The Sociological Imagination

The Sociological Imagination Irony

Irony and Grand Theory

C. Wright Mills is a witty and lively writer. Throughout The Sociological Imagination, he is also an ironical writer. Especially when he is being critical of other thinkers or trends in society, he uses ironic phrasing, sometimes verging on sarcasm, that both conveys the bite of his critique and cloaks it in a sense of entertainment. Here, for instance, is his ironic critique of an important book by Talcott Parsons:

In a similar fashion, I suppose, one could translate the 555 pages of The Social System into about 150 pages of straightforward English. The result would not be very impressive. It would, however, contain the terms in which the key problem of the book, and the solution it offers to this problem, are most clearly statable. (31)

Of course, The Social System was already written in English. To say it needs to be “translated,” then, is Mills’s ironic statement about the problem with Parsons’s writing style. He suggests that Parsons writes overly complex sentences in order to make his book seem more impressive. But underneath it all, Parsons’s ideas are actually simple and, Mills suggests, also wrong.

Irony and Abstracted Empiricism

It’s not just Parsons who is a target of Mills’s ironic writing and tone. His other main example of what’s wrong with sociology today, abstracted empiricism, also receives his sarcastic wit. Here, for example, Mills complains about how the obsession with polling is rarely attached to meaningful thinking about ideas or larger social structures:

All of which means, in terms of the results, that in these studies the details are piled up with insufficient attention to form; indeed, often there is no form except that provided by typesetters and bookbinders. (55)

Here, Mills uses a pun on “form.” In social science, a form is a pattern or a social structure. A form could be a trend in social relations (like divorce rates) or a social institution (like the nation state). These kinds of forms are clearly absent from abstracted empiricism, Mills says. All they have are the material forms of the books themselves. Their books have a shape, but they don’t do anything to shape society!

Irony and The Academic Entrepreneur

Practitioners of abstracted empiricism are often bureaucratic in their tendencies, according to Mills. They are efficient at producing a lot of research, but they aren’t so good at having any actual or original ideas. They are “entrepreneurs,” aspiring businessmen rather than aspiring scholars. And this is because, Mills says, universities reward them for their behavior. Publishing a lot of polls gets rewarded with tenure, so scholars today don’t bother having big thoughts. That situation leads Mills to make this ironic statement:

One can only hope that when sufficient numbers of these young men reach the associate professor level of their careers, they will by some intellectual mutation become aware of the fact that they are no longer dependent upon emperors without clothing. (106)

In effect, Mills is again sarcastically hoping that these young scholars will someday come to their senses and start thinking for the first time.

The Bitter Irony of Rationalization

Mills’s use of irony isn’t always a playful critique of scholarship in his field. Sometimes, he talks about the bitter ironies of history. For instance, according to thinkers of the Enlightenment, reason and freedom were supposed to be connected. The more reason people have, the more freedom they will get. Unfortunately, according to Mills, the twentieth century has seen an increase of reason and a decrease of freedom. He observes:

Great and rational organizations—in brief, bureaucracies—have indeed increased, but the substantive reason of the individual at large has not. (168)

The more rational bureaucracies become, the more they control humans, limiting their freedom instead of increasing it. This is the irony of bureaucracy. More reason equals less freedom.