When Did We Stop Using Our Sociological Imagination?

C. Wright Mills would be turning in his grave

If someone were to quickly do a google search for the definition of Sociology it’s most likely they would come across a great variety of subject matter. The study of… “ the development, structure, and functioning of human society,” or, “human social relationships and institutions,” or even, “the organization of societal values and behavior,” just to name a few.

Even to someone well versed in the general terms of social science, there is a lot of new and unfamiliar ground to be covered. Safe to say, this begs the question of how one might go about studying sociology, or, even better — how one should.

In 1959, an American sociologist by the name of Charles Wright Mills answered this question through the publication of his book, “The Sociological Imagination.”

In his book, he describes the Sociological Imagination as a way of thinking and questioning the world, and argues that it is the only valid way to engage in discussions about social issues — whether that might be political, humanitarian, environmental, or other.

To grasp the sociological imagination is to have an understanding of the relationship between the individual and the society they live in, as well as the historical context that their current place in society is dependent on.

Mills emphasizes the importance of this viewpoint when studying sociology as, “neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”

In other words, not only is it ill-advised to separate the two — it’s fundamentally impossible; the individual does not exist independent of their environment, and the environment does not exist in isolation from the individuals and the systems within it.

Modern day sociology, however, has an incorrect tendency to view the current state of society as a reflection of current events, rather than examining the historical processes of how it came to be in these circumstances.

The sociological imagination, on the other hand, uncovers the relationship between the individual and their place in society as well as the historical implications that put them there…

So when exactly did we stop using it?

Well, while I’m not current able to provide you with an exact date, I can tell you that the sociological imagination has been lost on us for quite some while.

In fact, I’d argue that this major disconnect between the way we view society and the members within it, and the way society and the members within it actually exist, has been around just long enough to be responsible, in part, for the increase in polarization, extremism of opinion, and overall social unrest that has plagued the past couple of years in particular.

We have — time and time again — attempted to separate individual’s from their environment. We have tried to divorce experiences and events from the historical setting within which they occurred. And we have tried to draw distinction between the systems and infrastructures of society, versus the consequences for society that occur as they continue to be upheld.

We are going about this all wrong.

Because if we were trying to do things right — if we were truly trying to use our sociological imagination to comprehend the necessary steps and solutions that drive positive change, we would understand the following:

  • That Covid conspirators and anti-vaxers exist because there is a widespread distrust in modern medicine and the organizations that appeal to it. That we ought to address the root of the problem before trying to shame and belittle people into ideological submission, inevitably pushing them to further extremes.
  • That the disproportionate level of police violence against African Americans has nothing to do with a few bad apples. That consistently growing bad apples means there is an intrinsic issue with the whole orchard. Not just the leaves and the trunks, but the roots, the soil, the climate, and the farmer who tends to them, too.
  • That public skepticism of the climate crisis is a result of sponsored media campaigns designed to foster doubt and denial of science in order to protect industrial and political interest. That living in a capitalist society means we are forced to operate under capitalist conditions until we bring about large scale change.
  • That the rates of male violence against woman are not further reason to ‘protect women,’ they are a reason to prevent men from being violent. That the problem lies not with what she was wearing, or what had or had not been said — but with the institutions and ideological beliefs entrenched in toxic masculinity.
  • That the feelings of burnout, depression, and guilt that may accompany our general existence in the 21st century are not as reflective of individual shortcomings as they are of the evolutionary mismatch between the way we live and the way we were designed to live.

Because while it’s no question that there are problems to be addressed, we will continue to stand in the way of our own progress as a society if we fail to perceive the entire picture.

We need to see the individual as a product of their environment.

The environment as a product of the structures and systems we create.

And the structures and systems as a reflection of what we and how we think.

The three are intimately and inseparably connected, and the sociological imagination gives us the lens bigger enough to view them all.

We need to pick up our tools and get to work.

Alexandra Walker-Jones — March 2021

Text References:

  1. Burawoy, Michael. 2005. American Sociological Review Vol 70, Issue 1, pp. 4–28. First Published February 1, 2005
  2. Fuller, Steve. The New Sociological Imagination. SAGE Publications, 2006.
  3. Goode, Erich. 2008. “FROM THE WESTERN TO THE MURDER MYSTERY: THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION OF C. WRIGHT MILLS.” Sociological Spectrum 28, no. 3: 237–253. SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed February 23, 2018).
  4. Mills, C. Wright. The sociological imagination. C. Wright Mills, Oxford University Press New York 1959
  5. Selwyn, Neil. 2017. “Education, technology and the sociological imagination — lessons to be learned from C. Wright Mills.” Learning, Media & Technology 42, no. 2: 230–245. Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 25, 2018).
  6. Scimecca, Joseph A. 1977. The Sociological Theory of C. Wright Mills. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press.

Writer and published author with an international background in psychology, nutrition, and creative writing. I’m just here to learn ;) awalkerjones.com

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