Mills begins his critique of contemporary sociology by turning his attention to what he calls “grand theory.” The “grand” of this kind of theory is its scope: it tries to explain all social structures in all societies. In order to do so, it creates highly abstract concepts. Instead of explaining a specific social interaction—between Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Mr. and Mrs. Jones, for example—it instead provides general descriptions of all social interactions. This general description is what Mills calls a “Concept” with a capital "C." Grand theory is obsessed with Concepts and with how people hypothetically behave instead of with the interactions and behaviors of real people.
His main example of grand theory is Talcott Parsons, and Mills spends most of this chapter critiquing Parsons’s work. Parsons was one of the most important American sociologists of the early twentieth century. The grandness of Parsons’s work can be seen from some of his most important titles, such as The Social System and Toward a General Theory of Action. Notice it’s called “the” social system: Parsons seems to think there is one big social system and that all societies operate the same way. Similarly, notice the “general theory” of action: this implies that all human action can be explained with the same single theory. It is this kind of general and universal approach that Mills dislikes. It is too general to answer actual sociological problems. Moreover, in being so general, this kind of work loses sight of real people living real lives. No actual human actions—like you reading this summary—get described or explained.
Mills has another complaint about Parsons’s work, too. Not only is his thinking overly general, but his writing is also overly dense. The Social System is 555 pages long; Mills think it could have been reduced to about 150 pages if it had been written in “everyday English”: straightforward sentences with simple words. Parsons writes overly abstract ideas in overly convoluted prose. In turn, it’s not just that Parsons’s thinking is wrong; it’s that sometimes we don’t even know what he’s saying, because he’s not communicating clearly.
In turn, Mills takes as his task a “translation” of Parsons’s work, so that his ideas can also be understood and then critiqued. In Mills’s translation, Parsons theorizes the relative stability of society, which Parsons calls “social equilibrium.” This social equilibrium is characterized by people having similar values, like charity or virtue, and relatively stable roles, like the role of laborer or the role of boss. These roles are maintained either by socialization or social control. Socialization is the process by which we are taught how to behave properly in society, whether through instructions from our parents or teachers or through mimicking others. Social control is the enforcement of this behavior through violence or the threat of violence from authority figures. Because of socialization and social control, Parsons asks how it is possible there could ever be social change. If society always perpetuates itself through socialization and social control, how could social roles ever become different?
Mills thinks this is the wrong question to ask. It ignores the fact that societies are never perfectly unified to begin with. Whereas Parsons thinks that society is cohered by people having the same values, Mills points out that in most societies, groups of people actually have different values. Think about how countries have warring political parties with different values—liberal values or conservative values, for instance—and yet the country still exists as a country. Or think about how families, too, have members that disagree or don’t get along, but they’re still a family. There may be lots of fighting around the dinner table at Thanksgiving when people bring up politics or morality, but everyone is still sitting at the dinner table. Experience therefore tells us that you don’t have to have the same values in order to stay together. Values don’t unify society any more than they unify families.
Moreover, to assume that values do unify a society erases more interesting dynamics within society. The example of warring political parties, for instance, brings out that different value systems are attached to power. Parsons’s account overlooks the struggle over values within society. In many cases, this struggle also produces power imbalances and structures of domination. If a child disagrees with her father, that’s not a neutral disagreement. The father likely has more power to enforce his values. In a larger society, Mills lists three ways in which this enforcement can happen, which he calls “structures of domination.” First, men can be dominated by violence or the threat of violence; this is called “coercion.” Second, men can be subtly persuaded by ideology, or the images and ideas that are available in, for instance, the media; this is called “authority.” And third, men can be dominated without knowing they are being dominated; this is called “manipulation.”
In order to better explain the complexity of society—how there are different value systems, how there are power imbalances, and how people act in everyday life—Mills calls on sociologists to be more reflective about their “level of abstraction.” Instead of writing a grand theory that explains all action in all contexts, sociologists might instead make clear the specific context they are talking about. For example, we’ve been talking about families and political parties as specific contexts of social disagreement. According to Mills, we should be as specific as possible about the context we are talking about. For instance, if we are talking about the economy, it isn’t sufficient to call an economy “capitalist.” We have to be more specific about the kind of capitalism we are talking about: free market capitalism, for instance.
Moreover, in place of a grand social structure cohered by universal values, Mills asks us to consider a variety of types of social integration in which “orders of institutions” are coordinated in a society. For Mills, institutions are groupings of social roles. Think of the institution of the church, which gives out roles like bishops, priests, and worshippers. Or think of the institution of the family, which has fathers, mothers, children, babysitters, etc. Orders of institutions group these institutions together in larger categories. The church is in the order of religion; the family in the order of kinship. You can also think of the economic order, with institutions like banks and treasuries, and the political order, with institutions like political parties. What sociology ought to be figuring out, Mills says, is not how an entire society shares a set of values, since most societies do not share values across the board, but how these different orders are integrated or work together.
The point is that there is not one singular way of being integrated. Mills provides names for at least two of these ways. In the first, which he calls correspondence, institutions are relatively separate but equal. He thinks this is characteristic of 19th century America. In the second, which he calls coordination, one institution may control other institutions. He thinks this is characteristic of Nazi Germany, in which a centralized economy was used by a political party to subordinate other institutional orders, including the family and religion. Mills thinks American society is now moving in this direction, too. The main point, however, is that different societies at different times have different forms of integration, and no grand theory could adequately describes these differences. Instead of being grand, we have to be specific. Instead of trying to explain everything with a single Concept, we should try to explain something in all its nuance.
Talcott Parsons was a giant in American sociology at the time of Mills’s writing. Indeed, he is responsible for bringing to the United States many of the ideas of key sociologists in Europe, by translating the work of Max Weber, for instance. This is one reason why Parsons is the only sociologist Mills engages at great length in The Sociological Imagination. This entire chapter is more or less devoted to analyzing and criticizing Parsons.
It is clear that although Mills has a number of complaints of Parsons, he is also indebted to him. Why else spend so much time talking about him? In treating Parsons’s ideas so seriously and at such length, Mills is showing his respect for a leading figure in his field. At the same time, he asserts his own authority. If Parsons is a gold standard, and Mills can show he is better than Parsons, then Mills will have a right to claim a similar or higher prestige. Thus, Mills both does his due diligence in engaging a leading thinker at great length and reveals his own personal ambition to ascend to a higher status himself.
Once again, the style of Mills’s writing helps him balance these interests. Many times, Mills uses sarcasm to defuse a situation. For instance, when he paraphrases Parsons’s work and calls the paraphrase a “translation,” he makes fun of Parsons’s writing at the same time that he takes it seriously enough to present the argument in everyday language. The talk of “translation” also recalls how Parsons began his career by translating some of the work of great European sociologists from the previous century. Mills seems to recast himself as the next generation of sociologist, who uses but also moves beyond Parsons.
Mills’s choice of examples in this chapter is again telling and locates his book in a specific historical moment. Writing just a decade after World War II, the discussion of Nazi Germany is particularly jarring. It suggests that sociology can answer the big problems of the twentieth century, since Nazism—and totalitarian nations in general—were certainly on many people’s minds. At the same time, suggesting that the United States may be moving in a similar direction brings out Mills’s politics. He appeals to his readers’ own sympathies—he clearly thinks his audience is primarily American as well—in order to suggest that sociology not only can help describe history but can also warn us about the future.
A major theme throughout this chapter is the importance of disagreement. It’s not just that Mills disagrees with Parsons. It’s also that he thinks disagreement is an unavoidable part of life. Nations have disagreeing political parties; families have disagreeing siblings. But rather than a cause for concern, Mills thinks this is a hallmark of healthy democracies and relationships. Indeed, by staging this chapter as a disagreement with Parsons, he suggests how much disagreement is also essential for the progress of knowledge itself. Mills will return to the importance of debate in the final chapter of The Sociological Imagination. It is the role of the sociologist, he thinks, to foster healthy debate and disagreement in order for people to use their reason and advance democracy, instead of signing up for totalitarianism.