The Sociological Imagination

The Sociological Imagination Summary and Analysis of Chapters 9 – 10


The last two chapters of The Sociological Imagination continue Mills’s discussion of history while also moving into an analysis of politics. Chapter 9, “On Reason and History,” begins by asking what historical period we are in today. Mills argues that we have gone through three major epochs in history: Antiquity, the Dark Ages, and Modernity. But Modernity is now coming to an end, according to Mills, and we are entering a yet-unknown Fourth Epoch. Why are we leaving Modernity? The answer, Mills says, is because we are leaving a period in which we put our faith in Reason.

According to Mills, the Enlightenment, which produced Modernity, was premised on this belief: more reason means more freedom. If humans can acquire more knowledge and learn to think more logically, then humans will become more free and just. There were two strands in this thinking. One was liberalism, which Mills associates with the 19th century thinker John Stuart Mill, who advocated a form of capitalism. The other was socialism, associated with another 19th century thinker, Karl Marx, who advocated a form of socialism. One way of seeing the collapse of modernity, according to Mills, is by seeing how neither of these thinkers would be able to understand society today. The capitalism of the West would be shocking to John Stuart Mill, just as the communist bloc of the Soviet Union was never something analyzed by Karl Marx.

Most importantly, the basic premise that more reason is more freedom has been refuted by the earlier-discussed rise of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is all about more reason. It tries to rationalize everything, making businesses and people more efficient. But the effect is actually a loss of freedom. Men are exploited by this rationalization, not liberated. Reason in turn has become a tool of tyranny rather than an aid to freedom. Even more, men lose their capacity to transform the world because they adapt to bureaucracy. They participate in rationalization instead of learning how to make their lives better. Mills calls this “rationality without reason.” It leads to a loss of individuality. It leads, finally, to what Mills provocatively calls the rise of the “Cheerful Robot.” In modernity, we had “Renaissance Men” who made themselves and made history. Now, people have become robots, happy to do as they are told.

Mills casts this problem of the Cheerful Robot in both individual and social terms. Individually, the “trouble” is alienation: in working so mechanically, men are estranged from their true sense of themselves. Socially, the public “issue” is a loss of democratic society. In a truly democratic society, everyone participates in decisions that impact them. Increasingly in our society, it is instead a managerial elite that makes decisions. There is thus also a double threat to history. First, everyday men might stop making history and instead “merely drift” or go along with the world without changing it. Second, elite men might make history, but a history that is unjust.

It is this double threat that Mills addresses in the final chapter of The Sociological Imagination, “On Politics.” Here, Mills asks what social scientists can do to make history and to disrupt the waning of human freedom. Social science has always had three overarching ideals, according to Mills: truth, reason, and freedom. It must now use truth in order to re-assert the link between reason and freedom. Social scientists have to be the leaders who return reason to the service of freedom instead of the service of bureaucracy.

He begins by noting three ways in which social scientists can be active in politics. The first is as the “philosopher-king,” in which social scientists are the authority in a society; Mills rejects this as belonging to the past. The second is as an “advisor to the king,” in which social scientists are authority’s consultants; Mills says this is what is already happening with sociology’s allegiance to bureaucracy. Instead, social scientists must now elect a third path: the path of independence. Social scientists should be independent commentators on society and on authority. This doesn’t mean being “outside” of society. In fact, it’s impossible to be outside society. Sociologists live within society just like everyone else. But what is unique to the sociologist is the ability to “transcend their milieu.” In other words, sociologists, through observation and theory, can see how their private lives are part of a larger pattern and structure. The sociologist then needs to share this way of seeing and knowing with others.

Sociologists, in their research, address different parts of a public and should do so in different ways. To those in power and willfully dominating others, social scientists should attribute responsibility for structural problems. When those in power don’t realize their actions have consequences, social scientists should educate them and hold them responsible moving forward. And to those without power, social scientists should provide an awareness of how their troubles are also public issues. In order to do this, social scientists have to cast personal troubles as social issues up for public debate.

By being independent of authority, social scientists will not have access to the main routes of power. But Mills says they still have “fragile means of power.” As professors, they instruct students and sometimes a public. They can invest in a “liberal education,” that is, an education that liberates. Instead of teaching skills (like how to fish) or values (like charity or virtue), social scientists should teach what Mills calls “sensibilities,” which is a self-awareness that involves both skill and value. It is the skill of critical thinking and debate, and the value of democracy and freedom.

The ultimate goal, for Mills, is democracy, which he defines as everyone having a voice in the decisions that affect them. For now, professors can also focus on their own educational institutions, making universities more democratic instead of bureaucratic. Mills ends his book by calling on social scientists to resist the bureaucratization of their universities, instead encouraging controversy and debate in order to inspire public conversation. That is how to realign reason and freedom into the future.


The final chapters of The Sociological Imagination culminate the polemic of the previous chapters. Just as Mills criticized contemporary sociology for serving systems of domination, now he shows how classical social science can serve systems of liberation. Just as social science, when practiced poorly, produced bureaucracy, social science, when practiced correctly, can produce democracy. These are the high stakes for Mills. It’s not just a matter of doing good or bad scholarship. It’s a matter of making a good or bad world.

That Mills grasps the immensity of what he is asking for is hinted at in his language in these final sections. At times, Mills seems to stall. He makes digressions. He says he will give advice that comes later. He writes, at one point, “These are very large goals, and I must explain them in a slightly indirect way.” For someone who has written a clear takedown of social science, not to mention complained about how grand theorists like Talcott Parsons write indirectly and vaguely, it is odd to see this admission of indirect speech in the final paragraphs of the book. But this can also be seen as an opening. Mills writes more philosophically in the final chapters because he is writing about grand ideals like democracy; because he wants to cultivate debate, he leaves himself more open to disagreement and questioning.

That Mills is trying to open things up for wider discussion is also noticeable in his turn to a “we.” Throughout The Sociological Imagination, Mills has written as an “I,” but here he starts to talk about himself as a member of a group of larger social scientists. It is a “we” who have to carry on classical social science and achieve the ideals of democracy. He is trying to heal the divisions he has also made within social science. Now is the time to get together to achieve the “promise” of the sociological imagination.

In the Appendix to The Sociological Imagination, Mills makes a further turn: from “we” to “you.” In the Appendix, he addresses the young scholar who is just getting started with social science. His main advice for his scholar is to keep a journal. Sociologists live in the societies they study; therefore, keeping notes on your life can also lead to insights on society as well. Mills calls for scholars to incorporate their lives into their work and to use their work as an occasion to reflect on their lives as well. Kirin Narayanan calls this a “creative movement between life experience and intellectual work” (89). There is no work/life division for the sociologist. That is why Mills finally calls sociology less a profession and more a “craft.” It is a craft people practice like they would pottery. You work at it and work at it, and with diligence, something is produced.

Thomas Kemple and Renisa Mawani have called this turn to “craftsmanship” a “prayer.” Mills is praying at the end of The Sociological Imagination, more than he is professing a profession. That fits well with the moral tone he takes, in which he is clearly praying for democracy as well. He is calling for a return to values as much as he is calling for a particular sociological method. On the one hand, there is a certain hubris in Mills’s positioning sociology as a remedy for the problems of the modern world. But there is also an earnest desire on his part—a prayer—for his work and the work of his colleagues to be able to bring the kind of liberation and democracy he thinks the world needs.