What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves.
This, in a nutshell, is Mills’s statement about the urgent need for the “sociological imagination,” which is the “quality of mind” he is talking about here. The “they” are everyday people who feel powerless because of the routine of their lives and the lack of control they have over major decisions within it. What the sociological imagination can provide is a way of understanding how their personal experiences are shaped by social factors, so that they can also learn how to change social structures. The sociological imagination not only provides a way of thinking but also a means toward liberation.
For that imagination is the capacity to shift from one perspective to another—from the political to the psychological; from examination of a single family to comparative assessment of the national budgets of the world; from the theological school to the military establishment; from considerations of an oil industry to studies of contemporary poetry.
Now that Mills has laid out why the sociological imagination is important, here he lays out what it is. In general, it is characterized by connecting the small and the large, the personal and the social, the private and the public. Throughout The Sociological Imagination, he spells out how this works out in social analysis. It is always important to ask research questions that refer simultaneously to both poles.
The basic cause of grand theory is the initial choice of a level of thinking so general that its practitioners cannot logically get down to observation.
This is Mills's fundamental criticism of grand theory, characteristic of the work of Talcott Parsons. Grand theory, Mills says, works at a remarkably abstract remove from the lives of real people. It talks in generalities instead of specificities. And in turn, it cannot explain the problems people have or how to fix them. This is one pole of what Mills sees as being wrong with sociology today.
The framework of such studies has been the simple classification of questions: who says what to whom in which media and with what results?
In this quote, Mills explains the other pole of what he sees as what’s wrong with sociology today. Here, he is talking about what he calls “abstract empiricism.” As he describes it, this kind of work is basically just the work of polling. It doesn’t answer any urgent sociological questions, because it just reports what people are saying without theorizing why they are saying it. Abstracted empiricism lacks any systemic understanding of social structure or the social forces that impact people's personal lives.
What were called 'publics' in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are being transformed into a society of ‘masses.’ Moreover, the structural relevance of publics is declining, as men at large become ‘mass men’ each trapped in quite powerless milieu.
In this quote, Mills diagnoses an essential problem with society today, and one which he thinks contemporary sociology exacerbates instead of remedies. It is the problem that people are being standardized and are losing their individuality. Instead of coming together in “publics,” places where they discuss social life and their problems—coffee houses, public squares, etc.—they go straight from the factory to their home, where they watch television that drains them of life. No wonder men feel “trapped”: they are confined in their experiences and in their understanding of their lives. Sociology has to remedy this, Mills says, by expanding individual consciousness to include an understanding of public issues in addition to private troubles.
If nothing else, they provide employment for semi-skilled technicians on a scale and in a manner not known before; they offer to them careers having the security of the older academic life but not requiring the older sort of individual accomplishment. This style of research, in brief, is accompanied by an administrative demiurge which is relevant to the future of social study and to its possible bureaucratization.
In this quote, Mills continues his critique of abstracted empiricism and its method of polling. He notes that although polling doesn’t answer any important social scientific questions, it does give people jobs: you have to have lots of people to poll a large enough sample to make statistical claims. The irony is that research becomes not about asking big questions, but just crunching the numbers. Instead of scholars and thinkers, you have mere “technicians.” This is particularly problematic because it makes research into a kind of bureaucracy that tries to be rational and efficient, when bureaucracy is actually what research should be overthrowing. This is why, Mills says, sociology has become complicit with systems of domination instead of offering a way to overturn them.
The confusion in the social sciences is moral as well as ‘scientific,’ political as well as intellectual.
This is the heart of Mills’s concern about the state of the social sciences. By “moral,” Mills means that contemporary social science has a crisis in its values in addition to in its methods. More specifically, Mills thinks social science has lost sight of the important values of freedom and reason, which in turn has moved its politics away from a liberal interest in making society better to an “illiberal” interest in controlling people. Mills calls on social science to return to its liberal investment in social reform. In order to do so, it has to reinvest in cultivating reason among everyday men so that they can liberate themselves and find freedom outside bureaucratic systems of domination.
Classic social science, in brief, neither 'builds up' from microscopic study nor 'deduces down' from conceptual elaboration. Its practitioners try to build and to deduce at the same time, in the same process of study, and to do so by means of adequate formulation and re-formulation of problems and of their adequate solutions.
After detailing two distortions in social science—grand theory that is too general and abstracted empiricism that is too obsessed with data—Mills reminds us in this important quote about how social science used to do theory and data collection simultaneously. “Building” is working from data to theory and “deducing” is working from theory to data. Whereas most social science today only does one, classical social science did both at the same time. Importantly, it did so not through any one specific method, but through asking the right kinds of “questions.” Research questions, for Mills, have to refer to the private troubles of everyday people and the public issues of a society at the same time. Only by asking questions that refer the microscopic and the macroscopic to each other can social science achieve its goals.
What social science is properly about is the human variety, which consists of all the social worlds in which men have lived, are living, and might live.
This essential quote gives us Mills’s definition of social science. It emphasizes difference: people are different within a society; societies are different from each other; and society at one point in history is different from itself at another point in history. Having this expansive sense of difference is vitally important, Mills says, because it allows researchers to understand the complexity and specificity of the problems they study. Social scientists need to read widely, understanding other cultures and other histories in order to better understand their own culture and society.
I also mean that our major orientations—liberalism and socialism—have virtually collapsed as adequate explanations of the world and of ourselves.
Here, Mills diagnoses our transition into what he calls the “Fourth Epoch,” an as-yet-undefined historical period that comes after Modernity. Modernity was associated with Enlightenment ideals of reason and freedom, namely the idea that reason led to freedom. Liberalism and socialism were two different strands of this, one associated more with capitalism and the other more with communism. Writing during the Cold War, which was often cast as a battle between the capitalist USA and the socialist USSR, Mills’s point is that neither liberalism nor socialism are able to explain the world anymore. Moreover, reason no longer leads to freedom, according to Mills. It is up to social scientists to return us to an understanding in which reason can have a liberating effect.
The Sociological Imagination Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Sociological Imagination is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.