Biography of C. Wright Mills

His Life and Contributions to Sociology

C. Wright Mills, sociologist, journalist, and public intellectual.
C. Wright Mills.

Charles Wright Mills (1916-1962), popularly known as C. Wright Mills, was a mid-century sociologist and journalist. He is known and celebrated for his critiques of contemporary power structures, his spirited treatises on how sociologists should study social problems and engage with society, and his critiques of the field of sociology and academic professionalization of sociologists. 

Early Life and Education

C.

Wright Mills was born on August 28, 1916 in Waco, Texas. His father a salesman, the family moved a lot and lived in many places throughout Texas while Mills was growing up, and as a result, he lived a relatively isolated life with no intimate or continuous relationships.

Mills began his university career at Texas A&M University, but completed only one year. Later, he attended the University of Texas at Austin where he completed a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's degree in philosophy in 1939. Already by this point Mills had positioned himself as an important figure in sociology by publishing in the field's two leading journals--American Sociological Review and American Journal of Sociology--while still a student.

Mills earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1942, where his dissertation focused on pragmatism and the sociology of knowledge.

Career

Mills began his professional career as an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park in 1941, and served there for four years.

During this time he began to practice public sociology by writing journalistic articles for outlets including The New RepublicThe New Leader, and Politics

Following his post in Maryland, Mills took a position as a research associate at Columbia University's Bureau of Applied Social Research. The following year he was made assistant professor in the university's sociology department, and by 1956 had been promoted to the rank of Professor.

During the 1956-57 academic year Mills had the honor of serving as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

Contributions and Accomplishments

The major foci of Mills's work were social inequality, the power of elites and their control of society, the shrinking middle class, the relationship between individuals and society, and the importance of an historical perspective as a key part of sociological thinking.

Mills's most influential and famous work, The Sociological Imagination (1959), describes how one should approach the world if one wants to see and understand as a sociologist does. He emphasizes the importance of seeing the connections between individuals and everyday life and the greater social forces that constitute and course through society, and the importance of understanding our contemporary lives and social structure in historical context. Mills argued that doing so was an important part of coming to understand that what we often perceive as "personal troubles" are in fact "public issues."

In terms of contemporary social theory and critical analysis, The Power Elite (1956), was a very important contribution made by Mills. Like other critical theorists of that time, Mills was concerned with the rise of a techno-rationality and intensified bureaucratization following World War II.

This book serves as a compelling account of how military, industrial/corporate, and government elites created and how they maintain a closely interlocked power structure that controls society to their benefit, and at the expense of the majority.

Other key works by Mills include From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1946), The New Men of Power (1948), White Collar (1951), Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social (1953), The Causes of World War Three (1958), and Listen, Yankee (1960).

Mills is also credited with introducing the term "New Left" when he penned an open letter in 1960 to the leftists of the day.

Personal Life

Mills was married four times to three women, and had one child with each. He married Dorothy Helen "Freya" Smith in 1937. The two divorced in 1940 but remarried in 1941, and had a daughter, Pamela, in 1943.

The couple divorced again in 1947, and that same year Mills married Ruth Harper, who also worked at the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia. The two also had a daughter; Kathryn was born in 1955. Mills and Harper separated after her birth and divorced in 1959. Mills was married for a fourth time in 1959 to Yaroslava Surmach, an artist. Their son Nikoas was born in 1960.

Throughout these years Mills was reported to have had many extramarital affairs, and was known for being combative with his colleagues and peers.

Death

Mills suffered from a prolonged heart condition in his adult life, and survived three heart attacks before finally succumbing to a fourth on March 20, 1962.

Legacy

Today Mills is remembered as a deeply important American sociologist whose work is core to how students are taught about the field and the practice of sociology.

In 1964 he was honored by the Society for the Study of Social Problems with the creation of the annual C. Wright Mills Award.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.