Biography of C. Wright Mills

C. Wright Mills was born in 1916 in Texas, where he remained until after college. Much of his family was also from and lived in Texas, which determined much of his social world. After graduating with a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin, however, Mills went to Wisconsin for his Ph.D. in sociology. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Mills studied the great sociological thinkers of the early twentieth century, especially those in the American pragmatist tradition. Pragmatism emphasizes using and testing our ideas of the world, and through practice, it believes the world changes. This sense of change and action would be important for Mills’s politics.

Mills received his Ph.D. in 1942 and moved to teach at the University of Maryland, College Park. Around this time, he also became increasingly involved in the politics of the left, with special attention to class and economic equality in the United States. Some of his thinking in this line was printed in popular liberal magazines such as The New Republic and The New Leader. His interest in class also informed his scholarly books, with titles including The New Men of Power: America's Labor Leaders (1948) and, very influentially, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951). These books explored the politics and lifestyles of the working and middle classes, generally painting a pessimistic picture of their loss of political and moral agency. His 1956 book, The Power Elite, introduced the term “elite” and demonstrated how elites in different orders—political, economy, military—shared a similar worldview.

Mills' analysis of class and the distribution of power in the United States came to influence political activists and thinkers in the 1950s and 1960s. When many of the major social movements of the 1960s, including civil rights, were grouped under the term “New Left,” Mills was at the vanguard of popularizing the term. Unfortunately, after years of struggling with a heart condition, Mills died young in 1962, before much of the progress of the New Left was achieved.

Despite Mills' influence in these political circles—or, perhaps, because of it—Mills’s academic colleagues did not take him as seriously. Mills did receive a number of prestigious appointments, for instance moving from the University of Maryland to Columbia University to join the Bureau of Applied Social Research. The Bureau’s director, Paul Lazarsfeld, would become a primary target of Mills’s critique of “abstract empiricism” in The Sociological Imagination. But given Mills’s frequent dabbling in magazine publication, combined with his general demeanor as a rabble rouser, many sociologists considered him to be more of a journalist than an academic.

It did not help, either, that Mills also had a reputation as abrasive and arrogant, according to John Brewer in his article “Imagining The Sociological Imagination: The Biographical Context of a Sociological Classic.” Mills—who married three times, criticized the labor movement and the managerial elites alike, and spent much of his sociological writing critiquing contemporary sociology—was not always an endearing figure. But his phrases were seductive, and his books were widely read, even if not widely loved, during both his time and ours.

Study Guides on Works by C. Wright Mills

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....