The Sociological Imagination

The Sociological Imagination Themes

Troubles vs. Issues

A recurring theme throughout The Sociological Imagination is the difference between “troubles” and “issues.” Both have to do with crisis, or a perception of danger and threat in the midst of change. But troubles have to do with crises in a personal life, something that happens to an individual, whereas issues have to do with crises in public life, something that happens to an institution. Sociology, in Mills’s understanding, is able to connect these two. In other words, sociology helps individuals see how their personal troubles are also related to social issues. For instance, a husband and wife may experience difficulty in their marriage, and that is a personal trouble. But social issues also impact their trouble; this might be changes in the economy or a larger trend in divorce in society. Thus, sociology needs to be able to move back and forth between troubles and issues in order to provide an account of society that explains both.

Milieu vs. Structure

Related to troubles and issues is the distinction between milieu and structure. A milieu is someone’s immediate social situation. In the case of the trouble of divorce, a milieu is the marriage or the family in which marital troubles play out. A structure is a larger social formation in which various milieu are embedded. You could think of the structure of the United States, for instance, which organizes different institutions including families but also the economy, political parties, and so on. Sociology, Mills says, has to formulate questions that relate milieu and structure. In other words, the questions sociology asks have to explain personal experience—what Mills calls biography—in terms of social experience, or the larger structures at play.

Theory vs. Empiricism

In his survey of contemporary social science, Mills criticizes two major trends or schools of research. The first is overly theoretical, which means that it talks vaguely in generalities instead of explaining specific social phenomena or the actions and behaviors of real people. The second is overly empirical, too attached to interviewing individuals, for instance, instead of finding larger patterns or trends in social life. Theorists have big ideas but fail to get down to real life. Empiricists collect a lot of data but fail to derive any larger ideas from it. Mills says we need a social science that does both. Good social science asks questions that are simultaneously theoretical and empirical. His recommendation for getting away from these two polar tendencies and instead synthesizing them in to return to what he calls “classical social science.” This form of social science worked between theory and empirics, rather than only at the high level of abstraction or the low level of data.

Freedom and Reason

Mills thinks modernity was characterized by an Enlightenment ideal that reason leads to freedom. If people could know more and think carefully, then they would be liberated to live fuller and more just lives. Today, however, this formula has broken down. In Mills’s eyes, we increasingly see more reason leading to less freedom, because reason is used to standardize behavior, increase worker efficiency, and drain people of individuality. Mills thinks it is up to social scientists to realign freedom and reason by showing how good science can liberate people by helping them understand their role in society. Good social science will transform society, because it increases people’s capacity to reason and thus liberate themselves.


History is the third major pillar of good social science, according to Mills, alongside biography or personal experience and social structure. History helps us understand the present by spotlighting just how strange it is, compared to what has come before. In turn, we can ask “historical” questions about the present. These questions take the form of: why are things the way they are, and how could they be different? According to Mills, we can not only do better social science, but also liberate ourselves with this historical sense that the present is not inevitable and that the future, like the past, can be different.


The “bad guy” throughout The Sociological Imagination is bureaucracy, which means an increasing standardization of life. Think about going to the Department of Motor Vehicles and having to fill out the right forms, check the right boxes, take the right tests, in order to get the right licenses or certifications. That’s bureaucracy. Mills says that’s everywhere now, from business to government to the economy, and it diminishes human freedom. It’s also something that’s starting to take over education and universities, which are increasingly run as businesses instead of institutions of higher learning. Moreover, social scientists themselves are often complicit in this process. Their work is often used to help organizations become more efficient, which usually means extracting more labor from their employees. Mills calls on social scientists to stop abetting systems of domination, and to reject bureaucracy in order to increase democracy.

Common Man vs. Managerial Elite

Related to the problem of bureaucracy is the tension between the common man and the managerial elite. The common man is the man who goes to his job and comes home to his family but does not have much of a say in the decisions that impact his life. In contrast, the managerial elite are the decision-makers in society, whether in government or in business. The problem is that they are separated from the common man and obsessed with bureaucracy, or getting more out of the common man instead of liberating him. For Mills, this bureaucratic state of affairs is more like an aristocracy than a democracy. He calls on social science to hold the elite responsible for social problems instead of helping them in their quest for rationalization. This would help move us towards a more democratic society, in which everyone participates in the decisions that affect their lives.