Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change

Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Change

Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists

A Commentary on Malthus" 1798 Essay as Social Theory

Industrializing America

The Evolution of the Future

Great Classical Social Theorists

In the Classical Tradition: Modern Social Theorists

Glossary of Social Science

Dr. Elwell's Professional Page



rbert Spencer's Evolutionary Sociology
C. Wright Mills [1916-1962]


C. Wright Mills on White Collar

By Frank W. Elwell


In all of his writings, Mills interprets the world through a theoretical perspective very much influenced by Max Weber. He concentrated particularly on power elites within business and their political influence. He examined the extent to which business elites were tied in with military and governmental elites. He was interested in this relationship because of its historical and political significance in a nation that subscribes to an ideology of democracy. We are, he suggested, now caught in a disastrous drift of a merging power elite which, in the name of “crackpot realism, is carrying us ever closer to catastrophe.

Like the classical theory of the discipline, Mills’ vision is a holistic view of entire sociocultural systems, this system is interdependent, and it has profound effects on human values, thought, and bWhite Collarehavior. Mill’s main body of work centers on the themes of the expansion and centralization of bureaucratic coordination, and the consequent "rationalization" of social life. Individuals with power in modern American life derive their power from an institutional base. “This means, very broadly, that the exercise of power cannot be simply the exercise of individual eccentricity but must, to a considerable extent, run parallel to the ‘grain’ of power that characterizes the institutional source... The study of power, then, becomes the study of institutions, the power relations between institutions, and the people who represent the expressions of those institutions” (Cuzzort and King 1976, 144).                                                                

As a student of Max Weber, C. Wright Mills' main body of work centers upon the theme of rationalization. Rationalization, you will recall, is the practical application of knowledge to achieve a desired end. Its goal is efficiency, its means are total coordination and control over the social processes needed to attain that goal. It is the guiding principle behind bureaucracy and the increasing division of labor. We will begin exploring this overarching theme of rationalization with a quick summation of some basic assumptions Mills has about the nature of man and society.

Human beings, Mills asserts, cannot be understood apart from the social and historical structures in which they are formed and in which they interact. While human beings are motivated by the norms, values, and belief systems that prevail in their society, structural change often throw these "vocabularies of motivation" into some confusion. The number and variety of structural changes within a society increase as institutions become larger, more embracing, and more interconnected. Consequently, the tempo of change has sped up appreciably in the modern era, and the changes have become far more consequential for all—for those who are in control of these enlarged organizations, and for those who are subject to them.

According to Mills, the rise of white-collar work is rooted in occupational change due to recent growth in bureaucracies, technological change, and the increasing need to market the goods of industrial society. Cubicle workersThe central characteristics regarding white-collar workers in modern industrial societies are that they are unorganized and dependent upon large bureaucracies for their existence. By their mass existence and dependence they have changed the character and feel of American life. By focusing on white-collar life, Mills believes, we can learn much about American character.

Jobs, Mills observed, are broken up into simple functional tasks. Standards are set in terms of pace and output. Where economically viable, machines are employed. Where automation is impossible, the tasks are parceled out to the unskilled. Policy making and executive functions are centralized and moved up the hierarchy. With the automation of the office and the growth in the division of labor, the number of routine jobs is increased, authority and job autonomy become attributes of only the top positions. There is an ever greater distinction made in terms of power, prestige, and income between managers and staff.

The routinized worker is discouraged from using his own independent judgment; her decision making is in accordance with strict rules handed down by others. She becomes alienated from her intellectual capacities, work becomes an enforced activity. The rise of white-collar work has also had a profound effect on educational systems in bureaucratic-industrial societies.

Educated intelligence, in the traditional sense of the word, become penalized in white-collar work, where job performance and promotion are based on routinized work and following the bureaucratic rules and dictates of others. As a result, Mills says, American education has shifted toward a vocational focus. High schools, as well as colleges, have become the training grounds for the large bureaucracies of government and industry. While the aim of 19th century American schooling was the creation of the "good citizen" of democracy, in the middle of the 20th century it has become the creation of the successful man in a society of specialists.

For Mills, there are three forms of power: 1) Coercion; 2) Authority; and 3) Manipulation. The Manipulationfirst is coercion or physical force. Mills writes that such coercion is rarely needed in the modern democratic state. While such power underlies the other two, it is only used as a last resort. The second type of power Mills characterizes as "authority." This is power that is attached to positions and is justified by the beliefs of the obedient. The final form of power, Mills writes, is "manipulation." Manipulation is power that is wielded without the conscious knowledge of the powerless. While bureaucratic structures are based on authority, Mills saw such authority shifting toward manipulation. Manipulation is not based on terror or external force, although the police powers of the state under gird its authority. Human organization that depends on the constant use of force and intimidation to discipline its members is extremely inefficient and ultimately ineffective. Rather, the power of manipulation is founded upon the ever more sophisticated methods of control given us by science (including social science) and technology. The truly efficient organization, in a society dominated by large bureaucracies, is based on the techniques and technologies of manipulation.

As modern management becomes the reigning ethos of the age, the shift from explicit authority relationships to more subtle manipulation becomes the preferred form of power. Part of the shift from authority to manipulation is enabled by the new technologies of mass communication; part of the shift is due to the new ideologies of management and the advances in the social sciences. But these technological advances (and advances in techniques) merely allow the shift to occur. The cause of the shift is the centralization and enlargement of political power itself. Authority has need of legitimation to secure loyalty and obedience. Manipulation arises when such centralized authority is not publicly justified, and when those in power do not believe they can justify it.


In the shift from coercion and authority to manipulation, power shifts from the overt to the covert, from the obvious to the subtle. Exploitation becomes a psychological process. Among the means of power that exist today is the power to manage and manipulate the consent of men. Because the power of manipulation is hidden it deprives the oppressed from identifying the oppressor. This power effectively removes the check of reason and conscience of the ruled on the ruler. White-collar people subject to the manipulations and control of their superiors, lose both freedom of action and creativity on the job. Such individuals will learn to seek satisfactions elsewhere. Emptied of all other meanings and legitimations, jobs are emptied of any intrinsic meaning. Money, in order to build a life outside of work, becomes the only rationale for work itself.

For a more extensive discussion of Mills's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.



Elwell, F. W. (2006). Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Cuzzort, R.P. and King, E. W. (1976) Humanity and Modern Social Thought. 2nd edition. Hinsdale, Ill: The Dryden 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.

To reference "C. Wright Mills on White Collar" you should use the following format:

Elwell, Frank W. 2013. C. Wright Mills on White Collar, Retrieved August 31, 2013 [use actual date]



StatCounter - Free Web Tracker and Counter
Served since March, 2005.