Written in the 1950s, The Sociological Imagination is C. Wright Mills’s polemical treatise on why and how to do social science. Composed of 10 chapters, the book is divided into roughly three sections. The first section, and the bulk of the book, is a critique of contemporary sociology. The second section calls for a return to “classical social science” and lays out the major tenets of what that would entail. The final section explains the politics of this science and why it is urgent at the present moment.
In Mills’s understanding, the sociological imagination is a way of thinking that connects the private troubles of men with the public issues of social structure. Properly done, social science uses this imagination to ask historically specific questions about how the feelings and actions of men are connected to the institutions and social structure in which they live.
Unfortunately, according to Mills, contemporary sociology has often failed to carry out this work properly. He identifies and criticizes two main schools. The first, which he calls “grand theory” and associates primarily with the vastly influential Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons, thinks in too abstract and universal of terms. It makes big theories about human nature or the shape of all societies, and in turn cannot explain the diversity of humans or the variety of societies. It is too theoretical to explain what real people do in real life.
The second school, which Mills calls “abstracted empiricism,” has the opposite problem. This school is basically the school of polling, and is obsessed with surveying people and aggregating “public opinion.” But this polling rarely produces any theory, by which Mills means explanations of why people think the way they do. Polling can tell you someone’s opinion, but it can’t tell you what, socially, is motivating it.
Moreover, Mills thinks this method is overly bureaucratic. By that, Mills means it tries to systematize research, aiming for efficiency and training people in a skill—polling—rather than aiming for truth and training people in deep critical thinking. As a consequence, abstracted empiricism at best turns sociology into just another bureaucracy in the United States and, at worst, it helps other bureaucracies better exploit their employees or citizens. Instead of disrupting power, sociology tells power how to be more powerful.
It doesn’t have to be this way, according to Mills. Sociology started off as a liberal reform movement. It did so by casting personal problems like poverty as public issues like widespread unemployment. It is a return to this “classical social science” of the 19th century that Mills advocates.
Classical social science combines attention to biography, social structure, and history. Biography refers to the personal problems of men in their immediate social environment or what Mills calls “milieu.” Social structure refers to institutions like the family, the workplace, and political parties and to how these institutions are related. History refers to how societies are different from each other based on when, where, and how they formed. Good social science asks questions that incorporate biography, social structure, and history simultaneously. It links the small with the larger, the personal with the public, the local with the global.
If done correctly, social science helps men understand their place in their world, and in turn, how to change the world. If abstracted empiricism serves bureaucracy, classical social science serves democracy. It liberates men to think about their world, to gain a perspective on it that allows them to transform their conditions. In doing so, sociology, in Mills’s understanding, not only studies history, but makes history.