The Sociology of C. Wright Mills

by Frank W. Elwell
Rogers State University

Before exploring the sociology of C. Wright Mills, there are two points about his sociology that I wish to briefly note. First, he is one of the few sociologists in the 20th century to write within the classical tradition of sociology. By this I mean that Mills attempts interpretive analysis of the total sociocultural systems, attempting to base this analysis on an overall worldview and empirical evidence.  In addition, he writes about issues and problems that matter to people, not just to other sociologists, and he writes about them in a way to further our understanding.

From a neo-classical theoretical perspective, Mills writes about the growth of white-collar jobs, and how these jobs determine the values and perceptions of the people who hold them, and how the growth of these jobs affect other sectors of society. He writes about the growth in the size and scope of bureaucratic power in industrial society, how this concentration of authority affects those who hold it and those who are subject to it, and how this growth affects traditional democratic institutions. 

He writes about the Cold War and what is at stake in the conflict. He writes about the meaning of communist revolutions around the world. He writes explicitly about the ideology and material interests of elites, and the rise of militarism and military solutions. Mills writes (albeit, almost in passing) about the coming automation of office work, and the impact this automation will have on workers and institutions. Mills writes on the role of ideology and material interest in the new science of management, concluding that this new science is just an elaborate manipulation of workers. Most forcefully, he writes about the proper role of social science in exploring and clarifying these and other central issues of our time, for all people.

While the secondary literature on Mills often remarks on the influence of Marx and Veblen on his sociology--and these two theorists certainly have an influence--the main influence upon his overall world view is very much Max Weber.  In all of his writings Mills interprets the world through a coherent theoretical perspective.  He uses this theory to explain social structures and processes, rather than obscuring them (either intentionally or inadvertently) through data and jargon.  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 behavior. Consequently, his writing remain quite relevant and useful today in our efforts to understand social reality—in our efforts to understand what is going on "out there."

The second point about the sociology of C. Wright Mills that I wish to note is that, aside from being a sociological genius, Mills is also a very gifted writer (two traits that are almost mutually exclusive).  He truly has a gift for frank and forthright expression (note). This was particularly true in his "later" years as he took to writing social criticism rather than straight academic prose, with little of the cant and caveat of the modern social scientist. White Collar, despite some lapses, is Mills at his  most sociologcal.  Beginning with The Power Elite, Mills becomes far more polemical and far more critical in his language (note).

Even in his writings as a social critic, however, Mills was always consistent with his overall theory of sociocultural systems and his vision of the role of social science within that system. Writing as a social critic, Mills stirred great controversy among the social scientists of his day. Most modern day treatments of Mills continue to focus on this social criticism. To date, there have been few attempts to summarize his theory in a single comprehensive statement. This work will focus on the vision that informs his critique, the sociological theory behind C. Wright Mills.

As a student of Max Weber, C. Wright Mills' main body of work centers upon the theme of rationalization. Rationalization 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. 

For example, White Collar, can be viewed as an elaboration and update on Weber's bureaucratization process, detailing the effects of the increasing division of labor on the tone and character of American social life. The Power Elite is an exploration of rational-legal bureaucratic authority and its effects on the wielders and subjects of this power. Consistent with the "iron law of oligarchy," Mills details the enlargement and centralization of public and private bureaucracies, and how their emergence affects the democratic process. The Causes of World War III can be read as an jeremiad on Weber's ideas on the irrationality of many bureaucratic organizations, or as Mills calls it, the disjunction between institutional rationality and human reason (or sometimes simply "crackpot realism").   Finally, The Sociological Imagination is an elaboration of the rationalization of social life and a plea for social scientists and intellectuals to identify and organize resistance to that trend. 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.


Mills begins with the assumption that "human nature" is formed by the interaction of historical and social structure (1959, p. 13). Sociocultural systems, in particular the modern nation-state, determine the type of men and women who inhabit the system. Human beings, Mills asserts, cannot be understood apart from the social and historical structures in which they are formed and in which they interact (1959, p. 162). The nation-state has become the "history-making unit" in the modern world, the "man-making unit"(1959, p. 158). Through the socialization process, aspects of human character are liberated or repressed. As the history-making unit the nation-state selects and forms the character of human beings, it opens up possibilities and imposes limits on the variety of men and women who make up the society. 

The struggle between countries or blocs of countries—such as the struggles between fascism and democracy, or between capitalism and communism—is more than a struggle between which political or economic system will prevail, it is a struggle over which types of human beings will prevail (1959, p. 158). Historical transformations within societies, say the decline of agriculture and the rise of small business, also affect the predominant character of human beings, their values and ideologies, their beliefs and expectations, their very character. Again, men and women can only be understood in the context of the historical sociocultural system in which they live and 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 (1959, p. 162). The number and variety of structural changes within a society increase as institutions become larger, more embracing, and more interconnected (1959, pp. 20-21).  As structural institutions become enlarged and centralized the circle of those who control these organizations also becomes narrowed—the "iron law of oligarchy" prevails (1956, p. 21). 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 1) recent growth in bureaucracies; 2) technological change; and 3) the increasing need to market the goods of industrial society. In this section we will examine Mills' analsysis of the effects of growing bureaucratization and technological change on the character of white collar life.  In the section on "Mass Society," we will examine Mills' analysis of the long-range and pervasive impact of marketing on human behavior.

Through the expansion of production as well as merger, corporations become larger and many former "free entrepreneurs" become mere employees. In the growth of these large bureaucracies, increasing proportions of employees are needed to provide the coordination and managing of others. These mid-level managers, in turn, report to supervisors, and become the links in the "chains of power and obedience, coordinating and supervising other occupational experiences, functions and skills" (1951, p. 69). With the growth and bureaucratization of the corporate structure, the increasing tasks of government draw still more people into "occupations that regulate and service property and men" (1951, p. 69).

The central characteristics regarding white-collar workers in modern industrial societies are that they are unorganized and dependent upon large bureaucracies for their existence. Unlike the professionals of old, the modern white-collar worker is not free to exercise professional judgment and control, rather he is subject to the manipulations and control of the organization. 

By rising to numerical importance in the middle of the twentieth century they have upset the Marxist expectations that society would be divided between entrepreneurs and workers. 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 (1951, p. xv).

Mills repeatedly makes the point that white-collar people are dependent upon the organization for their livelihood. To get and keep these jobs they sell not only their time and skills, but their personalities as well. This is because even the most personal traits are of relevance to the smooth functioning of the organization or to the marketing of goods and services. White-collar workers must learn to repress any resentment or aggression, they are required to smile and dance on command, to live at all times on the job in accordance with the rules of the organization laid down from above.

Mills identifies the division of labor as permeating ever-higher reaches of the white-collar hierarchy. Jobs and tasks that used to be performed by a single individual are now broken up in terms of functions and parceled out to several. Many executives are becoming less autonomous, permitted less initiative on the job. Because of centralization, brought on by the thrust toward ever greater efficiency, decision making increasingly "becomes the application of fixed rules" (1951, p. 141).

This parceling out (or "industrialization") of many executive tasks have allowed bureaucracies to extend the reach of many professionals--allowing them to serve many more clients--through the proliferation of the "semi-professions" and office technology. The semi-professions consist of men and women of very specialized training who engage in the provision of limited and circumscribed services, often under the supervision of the professional. Compared to the traditional professional, semi-professionals have limited authority, prestige, and income (1951, p. 141). It is to the semi-professions that the children of the working classes often aspire. 

The other development that has enabled the ever more refined division of labor are the new office machines. Already in 1951, Mills saw the use of office automation as a prime mover in the drive toward centralization in the pursuit of efficiency and profits. And he saw that we have only just begun. "Only when the machinery and the social organization of the office are fully integrated in terms of maximum efficiency per dollar spent will that age be full blown" (1951, p. 195).

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. Semi-professionals are employed to execute these decisions and keep the hierarchy informed. This increasing automation and hyper- specialization is done with an eye toward increasing output while lowering per unit costs. All of which is integral to the centralization and enlargement of executive authority, prestige, and wealth. 

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 (1951, p. 205). The routinized worker is discouraged from using his own independent judgment; his decision making is in accordance with strict rules handed down by others. He becomes alienated from his intellectual capacities, work becomes an enforced activity. The worker becomes alienated from fully realizing himself in his work. By engaging in routinized activity in the name of efficiency, he becomes "estranged" from the work process, alienated from the self (1951, p. 226).

Many of the trends in the workplace of the 1950s, Mills reports, are serving to undermine the status of the white-collar worker. Increasingly, according to Mills, white-collar work is losing associated skills, autonomy, and thus prestige (Elwell, 1999). One trend that is serving to devalue the status of white-collar jobs is the sheer growth in the numbers of of these job.  This growth is fueled by the increase in the number of people from the lower classes receiving a high school education. When everybody joins a club, Mills notes, it is no longer exclusive, no longer prestigious. 

[Mills adds that while the middle-class monopoly on a high school education has been broken, the U.S. has still not reached a situation of equality of educational opportunity. Far too many are still unable to complete high school because of economic circumstances (1951, p. 267).] 

By down-grading the education and skill levels required of many white-collar occupations, enlarging the number of people within white-collar occupations, raising the manual laborer’s income, and increasing the rates of unemployment among white-collar workers, the status of white-collar is in decline. As we will see, Mills believes this status decline has many effects on the character of the white-collar worker.

The rise of white-collar work also has  a profound effect on educational systems in bureaucratic-industrial societies. Educated intelligence, in the traditional sense of the word, becomes penalized in white-collar work, where job performance and promotion are based on routinized work and following the bureaucratic rules and dictates of others (1951, 267). 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 (1951, p. 266).

The aim of a college education today is to prepare the young for a good job in a large corporation or for service in a government agency. This involves not only vocational training, but also education in the proper social values and mannerisms (1951, p. 267). 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.

Power & Authority

It is in White Collar, not The Power Elite, that Mills first notes the tremendous enlargement and centralization of bureaucracies in modern industrial societies. One consequence of the enlargement of bureaucracy, Mills asserts, is the sheer growth in the number of managers and administrator in every sphere of society. As with any position within the social structure, the position of manager or administrator prescribes a set of role expectations and behaviors, role expectations that Mills labels the "managerial demiurge" (1951, p. 77). The role of manager being so central to modern bureaucratic society, with such a large number of people holding the position and many times more subject to their authority, the managerial demiurge has profound consequences for the society as a whole.

For Mills, there are three forms of power. The first 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 (1958, p. 41). While bureaucratic structures are based on authority, Mills saw such authority often shifting toward manipulation.

Manipulation is not based on terror or external force, although the police powers of the state under gird its authority. Human organizations that depend on the constant use of force and intimidation to discipline its members are extremely inefficient and ultimately ineffective. A system based solely on force must expend much energy policing its members; it stifles initiative, and it provides an obvious target for rallying opposition (1951, p. 110). 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.

Mills characterizes the "managerial demiurge" as an elaborate game of manipulation based on both bureaucratic and political skills (1951, p. 81). 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 (1951, p. 106). The managerial demiurge does not stop at coordinating the simple behaviors of men and women under its sway, it extends to their opinions and emotions as well (1951, p. 110).

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 (1951, p. 110). But these technological advances (and advances in technique) 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 (1951, pp. 349-350).

The goal of manipulation is to have men internalize managerial directives without knowing that these directives are not their own motives, without recognizing that they are being victimized (1951, p. 110). 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 (1951, p. 110). 

Symbols of legitimation, Mills maintains, are among the most important areas of study for sociologists. These symbols serve to justify or to oppose the arrangements of power and authority within society. However, such symbols are not autonomous, as many would have us believe. Governments do not necessarily rely on the consent of the governed. Governors can now manufacture consent! We must not confuse government’s legitimations with its causes (1959, p. 37).

In "pre-capitalist" times, power and authority were obvious and personal, often engendering fear and obedience. If, however, that power should fail to keep people in line, the holder of power and authority could easily become the target of revolt. Manipulative power, on the other hand, is soft and often disguised as therapeutic or advisory. 

Over the years the U.S. has been transformed from a nation of small capitalist enterprise to a nation of employees. Yet the ideology suitable for a nation of small capitalists persists and is used to justify the status quo (1951, p. 34). Religion is also used to bless and justify the reigning power relationships. Rather than being used to guide men in the development of conscience, Mills asserts, religious leaders more often blunt that conscience and cover it up with "peace of mind" (1958, p. 152). 

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 (1959, pp. 40-41).

Large bureaucratic organizations also affect the relations between the rulers and the ruled. Such organizations insulate the managers from those in lower offices, cutting them off from identifying with them (1951, pp. 110-111). In a bureaucratic setting the decision-maker is often far removed from his victims. Opposition in such a situation is difficult to organize. Because of manipulation, targets for revolt are not readily recognizable, because of bureaucratization they are not readily available (1951, p. 349). Such a situation promotes not only schemers whose explicit ideology is to manipulate the ruled, but a system of social control that fosters irresponsibility on the part of the rulers.

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 (1951, p. 228). 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.

Human factors, such as personality and disposition, increasingly play a role in the efficiency and productivity of bureaucracies and service agencies. Because of this, human relations management has increasingly focussed on morale (1951, p. 233). The object of the human relations school is to give the workers the illusion of personal autonomy and a caring environment in order to engender loyalty and commitment to the organization. Under the human relations school, management becomes an elaborate manipulation of workers to maximize productivity (1951, p. 235).


Mills believed that the bureaucratization of the social structure was both partial and unevenly spread. Yet he saw it as an on-going process, a process that threatened to replace our once loosely integrated democracy with a more managed "corporate-like society" (1951, p. 78). The power of decision- makers, Mills points out, has always been limited by the technology of violence and the degree of organization that prevails in a society. But historically in the West, the means of violence has greatly increased, and the degree of organization has enlarged, centralized, and become ever more efficient (1956, p. 23). Those at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchies that dominate modern industrial society are far more powerful than Caesar, Napoleon, Lenin, or even Hitler. "That the facilities of power are enormously enlarged and decisively centralized means that the decisions of small groups are now more consequential" (1956, p. 23).

According to Mills, there is a power elite in modern societies, an elite who command the resources of vast bureaucratic organizations that have come to dominate industrial societies (1956, pp. 3-4). As the bureaucracies have centralized and enlarged the circle of those who run these organizations have narrowed and the consequences of their decisions have become enormous (1956, p. 7). According to Mills, the power elite are the key people in the three major institutions of modern society:

  • Government 
  • Military 
  • Corporations
These institutions have become larger, more powerful, and more centralized in their decision making. Together, the leaders of these institutions have become a unified elite who, while not omnipotent, are formidable.

The elite occupy the key leadership positions within the bureaucracies that now dominate modern societies, the positions in which the effective means of power are now located (1956, p. 9). Thus their power is rooted in authority, an attribute of social organizations, not of individuals. The bureaucracies of state, corporations, and military have become enlarged and centralized and are a means of power never before equaled in human history. These hierarchies of power are the key to understanding modern industrial societies. For these hierarchies are the very basis of power, wealth and prestige in modern times.

By asserting that there is a power elite in American society, Mills is not asserting that there is a self-conscious ruling class who is cynically manipulating the masses. It is not a conspiracy of evil men, he argues, but a social structure that has enlarged and centralized the decision-making process and then placed this authority in the hands of men of similar social background and outlook (1956, pp. 7-9). In Mills’ view, major national power now resides almost exclusively in the economic, political, and military domains. All other institutions have diminished in scope and power and been either pushed to the side of modern history, or made subordinate to the big three.

Schools, he asserts, have become appendages of corporations and government, sorting and training young people for their corporate careers, and in so doing inculcating patriotism, respect for authority, and the glories of capitalism along the way. Families are still major socialization agents of the young, but they now share this function with schools and the mass media (1956, p. 6).  Through the socialization process, each of us has come to embrace and internalize the system as it is. A general consensus of what is right and natural, good and just, valued and reviled is forged. The interests of the elites become our interests, they become internalized and legitimized.

It is their similar social backgrounds that provide one of the major sources of unity among the elite. The majority of the elite, Mills asserted, come from the upper third of the income and occupational pyramids. They are born of the same upper class. They attend the same preparatory schools and Ivy League universities. They join the same exclusive gentleman's clubs, belong to the same organizations. They are closely linked through intermarriage. It is these common experiences and role expectations that produce men of similar character and values (1956, p. 19). Non-upper class members of the elite consist of hired corporate managers, experts, and corporate lawyers—men who are competent technocrats, who have risen through the ranks, and are subsequently sponsored by the elite and the organizations that they control.

Mills contends that coordination between government and corporations does not just depend on private clubs or being from the same social class. Some of the coordination comes from the interchange of personnel between the three elite hierarchies. The closeness of business and government officials can be seen, Mills asserts, by the ease and frequency with which men pass from one hierarchy to another (1951, p. 83).

Mills also asserted that a good deal of the coordination comes from a growing structural integration of dominant institutions. As each of the elite domains becomes larger, more centralized, and more consequential in its activities, its integration with the other spheres becomes more pronounced. Government, military, and economic decisions become increasingly coordinated and inter-linked. There becomes an unstated structured bias of government and corporate leaders toward one another's interests. National governments are held accountable for the health of their economies. Economies rely on the production of military weapons and the projection of military power. There is an increasing convergence of the interests of the elite (1956, pp. 7-8). 

Of the three sectors of institutional power, Mills claims, the corporate sector is the most powerful. But the power elite cannot be understood as a mere reflection of economic elites; rather it is the alliance of economic, political, and military power.

Below the power elite, Mills saw two other levels of power in American society. At the bottom are the great masses of people. Largely unorganized, ill informed, and virtually powerless, they are controlled and manipulated from above. The masses are economically dependent, they are economically and politically exploited. Because they are disorganized, the masses are far removed from the classic democratic public in which voluntary organizations hold the key to power (1956, pp. 28-29).

Between the masses and the elite Mills saw a middle level of power. Composed of local opinion leaders and special interest groups, they neither represent the masses nor have any real effect on the elite. Mills saw the American Congress and American political parties as a reflection of this middle-level of power. Although Congress and political parties debate and decide some minor issues, the power elite ensures that no serious challenge to its authority and control is tolerated in the political arena (1958, p. 36).

The liberal theory of government as the result of a moving balance of forces depends upon an assumption of truly independent units of roughly equal power. And this assumption, according to Mills, rested upon the existence of a large and independent middle class. However, the old independent middle class declined with the small businessman, the true independent professional, and the family farm. Moreover, it has been replaced by the rise of a new class of white collar workers and quasi professionals dependent upon large corporate, government, and military bureaucracy. The new middle class is in the same economic position as the wage worker, dependent upon the large organization. Politically, they are in worse condition for they are not even represented by labor unions (1958, p. 36).

The clash between competing interests occurs at the middle level of power, but it is mainly the clash over a slice of the existing pie. It is this clash that is written about by the political commentators and political scientists, but it is far removed from any clash and debate over fundamental policy. 
Even here, Mills asserts, the clash between competing interests becomes muted as these interests increasingly become integrated into the apparatus of the state. Bureaucratic administration replaces politics, the maneuvering of cliques replaces the open clash of parties. 

The process of integrating previously autonomous political forces (such as labor, professional organizations, and farmers) into the modern state is overt in modern totalitarianism. In the formal democracies the process is much less advanced and explicit, yet it is still well under way. These interest groups increasingly maneuver within and between the political parties and organs of the state seeking to become a part of the state. Their chief desire is to maintain their organizations and to secure for their members maximum economic advantage (1958, p. 39-40). The middle level of power thus does little to question the rule of the elite; nor does it seek any benefit for the great masses of men and women outside of their organization.

In those societies in which power is diffuse and decentralized, history is the result of innumerable decisions by numerous men. All contribute to eventual changes in social structure. In such societies, no one individual or small group has much control, history moves "behind men's backs." But in societies in which the means of power have become enlarged and centralized, the men who control the dominant bureaucracies modify the structural conditions in which most men live. 

The positions of the elite allow them to transcend the ordinary environments of men and women. The elite have access to levers of power that make their decisions (as well as their failure to act) consequential. In a society in which structural institutions have become enlarged, centralized, and all encompassing, who controls those institutions becomes the central issue of our time. One important consequence of this fact, Mills asserts, is that leaders of the modern nation state can exert much more coordination and control over the actions of that state. 

To date, Mills fears, these leaders are acting (or failing to act) with irresponsibility, thus leading us to disaster. But this does not mean that it always must be so. The great structural change that has enlarged the means and extent of power and concentrated it in so few hands now makes it imperative to hold these men responsible for the course of events (1958, p. 100).

By 1958, Mills seemed much more concerned with the rise of militarism among the elites than with the hypothesis that many elites were military men. According to Mills, the rise of the military state serves the interests of the elite of industrial societies (1958, pp. 86-87). For the politician the projection of military power serves as a cover for their lack of vision and innovative leadership. For corporate elites the preparations for war and the projection of military power underwrites their research and development as well as provides a guarantee of stable profits through corporate subsidies (1958, p. 87). This militarism is inculcated in the population through school room and pulpit patriotism, through manipulation and control of the news, through the cultivation of opinion leaders and unofficial ideology.

But it is not just the existence of a power elite that has allowed this manufactured militarism to dominate. It has also been enabled by the apathy and moral insensibility of the masses and by the political inactivity of intellectuals in both communist and capitalist countries. Most intellectual, scientific, and religious leaders are echoing the elaborate confusions of the elite. They are refusing to question elite policies, they are refusing to offer alternatives. They have abdicated their role, they allow the elite to rule unhindered (1958, pp. 88-89). 

Mass Society

One of the great unifiers of life and character in the U.S. are the mass communications industry. Mass communications, according to Mills, serves to mold modern consciousness and political thought (1951, p. 333). Mills goes on to point out that there were no mass media to speak of in Marx's day, so its influence would be easy to overlook. But in the modern world, he asserts, the form and content of political and social consciousness cannot be understood without reference to the image of the world presented by these media.

What a person comes to believe about a whole range of issues is a function of his experience, his first-hand contact with others, and his exposure to the mass media. In this, Mills asserts, the media is often the one that is decisive. The mass media are now the common denominator of American consciousness. They extend across all social environments, now even directly reaching out to mold the consciousness of children. Contents and images in the media have become a part of our self-image, and will over the next few generations modify the very character of man (1951, p. 334).

Mills is not writing simply of the news and the explicit political content of the mass media. This, he claims, characterizes but a small portion of the fare served up to the American people on a daily basis. Rather, Mills is focused on the rapidly growing entertainment and marketing industries. Entertainment and sports, which in their modern scale were only some 30 years old at Mills’ writing, serve to divert attention from politics and social issues. The mass marketing of consumer products, which sponsors these attractions, is also a recent phenomenon that has a profound impact on the consciousness of men and women (1951, p. 336). 

The role of the salesman has shifted in a society that is threatened by a glut of consumer goods. Mass production has meant an increasing need to distribute goods to national markets. Before mass production and the consequent need to move product, salesmanship meant knowledge of a product and providing that information to the potential buyer. Now, salesmanship focuses upon "hypnotizing the prospect," a science/art pioneered by psychology that has become pervasive in society. Ad-men and psychologists attempt to improve their techniques of persuading people to buy (1951, 165).

Persuasion, according to Mills, becomes a style of life for all types of relationships--marketers selling their products, entrepreneurs selling their ideas, campaign managers selling their candidates, employees selling themselves. The culture of selling has become so ingrained in the American psyche that it has become an "all-pervasive atmosphere," we have turned America into the "biggest bazaar" in the history of the world (1951, pp 165-166). This "Big Bazaar," Mills asserts, is as important in understanding modern life as the family or the factory. Like the family, it feeds, clothes, amuses, supplying all necessities and creating in us additional "needs." Like the factory, it manufactures the "dreams of life," dedicated to surrounding people with the "commodities for which they live" (1951, p. 167). While success has always been a driving force in American society, the confusion of success with mere consumption has made it a "dubious motive," and emptied it of real meaning as a way of life (1951, p. 259).


But what is at the root of the enlargement and centralization of structural bureaucracies in the modern world? Mills answers this question clearly and repeatedly, the rationalization of the world is the master trend of our time. The key to power in the modern world is social organization and technological development. The means of production are now organized to maximize efficiency, and in that cause bureaucracies have become ever more encompassing, work ever more alienating, and culture ever more exploitive. Also behind the growth in the power, scope, and scale of bureaucracy is the new technology of coordination and control—a technology that Mills recognized as being in its infancy (1951, p. 195; 1956, p. 7).

As applied to work in industrial-bureaucratic societies, rationalization has led to jobs that have been reduced to standardized (and thus easily repeatable) movements and decision making in accordance with written rules and regulations. While rationalization has led to the unprecedented increase in both the production and distribution of goods and services, it is also associated with depersonalization, a loss of personal control over the work tasks, and oppressive routine.

The process of rationalization is not restricted to the office, it permeates all areas of social life. "Training for rationalization" begins in the school systems, as schools have been enjoined to provide job training, socialization into authority and bureaucracy, specialization, and goal oriented problem solving. "Families as well as factories, leisure as well as work, neighborhoods as well as states--they become parts of a functionally rational totality..." (1959, p. 169). 

Mills saw American farmers being rapidly polarized into two groups. The first, he characterized as small subsistence farmers and wage-workers. The second, as big commercial farmers and rural corporations (1951, p. 19). Behind this movement toward ever-increasing farm size or consequent bankruptcy, of course, stood the machine. The world of the corporate farmer is becoming more and more interdependent with the world of finance, business, and government. These bureaucracies carry the rationalization of the farm forward (1951, pp. 40-41).

While Mills recognized that the rationalization of the farm had a ways to go before it was complete, it had already destroyed the rural way of life. Farming, he wrote, was becoming more and more like any other industry. The "family farm" a nostalgic term used provide an "ideological veil" for large business interests (1951, p. 44).

Science in the U.S., Mills points out, is an extremely rationalized and bureaucratized enterprise. From the start, science in America has been identified closely with its technological products and its techniques. Recently, it has taken on the social organization of the "assembly line." The U.S. has especially excelled in applied military and commercial projects, and in the marketing and mass production of these discoveries and inventions. This is in stark contrast to the classic academic tradition of pure research, unfettered and uncoordinated by practical needs or commercial interests. "In brief, the U.S. has built a Science Machine: a corporate organization and rationalization of the process of technological development and to some extent--I believe unknown--of scientific discovery itself" (1958, p. 161).

Social Problems 

Mills' sociology focuses on substantive problems of modern industrial societies.  He identified five overarching problems: 1) alienation; 2)  moral insensibility;  3) threats to democracy; 4) threats to human freedom; and 5) the conflict between bureaucratic rationality and human reason.  Each of these problems, according to Mills, are due to the bureaucratization process. 

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.  The shift from a rural and agriculturally based world to an urban society in which many employees depend upon large bureaucracies have set up the "property conditions" for alienation to spread beyond the factory (1951, p. 224).  Many of the characteristics of white-collar work are just as alienating as the manufacturing work that Marx wrote about.  Most white-collar jobs do not entail much freedom or decision making on the job, few entail work as craftsmanship. 

White-collar work may even be considered more alienating than traditional blue-collar work, according to Mills, in that white-collar often involves the subjugation of the entire personality into the work process, not just the physical actions of the worker (1951, p. 225 & 1951,p. 227).  This "personality market" that is part of much white-collar work (Mills claims that personality is often the more decisive on getting and keeping a job than skills) "underlies the all-pervasive distrust and self-alienation so characteristic" of modern people (1951, pp. 87-88). 

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 (1951, p. 225).  The precise degree of alienation will vary, according to Mills, with the degree of autonomy, freedom, and level of skill that a worker brings to the job.  Nevertheless, almost any job in modern society will be characterized by some degree of alienation because the employee's actions are subject to the management of others. 

Because of the detailed division of labor, the worker does not carry through the work process to the final product.  In fact, the worker is often not even aware of the entire process.  This, Mills argues, cut the link of meaning between process and product.  White-collar work is also alienating because, even in many professional jobs, the worker is often denied the chance to employ his mind by the centralized decision making that characterizes the modern bureaucratic enterprise. the root cause of alienation, Mills states, goes far beyond ownership and markets--it is in the form of organization itself.  An organization that removes the worker from any understanding of his work, removes him from control over his work, and determines for men when and how fast they will work. 

But the destruction of freedom and autonomy, craftsmanship and control on the job is not felt as a crisis by modern man.  They might feel it as a crisis, Mills states, if they had either directly experienced the shift themselves or perhaps indirectly experienced it through their parents.  However, this has not been the case.  The loss has occurred gradually over the last several generations, it is only in the imaginations of the social scientist that we can gauge its importance (1951, p. 228).  However, even though American workers do not feel this loss of connection in their work they are still disconnected.  Such workers must seek meaning in their lives elsewhere. 

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 (1958, pp. 81- 82).  For example, war and peace between nations, Mills claims, cannot be understood through naive appeals to better communications between people, or assertions of innate human aggression.  War in modern times, Mills writes, is rooted in the apathy of the people who are "selected, molded, and honored in the mass society" (1958, p. 81).  This 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 (1958, p. 82).

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" (1958, p. 83).  Images of horror become common place.  Atrocities are gotten used to, they are emptied of any human meaning.  There is little sense of moral outrage or shock. 

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 (1958, pp. 83-84). We no longer recognize any inner moral constraint, the only constraints to our actions (and the actions of our leaders) come from outside--fear of reprisal from more powerful entities or simple political expediency. 

Mills believed that widespread alienation, political indifference, and economic and political concentration of power is a serious threat to democracy. Mills defines democracy as simply a system in which those who are affected by decisions have an effective voice in those decisions.  According to Mills, there are six conditions essential for maintaining a modern democratic state: 

  1. A public that is both informed of issues and actively involved in debating these issues. 
  2. "Nationally responsible parties" which debate these issues clearly and openly. 
  3. A skilled civil service independent of any private or corporate interests. 
  4. Intellectuals, both within and outside of academe, who carry on work truly relevant to public policy. 
  5. A mass media of communication which is informed by these debates and is capable of translating issues to a broader public 
  6. Free associations that are capable of linking individuals, families, communities and publics with more formal organizations such as corporations,  military, and agencies of government (1958, pp. 121-123). 
As is apparent, Mills considered discussion and debate as the cornerstone of democracy.  Free associations are necessary vehicles for the exercise and formation of reasoned option.  Further, these free associations are necessary to prepare people for leadership at all levels in a fee democratic society (1958, p. 123). There are a number of discrepancies between Mills' conception of an ideal modern democratic state and what is occurring in contemporary America. Because of these discrepancies, Mills points out, small groups and associations are in decline, and those that do discuss important issues have only "a faint and restraining voice" in formal decision making (1958, p. 123). 

The structural factor that prevents the fulfillment of the six conditions for democracy, however, is the existence of a power elite in American society.  Private corporations acting in their own interests, the ascendancy of militarism, and the refusal of government to address either are key factors in the decline of democracy in America (1958, pp. 123-124).  Power in America is concentrated in a handful of huge bureaucratic organizations.  The lines of control between the powerful at the top of these organizations and any democratic control--even among agencies of government itself--"become blurred and tenuous" (1951, p. 158). 

Mills saw America as a society of privatized men dominated by huge bureaucratic organizations.  These organizations were not firmly legitimated, they do not engender widespread loyalty or enthusiasm.  However, he did not see the society as being in any danger of imminent collapse.  A society held together by convention and a network of bureaucratic power, he argued, even if only lightly legitimated, may last many years.  This is particularly true if the society can deliver high levels of material goods and comfort (1951, p. 350 & 1951, p. 351). 

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" (1959, pp. 129-130). 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. 

Economic security used to be based on property ownership.  For many, however, economic concentration has shifted the basis of economic security to employment.  Because employees by definition are dependent upon bureaucracy for their economic security--a bureaucracy over which they have little control--they can truly be neither free nor secure (1951, pp. 58-59).  Because of the concentration of wealth and power, economic freedom--the freedom to do with one's property what one wishes, now places the economic security of thousands of dependent employees at risk, and thus places their freedom at risk as well. 

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" (1959, p. 170). 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Mills points out, the steady emergence of society organized along rational and democratic principles appeared to be at the forefront of the liberation of man. The irrationalities of traditional monarchies or the rule of the strong and the ruthless were increasingly seen as antithetical to liberty and human happiness. "Now rationality seems to have taken on a new form, to have its seat not in individual men, but in social institutions which by their bureaucratic planning and mathematical foresight usurp both freedom and rationality from the little individual men caught in them. (1951, p. xvii). It is these "calculating hierarchies" which now lay out the "gray ways" of work, that circumscribe individual autonomy and initiative. 

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.  Weber summarized this as the difference between substantive (holistic) and formal (bureaucratic) rationality, claiming that the two are often in conflict (Elwell, 1996).  In that same vein, Mills asserts that a society dominated by bureaucratic rationality is not one based upon the summation of all the constituent individuals' capacity to reason. He further states that bureaucratic rationality often serves to prevent individuals from even acquiring that capacity (1958, p. 175; 1959, p. 169). For 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. We must therefore consider, Mills argues, that as a social product, the human mind might be deteriorating in quality and cultural level (1959, p. 175). 

Social Science

One of the central conditions for a modern democracy to exist, according to Mills, is a vibrant intellectual community that is intimately involved in providing knowledge and wisdom to help guide decisions of social polity.  By "intellectual community," Mills is referring to scientists, ministers, scholars, artists, and students, those who are part of the great western tradition of reason beginning with the Greeks (1958, p. 129).  It is the intellectual community that through art, speech and writing create and disseminate ideas and images that focus the attention of publics on relevant or irrelevant issues, justifies or criticizes the policies of those in authority (1958, p. 129). 

The dissemination of publicly relevant ideas by the intellectual community is vital in that private experience enable each individual to "know only a small portion of the social world, only a few of the decisions that now affect them" (1958, p. 173).  The significant problems of contemporary society are complicated, but they are not so complicated that they can only be dealt with by professionals and experts.  The central task of the intellectual is to confront these complications and make social issues accessible to public understanding, discussion, and debate (1958, p. 15).  Democracy requires that publics that are affected by decisions are knowledgeable about the issues.  It is only through the intellectual community fulfilling its task that society can bring reason to bear on social issues, that democracy can be more than a sham. 

If as intellectuals we fail to confront these issues, Mills continually asserts, we are in default of our intellectual heritage and have abdicated our duty to our society (1951, p. 158).  "What scientist," Mills asks, can claim to be part of the legacy of the great western scientific tradition and yet work for the Military Industrial Complex?  What social scientist can claim to be part of the legacy of western humanism and, despite a world in which "reason and freedom" are under attack, retreat into methodologically sophisticated studies of trivia?  What minister can know God and still approve of the immortality and irresponsibility of our leaders?  Unfortunately, Mills concludes, very many in the intellectual community are in default (1958, p. 130). 

If in default, if they fail to speak out as public men, they contribute to the erosion of human freedom, dignity, and democracy (1958, p. 170).  Worse, in Mills' view, are members of the intellectual community who provide misleading images of the elite as men of reason who are acting in national as opposed to private interests.  Such images serve to "soften the political will," allowing men to accept the irresponsibility and greed "without any sense of outrage."  Such apologists allow the elite to escape any accountability to the public, essentially giving "up the central goal of Western humanism, so strongly felt in nineteenth-century American experience: the audacious control by reason of man's fate" (1958, p. 173). 

As early as White Collar (1951), Mills was decrying the excessive specialization of the professorate.  Such hyper-specialization leads to an inability to think outside of one' specialized area (1951, pp. 130-131).  The prestige system of the academy, of course, contribute to this trend.  Books that attempt to span more than one specialty are frowned upon, as are the general textbook within a field.  Instead, academic honor and prestige are given for massive tomes on narrow subjects. 

This narrowing of knowledge is furthered in the social sciences and humanities by their aping of the methods of the natural sciences--methods that are particularly suited for studying "microscopic fields of inquiry, rather than expanding it to embrace man and society as a whole" (1951, p. 131). 

Like other institutions in our society, the university is becoming more and more bureaucratic.  This organization has similar effects on the professorate, other professionals, and businessmen.  It turns all into bureaucrats executing specialized tasks in accordance with the rules and regulations of the institution (1951, p. 138).  The bureaucratic nature of colleges and universities--the hierarchy of authority, the middle-class environment, the separation of intellectual and social life, the excessive academic specialization--all contribute, according to Mills, toward conformity of thought. 

The same trends that limit independence of intellect in the larger society are present on the university campus.  The professor is an employee, and like all employees is subject to the rule from above in terms of the conditions of work.  Writing in the early 50s, of course, Mills notes the attempts to restrain academic freedom through political and business attacks on professors.  But he sees such attacks as overtly affecting only a few.  Their purpose is in setting the tone for more subtle control of the professorate.  While there is also some outright intimidation on some university campuses brought about through tenure, promotion, and merit procedures, there is also the more subtle pressure of collegial control of potential "insurgents."  Such manipulative controls keep professors in conformance through "agreements of academic gentlemen" (1951, pp. 151-152).  These subtle controls on academic life are also furthered by political and business attempts to standardize curriculums, and by the control of research funds from government agencies and foundations that are "notably averse" to scholars outside the mainstream (1951, pp, 151-152). 

The first and central task of the social sciences, according to Mills, is to develop a comprehensive framework for understanding man and society.  This framework should be simple enough to allow non-specialists to understand, yet comprehensive enough to encompass the full range and variety of human behavior (1959, p. 133).  In accomplishing this task, Mills is decidedly interdisciplinary in outlook.  While each of the social sciences tends to specialize in a particular institutional order, any mature social science will relate its findings to the other institutional domains as well.  Further, any social science worthy of the name, according to Mills, is firmly rooted in history (1959, p. 145 & 1959, p. 146). 

The problem with much social science today, as Mills sees it, is that it is both devoid of theory and any sense of history.  Being atheoretical, the social scientist often overlooks the relationships among various technologies, structures, and ideas.  Being ahistorical, many social scientists lack the ability to recognize new trends as well as to discriminate between trends of major and minor significance.  Classical social analysis, Mills repeatedly insists, is a set of usable traditions and insights that are strongly rooted in history and theory (1959, p. 21). 

Classical social science focuses on substantive social problems.  It neither builds up from empirical observation nor does it begin with a grand theory of sociocultural systems and deduce down to human behavior.  Rather, classic social science places empirical research and theory building in a continuous interaction.  Practitioners of the craft attempt to develop comprehensive frameworks for understanding social order, social change, and social problems.  They then continually test and reformulate these explanatory frameworks in light of empirical study  (1959, p. 128). 

However, there are trends within the social sciences as well as trends in the broader society that are endangering the classical tradition and stand in the way of greater social understanding (1959, p. 21). Within the social sciences, Mills maintains, three trends--abstract empiricism, grand theory, and the use of social science to improve bureaucratic efficiency--have arisen that serve to obscure rather than increase people's understanding of human social behavior.

Of the three trends, Mills' identification of "grand theory" and his critique of it now appear dated.  His problem with grand theory was really a problem with the work of Talcott Parsons.  Mills took Parsons to task for his (rather painful) elaboration and clarification of concepts, and his alleged inability to apply this generalized theory to further understanding of more concrete reality.  Parsons type of theory proved to be a short-term trend in the social sciences.  Grand theory as defined by Mills is not a widespread practice in any of the social sciences today.  However, the other two trends in the social sciences identified by Mills, abstract empiricism and the use of social science to address bureaucratic problems of coordination and control, now dominate.

According to Mills, there is a certain mystique that has grown up around the use of sophisticated research methods (Mills' abstract empiricism).  Mills believes this mystique is misplaced.  The purpose of empirical research, he asserts, is simply to discipline ideas (1959, p. 71).  Much of social research is rather "thin and uninteresting."  It provides useful exercises for students, gives employment to unimaginative social scientists, but there is nothing in it inherently superior to other types of scholarship (1959, p. 205). 

Increasingly, social science is often being used by the huge bureaucracies that dominate modern life.  Social scientists are often employed by the military, by social service agencies, by the criminal justice system, and by corporations (1959, p. 80). Experts in "human relations" for example, in working to improve the morale of employees are working within the existing system of authority relationships.  They are engaged in "manipulation," defining "morale" and exploring ways to improve that morale within the existing relationships of power and authority (1959, pp. 94-95).  Social scientists who work for such bureaucracies are more concerned with administrative problems than human problems, more concerned with efficiency than with humanity.  Social science in this cause--whether it be for the military, the advertsing agency, or the government bureau--is social science for the "non-democratic areas of society" (1959, pp. 114-115).  The goal of such research is simply to make bureaucracies more efficient and therefore not only distracts us from our essential task, but supports the powerful and the status quo (1959, p. 117). 

Values, according to Mills, necessarily affect social research.  Values certainly play a role in selecting the problems that we study as well as many of our "key conceptions."  However, the social scientist should be very clear and explicit about her values, and then should strive the best she can to avoid bias in her work (1959, p. 78).  [Mills, it must be noted, was always very clear in stating his values, though notably unsuccessful in avoiding bias.]  Mills holds a similar view in regard to teaching.  The professor should strive to be very explicit in terms of the assumptions and judgments that he makes.  He should clearly indicate to his students "the full range of moral alternatives," and then make his own choices known (1959, p. 79). 

The Sociological Imagination

In White Collar (1951), Mills makes an initial stab at defining the sociological imagination by calling it "the first lesson of modern sociology."  To understand our experience, Mills asserts, we must locate that experience within the context of our historical time and within our social strata (1951, p. xx).  Whether people believe it or not, Mills writes, people are moved by historical and economic forces.  Such forces are the stuff of sociology.  Ordinary men and women often are oblivious to these forces in their lives (1951, p. 294), or they may be but dimly aware of their impact (1959, p. 3). 

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 (1959, p. 3 & 1959, p. 6).  The sociological imagination enables one to switch from one perspective to another, thereby forming a comprehensive view of the sociocultural system (1959, p. 211). This quality of mind is characteristic of the best of classical social analysis--it is why we still find much of it so useful in understanding social reality.  This quality of mind is also characteristic of the best in social science today (1959, p. 6). 

Social scientists who employ the sociological imagination in their work consistently address structural and historical issues, and how these issues affect human values and behavior.  Structurally, imaginative analysts examine the various components of sociocultural systems and how they relate to one another.  Such analysts also compare and contrast these components to components of other sociocultural systems.  Historically, the imaginative researcher looks at the major historical trends that affect society through time, she examines the mechanics of social trends and change, and she compares the society to itself over different historical times (1959, pp. 6-7).  Most important, the social scientist of imagination asks how these structures and history have formed and shaped the members of the sociocultural system.  "What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this period?  And what varieties are coming to prevail (1959, p. 7). 

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 (1959, p. 134). 

The social sciences are often used in "ideological ways."  They are used in legitimating power; they are used in criticizing or debunking the powerful; and they are used in distracting attention away from meaningful issues (1959, p. 80). The promise of the social sciences is to bring reason to bear on human affairs (1959, p. 193).  To fulfill this role requires that we "avoid furthering the bureaucratization of reason and of discourse" (1959, p. 192). 

In C. Wright Mills own words: "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, p. 194). 


Mills, C. Wright. 1951 [1956] White Collar: The American Middle Classes.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. Wright. 1956 [1970] The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. Wright  1958 The Causes of World War Three.  London: Secker & Warburg.

Mills, C. Wright.  1959 [1976] The Sociological Imagination.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. Wright.  1967 [1963] Power, Politics & People:  The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

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