The Sociological Imagination is C. Wright Mills’s 1959 statement about what social science should be and the good it can produce. In this way, it is a polemical book. It has a vision for sociology, and it criticizes those with a different vision. For Mills, the stakes are high. He thinks contemporary society is characterized by institutional crisis and the confinement of men. A sociological imagination, he argues, can help lead the way out of these problems.
Mills was writing at a time in which sociology was still a fairly new discipline in the United States. Not every university had a sociology department, and it wasn’t until after World War II that sociology was considered a central part of the academic system. As a consequence, sociologists at the time actively debated how to do sociology and what it meant to study society. It was necessary both to assert the importance of sociology and to come to an understanding of what sociology entailed.
Mills’s book is an important pivot point in this history. On the one hand, the book summarizes trends in sociology during his time. It therefore provides a survey of the past, and it engages with key sociological thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century. On the other hand, the book provides a program for sociology's future. Its legacy can be judged in part by the influence it has had on sociologists of the second half of the twentieth century. In 1998, the International Sociological Association voted The Sociological Imagination as the second most important book of sociology from the past hundred years.
Mills did not enjoy this kind of popularity in his own life. The Sociological Imagination was widely read when it was released, but it was rarely loved. Most sociologists thought it was more a work of journalism than a work of sociology. Others simply disliked the book because of Mills’s radical politics or, more frequently, his “smart-ass personality.” Some of that personality is expressed in The Sociological Imagination itself, with writing that is at times sarcastic toward other thinkers. Unfortunately, Mills did not live long to defend or spread his ideas. He died of a heart attack at the age of 45, just a few years after the publication of his book. But it is a testament to the strength of his ideas that the book has had such a long afterlife in the imaginations of both sociologists and laypersons through the present.