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Sociological imagination

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Sociological imagination is a sociological term coined by American sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1959. The ability to connect seemingly impersonal and remote historical forces to the most basic incidents of an individual’s life. It suggests that people look at their own personal problems as social issues and, in general, try to connect their own individual experiences with the workings of society. The sociological imagination enables people to distinguish between personal troubles and public issues. For example, people in poverty by this perspective might stop to consider that they are not alone, and rather than blaming themselves should criticize the social forces that directed them into their present condition.

There are three key questions that constitute the core of Mills' sociological imagination:

  1. What is the structure of a particular society and how does it differ from other varieties of social order?
  2. Where does this society stand in human history and what are its essential features?
  3. What varieties of women and men live in this society and in this period, and what is happening to them?

Mills1 argued that ‘nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps’. Mills maintained that people are trapped because ‘their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family [and] neighbourhood’1, and are not able to fully understand the greater sociological patterns related to their private troubles. Underlying this feeling of being trapped are the seemingly uncontrollable and continuous changes to society. Mills4 mentions unemployment, war, marriage and life in the city as examples where tension between private trouble and public issues becomes apparent.

The feeling that Mills identified in 1959 is still present today and many examples can be found in popular media. One example is the tension that present-day women experience regarding their perceived housekeeping responsibilities, as discussed in a 2004 broadcast of Life Matters (Radio National 2004). The discussion focused on the rising popularity of domestic advice and support services, in particular the immensely popular American website FlyLady.net (Cilley 2004), which provides advice to people (mainly women) who are not able to deal with their perceived roles as home maker. Sociologist Susan Maushart argues that feminism has ‘thrown out the baby with the bathwater’ (Radio National 2004) because, although the victories of feminism have ensured that women are not restricted to being homemakers, they have devalued the home in their wake. Many women thus feel trapped between the social change achieved by feminism and the cultural expectations of being home makers.

Mills offers a solution to this feeling of being trapped. He argues that because: "neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both"1, we need to develop a way of understanding the interaction between individual lives and society. This understanding is what Mills calls Sociological Imagination: the 'quality of mind' which allows one to grasp "history and biography and the relations between the two within society"3. Mills believed, however, that "ordinary people do not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world"2.

Sociological Imagination is much more part of contemporary society than in the days when Mills wrote his book. Programs like Life Matters mainly deal with issues located on the crossroads between private trouble and the public sphere. Many people do, however, not seem to be interested in developing the ‘quality of mind’ that Mills envisaged. Most remain focused on private issues, without realising the social reality in which the issues are embedded.

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ReferencesEdit

  1. (Mills 1959: 3)
  2. (Mills 1959: 4)
  3. (Mills 1959: 6)
  4. (Mills 1959: 9–10)
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