The Sociological Imagination

The Sociological Imagination Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5 – 6


Chapter 5, “The Bureaucratic Ethos,” brings together the previous two chapters on abstracted empiricism and types of practicality. Remember that, in chapter 3, Mills has criticized the sociological turn to polling as the primary method of doing social science. Then, in chapter 4, he criticized the increasing “illiberalism” of sociology, which instead of trying to reform society like it did in the 19th century now tries to serve a managerial elite that maintains society or further exploits it. Abstracted empiricism and illiberal practicality come together, for Mills, in the “bureaucratic ethos” of the “New Social Science.” Today, social science is bureaucratic: it serves the goals of bureaucracy (bosses in business, for instance) at the same time that it is done within its own bureaucratic setting (the university, which itself is increasingly run as business).

Mills breaks down this “bureaucratic development” in sociology into five main features. First, there is a standardization of social inquiry. That means the methods sociologists are using are increasingly identical to each other. Second, research institutions have become systematized as well, with workflows that can carry out the work of polling that sociologists now do. Instead of cultivating scholars, universities become training centers that produce pollsters. Third, scholars themselves change their mental habits. Instead of thinking about social structure, they think about the specific task at hand, and original and creative thought is diminished. Fourth, studies now serve bureaucratic means. Instead of social science providing the public with information, it now caters to “clients,” usually administrators who want to make their institutions more efficient. Fifth, by giving bureaucracy these tools, social science increases social domination. The managerial elite are empowered to control society more effectively.

What all this means is that social science comes into line with the dominant social structure. Instead of critiquing or even describing the current state of affairs, social science perpetuates it. In turn, social science can’t be counted on to help society transform. It can’t even be counted on to give the public (as opposed to private clients) useful information. Social science is no longer autonomous, and therefore it can’t help the public reform society. It serves domination, rather than disrupting it.

In Chapter 6, on the “Philosophy of Science,” Mills further laments this current state of affairs by comparing it to “classical social science.” This is how social science was done in the past. Remember that in chapters 2 and 3 Mills complained about two poles that have distorted social science: the “grand theory” that is overly conceptual and the “abstracted empiricism” that is overly specific. Now, Mills argues that classical social science is between these poles. It’s not a top-down theory that starts with a “Concept” and tries to get down to real people. And it’s not a bottom-up approach that starts with a “Method” and tries desperately to get to a theory. Rather, classical social science does both at the same time: it builds theory from facts and it refers facts to theory.

Classical social science does this, Mills argues, in the way it formulates questions. Most importantly, it asks questions that incorporate history. By this, Mills means that it asks how a social structure at one point in time could be different from a social structure at other points in time. Remember Mills’s discussion of different kinds of social integration from Chapter 2: 19th century America, 20th century America, and Nazi Germany are all different. To pose a question in the classical social science tradition is to ask it in terms of the specificity of that difference. That means you can ask a historical question about the present, too. Why do people act or feel in a certain way today, within the particular social formation in which they live? That is the kind of question classical social science asks.

Formulating questions in this way, Mills argues, automatically incorporates both the private “troubles” people experience in their milieu and the public “issues” that are characteristic of a larger social structure. Classical social science incorporates both the microscopic and the macroscopic views of society. In doing so, it is worlds apart from the “bureaucratic ethos” described in the previous chapter. By drawing connections between the public and the private, classical social science does not serve the interests of the managerial elite. It serves, instead, the public and the private: it helps a citizenry understand why things are the way they are, so they can change them if the want; and it helps the individual understand how he fits into a larger structure, in order to make sense of his own life.

Mills concludes by foreshadowing two themes he will take up in later chapters: “freedom” and “reason.” He says these are the two “values” that have been a main thread throughout classical social science. On the one hand, classical social science is invested in human freedom and liberating people from domination; that is why it was tied to liberal reform movements in the 19th century. On the other hand, it has invested in reason as a way of getting to freedom. The idea is that the more people know about their world and can think critically about it, the more freedom they will have to change it. It is these values that have been lost in the bureaucratic ethos of abstracted empiricism. And it is for this reason that Mills calls the “New Social Science” not only a crisis in science, but a moral crisis. Morality means a set of values; the new social science, departed from classical social science, has lost its values as well.


These chapters continue Mills’s engagement with the politics of sociology as a profession. Chapter 5 effectively summarizes and condenses the previous chapters in order to make a biting critique of how contemporary sociology serves systems of domination. Mills’s political views have been implicit throughout The Sociological Imagination, for instance in his choice of examples. He clearly thinks war and poverty are social problems, for instance. But here, his politics become even more explicit, as do his views about the stakes involved with his profession.

In criticizing bureaucracy, Mills also tries to perform the kind of sociological thinking he wants others to adopt. Notice, for instance, that he begins with history: what the profession of sociology looked like in the 1800s, how it got started, and what its politics originally were. Mills will have more to say about these “uses of history” in the following chapters, but he foreshadows what he will say there by taking the time to do historical work here. History helps clarify how far sociology has strayed from its mission. Because Mills wants other sociologists to take a historical perspective in their work, he models that in his own sociology of sociology.

It is indeed a “sociology of sociology” that Mills is providing in these chapters. In Chapter 6, he calls for a return to a classical social science that relates personal milieu to social structures. In Chapter 5, he already does this kind of work by relating the sociological milieu of the 1950s to a larger social structure of bureaucracy. He shows how this one profession is conditioned by a system of domination that, in turn, it amplifies. It is perhaps for this reason that many sociologists at the time also objected to his work. As John D. Brewer has written in his biography of Mills, many sociologists considered these chapters to be more like journalism than actual sociology. Perhaps this was in part a defensive reaction on their part, not wanting to be an object of serious academic study themselves.

At times, Mills can sound a bit paranoid in these chapters, when he talks about serving systems of domination, but it is important to remember the Cold War context in which he was writing. For one thing, paranoia itself was widespread in this time. Conspiracy theories combined with real anxieties about nuclear war, spies, and sabotage. Moreover, sociology itself was often a target of United States government surveillance. As Mike Keen has studied in his book, Stalking the Sociological Imagination, the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, considered many sociologists to be potentially dangerous carriers of communist ideas. Mills was no exception. In part because of his politics, he was even a subject of FBI investigation, and the FBI kept a secret file on his activities. Although Mills probably was not aware of this, his sense of a larger and powerful social structure was in step with his time.

At the same time, Chapter 6 marks a change in tone. Mills is starting to move into a more positive direction, moving beyond critique in order to lay out positive ideas for change. But notice how this change, or call to action, is actually a call to return to a different historical period. Just as chapter 5 began with a discussion of the reform politics of sociology in the 1800s, chapter 6 praises a “classical” social science that is better than the schools of sociology being practiced today. “Classical” can be a misleading word, since sociology is itself very new, less than 100 years old by the time Mills was writing. To be able to talk about a “classical” and a “new” social science therefore suggests just how quickly this discipline has grown, something Mills was himself aware of. At the same time that he is critical of social science, Mills also admires how much it can change and grow in a short time. But it is this quickness of change that also makes him anxious to ensure that it develops in the right direction moving forward.