The Sociological Imagination

The Sociological Imagination Character List

Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) was the preeminent sociological thinker in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. He spent his career at Harvard University, where he was one of the first members of their sociology department. He was therefore instrumental in developing sociology as a discipline in the Untied States. He did this in part through two major books he wrote in 1951: The Social System and Toward a General Theory of Action. Both synthesized the work of major sociological thinkers before him and tried to provide a general account of the relation between individuals and societies. In The Sociological Imagination, Mills singles Parsons out as the leader of “grand theory,” Mills’s term for work that is too general and theoretical to explain the actions of real people in real societies.

Paul F. Lazarsfeld

Paul F. Lazarsfeld (1901–1976) was another important sociologist of the 20th century. He founded the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University. As the name suggests, Lazarsfeld was primarily interested in “applied social science.” He thought sociology was not a discipline so much as a way of doing social science, and he advocated for research institutes that could, among other things, poll people to establish public opinion. It is for this reason that he stands in, for Mills, as the prime example of “abstracted empiricism.” Rather than answer social scientific questions, abstracted empiricism simply collects data. This is the other side of what’s wrong with sociology today, in Mills’s estimation. While Parsons over-theorizes, Lazarsfeld under-theorizes.