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C. Wright Mills [1916-1962]
C. Wright Mills on the Sociological Imagination
By Frank W. Elwell
The sociological imagination is simply a "quality of mind" that allows one to grasp "history and biography and the relations between the two within society.” For Mills the difference between effective sociological thought and that thought which fails rested upon imagination. Sociological thought, according to Mills is not something limited to professors of sociology; it is an exercise that all people must attempt.
Mills claimed that Sociological research has come to be guided more by the requirements of administrative concerns than by intellectual concerns. It has become the accumulation of facts for the purpose of facilitating administrative decisions. To truly fulfill the promise of social science requires us to focus upon substantive problems, and to relate these problems to structural and historical features of the sociocultural system. These features have meanings for individuals, and they profoundly affect the values, character, and the behavior of the men and women who make up that sociocultural system.
The promise of the social sciences is to bring reason to bear on human affairs. To fulfill this role requires that we "avoid furthering the bureaucratization of reason and of discourse. What I am suggesting is that by addressing ourselves to issues and to troubles, and formulating them as problems of social science, we stand the best chance, I believe the only chance, to make reason democratically relevant to human affairs in a free society, and so to realize the classic values that underlie the promise of our studies" (1959: 194). Mills set forth his own conception of how a social scientist should undertake the work. He conveys a sense of what it means to be an intellectual who concentrates on the social nature of man and who seeks that which is significant. In an appendix to the Sociological Imagination he set forth some guidelines that, if followed, would lead to intellectual craftsmanship.
1. First of all, a good scholar does not split work from life. Both are part of a seriously accepted unity.
2. Second, a good scholar must keep a file. This file is a compendium of personal, professional, and intellectual experiences
3. Third, a good intellectual engages in continual review of thoughts and experiences.
4. Fourth, a good intellectual may find a truly bad book as intellectually stimulating and conducive to thinking as a good book.
5. Fifth, there must be an attitude of playfulness toward phrases, words, and ideas. Along with this attitude one must have a fierce drive to make sense out of the world.
6. Sixth, the imagination is stimulated by assuming a willingness to view the world from the perspective of others.
7. Seventh, one should not be afraid , in the preliminary stages of speculation, to think in terms of imaginative extremes.
8. Eighth, one should not hesitate to express ideas in language which is as simple and direct as one can make it. Ideas are affected by the manner of their expression. An imagination which is encased in deadening language will be a deadened imagination.
Mills identified five overarching social problems in American society: 1) Alienation; 2) Moral insensibility; 3) Threats to democracy; 4) Threats to human freedom; and 5) Conflict between bureaucratic rationality and human reason. Like Marx, Mills views the problem of alienation as a characteristic of modern society and one that is deeply rooted in the character of work. Unlike Marx, however, Mills does not attribute alienation to capitalism alone. While he agrees that much alienation is due to the ownership of the means of production, he believes much of it is also due to the modern division of labor.
One of the fundamental problems of mass society is that many people have lost their faith in leaders and are therefore very apathetic. Such people pay little attention to politics. Mills characterizes such apathy as a "spiritual condition" which is at the root of many of our contemporary problems. Apathy leads to "moral insensibility." Such people mutely accept atrocities committed by their leaders. They lack indignation when confronted with moral horror; they lack the capacity to morally react to the character, decisions, and actions of their leaders. Mass communications contributes to this condition, Mills argues, through the sheer volume of images aimed at the individual in which she "becomes the spectator of everything but the human witness of nothing.”
Mills relates this moral insensibility directly to the rationalization process. Our acts of cruelty and barbarism are split from the consciousness of men--both perpetrators and observers. We perform these acts as part of our role in formal organizations. We are guided not by individual consciousness, but by the orders of others. Thus many of our actions are inhuman, not because of the scale of their cruelty, but because they are impersonal, efficient. and performed without any real emotion.
Mills believed that widespread alienation, political indifference, and economic and political concentration of power is a serious all added up to a serious threat to democracy. Finally, Mills is continually concerned in his writings with the threat to two fundamental human values: "freedom and reason." Mills characterizes the trends that imperil these values as being "co-extensive with the major trends of contemporary society.” These trends are, Mills states throughout his writings, the centralization and enlargement of vast bureaucratic organizations, and the placing of this extraordinary power and authority into the hands of a small elite.
For the individual, rational organization is an alienating organization, destructive of freedom and autonomy. It cuts the individual off from the conscious conduct of his behavior, thought, and ultimately emotions. The individual is guided in her actions not by her consciousness, but by the prescribed roles and the rules of the organization itself. "It is not too much to say that in the extreme development the chance to reason of most men is destroyed, as rationality increases and its locus, its control, is moved from the individual to the big-scale organization. There is then rationality without reason. Such rationality is not commensurate with freedom but the destroyer of it." Like Weber before him, Mills cautions that a society dominated by rational social organization is not based on reason, intelligence, and good will toward all. Further, it is through rational social organization that modern day tyrants (as well as more mundane bureaucratic managers) exercise their authority and manipulation, often denying the opportunity of their subjects to exercise their own judgments.
For a more extensive discussion of Mills’s theories refer to Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a fuller understanding of modern societies.
Elwell, F. W. (2006). Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.
Mills, C. W. (2000). C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings. (K. Mills, & P. Mills, Eds.) Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mills, C. W. (1960). Listen Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba. New York: Ballantine Books.
Mills, C. W. (1958). The Causes of World War Three. London: Secker & Warburg.
Mills, C. W. (1956/1970). The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mills, C. W. (1959/1976). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mills, C. W. (1951/1973). White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press.
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