The Sociological Imagination

The Sociological Imagination Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7 – 8


So far, The Sociological Imagination has primarily concerned itself with a critique of current trends in social science: the too-abstract “grand theory,” the too-limited “abstracted empiricism,” and the overall “bureaucratic ethos” that turns sociology into a way of abetting systems of domination. In Chapter 7, Mills now turns his attention in a more positive direction. Instead of criticizing how others are doing social science, he wants to provide his own recommendations for how social science ought to be done.

He begins by bringing together a number of threads from the previous chapters. First he defines social science as the study of “human variety”: how people are different within a society and how societies are different from each other. In doing so, social science should connect biography, history, and social structures. Biography is the life of an individual. Social structures are how institutions in a society are related. Today, Mills thinks the “generic working unit” of social structure—the largest structure to which the other structures are related—is the nation-state. History, which Mills will discuss at more length in the next chapter, is how these structures—or nations—are different across time. In order to connect these three things, social science has to go in the opposite direction to the specialization it has undertaken in recent years. Instead, inter-disciplinary work that brings together multiple perspectives, methods, and ideas could draw a more integrated picture of man within historical social structures.

This question of working together across disciplines is important to Mills. The danger of departments working in isolation is that you end up thinking that different parts of a society are not related. For instance, if you have economics and political science departments that don’t work together, even though they are both social sciences, you end up thinking the economy and politics are independent. In fact, they are deeply connected, which is why you have to study them together. Luckily, Mills says, there is already an “increasing fluidity of boundary lines.” Ideas move between departments fairly easily. We have to keep up that kind of flexibility and movement of ideas. To do so, Mills recommends a sort of academic dabbling: reading widely in other fields without worrying about becoming a “master” of the field. The key is to become familiar with other methods and perspectives in order to enhance our understanding of the issues we are studying. So a political scientist doesn’t need to become an expert economist; but he can read enough economics that his understanding of government is enhanced.

In “Uses of History,” Mills dives deeper into what he means by historical knowledge in particular and how it enhances sociological work. History, Mills writes, is not just “a record of facts.” It’s not a list of dates and events. Rather, history puts events into a narrative. To say different events are related is also to provide a theory about how things change and why. This is one reason Mills complains about one of the more common ways in which social scientists pretend to bring history into their studies: having a “background information” section. Remember that earlier, Mills complained about the abstract empiricist pollsters prefacing their studies with a “Literature Review” that downloads concepts into the study without really incorporating them. Now, Mills complains about sociologists who have a “Background Information” section that lists some past events related to the study but doesn’t really integrate them into a larger narrative about how society is functioning today.

Against the “background information” tendency, Mills lays out four main reasons why a deep understanding of history is important to understanding contemporary society. First, understanding how societies are different allows us to formulate proper questions. For instance, asking about “public opinion” only makes sense in a time period, such as our own, in which the public has differences of opinion. In the Middle Ages, when everyone was obedient to a king or lord, there would be no “public” opinion to ask of. Second, history draws our attention to structure because it reminds us that private milieu are too narrow to understand how history changes. Sociology always needs to orient toward structure, and history spotlights structure at every turn. Third, we can do comparative studies that help us better understand what we are studying. Comparing capitalist societies with primitive societies, for instance, brings out what is specific about each society. Fourth, history reminds us that the present isn’t independent. The present is shaped by the past. But most importantly, history helps us understand when the “present” begins and the “past” ended. People often talk about living in a “modern period,” for instance. But only with history can we learn what this means, and when a period began.

Mills concludes his discussion on the uses of history with what he calls a “controversial point.” Indeed, the point seems at first to go against what he has just said. “I believe,” Mills writes, “that periods and societies differ in respect to whether or not understanding them requires direct references to historical factors.” He has just said that we must use history in order to understand society. But now he writes that some societies may not need history to be understood. What Mills means, however, is that some societies think of themselves in relation to the past, while others do not. Whether or not a society thinks of itself in historical terms is itself one of the ways in which societies can be different. Thus, we should also pay attention to how societies conceptualize themselves. It doesn’t matter if a society actually is independent of the past; what is relevant here is whether a society thinks it is.

Mills finishes “Uses of History” with a brief discussion of psychoanalysis. This was a psychological theory accredited to Sigmund Freud and increasingly popular in the early twentieth century. Psychoanalysis explained human behavior by referring it to experiences humans had as children and to desires they repress in order to function in civilization. But by providing such a universal theory of behavior, Mills writes, psychoanalysis cannot explain the great diversity of human behavior. Psychoanalysis is, in a sense, another version of “grand theory,” too abstract and too general—theorizing all of “human nature”—to be able to understand all the varieties of human natures. But there is one thing Mills think psychoanalysis might have gotten right. By referring human behavior to one’s experience as an infant, psychoanalysis basically studies man in relation to an institution: the institution of the family. Your relation to your father and mother determines, in psychoanalysis, much of your behavior. This deep attention to the relation between institutions and human behavior is on the right path, Mills says. But now we need to look at other institutions, too, like workplaces and governments, and then we need to ask how these institutions are related in a social structure. Only then can we break from a non-historical perspective like psychoanalysis, and provide instead a historically-informed account of society.


The Sociological Imagination has always been a polemical study. That means it has a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, and it makes no reservations in spelling that out clearly. We’ve seen this in Mills’s sometimes biting and sarcastic language, which is loaded with confidence in the rightness of his ideas and the wrongness of others. In these chapters, however, that polemical tone meets with specific and pragmatic advice. Mills is now laying out what he sees as the “promise” of the sociological imagination, returning to the optimism of Chapter 1, and providing instructions for how to fulfill this promise.

Some of Mills’s writing in the chapter on “human variety” may be surprising to contemporary readers. At times, he seems to associate primitivism with Africa, and what he calls history seems at times to actually be geography: Africa is “different,” in Mills’s words, but it is not exactly of the past. Thomas M. Kemple and Renisa Mawani, in their article on Mills entitled “The Sociological Imagination and Its Imperial Shadows,” acknowledge that Mills sometimes writes in colonial language that makes the West seem like the center of the world. Certainly, Mills is indeed trying to explain his society rather than another society. But if we take Mills’s general principles—use history, and think the big and the small together—Kemple and Mawani argue that that “sociological imagination” can also be used to provide “alternative maps” of the world. In other words, we can begin to imagine a world in which the West isn’t necessarily the center. If the point is that all societies are different, there is no one central society.

This emphasis on difference brings out some of the complexity of what Mills means by “history.” History clearly doesn’t just mean the past, and it doesn’t just mean events. The present is part of history, too, and two societies within the present are historically different from one another. Holding onto this sense of history as meaning structural difference is important to understanding what Mills is trying to convey in these chapters.

It is interesting to consider how Mills calls for a fluidity of social science departments while also rejecting the psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud. This might mean that Mills does not consider psychoanalysis or even psychology to be a social science. They are too interested in psychologies—individuals rather than societies. Yet there may also be some hypocrisy on Mills’s part. For instance, he provides this quip: “Psychologists, as well as social scientists, should indeed think well before finishing any sentences the subject of which is ‘man.’” First of all, notice that the phrase “psychologists, as well as social scientists” means that psychologists are not included in the category of social science. But Mills’s larger point is that there is no universal “man,” and so social science, too, should stop talking about man in these general terms. Yet, Mills, too, often writes of the “everyday man” or the relation of “man and society.” It is sometimes difficult to assess how his use is different from the use of those he criticizes.

In these chapters, Mills continues to balance theoretical and pragmatic concerns. He is not only theorizing a way of thinking, but also practicing it and giving advice so others can practice it, too. That’s why he mentions such pragmatic concerns as the trend of having “Background Information” sections in books. By thinking about the organization of books—one of the practical things sociologists have to produce in their careers—Mills is thinking about how to translate classical social science into products of knowledge as well. It is for this attention to practice that some of Mills’s peers might of thought him more of a journalist than a sociologist. But Mills is clearly not afraid to think about the craft of writing as itself an important part of his profession.