Definition of the Sociological Imagination and Overview of the Book

Illustration depicting sociological imagination

Illustration by Vin Ganapathy. ThoughtCo.

The sociological imagination is the practice of being able to “think ourselves away” from the familiar routines of our daily lives to look at them with fresh, critical eyes.

Sociologist C. Wright Mills, who created the concept and wrote the definitive book about it, defined the sociological imagination as “the vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society."

The sociological imagination 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.

The Book

In The Sociological Imagination, published in 1959, Mills' goal was to try to reconcile two different and abstract concepts of social reality—the "individual" and "society."

In doing so, Mills challenged the dominant ideas within sociology 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—he had a combative personality—The Sociological Imagination is today one of the most widely read sociology books and is a staple of undergraduate sociology courses across the United States.

Mills opens with a critique of then-current trends in sociology, 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 worldview are products of both the historical context in which they sit and the everyday 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 one can think about this, he offered, is to recognize that what we often experience as "personal troubles," like not having enough money to pay our bills, are actually "public issues"—the result of social problems that course through society and affect many, like systemic economic inequality and structural poverty.

Mills recommended avoiding strict adherence to any one methodology or theory, because practicing sociology in such a way can and often does produce 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' ideas were revolutionary and upsetting to many within sociology at the time, today they form the bedrock of sociological practice.


The concept of the sociological imagination can be applied to any behavior.

Take the simple act of drinking a cup of coffee. 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.

The 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 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 consumption is frowned upon.

Still, the 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.

Possibilities for the Future

Another aspect to the sociological imagination on which Mills laid the most emphasis was our possibilities for the future.

Sociology not only helps us to 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.

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Your Citation
Crossman, Ashley. "Definition of the Sociological Imagination and Overview of the Book." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Crossman, Ashley. (2020, August 28). Definition of the Sociological Imagination and Overview of the Book. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "Definition of the Sociological Imagination and Overview of the Book." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).