The Sociological Imagination

An Overview of the Book by C. Wright Mills

C. Wright Mills
Sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote the "The Sociological Imagination" in 1959. Archive Photos / Getty Images

The Sociological Imagination is a book written by sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1959. His goal in writing this book was to try to reconcile two different and abstract concepts of social reality – the "individual" and "society." In doing so, Mills challenged the dominant sociological discourse and critiqued some of the most basic terms and definitions.

While Mills’s work was not well received at the time as a result of his professional and personal reputation, The Sociological Imagination is today one of the most widely read sociology books, and is a staple of undergraduate courses across the U.S.

Overview

Mills opens the book with a shrewd critique of then current trends in sociology, and then goes on to explain sociology as he sees it: a necessary political and historical profession. The focus of his critique was the fact that academic sociologists at that time often played a role in supporting elitist attitudes and ideas, and in reproducing an unjust status quo. Alternatively, Mills proposed his ideal version of sociological practice, which hinged on the importance of recognizing how individual experience and world view are a product of both the historical context in which they sit, and the everyday day immediate environment in which an individual exists.

Connected to these ideas, Mills emphasized the importance of seeing the connections between social structure and individual experience and agency. One way in which one can think about this, he offered, is to recognize the ways in which what we often experience as "personal troubles", like not having enough money to pay all of one's bills in a month, are actually "public issues"--the result of a social problems that course through society and affect many, like systemic economic inequality and structural poverty.

In addition, Mills recommended avoiding strict adherence to any one methodology or theory, because practicing sociology in such a way can and often does produced biased results and recommendations. He also urged social scientists to work within the field of social science as a whole rather than specializing heavily in sociology, political science, economics, psychology, etc.

While Mills's ideas were revolutionary and upsetting to many within sociology at the time, today they form the bedroom of sociological practice.

The Sociological Imagination As a Concept

In The Sociological Imagination, Mills coined the same famous phrase, which is used throughout sociology today. The sociological imagination is the concept of being able to “think ourselves away” from the familiar routines of our daily lives in order to look at them anew. Mills defined sociological imagination as “the vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society": it is the ability to see things socially and how they interact and influence each other. To have a sociological imagination, a person must be able to pull away from the situation and think from an alternative point of view. This ability is central to one's development of a sociological perspective on the world.

Example of Applying the Sociological Imagination

We can apply the concept of the sociological imagination to any behavior. Take the simple act of drinking a cup of coffee for example. We could argue that coffee is not just a drink, but rather it has symbolic value as part of day-to-day social rituals. Often the ritual of drinking coffee is much more important than the act of consuming the coffee itself.

For example, two people who meet “to have coffee” together are probably more interested in meeting and chatting than in what they drink. In all societies, eating and drinking are occasions for social interaction and the performance of rituals, which offer a great deal of subject matter for sociological study.

A second dimension to a cup of coffee has to do with its use as a drug. Coffee contains caffeine, which is a drug that has stimulating effects on the brain. For many, this is the reason why they drink coffee. It is interesting sociologically to question why coffee addicts are not considered drug users in Western cultures, though they might be in other cultures. Like alcohol, coffee is a socially acceptable drug whereas marijuana is not. In other cultures, however, marijuana use is tolerated, but both coffee and alcohol use are frowned upon.

Still a third dimension to a cup of coffee is tied to social and economic relationships. The growing, packaging, distributing, and marketing of coffee are global enterprises that affect many cultures, social groups, and organizations within those cultures. These things often take place thousands of miles away from the coffee drinker. Many aspects of our lives are now situated within globalized trade and communications, and studying these global transactions is important to sociologists.

A fourth dimension to a cup of coffee relates to past social and economic development. The coffee relationships currently set in motion were not always there. Like tea, bananas, potatoes, and sugar, coffee only became widely consumed after the nineteenth century. These relationships developed gradually, and might well break down in the future due to change.

Possibilities For The Future

There is another aspect to the sociological imagination which Mills discussed in his book and on which he laid the most emphasis, which is our possibilities for the future. Sociology not only helps us analyze current and existing patterns of social life, but it also helps us to see some of the possible futures open to us. Through the sociological imagination, we can see not only what is real, but also what could become real should we desire to make it that way.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.