Mills begins The Sociological Imagination by describing the situation of man in the 1950s. He characterizes this situation as one of both confinement and powerlessness. On the one hand, men are confined by the routine of their lives: you go to your job and are a worker, and then you come home and are a family-man. There are limited roles that men play, and a day in the life of a man is a cycle through them. On the other hand, men are also powerless in the face of larger and global political conditions they cannot control. In the 1950s, shadowed by anxieties over nuclear warfare and tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War, there is increasingly a feeling that the big problems facing men today are not ones the average man can affect. You go to work and you go home, but at no time do you seem to have a role to play in global politics.
In order to understand this situation, Mills says, we should adopt a “sociological imagination.” By imagination, Mills means a way of thinking and asking questions. To have a sociological imagination means looking at the world sociologically, asking sociological questions and providing sociological answers. It will be the task of the rest of his book to describe in detail what specifically these questions and answers look like. For now, Mills outlines three types of questions sociologists tend to ask. First, what is the structure of society? This question wants to know how different groups in a society are related. Second, what is the place of society in history? This question wants to figure out how societies change across time and how our society today is related to societies of the past. Third, what kinds of people does society produce? This question seeks to describe how people’s personalities and moods—their beliefs and values—are also shaped by the social world in which they live.
Mills details the “promise” of this imagination: why he thinks it’s important to ask these questions and what he thinks they help us understand. For starters, a sociological imagination is able to shuttle between the personal and historical. In the case of the contemporary man who feels trapped and powerless, sociological study explains how these feelings are produced by something larger than an individual’s life. Such study can show him how his personal life is also shaped by the society in which he lives and the historical period to which he belongs. Sociology connects the personal and the historical by recasting personal problems as historical ones and historical problems as personal ones. Personally, an individual feels trapped; sociology asks, what is going on in history that produces this feeling? Or, historically, the world is in a Cold War; sociology asks, how does this global situation get played out in how people feel and think in their private lives?
To clarify the kind of work sociology does in connecting the personal and the historical, Mills makes a distinction between personal “troubles” and public “issues.” Personal troubles are what an individual experiences in his “milieu,” Mills’s word for the immediate situation in which man moves, such as his family. "Troubles" are a private matter. In contrast, “issues” belong to a larger social structure. An issue is a crisis in an institution, instead of a crisis in an individual. They are therefore a public matter. Mills asks us to consider divorce. A man and a woman may have “troubles” in their marital milieu. That is on the one hand a private matter. But when half of all marriages end in divorce in a society, that is also a public issue having to do with the institution of marriage as a whole. You can’t describe so many divorces just by looking at every individual’s troubles. You have to provide a larger social account instead.
According to Mills, the same can be said of a number of other things that at first look like personal troubles but end up being public issues as well. Unemployment, for instance: if one person in a society is unemployed, that is a private problem. But if a society has a high rate of unemployment, then we need to be asking social questions about how and why that is. Moreover, when we discover we are talking about a structural issue, we realize we can’t provide personal solutions alone. You can’t solve a high divorce rate by getting one husband and wife back together, just like you can’t solve widespread unemployment by giving one person a job. You have to give social solutions to social problems.
To continue his discussion of the relation between personal milieu and social structures, Mills then considers different ways in which the two can be related. He turns in particular to the relation between personal values and public issues, and how a society does or does not support an individual’s values. People with values supported by society experience well-being; those with values unsupported experience crisis; and those whose values are neither supported nor unsupported experience indifference. But some people may not have any deeply held values to begin with. These people, according to Mills, experience uneasiness. Mills thinks that his contemporary period is characterized by both indifference and uneasiness: social structures are not neatly characterized by any one issue; and people don’t really formulate their values explicitly. It is this that the sociological imagination must now explain.
To summarize so far: the sociological imagination is important today because it can relate personal troubles and public issues, connecting biography and history, in order to give a complete sense of the specific anxieties and crises in our society. But before sociology can accomplish this great task, Mills says, we first have to consider some of the ways in which sociology has failed to do so. Sociology has a great “promise,” but sometimes this promise has been distorted. That, Mills explains, will be the focus of chapters 2-6 of The Sociological Imagination, after which he will return to the “promise,” in chapters 7-10.
For now, Mills lists three “tendencies” in sociology. Exaggerating one of these tendencies leads to the distortions he will proceed to describe. The first is a historical tendency, characteristic of studies that describe stages of the development of man, from primitive to civilized. The second is a human nature tendency, which does away with history in order to describe man in universal terms: his desires or weaknesses across time. The third is an empirical tendency, which measures more and more facts, for instance by counting populations. Mills worries that people in the second tendency tend to over-generalize, producing “grand theories,” as he will explain in Chapter 2, that do not explain any actual social behavior. In contrast, people in the third tendency, which he discusses in Chapter 3, tend to over-specialize, collecting a lot of data about one thing without really describing the larger society as a whole. In the following chapters, Mills will aim to diagnose and correct these problems in order to give a better program to realize the promise of the sociological imagination.
By beginning with discussion of “the sociological promise,” Mills is also making a promise to his readers. He promises both to explain their world and to explain how society ought to be studied. What warrants this kind of ambition? What makes readers trust that Mills will derive on his promises? One answer is in Mills’s writing style. He writes clear sentences with provocative language. Consider the first sentence: “Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps.” This language of “traps”—hardly a jargon term—invites Mills’s readers to identify with his description and to trust that he will explain things in everyday language.
The everyday language suggests some of how Mills relates to his intended audience. On the one hand, Mills is clearly writing this book to social scientists with a degree of specialization. His audience includes university professors, and he is trying to tell them how to do their job better. But Mills also thinks these professors need to be talking to the larger public, explaining social issues to them in order to educate them on ways of making society better. Mills models this outreach to the public in his own writing, making his thinking accessible to those who are not necessarily sociology specialists. Mills’s writing is targeted to this public audience so much that it even becomes humorous or sarcastic at times. He makes fun of other sociologists who write two densely. By poking fun at them, he is both shaming them into writing clearer prose and making his own writing more humorous and enjoyable to read.
Notice this emphasis on “men,” however. Throughout this chapter—and throughout The Sociological Imagination—Mills frequently refers to “ordinary men,” “everyday men,” and so on. It’s clear from this first chapter that Mills doesn’t just mean the word in the sense of "mankind" but also men in the sense of males, specifically. That’s why he talks about businessmen or fathers. There is a gender bias at play here, and it will color some of Mills’s descriptions of society later on. Mills is clearly writing as a man and to men. The experiences of women are secondary to his account.
Although feminism will not be a focus of this book, Mills does already suggest some of his other political affiliations in this introductory chapter. Consider the examples he tends to provide, discussing war and unemployment in particular. He suggests that these are social problems that social scientists ought to be working to redress. In turn, he resists a conservative tendency to cast social problems as personal problems: unemployment as the failure of individuals, for instance. Although he won’t discuss politics at length until the end of the book, he already suggests some of his liberal allegiances and his desire for social science to not only describe society but also transform it.
Another main ambition hinted at in this chapter is Mills’s desire to establish sociology as a discipline. He is trying to carve out a specific and necessary function for the social sciences in the intellectual landscape of 1950s America. Around this time, C. P. Snow, a chemist and novelist, famously wrote about the “two cultures”; his thesis was that intellectual life had fragmented into the sciences and the humanities, which no longer speak to each other. Mills wants to introduce social science as distinct from these physical sciences Snow talked about, like physics or biology. Social science is, like the humanities, interested in human life. At the same time, it goes beyond the humanities. Art can express the human condition, but only social science can put these expressions into patterns and understand the larger structures that impact them. Mills wants to assert social science as a crucial area of study that is neither pure science nor pure humanities, but a way of bringing them back together.