Charles Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination

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Charles Wright Mills was born on August 28, 1916, in Waco Texas. He was also referred to as C. Wright Mills. As a child, Mills father was a salesman who moved him and his family frequently from one place to another making it difficult for Mills to develop few, if any, intimate or lifelong relationships. C. Wright Mills completed one year at Texas A&M, but later went to the University of Texas where he successfully obtained his bachelor’s degree in sociology, and in 1939 earned his Master’s in philosophy.

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Mills had already shown himself to be an accomplished sociologist as a student by having work published in American Sociological Review and American Journal of Sociology. 

In 1942, he received his PH.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with his dissertation focusing on pragmaticism and the sociology of knowledge (Crossman, January 25, 2019). Mills started out his career at the University of Maryland as an Associate Professor of Sociology. He was there four years, and continued to write articles for The New Republic, The New Leader and Politics. After his time at the University of Maryland, he became a research assistant at Columbia University, working his way up to assistant professor, eventually becoming a professor by 1956 (Crossman, January 25, 2019). “The major foci of Mill’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 a historical perspective as a key part of sociological thinking” (Crossman, January 25, 2019). 

The Sociological Imagination was written in 1959 and considered one of C. Wright Mills most influential works. Mills believed to truly be an effective sociologist, you had to have the capability to see with a sociological imagination. He believed that you had to understand the history as well as the present of an individual to truly understand them. Mills believed that the everyday lives of people were directly affected by what was happening in the larger world. The troubles experienced at home were directly related to what was happening in society. The Power Elite was another important work written by C. Wright Mills. Mills and other critical theorist at the time were concerned with accounts of the military, the elites of industries/corporations, and government were taking advantage of the underdog and controlling power to their benefit after WWII (Crossman, January 25, 2019). 

C. Wright Mills had a rocky time with relationships, being married to three different women four different times. He had numerous extramarital affairs. He had a heart defect and succumbed to a fourth heart attack on March 20, 1962. It has been said he had a hard time getting along with fellow workers. 

The Sociological Imagination was written by C. Wright Mills under the premise that without the sociological imagination, the social and psychological sciences are doing the world a disfavor by not meeting the demands of the culture or providing your best work. The sociological imagination helps researchers to open their mind and look at society as a whole and not just individual persons. With the sociological imagination, scientists dives deeper into these sciences and get a better understanding of culture and community. The sociological imagination is not just a theory, but it is a way of thinking. In this work, The Sociological Imagination, Mills address issues of sociological theory and method and particularly the practical application of the subject (ODonnell, June 15, 2010). 

There is constant interplay between an individual and external influences, such as religion, family and the media. Mills believed it was necessary to study history and understand it to be able to better understand an individual. History has a direct link to the way society formed. The goal C. Wright Mills was trying to achieve is to get researchers to link the individual with society. With this book, he introduced some fresh perspectives and ideas and how society and individuals are being viewed in the wrong way. Mills supported the ideas that sociologists in his time was instrumental in recreating an unequal status quo, maintaining the elitist attitude. He also refused to support any one idea as being one-hundred percent correct or incorrect. 

It is a quality of mind that seems most dramatically to promise an understanding of the intimate realities of ourselves in connection with larger social realities of ourselves in connection with larger social realities. It is not merely one quality of mind among the contemporary range of cultural sensibilities-it is the quality whose wider and more adroit use offers the promise that all such sensibilities-and in fact, human reason itself-will come to play a greater role in human affairs…The cultural meaning of physical science-the major older common denominator-is becoming doubtful. As an intellectual style, physical science is coming by many as somehow inadequate (Mills & Gitlin, p. 15). 

Major differences occur between scientists not because they make observations without thinking or thinking without making observations, but rather has to do with the type of thinking, observing, or links that would tie them together. The grand theory involves a way of thinking so generalized that they are unable to make legitimate observations. The grand theory does not make correlations between the historical or structural contexts. Scientists gain nothing by making such generalized distinctions and they are unable to see the issues in society. To have a sociological imagination, researchers need to be able to step away from the situation and look at the issues in society with fresh eyes and look at it from a completely different perspective. According to our text, C. Wright Mills is referred to one of the theorists who “share the conception of the individual as an active, conscious participant in the production and reproduction of social life (Appelrouth & Edles, p. 574). 

There have been more problems both created with the study of science, and even fewer solutions. When researchers are doing studies, some rely on teams of technicians and some do individual work. Some utilize a lot of energy and resources refining and utilizing better and more accurate results. Some researchers are set in their ways of only using certain procedures and refuse to use anything different. According to Mills those who possess the sociological imagination are the most beneficial to the scientific arena. According to the text, the problem with this is that it focuses less on the needs of humans and more on just gathering scientific facts (Appelrouth & Edles, P. 349). 

With sociological research, Mills finds that there are three tendencies or directions that these take. Tendency 1 is a look at the history of a man. “For example, in the hands of Marx, Spencer, and Weber, sociology is an encyclopedic endeavor, concerned with the whole of man’s social life. It is at once historical and systemic-historical because it deals with and uses the materials of the past: systemic, because it does so in order to discern ‘the stages’ of the course of history and the regularities of social life (Mills & Gitlin, p 22). 

Tendency II looks at ‘the nature of man and society.’ Simmel and Von Weise are formalists who classify social relations and offer views into “invariant features” (Mills & Gitlin, p. 23). Mills believed there was too much generalizing and social structure. 

Tendency III focused on “ “contemporary social facts and problems. Although Comte and Spencer were mainstays of American social science until 1914 the empirical survey became central in the United States and in part resulted from the prior academic establishment of economics and political science. Given this, is so far as sociology defined as a study of some special area of society, it readily becomes a sort of odd job man among the social sciences, consisting of miscellaneous studies of academic leftovers” (Mills, p. 23). 

As members of society, there is a social system in which individuals react to one another. Those who are in this realm are generally not chaotic because we each know and understand how to behave and what is acceptable and what is not. These are called ‘norms.’ Those same people tend to have the same responses if they are put in the same situation. The ‘rules’ which we choose to live by is called ‘structural.’ To keep everyone in order and acting appropriately in situations is called ‘social equilibrium.; Social equilibrium is maintained in two ways. Socialization is the first way. This is where a newborn is made into a person of society. This is where they learn what is expected of them by others and must abide by those rules. The next concept is social control. If a person is not kept in line, they face consequences by that society because they are not pleased with the way they are acting. 

To maintain social equilibrium can be delicate to keep people in line as well as teaching them what’s expected of them. People can begin to feel like they’re trapped with no way out because society has set the ‘rules’ and expects members to abide by those rules. They find it necessary to be a certain way or act a certain way because that is what society forces upon them. To fit in they must make a certain amount of money or drive certain vehicles, and this can be suffocating to society. Even with these expectations on individuals, they are free to choose their spouses, religion or jobs. 

There are some problems of social equilibrium. “The first problem of maintaining social equilibrium is to make people want to do what is required and expected of them. That failing, the second problem is to adopt other means to keep them in line” (Mills & Gitlin, p 32). When people choose to conform it is still difficult to know how to deal with those who deviate from the normal routine. 

After reading in the text, it didn’t discuss a lot about C. Wright Mills. It had some short clips from some of his works. Mills was adamant that the sociological imagination was imperative to fully understand society and how the past and the present are linked together. Mills was in agreeance with other sociologists in his assessment that people are taught how to behave from a young age. Each society has its’ own set of norms, and social equilibrium. Problems we face in everyday life are not just coincidental, but they are issues that stem from society at large. 

The Sociological Imagination illustrates throughout the book the concept that personal troubles are related to public issues. When one person is struggling with unemployment, you may think that it only affects on house. When there are multiple people all within a small area or city, that has catastrophic effects on everyone. Some people view certain lives in a negative light such as being homeless or teenage pregnancy, and these individuals have been blamed for their life choices rather that looking at society and seeing what influence society has on them. C. Wright Mills believed that politicians have become more focused on money and power and are no longer concerned with the good of the people. The Sociological Imagination also examined society in a way that tries to foresee the direction it is going and tries to introduce ways that things can be changed and history in its negative sense does not have to repeat itself. 

The Sociological Imagination is thought-provoking and informative. I admit some of it did not make a lot of sense. I believe he is right in his assessment that our personal lives are influenced more than we realize about what happens in society. Every day there are stressors that we may not even consciously process what is going on but do have an impact that we take home, and that stress affects how we deal with friends and family. When there is a high level of crime in an area for instance, it will make everyone on edge even though they may claim to be used to it or not concerned about it. I also believe it is important to keep an open mind when doing any kind of scientific research, especially sociological or psychological. These are not black and white like other scientific research. After reading about his numerous marriages and affairs, I do have to wonder what things he had in his life that he had not dealt with and how, if at all, these things affected his research and the way he dealt with others. 

The part of the book I do not totally agree with is his assessment that you have to use his sociological imagination, or you are doing a disservice to society because if you lack the imagination you aren’t truly looking at an individual and their relation to society. He gave me the impression that is it either his way or the highway, and I don’t agree with that. On the other hand, I agree with Mills that it is necessary to look at things with a fresh set of eyes. Mills was encouraging other scientists to look not just at the individual, but to look at the past as well as the present. After the essay I wrote for week 7 for this class, I understand more how the habitus is passed down from one generation to another. With the circular process of our actions in social encounters is reproduced time and again, a stratified social order is created. Mills also believed that those in power take advantage of those in lower social classes. The history of an individual or society is important to fully get a better idea of who that person or society is and their social structure. 

I believe each society has a set of social norms and each person is held accountable for their part in maintaining those norms. To change the norms would certainly cause some issues. For example, the women’s rights caused a stir across the country until they got enough support to finally make some changes. When I think of royalty, the children of Prince William and Kate are taught from a young age how to act in public and what is acceptable behavior. They learn how to act in front of fans as well as in front of the camera. 

The concept of socialization can be related to Erving Goffman. We are all actors on this stage called life in a concept called dramaturgy. Mills would say that we are all socialized, and Goffman would say we are all socialized to act a certain way in society. If we want a different reaction, we learn to adjust our behaviors to get the outcome we want. Mills work also related to the article I read, Race, class, politics, and the disappearance of work. In this article, the author, Jennifer Hochschild, focused on the social hierarchy and the inability of blacks to experience upward mobility, but also found white people had the same problem when they were in a community who was majority African American. It was also interesting to note that it doesn’t matter the race, we are all affected in the same way by societal stresses. It appears that Jennifer Hochschild and C. Wright Mills were interested in finding out why there is so much social inequality, and what can be done to fix it. She also did not agree that the research that was previously conducted was accurate. It was inconclusive and omitted a lot of information that could be important. 

The Sociological Imagination is an important work in the world of sociology. C. Wright Mills took careful consideration in writing this book. It is important in the world of sociology because he stresses the necessity of not only studying society from the present view, but to look at history because that can teach us a lot about a society as well. After reading this novel, I will take special care not to view society through a narrow lens, but to view them as a hole, I find it interesting that Mills didn’t believe problems were individual, but a reaction to what was going on around them. When I go forward, I believe I will look at society and look for a root cause of societal issues. Mills did not believe everyone was all wrong or all right, but believed we need to use a little more imagination when viewing what’s going on next door as well as the world.

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Charles Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination. (2021, Apr 27). Retrieved from