The Sociological Imagination

The Sociological Imagination Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3 – 4


In Chapter 3, Mills continues his critique of contemporary sociology by considering another school, which he calls “abstracted empiricism.” Empiricism means beginning with the observation of data. Abstraction means turning this data into trends or patterns. Neither empiricism nor abstraction are inherently wrong. But sociology has been practicing a particular kind of abstracted empiricism that Mills thinks is a dead-end. He has in mind the increasing popularity of interviewing people for their opinions, coding these opinions into punch cards, and then extrapolating to society as a whole. Sociology has become obsessed in recent years, Mills thinks, with these studies of “public opinion.”

The problem, according to Mills, is that these surveys of opinion rarely come with explanations of how or why opinions were created or shared. For instance, one study Mills criticizes is a study of morale among soldiers in World War II. The study tells us about the level of morale—it wasn’t very high—but it doesn’t tell us why morale is the way it is. The study also doesn’t answer any questions about the specific nature of this war, for instance whether morale in World War II is different from morale in other wars.

Such a study, according to Mills, does not answer any social scientific questions. Public opinion isn’t itself an answer to a question. More often, it’s the basis for a question itself: why do people feel a certain way, at this time, in this society? But sociologists who do this kind of survey work don’t go on to answer that question. All they do is tell us what public opinion is. And that’s because that is all that surveying can do: if you ask people their opinion, they will give you their opinion, but that doesn’t explain why or how their opinion came to be.

If grand theory was obsessed with a very general “Concept,” then Mills thinks this abstracted empiricism is obsessed with “Method” with a capital "M." The method is these large surveys of opinion. Abstracted empiricists love to ask people their opinions and tally how many people have which opinion. The main reason they love to do this, according to Mills, is because it makes them feel scientific. They are, after all, collecting data in the same way that natural scientists running experiments collect data about gas molecules. In turn, they think they are bringing a “scientific method” into social science. But Mills quotes a number of physicists who reject that there is such a thing as a single “scientific method.” Polykarp Kusch, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, has declared that there is no “scientific method.” Only very simple problems are answered by piling on a lot of data. In this way, Mills contends, abstract empiricists delude themselves to think they are being very scientific.

Moreover, the obsession with method—with collecting and categorizing opinions—diminishes the powerful work that sociology could be doing. It makes sociology into just a way of doing research instead of a social scientific discipline in its own right. Here, Mills cites the work of Paul F. Lazarsfeld, who says that sociology is just a method for converting philosophy into science. Philosophy comes up with ideas, and the sociological “method” of polling people turns these ideas into scientific fact. Mills finds this diagnosis unsatisfying. Moreover, it turns sociology into a merely technical profession of counting people and opinions. Sociology becomes, in effect, a bureaucracy. It’s no different than the Department of Motor Vehicles.

There is one final problem with polling as a sociological method. Because you can only collect data on what people report as their opinion, the data is tied to individuals rather than to the social structure. In turn, polling risks what Mills calls “psychologism,” reducing social structure to the beliefs and desires of individuals. In order to overcome this, Mills says sociologists have to look at “common denominators” of social structure and compare these foundations across time. Mills thinks abstracted empiricism implicitly acknowledges this problem with its tendency to preface studies with literature reviews that summarize what everyone else has said about a particular concept. This is how abstracted empiricism tries to sneak in theoretical work that you can’t get from polling alone. But this juxtaposition of summaries and statistics doesn’t magically constitute science.

If abstracted empiricism doesn’t produce good science, Mills asks what its uses are in Chapter 4, “Types of Practicality.” Here, “practicality” means putting sociological work into practice, making it useful for some other goal. There are two main kinds of use Mills think a study of society can be put to. The first, which he calls ideological, is affirming or challenging the mainstream and those with authority in a society. Ideologically, sociology can either justify or criticize social norms. Historically, Mills thinks sociology has had a liberal ideology. Social science grew out of reform movements in the second half of the 1800s, which re-cast the “troubles” of lower-class people, including poverty and unemployment, as “issues” for the middle classes to solve. But in recent years, Mills thinks sociology has turned to a more conservative ideology. By focusing on more and more specialized milieu instead of a larger social structure, sociology has lost a systematic critique of, say, the economy or the country’s leaders.

In becoming more conservative, sociology has also aligned itself with the second kind of use to which social study can be put. This use Mills calls “bureaucratic.” Instead of critiquing the government, businesses, or the military, sociology now tends to help the government be more efficient at counting people or businesses more efficient at getting work from their employees or the military more efficient at training their soldiers. In this bureaucratic use, sociology becomes obsessed with “rationalization,” how to make things efficient, and it comes merely to serve the “managerial elite,” those with administrative power. This is the “new practicality” Mills worries sociology has increasingly adopted.

Mills concludes by pointing out how this bureaucratization can be seen in the very places where sociologists work: universities. Universities, too, have become increasingly bureaucratic. Instead of focusing on the truth, they are becoming businesses that want to make profit and have efficient professors. Professors, too, get rewarded for doing bureaucratic work or studies that benefit the managerial elite. Mills calls out the “new academic entrepreneurs” who trade academic prestige for economic incentives.


In these chapters, Mills also picks up on a theme he signaled in his introduction: the importance of having a specific function for social science. He is worried by social scientists who either turn their science into bureaucracy or else try to become like the natural scientists including physicists and chemists. That’s why he also quotes these other natural scientists, to show he has read them but is different from them. Social science has to be its own thing in order to answer the pressing questions of a society dealing with issues including war and poverty.

But Mills also expands his analysis in these chapters. Just as he’s shifted from talking about theory to talking about methods—from ideas to practices—in these chapters he’s also shifting to talking about the day-to-day life of the sociology profession. In doing so, Mills shows his sense of pragmatism as well. He doesn’t just live in a world of ideas, but also a world in which people are trying to make money and professors are trying to get tenure. He has a clear sense of sociology as not just a life of the mind but also as a profession. He complains that some in the profession have essentially “sold out” and started to serve masters other than truth.

From today’s vantage point, it’s interesting to consider how some of the tendencies Mills worries about in sociology have become different professions in their own right. Today, we have professional pollsters, who work for institutions like the Pew Research Center and give us information about public opinion, for instance during presidential elections. These centers are very much like the bureaucratic research centers Mills disparages in these chapters. But such Centers today are often separate from universities, and pollsters within them usually would not consider themselves sociologists. This might mean that the concern Mills had has been averted: sociology has been able to maintain a disciplinary identity independent of the mass media polling. But it could also mean that Mills’s concerns have become realized. Today, more people probably read polls by research centers than they do books by sociologists. Mills would ask us today to consider how widespread the sociological imagination has become.

The other profession—as well as school of thought—that Mills rejects in these chapters is psychology. He is concerned that psychology focuses too much on individuals and tries to solve individual problems that are actually social problems. In making this claim, Mills is trying to protect his discipline from another threat. Just as he wanted to carve out a space for social science distinct from natural science and the humanities, he also wants to protect sociology from psychology within social science. Psychology was increasingly popular in the mid-20th century. Mills wants to assert that psychology alone cannot provide people with the answers they seek.

One factor influencing the bureaucratization of the university that Mills complains about in these chapters is the dramatically increased role of the university during his time period. Before World War II, it was much less common for people to go to university. Higher education was more common among the upper classes, but it was not widespread among the middle and working classes. This changed after World War II because of the G.I. Bill, which provided veterans a means of going to college. As a result, universities saw a dramatic increase in students in the 10 years before Mills wrote The Sociological Imagination. Part of the bureaucratization Mills complains about is because of the new need to manage this increase in students. But it is notable that Mills doesn’t really talk much about students in these chapters. Although he talks about teaching from time to time, he seems to feel that his primary responsibility is not to his students, but to the wider public that his book is intended to address.