The Sociological Imagination

The Sociological Imagination Imagery

Image of the Trap

The Sociological Imagination begins with a compelling image:

Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct. (3)

This image of the trap recurs throughout the book. It draws attention to the sense of confinement men experience. But it also creates a sense that this confinement is imposed from above. To be stuck in a trap is to be stuck in someone else’s design. A man lays a trap for a mouse, for instance. Similarly, the current system of bureaucracy seems to trap men in a situation where they can’t make decisions on matters affecting their lives. It is this trap that Mills hopes to get rid of.

Image of Bureaucracy

The growth of such organizations, within an increasing division of labor, sets up more and more spheres of life, work, and leisure, in which reasoning is difficult or impossible. The soldier, for example, “carries out an entire series of functionally rational actions accurately without having any idea as to the ultimate end of this action” or the function of each act within the whole. Even men of technically supreme intelligence may efficiently perform their assigned work and yet not know that it is to result in the first atom bomb. (168)

Quoting Karl Manheim’s Man and Society, another important work of sociology, Mills provides an image of bureaucracy in this passage. Being a part of a bureaucratic organization is like being a soldier who doesn’t know what he is doing. You follow orders on the battlefield without asking questions. But men also do this at work, and increasingly in every sphere of their lives. Mills uses very dramatic imagery—an atomic bomb blowing up—in order to draw attention to the crisis and danger of this situation. Bureaucracy is making everyone into soldier all the time. Instead, men should learn how to act freely in society, through the exercise of reason.

Image of Human Variety

Mills defines social science as the study of human variety: how people are different within society, and how societies are different from each other and across time. To give a sense of this great human variety, he provides this descriptive list:

The human variety also includes the variety of individual human beings; these too the sociological imagination must grasp and understand. In this imagination an Indian Brahmin of 1850 stands alongside a pioneer farmer of Illinois; an eighteenth-century English gentleman alongside an Australian aboriginal, together with a Chinese peasant of one hundred years ago, a politician in Bolivia today, a feudal knight of France, an English suffragette on hunger strike in 1914, a Hollywood starlet, a Roman patrician. To write of 'man' is to write of all these men and women—also of Goethe, and of the girl next door. (133)

This is a rare moment in The Sociological Imagination, in which Mills gives a rich sense of the diversity of the human race. He takes the time to paint such a vivid picture because it is precisely this diversity—of different nationalities, different professions, different ages, different genders, different years—that social science must endeavor to explain.

Image of Sociological Reflection

In his appendix to The Sociological Imagination, Mills addresses aspiring social scientists and advises them to incorporate their own experience into their work. After all, if you study society and live in society, then your life is a part of what you study. He then provides an image of the “file” to draw attention to the kind of work he has in mind:

As a social scientist, you have to control this rather elaborate interplay, to capture what you experience and sort it out; only in this way can you hope to use it to guide and test your reflection, and in the process shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman. But how can you do this? One answer is: you must set up a file, which is, I suppose, a sociologist's way of saying: keep a journal. Many creative writers keep journals; the sociologist's need for systematic reflection demands it. (196)

Mills imagines people keeping a metaphoric filing cabinet in which they store their personal experiences and reflections on their work so as to be able to access them later. When it comes time to do sociological work—for instance, to write a book like The Sociological Imagination—scholars can then go back into their filing cabinet to remember the personal experiences that have informed their work.