Frequently through The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills makes a distinction between sociology and psychology. “Psychologism” is also a critique he leverages at certain trends in the sociology of his time. For instance, he criticizes the trend of polling people for their opinions as being overly psychological because it treats as data the self-reporting of what individuals feel. Instead, Mills would prefer sociology focus on social structures.
Sociology as a discipline asserted itself in the late 1800s and early 1900s in large part by breaking from an overly psychological view of man. One of the most important studies that started this tradition was Émile Durkheim’s study on Suicide, published in French in 1897. Durkheim took what to many looked like a psychological problem—men and women killing themselves ostensibly out of depression or distress—and showed that it was also a social problem. This was because rates of suicide were different for different classes of people. Men committed suicide more than women, for instance, and unmarried people more often than married people. Religion, exposure to war, and other variables also impacted suicide rates. The fact that rates were different for different groups of people meant that you couldn’t explain suicide in terms of individual psychology alone. There were social forces at play as well. And, as the sociologist Bruce Dohrenwend has commented, it also meant you had to break down “suicide” itself into different types. There were different kinds of suicide just as there were different kinds of people.
Mills is indebted to this tradition. It’s why he defines social science as the study of human variety—not just humans, but variety. Sociology, properly done, is about breaking down a society into parts, not about trying to explain universal behavior. That’s central to what make sociology distinct, and it was important to Mills to preserve that tradition. He was writing at a time in which sociology was still a new discipline; not very many universities had sociology departments in the 1950s. As sociologists began to assert their identity, Mills wanted to hold on to the importance of variety.
For this reason, Mills also rejected another influential thinker of the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud. Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, which posited that our conscious behavior is always influenced by an unconscious full of repressed fears and desires. Freud thought he could explain abnormal behaviors—including suicide—by detailing how this unconscious is formed and what gets stored there. Mills’s complaint is that, in Freud’s account, everyone’s unconscious gets formed in relatively the same way. It mostly has to do with our early and largely forgotten experiences with our parents. But if everyone’s unconscious is formed in a similar way, why do we have dissimilar behaviors? Mills thought psychoanalysis was insufficient to explain the great variety of human behavior. Luckily, that left room for sociology to do the kinds of explanation Mills thought psychology could not.