist.
Using this understanding, if we return to Mills’ thesis that unease and anxiety underlined the American (modern) condition, he asks if this is the lot of just one or very small groups of disparate people, then it is a matter of individual biographies. But if insecurity, fatalism, fear for the future is a mass experience we are witnessing a social phenomenon that is the expression of how certain social relations are structured. And, of course, this angst might be the spur for further pathological social developments. If this is the modern condition, it falls to the sociologist to investigate, analyse and explain.
What particularly interests me about Mills’ argument is the following observation. He argues that every age has a common intellectual denominator, a shared zeitgeistthat figures time and again in the cultural tropes, in the stories we tell ourselves, in the senses we use to interpret the social world. For example, in the late 19th and early 20th century one widely-held habit of mind, particularly among the privileged and educated elites, was Social Darwinism. Consciously and unconsciously, social policy, sociology, emerging nationalisms, encouraged the view that relations between human beings were essentially an extension of the evolutionary struggle each and every species wages in the natural world. However, by the time Mills was writing the denominator, the structuring principle of social thought had greatly changed. The social had come to predominate – the sociological imagination was the mindset of the modern world. He held that as the old certainties were melted by the friction of rapid social change, popular perceptions of social problems focus on the routines, behaviours, conflicts and crises that lie at their root. Of this, Mills writes:
It is the quality of mind that seems most dramatically to promise an understanding of the intimate realities of ourselves in connection with larger social realities. It is not merely one quality of mind among the contemporary range of cultural sensibilities – it is the quality whose wider and more adroit use offers the promise that all such sensibilities – and, in fact, human reason itself – will come to play a greater role in human affairs. (ibid. p.15)
For 1959, this was a very sharp observation. We’re not all Sociologists. But we are all sociologists. Whatever you you think of them, politicians put forward sociological explanations of varying complexity and accuracy to makes sense of society’s ills. Economists are forced to acknowledge the social dimension outside of their equations to explain the crash of 2008. Celebrities lay bare the travails of overcoming obstacles thrown by their humble backgrounds as they groped their way toward fame. Our mass media and social media, from frivolous muckraking to “hard news” obsesses incessantly over the character and quality of social relationships. Will Dave sack IDS? Is Simon Cowell going to marry Lauren Silverman? Does Deidre Barlow still pine for Ken? Ours is a ‘social age’ where even your worth is measured by relationships, crudely denoted by numbers of Facebook friends or Twitter followers.
Curiously, at the moment the sociological imagination is the habit if mind par excellence sociology as a discipline is stuck on the doldrums. It’s perceived as a breeding ground for axe-grinding lefties and abstruse waffle few outside of seldom-read specialist journals care about. And it’s not controversial to state that the sociological imagination has allowed other disciplines and lay actors to park their tanks on sociology’s lawn. New mass killing outrage? Call a psychologist. Youth delinquency? Get a criminologist. Parenting? Katie Hopkins. Class? Paul O’Grady.
Yet fads in the broader social sciences come and go but sociology stubbornly remains. Women’s Studies, Industrial Relations, Cultural Studies; these are all cognate disciplines that after a brief life have largely disappeared and find themselves folded into sociology departments. Why and how sociology soldiers on despite being derided and ignored is probably a lifetime’s work in and of itself. Perhaps the materiality of the sociological imagination consistently generates a mass education market out of the minds it captivates as a subject of fascination in its own right.
The sociological imagination shows absolutely no sign of ebbing. As dictatorships dissolve and civil societies open up across the globe, not only are the disciplinary futures of sociology secured but more importantly the questions of our times – the environmental crisis, the relations between the genders, nationalism and hate, the balance of inequality, the chaos of the global economy – are also increasingly treated as social, not natural problems. And that realisation may just be the beginning of doing something about them.